Dignity to the end for three honourable old soldiers who always played as if they cared
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
Out of the raucous, final moments in that great, partisan bowl to the east of Lyon, one small tableau will forever remain vivid.
John O'Shea walked over to where a spent Seamus Coleman sat staring into the blizzard of French tricolours, and bent down to offer a private blessing between captains. It felt a gentle rite of passage, the past wrapping arms with the future. Coleman took O'Shea's hand and the two fell into a lengthy embrace.
Minutes later, a tearful Shay Given and Robbie Keane stood, arms entwined, waving towards the wall of Irish supporters that had lingered to express a nation's gratitude. You didn't need formal confirmation to sense what those waves implied.
Robbie Brady's goal in Lille might, in time, settle in our minds as faintly ceremonial. It arrived just as Keane was at the mouth of the Irish dug-out, taking on board Martin O'Neill's terms for his introduction. With O'Shea, the decommissioned captain, and Given sitting in the stand, Robbie was - it seemed - being sent in as one last, desperate bow to national sentiment. Our only natural goalscorer asked to go and get his cape.
But, suddenly, Stade Pierre Mauroy was sent tumbling into the eye of a green hurricane, all light and noise signifying a profound change.
And choosing to short-circuit the obvious, Keane turned instantly to O'Neill, acknowledging that - perhaps - he should sit down again. Probably his last active decision as an international footballer after 18 years of setting uniquely independent standards was to recognise an altered hierarchy.
Symbolically, it felt a moment of gentle requiem.
Keane was already Ireland's record goalscorer a decade ago and his tally of 67 goals for Ireland is more than Ronaldo scored for Brazil or Ibrahimovic for Sweden. It more than triples the tally of the previous Irish record holder, Niall Quinn.
Yet, if football is the ultimate numbers game, statistic has never been the prism through which to judge men like Keane, Given and O'Shea. All three have had fine careers but that distinction doesn't always run in tandem with a good life. Football, patently, has never been short of honours-laden morons.
Broadly speaking, the wealth in the game dehumanises players, leaving even the conventionally well-heeled feeling a bit like society's unloved children. Everyone, including the journeyman pro, gets paid in suitcases of money and communicates with his public only from behind a screen of formalised banality.
It seems endlessly inconvenient to stop and be civil with a squinting world when there's no contract that stipulates you must.
So we have long since ceased to expect footballers to be in anything but a hurry. Flunkies clear a path for them through the throng and they go hurtling off to whatever gated sanctuary offers the protection of home. Once safely in, they then - most probably - sit at a loss as to what it was that had them escaping the outside world with such haste.
Maybe it's a silly conceit to see Irish players as different. Maybe it becomes the ultimate in self-regarding piffle to suggest that that virus of inflated self-regard has never been especially common within our national team. Yet, even at our lowest ebb, we have come to presume upon humility of effort.
And that's no small consolation when the great festivals elude you.
Given played his first game for Ireland when Callum O'Dowda was a one-year-old, when the likes of Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy and Jeff Hendrick had not even started school. He was representing an Ireland in which people like Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, Veronica Guerin and Sophie Toscan du Plantier were still alive.
Goalkeepers are the most resilient and self-possessed of people and it has been our remarkable good fortune to mine two in Donegal who would guard the Irish net with largely unbroken excellence for the past three and a half decades.
But Given is 40 now and he, most probably, went to France knowing that his role at Euro 2016 would - barring a mishap to Darren Randolph - be, largely, restricted to the training ground. He did not add to his 134 caps, yet on Wednesday night he tweeted a picture of the squad joyously swarming the back of the team-bus with his message "It's a bit crowded down the back of the bus, we are all in this together."
And there at the forefront, both thumbs raised, was a smiling Coleman. The new captain. The impeccably-mannered Donegal boy who few of us had really considered to be leadership material.
It can't have been an easy conversation between O'Shea and O'Neill, a manager demoting his captain mid-tournament. Yet O'Shea's career has been such an essay in good manners and gentle self-effacement that you wouldn't need a glass pushed against the meeting-room wall to know that the exchange could never have been anything less than civil.
He is, by some distance, the most successful Irish footballer still playing, yet I doubt he ever had a manager who identified in him any discernible ego.
His style has been to leave the dramatics to others, though it seems entirely fitting that the one big, individual billboard moment of his career (thus far) was delivered in green with that injury-time goal against Germany on the day of his 100th cap in Gelsenkirchen 16 months ago.
O'Shea would not have seen action yesterday but for Shane Duffy's red card yet, typically, he was composed and foot-perfect on arrival. One challenge towards the end of the game on the jet-heeled Kingsley Coman was so crisp, so perfect, it seemed almost to startle the young Bayern Munich player.
But with the game slipping away from Ireland's grasp, O'Shea finished the day as an auxiliary striker, posted on the edge of Hugo Lloris's box in the hope of something falling his way.
Sadly, it wasn't to be.
Yet, there has been maybe no Irish football story more remarkable than that of Robbie Keane's.
His career is a virtual contradiction of what it is to be Irish. The kid from Glenshane Grove who signed for Wolves just after completing his Junior Certificate and who, four years later, was on his way to Inter Milan for a fee of £13 million, never seemed to harbour even a thimble of the self-doubt that seems an eternal national affliction.
Think about it. Sixteen years ago, Robbie Keane was 20 years old and earning £30,000 a week.
There is a wonderful biography of his story, written by Paul Lennon, that captures the essence of the Tallaght kid with quicksilver feet whose innate restlessness would force Mick McCarthy to take all footballs away from him during team meetings.
And Keane, palpably, has never lost that simple, tactile love of just doing tricks with a ball.
But Quinn, whose Irish record he so obliterated, perhaps encapsulated him best. Writing in his autobiography of a young Robbie Keane heading into the 2002 World Cup, Quinn observed: "I remember Robbie Keane getting into this Irish team when he should have been just learning how to shave.
"He came out in the first five-a-side and treated us senior professionals like traffic cones laid out for him to dribble around. Every time he scored a goal, he'd run around asking us 'So where's John Aldridge? Who was John Aldridge? Who was Stapo? Bring 'em on!'
"We loved him straight off, the crazy fox. He could buy and sell most of us. He's somebody who doesn't care what anyone thinks, who doesn't care for reputations, who wants to be marked by the best, who wants the world to bring it on."
But sport has a pitiless appetite for change. The victory in Lille was Ireland's first in a game of significance without assistance from Given, O'Shea or Keane in perhaps two decades. It signalled a changing of the guard.
Yesterday in Lyon delivered the most beautifully dignified of farewells.