Tearful farewell of a team they will remember
At journey’s end, they gathered in a corner of Stade de Lyon, pride still burning the coal inside them.
And there they stood with their people, hearts warm with pride, yet every smile laden with regrets too. It was instinctive, an expression of gratitude that felt natural and necessary. The trappings of the game they play can make footballers seem almost independent of society, pampered, aloof, uncaring.
But this was a quiet genuflection to the dynamic that became one of the themes of Euro 2016. To a connection between supporters and their team.
“There are different moments,” said Robbie Brady when it was over. “But that, at the end, standing in front of the fans, it’s something you’ll never forget. Thanks to them for giving us that memory.”
Soon they would all disperse into airport queues, cut adrift from the festival but knowing that – this time – Ireland had amounted to something more than a mere smudge mark on the tournament. So that last moment of communion felt important.
Because here, under a debilitating sun, Ireland coursed the hosts for an hour until, suddenly, everything just fell away in a brutal machine-gun burst of Gallic ruthlessness.
France, though, would remember them.
There’s always something faintly out of kilter in the solar system of their football, as if they don’t entirely trust themselves. The national mood seems to settle into a perpetual cycle of haughtiness and self-disgust. The Thierry Henry handball of seven years ago preoccupied them in recent days to a remarkable degree.
It was a stone in their shoe, niggling at the collective conscience, whispering bad things about intangibles like guilt and karma.
On Saturday night, a TV show hosted by David Ginola took refuge in satire, stitching a spoof voiceover to images of the French training with Didier Deschamps purportedly delivering a tutorial to his players on surreptitious use of the hand.
For sure the supporters bawled out ‘La Marseillaise’ as they came spilling down the escalators of Gare Part-Dieu yesterday morning and French tricolours flapped exuberantly from the windows of passing cars.
But a headline on the magazine cover of ‘France Football’ seemed to encapsulate that gentle murmur of distrust too. Circled by photos of the glamour-soaked stars, it read ‘Faut-il croire en eux?’ Should we believe in them?
That was the uncertainty washing through Lyon yesterday.
No-one could be sure if Monday would present Deschamps and his players as another lost tribe or superheroes leaping off the pages of ‘L’Equipe’. The longer Ireland could frustrate them, the more palpable that uncertainty might become.
So the early penalty award accentuated that sense of conflict. They had come to worship, to declare their right to be cockerels for a day. To strut and pout and play football that flamed with hubris, the crowd roaring them forward as if cheering a picador with a bull.
But Robbie Brady’s conversion, instantly, had them looking inward again, reducing the stadium to a babble of panic.
The physical presence of Daryl Murphy and Shane Long had the French back four playing some kind of hide-and-seek with one another and little tell-tale shell-bursts of Gallic irritation were soon betraying their collective psyche.
Midway through the first half, the stadium TV snatched an image of President Hollande, French scarf around his neck, looking like someone who’d just tramped on a dog turd.
Yet, things would change. Perhaps it was always written that they would.
Antoine Griezmann’s two goals allied to Shane Duffy’s dismissal, all within a murderous pocket of six minutes, set Ireland a Himalayan challenge. And, for the final quarter, the inequities of the schedule took hold, Ireland’s players left looking as if they were running on a vast mattress.
Their legs, palpably, had gone.
“We were out on our feet a bit towards the end,” Seamus Coleman would acknowledge later. “There was a quick turn-around (four days) and France had a bit longer (seven days) to get their legs ready. So it probably was a factor in the end.”
Griezmann killed them then. He’d had three attempts on Darren Randolph’s goal in the first 18 minutes alone, an augury perhaps for what was coming down the line. Yet the French were never comfortable playing from behind and you could sense the gusting foreboding of an understanding that one more concession might evict them.
Maybe Ireland needed to press that worry deeper, but the weightlessness experienced in Lille began to dissipate, technical accomplishment gradually over-riding fatigued endeavour.
As Coleman put it: “We felt like it was there for us so it’s just so disappointing we couldn’t see it out. We’d have loved to have won it for the fans.”
Duffy’s dismissal for tripping up a goal-bound Griezmann left a gasping team deep in crisis. Yet, as John O’Shea put it, “he had to make that decision to keep us in the game”.
The big Derryman, who would watch the last minutes on a dressing-room TV, admitted that he’d been trying to avoid even deeper collateral damage. “If I had left it any later, it would have been a penalty and maybe another goal, so it was a decision I took,” he reflected. “I don’t know if it was the right one or the wrong one. I have let the team down a bit, left us with ten men for a long period. But I gave my all out there. It might not be good enough, but it’s the best I can do.”
Nobody was peddling blame mind. Most just wrestled to rationalise what it was that ultimately took the game from their grasp.
Stephen Ward maintained “nobody did too much wrong” for the equaliser, suggesting simply that Griezmann’s clever late run for Bacary Sagna’s cross simply caught them. But to concede again three minutes later left them treading heavy water.
“It’s very disappointing,” sighed Brady. “We gave ourselves a great chance early on and maybe tiredness showed, not only in legs, but with a couple of decisions in the second half that cost us. I can’t fault anyone. There is no blame to be shed on one person. It was a team effort and we were all tired, we all felt it in the second half. But it is such a proud day, a proud tournament to be involved in.”
That it was. Men like Brady and Duffy and Jeff Hendrick and, latterly, James McCarthy grew into big players in France, men who can become cornerstone figures for the looming World Cup qualifiers.
Others like Shay Given, Robbie Keane and John O’Shea almost certainly waved farewell, though there were no immediate announcements. Neither Given nor Keane stopped to chat to media in the mixed-zone whilst O’Shea suggested it was not the time to have that conversation.
Poignantly, however, he did admit: “I’m just going to reflect on a few weeks that have been very special and very different, especially when you have that moment there with the fans. That is something I will cherish for a long time.”
Had it been pre-planned?
“Listen we wanted to show our appreciation when we’d been knocked out,” stressed Ward. “You know they’re going home like we are and we wanted to show them how much it meant to us. It was a really touching moment at the end.
“Just very emotional. You know, I think the fans have been an absolute credit. We’ve just said it in there. Obviously there was a lot of talk before the game about the ticket allocation. But we knew if there were five hundred or five thousand people there, they’d make more noise than anybody else.
“And we hope we’ve done them proud.”
They did that and maybe a bit more. For they reminded us that Irish teams can play. That our footballers may never be technical wizards, but that they carry themselves with a ferocious loyalty. And that loyalty means something to their people.
It didn’t get them past the hosts, but it did distinguish them as a team this tournament would not forget.
No small gain on last time.