Roy Curtis: With one gorgeous kiss of leather, Ireland was reintroduced to major tournament hysteria
IT arrived like a single beam of light from the heavens, dressing the nation in beautiful, burnished, unbreakable delirium.
With one gorgeous kiss of leather against the forehead of Robbie Brady, Ireland was reintroduced to unhinged joy, the crazy, intoxicating sense of superior tournament hysteria.
Brady’s life-changing goal from a perfectly arcing Wes Hoolahan delivery arrived like an electric current of hope.
At the final whistle, as Roy Keane gripped Martin O’Neill in a great panda-hug, Brady raced to the sidelines, found those he loved and dissolved in a flood of elated tears.
It is hard to explain the bewitching delicacy of that moment.
And Lille was a roaring, deafening jet engine of jubilation, an invigorating, uncoiling, visceral crescendo filling this Flanders field.
Paradise, for those who bleed an emerald hue, was found in a roofed sauna, a capsule of sound and fury, a claustrophobic pellet where Ireland rediscovered its sporting mojo.
The great allure of the evening – one that had President Michael D Higgins gyrating like a teenager – was that victory was not some against the odds fluke.
Rather it was deserved, a vindication for ambition, heart and a brave, left-field selection from Martin O’Neill.
Brady’s, emotion-laden post-match interview, the enormity of what he had achieved gripping him, was a triumph of eloquence, passion and wondrous pride.
“My body carried my legs into the box and I just managed to get my head on it. I’m lost for words, emotional,” he beamed, moist eyes a flimsy firewall against the tears.
For a long time, until his late intervention, it seemed Ireland’s weary platoon would be carried out on their shield, clutching a bulging inventory of grievances.
Ireland were heroic, positive, but they had been emotionally pulverized by a referee who inexplicably decommissioned his whistle, Ireland were broken.
Here was a performance of authentic conviction, one that oozed redemptive fire, yet the plane carrying Ireland home seemed set to hold a cargo-hold full of regrets and frustrations.
If there was a Star Chamber of Inquisition operating in Ireland, Ovidiu Hategan would find himself before the privy counsellors this morning.
The Romanian official denied Ireland three penalty claims of substance, the ignoring of one blatant assault on James McClean suggesting he was mixing up the European Championship finals with a Specsavers advert.
But those complaints dissolved in the Lille night as Ireland marched on to Sunday’s last 16 showdown with France.
The Stade Pierre Mauroy surface - as grooved and rumpled as a crinkled chip – comfortably lived down to expectations.
By Uefa’s own admission, the pitch was “irreversibly damaged”. A streaky brown piebald, it was as if a bonfire had only recently burned itself out on the blotched grass.
And beneath the sealed roof, the Flanders capsule felt breathless and sticky and suffocating, like a sauna with too much water poured over the hot stones.
Ireland were thirsting for the conviction that came like a tsunami against Sweden, but which had ebbed, jumped ship by that most forlorn of evenings against the Belgians.
Roy Keane, maddened by that meek, mortifying surrender, had sounded very much like a Sicilian capo issuing instructions to Cosa Nostra triggermen.
“When in doubt,” advised the Mayfield Goodfella, his eyes dark and pitiless, “take your opponent out”.
Seamus Coleman, captain for the night, took just 30 seconds and a crunching over-the-top challenge, to follow orders. James McClean and Jeff Hendrick also lunged like untethered jungle cats at their blue-uniformed prey.
Martin O’Neill, always fidgety and strained in the technical area, looked as if he was auditioning for a Red Bull commercial. Nervous energy had given him wings.
The manager, desperately seeking a coherent game plan after Belgium had taken apart his plans piece by piece, opted to take out more than a third of his own team.
Wes Hoolahan, hero of Paris and the great white hope for those who hoped that Ireland might deliver even the odd flash or two of superior inspiration, was sacrificed.
John O’Shea, Glen Whelan and Ciaran Clark also found O’Neill’s reprimand coming down like a mailed fist.
O’Neill, like a Vegas blackjack player down to his last chips, opted to gamble on a series of long shots: The physicality of Daryl Murphy and Shane Duffy, the aggression of James McClean, a new, untested central defensive pairing.
Perhaps the most eye-catching punt was the retention of James McCarthy, the midfielder whose confidence has appeared to have pitched off a crumbling cliff face in France.
McCarthy had looked unnerved and broken in Bordeaux on Saturday, Roy Keane’s midfield successor exhibiting not even a thimble of the Corkman’s belief in his ability to shape any football match, to take it and bend it to his will.
O’Neill must have known that another drift into anonymity, another timid surrender of those central plains by the Everton player, would trigger a shoal of furious headlines.
The Derryman could certainly not be accused of cowardice. He was in effect placing on the line both his credibility as a front rank manager and tactician as well as the yet to be inked contract he had verbally agreed with John Delaney.
Ireland began is as fired from a launch pad: If they were again outfitted in white shorts, there was no sign of them raising a matching flag of surrender.
Hendrick, his comportment again that of a player born to the biggest stage, cracked his left foot like a whip, the ball whistling an iPhone’s width beyond the Italian posts.
Perspiration glistened on the Dubliner’s tattooed arms, frustration creased his stubbled brow, as the replays emphasised how he had knocked on the door of history.
From a Robbie Brady corner, Daryl Murphy rose highest, almost delivering a beam of light from the heavens.
For the second time in a week, Shane Long could have legitimate grievances about a penalty claim being ignored. Later, Angelo Ogbonna’s assault on Daryl Murphy – one that might have prompted a charge of strangulation had it taken place in Lille’s Grand Place - went unpunished.
When referee ignored Federico Bernandeschi flattening James McClean, the initial disbelief was followed by a sonic boom of Irish fury.
Had Martin O’Neill’s ancestors firebombed a World Referees Convention in the distant past? Had the Romanian official seen Packie Bonner’s save from Daniel Timofte in Genoa once too often and opted to settle old scores?
Whatever the reason – and gross officiating incompetence seemed the most obvious - this had the feel of an authentic miscarriage of justice, inexplicable, grotesque, outrageous.
At the same time it was thrilling, an edge-of-the-seat roller-coaster ride; Ireland were performing like a Put ‘Em Under Pressure tribute band, unfurling the old standard of energy and desire, pinning the rattled Italians back.
O’Neill, utterly immersed in the contest, looked ashen.
His demeanour was agitated and strained, that of a man whose heart was trampolining dementedly against his rib cage.
Was there a defibrillator in the house?
Italy, with their A-listers rested, with a heavyweight rumble against Spain looming, were physically in Lille; mentally, however, there were signs they has fast-forwarded to next Monday’s round of 16 tie in Saint Denis.
The possession stats for the middle third of the first half refused to comply with the caricature of kick-and-rush Ireland. O’Neill’s side enjoyed 61% of the ball.
James McClean cascaded across the left flank like a skier slaloming down an Alpine hill to win a free-kick.
Halftime and the hothouse throbbed to the twin visceral choruses of injustice and latent. Celtic possibility.
Perhaps Ireland’s ambitions of advancing to a Sunday shootout with France were not quite so shop-soiled as they had appeared in that tame capitulation to the Belgians.
The deeply embedded sense of renewal extended into the second half.
McClean was waspish, Italy retreating from in fear from his heat-packing sting; if the Azzuri had their share of Champions League regulars, none seemed more technically accomplished in possession than Hendrick.
Murphy’s belligerence was a fountainhead of possibility; Coleman scuffed a shot with the net fluttering her eyelids.
But it seemed that blasted Ireland Achilles heel, the absence of a killshot, a goodnight punch, a truly world class finisher who might harvest glory from a half chance hadn’t gone away.
Until Brady – exhausted but determined, refusing to bow to unpromising odds – raced forward. And Hoolahan, just seconds after squandering a glorious chance, played a ball so pure, so perfect that it made you feel teary and blessed.
A flash of light from the heavens had taken Ireland to a place of singular beauty, left the nation residing in a palace of dreams.
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