We leave Lyon devastated and dreaming of what might have been but with our heads held high. It didn't seem possible that we could top the euphoria of the Italy result in Lille but after nearly 60 minutes even a committed pessimist like me was beginning to believe this could be one of those special games like England in Euro 88 or Italy in WC 94 where we took an early lead and then absorbed everything the opposition could throw at us to see out the game. Given that this was now knockout football, had we managed it, it would have surely been the greatest result in our history. But in a frenetic ten minute spell when we just lacked a bit of composure, it was snatched away by the magnificent Antoine Griezmann and the dream was over.
We'd woken Thursday morning still in a state of disbelief that our journey was continuing and still high on the emotion of Robbie Brady’s late winner the night before. We had no plan in place other than that we had to get to Lyon and had a rake of messages from both here and from home with people asking about tickets and if we had anywhere sorted to stay in Lyon for the weekend. Frankie the hands and Philly had made contact to say they'd be coming back on Saturday and another pal from home, Eoghany Mc, who'd watched the match in Dublin with Frank, had got in touch saying he'd be over. We'd decided at that stage to stay an extra night in Lille but, with hotel rooms now emptying as people began to travel home or onwards, had checked out of our airport hotel and moved to a far nicer place by the central station. There were calls and texts going between the various groups we’d been travelling with regarding best options for accommodation and travel and while we were getting lunch, Brummie Bren had got in touch. With the other two of the Birmingham crew traveling home, he'd decided to stay on so we made a call to try and book an apartment for 6 in Lyon from Friday till Tuesday. A few of the gang had been raving about using Air bnb during the trip so I'd put in a request to book an apartment earlier in the day that had been showing as pending since. Trust me, trying to plan anything when you're well into the second week of a tournament and coming down from an emotionally draining high of a late victory the previous night is not an easy task! So a bit of panic set in when I got a mail back about 5 hours later letting me know that unfortunately someone else had already booked the apartment. Back into Air bnb and this time we managed to get confirmation of a place in the nearby suburb of Villeurbanne so at least we had a roof for the next few nights! Travel was next and after ruling out flights and buses, myself, Lou and Bren had to settle for an early train with one change the following morning with the direct trains all full and other options filling up fast. With all that sorted, a couple of pints and a glass of wine with food in the same place we’d been drinking with the Da in the previous day was as much as we could muster before hitting the hay and failing miserably to sleep in the muggy, oppressive Lille heat!
One advantage of not sleeping the night before is that there's no chance of missing your early alarm call the next day. So come 8.30 on Friday morning, we'd gathered our belongings and made the short walk to the station to move on yet again. A nice uneventful journey was just what was required and thankfully just what we got. And whatever about how difficult getting cabs had proven in France, the tip I'd been given in Lille to start using Uber was proving very useful as we got picked up at the Part Dieu station in Lyon and dropped to the door. After stocking up on food and beers in advance of the rest of the lads arriving the next day, we'd planned on going into the city to meet up with a few heads but a look at the thunder clouds building gave us pause for thought and sure enough before long the first peals of thunder rolled across the sky and the heavens opened. So, the next few hours were instead spent looking out at a huge electrical storm with lightning forks literally every 10 seconds or so while watching a full broadcast of the famous 2009 play off. I'd never been able to bring myself to watch the full game after coming home from Paris all those years ago but decided now was the time to get the blood up before Sunday's game. Even 7 years on, it was hard to watch us miss so many chances to put the game to bed and to be honest, it's still an issue with us to this day that we rarely push on and get a second goal when we're on top and one up which always leaves us susceptible to conceding. All the same, watching how blatant the handball was and how the officials missed it was galling regardless but I was well in the mood for revenge once it finished!
Once we'd had a fairly easy ticket collection on Saturday, we watched Wales knock the North out while waiting for the rest of the lads to arrive. And for all my criticism of the French service industry, the taxi driver the lads had got from the airport to the ticket collection point really came up trumps after one of the lads left his brand new phone in the cab. An hour of worry was ended as the driver finally called back and said he'd meet up in the city centre and drop the phone back. I had to wonder if all the good press the Irish support has received in France might have been a help! With all that sorted, we headed to the city to meet with Tash and his mob to collect a couple of tickets that I'd promised to people. For all the talk about tickets being scarce, there were a number of lads who'd gone home despite having conditional last 16 tickets freeing them up. The problem was that the vouchers that were issued to exchange for tickets had to be collected by the person who'd been allocated them. Enquires had determined that if you had an email from the person who the tickets had been allocated to, along with a copy of their passport, there was a fair chance you could collect the tickets if you were dealing with someone reasonable but it was touch and go for a while whether those tickets would be released and it was a big relief when we got confirmation on Saturday evening that all 6 of us in the apartment were sorted as our initial allocation had only stretched to 5. Once that was done, we settled down to a good night in a pub suitably called Brasserie la Republique till around 2 before another Uber took us back home for a couple of nightcaps before finally trying to get some rest before our early start on Gameday 4.
The 3pm kick off meant an early start and as our apartment was closer to the stadium than the city, we decided to head straight up there around noon and bring some beers with us. We got a great laugh on the walk down to the metro when we spotted 69ers graffitied onto a wall and took this as a sign from the Gods! While the metro was fairly subdued, you couldn't say the same about the tram we needed for the final hop to the ground! It's always different if you're playing a host nation, especially when, if you're playing anyone else, you generally outnumber their support significantly. From as soon as we got onto the metro, it was clear that we would be massively outnumbered for this game but it was even more pronounced once we got onto the tram. It was absolutely rammed with French fans giving it loads with chants about Griezmann, Payet, Giroud and even Zidane but we still managed to send a few back their direction with Twist and Shoot and various Robbie Brady chants to the fore after his heroics on Wednesday along with the ubiquitous Shane Long’s on fire. Before long, we'd arrived at the last stop and after many handshakes and good wishes from the French, we wandered up to the ground and found a spot we could spend the next couple of hours before kick off.
The stadium in Lyon has a huge walkway leading up to it with grass verges running up the middle which were packed with French fans having picnics with wine and Irish fans having, well, let's be honest here, bags of cans and the odd baguette! We came across a gang of the YBIG regulars who had also been in La Rochelle so grabbed a spot beside them. The craic was mighty as more and more familiar faces arrived and before we knew it, it was time to head into the ground. One thing I did notice was, in contrast to the previous day when tickets were very thin on the ground and lads had been paying well over the odds, a lot of tickets allocated to fans who hadn't made it back had been collected using copies of passports and validation emails had now come onto the market and there were spares all over the place. I was trying to help a couple of mates get rid of spares but we really couldn't give them away. And the stadium was that far out of the city that a number of fans had stayed in the fanzone rather than travel out to the ground on the off chance. It was a pity, but I think any of the regular away crowd should have been sorted handy enough. It had also been apparent that the make up of the crowd was different than the previous games, with a lot of rugby shirts on display and it seemed from the fresh faces about that a lot of people who didn't have 2 weeks on the road behind them had jumped aboard the bandwagon and managed to get tickets from somewhere. This is nothing new and I'd heard similar about the quarter final game in Italia 90 but it was interesting to see it in person. We do love a big event, the Irish!
Security on entering the ground was a better experience than previous games and we got into our seats a good 20 minutes before kick off. We had a great spot behind the goal on the lower level and were able to get the flag up directly behind us. Although only 4 of the 6 of us had tickets together, the other 2 lads were in the same section and, as there was no doubt that our section would be standing the whole game, they were able to slip in beside us in time for the anthems. We roared out Amhrain na Bhfiann first off before a stirring rendition of La Marseilles by the partisan locals had all 6 of us fully primed for kick off as the same XI that started v Italy prepared to attack our end for the first half. Primed or not, I don't think any of us were prepared for what happened next!
I previously mentioned that I always prefer when our team is attacking our end in the second half. However, in this instance, Coleman had obviously lost the toss so we were attacking our end first. And, in contrast to previous games, we really only had one end, or part of an end to be exact as our pocket of fans was surrounded by a mass of red, white and blue. Nevertheless, as soon as we tipped off, we bellowed our support for the lads and tried to silence the locals. And in under two minutes, we had. We started on the front foot and it was clear that a huge amount of confidence and momentum had been gathered from the Italy victory and the French had hardly had a touch when a ball was played in by Ward to Long who cleverly invited the challenge from Pogba and was sent sprawling. We’ve been absolutely ripped off in previous games on penalty decisions so everyone held their breath for a second and looked straight to the referee as he took a moment to consider and pointed to the spot. He'd given it! A huge roar went up from our end but I'm never one for celebrating the award of penalties as I'm always terrified we'll miss! I tried to calm the lads around me as we waited for the kick to be taken. As both our regular penalty takers, Keane and Walters, were on the bench, the task fell to the hero of Lille, Robbie Brady. It seemed to take forever to get the box cleared of players and for the ref to blow the whistle. Brady stepped up, made a great connection and sent the keeper the wrong way. For one horrible second, as I saw the ball hit the post, I thought it was going to bounce across the goal line and out but next second we saw the net on the other side of the goal bulge and knew it was in! A celebration from a penalty is never as intense as a goal from open play due to the nervous wait for the kick killing the spontaneity, it's as much a feeling of relief as elation. Still, the roar that greeted this was impressive. We were one up against the host nation in the second minute! Next thought was “Christ, only another 88 to go….”
With the French support reeling from the concession of such an early goal, it was obvious their team were going to come straight for us and sure enough, for the next ten minutes, we had to repel a series of corners, crosses and frees around the box but gradually we weathered the storm and began to play ourselves more into the game. Griezmann was being a little lax in his defensive duties which was giving Ward and McClean the chance to link up well on our left side. After that initial ten minute spell where France had us under pressure, it was now our time to turn the screw and just before the 25 minute mark, Murphy did well to swivel and hook a shot at goal. What it lacked in power, it made up for in accuracy and Lloris had to go full stretch to claw it out from the corner. The rebound fell to McClean but with Long charging into the box screaming for a pull back, the Derryman seemed to be caught in two minds and tamely knocked the ball straight back at Lloris. I'm not sure if he just didn't get his head up to see the option but in a tight game it was definitely a missed chance.
The game was being played at a fair old clip with robust challenges the order of the day so it wasn't surprising that before long players started going into the book with Coleman and Kante both being pulled up by the ref as we entered the last 15 minutes of the half. However, it was injures that were causing me more worries as first Long and then Hendrick both went down after collisions and, although both were insistent on playing on, neither looked particularly comfortable for the remainder of the half. To give Long credit, he still managed to pull off the best bit of skill in the half by killing a long ball he had no right to control and winning us a corner. Although the corner was cleared, we kept the pressure on and Duffy was only inches over the bar after getting on the end of another dangerous free. A second booking of the tournament for kicking the ball away followed for Hendrick but we were good value for our lead as we entered stoppage time. Although we groaned as one when 4 minutes stoppage time was indicated, it was fair enough given the Long and Hendricks injuries but it was a nervy 4 minutes as France came again only for our defenders to fling themselves at every ball in the box and ensure Randolph was untroubled. Finally the half time whistle went and it was time to draw breath!
Given the circumstances, it had probably been the finest half of football since O'Neill took over. France had looked really rattled under the long ball but we had played some decent stuff on the ground as well and although France had good spells of possession, bar one good Randolph save from Payet, they really hadn't troubled our goal and our defence had been able to keep them at arm's length. The question now was could we keep it up and could France take the pressure they must have been under as hosts. Who'd blink first?
As it happened, Deschamps blinked at half time with the ballsy decision to take Kante off and bring on the Bayern Munich winger, Kingsley Coman. This meant a tactical shift with Griezmann moving into a central position and for me, that decision was the game changer. France started the second half on the front foot and we were under pressure from the off. Koscielny probably should have equalised a few minutes in but headed wide. Our forays forward were becoming further and further apart but we were still making them and McClean forced another save from Lloris from a cross that was headed towards Long. With the clock creeping towards the hour mark, I was starting to think that this could be one of those knockout games you see on occasion where you lead early, soak up pressure and just block and keep the ball out till full time. The third round of the FA cup was coming to mind but our bubble was burst in an 8 minute spell that turned the game on its head and broke our hearts.
Still we didn't give up and broke forward again only for McClean to take an extra touch and fail to pick out Murphy or Long after beating his man at the dead ball line. But in the 8th minute of that crazy spell, mission improbable became mission impossible. Once again, we were carved open by Giroud feeding Griezmann and Duffy decided to take one for the team by pulling him down inside the D just before he got into the penalty area. I don't blame him for making the challenge as it was extremely unlikely that Griezmann would miss given how he'd been playing since half time. At first I thought Duffy might have got a touch on the ball but realistically that was wishful thinking on my part. The red card was inevitable and now, not only were we chasing the game, we would have to do so with ten men.
Martin O'Neill had decided to ring the changes with the first sub being the introduction of Walters for Murphy just before the red card and immediately afterwards O'Shea was introduced for McClean to shore up the centre half position in Duffy’s absence. This was followed by a final throw of the dice with Hoolahan replacing McCarthy but regardless of the changes, we just couldn't get on the ball by this point. In fact, if any team looked more likely to score it was France as Gignac announced his arrival on the pitch by cracking a shot off the bar and they followed this up with a series of corners which we managed to defend. At the other end there wasn't much going on with a Walters effort well wide and a couple of half hearted appeals for frees following tumbles from Walters and Long as good as it got as the clock ran down.
France were still keeping us honest at the back rather than sitting on their lead and it was clear by now that the extra 3 days rest they had after their group games was a factor. In fact, I remarked to the gang that even if we somehow managed an equaliser, we'd be dead on our feet in extra time. As it was, that point was moot as one last launch forward from Randolph was cleared by Rami and the ref blew for full time. The dream was over but at least we'd gone down fighting unlike against Belgium the previous week. What followed were some fairly emotional scenes as the players initially slumped to the ground before picking themselves up come towards the pocket of Irish support that we were in the middle of. It was clear that this was goodbye to the elder statesmen of the team such as Keane, Given and possibly O’Shea although it wouldn't surprise me to see them get a final run out against Oman at Lansdowne in August. It must have been about 15 minutes after full time before the last of the team waved goodbye to the fans who'd shared this French odyssey with them and we had to start facing the realisation that our journey was over.
Personally, I was devastated at the result and said as much when I was stopped on my way out by an RTE camera crew and asked for a few words. I think they wanted me to say how proud I was but, even though the team could be proud of how they played, my overriding emotion was just one of disappointment that we'd had to witness another of those glorious failures that we're so good at. Just once, I'd like us to come out of one of those games as the victors rather than the plucky underdogs who gave it their best shot. To be fair, the difference in recovery time between the two teams was a factor and, with our end in the shade, it was only when I got outside the stadium that I appreciated just how hot a day it was. But, in the cold light of day, we just don't have the quality in our ranks. In a game of tiny margins, it's the split second things like Murphy taking a touch instead of getting his shot off, McClean trying a trick that isn't in his locker and failing to get his cross in or Duffy and Keogh getting pulled to the same ball and leaving space in behind. This isn't meant to be critical of those players who are good honest pros but with a chunk of our squad playing in the second tier in England those sort of errors are simply a fact of life. In fact, my biggest disappointment is that, nearly 30 years after we qualified for a major tournament for the first time that there still isn't a coherent plan on how to develop young players in our country and that we're still relying on our inherent and admirable values of hard work, team spirit and pride in the shirt to compete at the top table rather than a structure that could deliver players that can compete technically with the top teams in Europe. There's a whole debate to be had about exporting our best players into a flawed system in England and about how difficult it is to develop a proper football culture in a country where the national association is essentially prepared to pay nothing more than lip service to the national league but that's for another day.
As the vast bulk of our support had hung on in the stadium and were leaving at the same time, the situation leaving the ground was a bit less organised than when we came in so, with huge queues to get onto the trams, we decided to wait around the ground for a couple of hours to let the crowds die down. When we stopped at the nearest bar to the tram stop, Steve, Gary and the Amsterdam crew were already there so the next while was spent digesting the defeat and mulling over the ups and downs of the tournament. There was a good mix of Irish and French around with the home fans very magnanimous and admitting that we'd had them worried. There were also a couple of previously capped players knocking about in the form of Bohs legend, Jason Byrne and the Doc, Gary Doherty who were there with Robbie Keane’s brother! After a couple of hours, we decided to jump the tram back only to discover they were no longer running so a gang of us got a cab and made our way back to town.
When we arrived back in the centre of Lyon, the square was already thronged with fans of both teams and there was a huge street party going. As I've said before, I'm not a fan of huge celebrations after a defeat but at least with this one, we had gone out fighting rather than with a whimper as in Poland four years ago and even v Belgium the previous week. All the same, we weren't going to get into the thick of it so we found a spot on one of the side streets and before long a good few of the crew we'd criss crossed the country with arrived along for a last drink and to say goodbye. The Quinns and Conor, Steve and the Amsterdam crew, Borussia, Frank, Philly and Bren all joined us before myself and Lou bailed back to the apartment around 2:30. A few of the rest carried on but I can't confirm which of them ended up getting €150 bottles of Grey Goose vodka bought for them by what may have been the local Godfather later that night!
The following morning brought further goodbyes as the lads from the apartment hit the road back to Dublin with myself, Lou and the last remaining Brummie, Bren hanging on for another night in Lyon before going our separate ways tomorrow. It's been a brilliant couple of weeks and much as I really wanted to get back to Paris, once the disappointment subsided , I think there are an awful lot of positives to be taken from the tournament into the World Cup qualifiers. The two weeks have been spent with some of my favourite people and in addition to our old friends we've made many new ones who I'm sure we'll see again on our future travels. The blogs have been fun to write despite having to do them on the phone after the laptop died and thanks to all who've read them and for the feedback! I'll review our tournament as a whole when I get back and while it may not be a quarter final in Paris, I'm going to use the rest of the holiday for a few days recreation and rest in Biarritz. We may be out but we won't be down for long! Roll on the September qualifiers and COYBIG!