Friday 19 January 2018

James Lawton: French fling stands O'Neill's committed squad in good stead for the next chapter

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire.
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire.
James Lawton

James Lawton

No, Thierry Henry's old perfidy didn't perish in the French sun. No, Ireland, down to 10 men and stretched to what were threatening to be quite extraordinary limits, couldn't conjure another successful assault on the class barriers of international football.

But let no-one dispute the fact that something quite extraordinary has been achieved these last couple of weeks.

Ireland have done more than punch beyond their collective weight and stir memories of the best of a fighting tradition.

Under the leadership of Martin O'Neill, and the combative input of Roy Keane, they have grown in a most impressive way.

Of course they haven't become anyone's idea of potential world-beaters. That, in the best of all circumstances, would take at least another generation brought up with far more care and attention to the changing demands of top-level professional football.

What they have done, though, is win the right to look at themselves in the mirror and see more than make-weights in one of the great tournaments.


Players like Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long and Robbie Brady might still struggle to find a place even on the fringe of a team as gifted as yesterday's conquerors, but they were not required to bow their heads on their retreat from Lyon.

They could walk away with the satisfaction of knowing that, whatever the team of Didier Deschamps achieves between now and the final in the Stade de France, they will not easily forget the anxiety that gripped them when the Irish announced that they had come to fight - and when they struck almost instantly with all the swagger and the effrontery that took them to victory over Italy.

When Brady sent in his third-minute penalty blow off a post, it was certainly easy to remember the reaction of the trainer of one of Mike Tyson's early victims who proudly came back to the corner after landing at least one decent punch.

The old fight men frowned and said: "The problem is you have made him as mad as hell."

If O'Neill had a similar apprehension, it was eased soon enough by a second superb collective act of will by his men in five days.

The French were maddened - hellishly, no doubt - and no-one expressed this rage more imperiously than the man who so clumsily yielded the penalty, Paul Pogba.

The Juventus midfielder produced some wonderful, whirling runs - the kind which have made him arguably European football's most desirable property.

But what he couldn't do was intimidate Ireland in a first half which ended with the French pounding at Darren Randolph's goal.

Indeed, the tension in coach Deschamps's dug-out and out on the terracing rose in direct proportion to Ireland's refusal to shed any of that buoyancy that came with the early success - and the accompanying evidence that the spirit produced in the life-giving victory in the final group game was something more than a last, desperate reach.

Yes, in the end Ireland were engulfed. Antoine Griezmann, the man from Macon, ensured that his home town would be awash with the good red wine when he scored twice between the 58th and 61st minute with wonderfully acute finishing.

He might have had a hat-trick if Shane Duffy's last-defender, red-card lunge had come a stride closer to the Irish penalty area but his was a triumph which was hardly in need of much amplification.

Ireland's was not quite so easily defined because it is true that there were times when it seemed that all their stoic defence of the lead - and their willingness to run hard at the French goal whenever they got a glimpse of it - might have achieved was that prospect fearfully anticipated by the old fight trainer.

Yet, in the end, the French level of skill and intensity provided a perfect yardstick for the Irish effort.

At the finish, and after being battered by some of the most varied and creative football produced thus far in the tournament, Ireland still refused to accept the idea of a respectably negotiated surrender.

The late substitute Jon Walters threw himself at the French defence, Shane Long still wore the expression of a man for whom success would not be a gift but a right, and on the face of last week's hero, Brady, there was the yearning of someone who had tasted glory and was appalled to see the end of it.

In all of this, surely, certain debates had been laid to rest. Is O'Neill really the man to take Ireland forward to the challenge of World Cup qualification? Yes.

Is he still a man to be chided at every turn over his tactics - and his capacity to shape the psychology of a team capable of making genuine progress? No.

Not, at least, if there is any proper understanding of the difference between good intentions and a basic grasp of what can reasonably be achieved.

Four years ago Ireland left the European Championship finals, let's be frank, seriously diminished.

They had fought hard to qualify but having done so found themselves on another planet. They shrivelled in the face of superior skill. Yesterday that fate, even when French elan flourished most engagingly, never seemed likely.

A heavy and potentially devastating defeat by Belgium was perhaps something of a shadow carried into the Lyon sunshine yesterday.

But it was dispelled surely enough.

Ireland, undoubtedly, headed home strong at what might so easily have been a broken place. They returned with honour and the makings of a genuine team.

Irish Independent

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