'Some of them have come of age' - Martin O'Neill hails new generation of Irish heroes
Disappointed O’Neill hails ‘heart and soul’ of defeated Irish players – and backs them to take the next step
Martin O'Neill paid tribute to the Ireland players who gave "every ounce of energy" in their Euro 2016 exit to France and urged the younger members of his dressing-room to use the experience to raise the bar for the road ahead.
Antoine Griezmann's second-half brace broke Irish hearts after a second-minute penalty from Robbie Brady put the underdogs on course for a huge upset.
Ultimately, an unchanged side from the famous midweek win over Italy ran out of gas against a French team which had the benefit of three days' extra rest. The tired Shane Duffy was sent off for a professional foul on Griezmann that removed the possibility of a grandstand finish.
With Shay Given and Robbie Keane expected to retire and uncertainty hanging over the future involvement of John O'Shea, Wes Hoolahan and other thirtysomethings, O'Neill has called on the likes of Duffy, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy to learn from the French adventure and lead the way forward for the start of the World Cup campaign in the autumn.
"We put our heart and soul into the game," said O'Neill. "There's natural disappointment considering the position we got ourselves into but the players could not have put anything more into it. They didn't have an ounce of energy left. This tournament has been great for the players, great for some of the younger players taking their place on this stage.
"Some of them have come of age and it's up to them to take it further. Reaching the last 16 is still an achievement, but it's not something we can rest on," continued the 64-year-old, who admitted that France's extra preparation time rankled.
"We definitely got the short straw in that aspect," he said. "I know we knew about it before but it's an incredible amount of time that one side could have an advantage over another.
"But France are a really fine team and good luck to them in the tournament."
Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps admitted to a sense of relief.
"I knew this match was going to be a difficult match and when Ireland took the lead it made us a little bit more uncomfortable," he said.
"We really had to dig deep to get through this situation."