Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Murphy's Law

The most surprising thing for me watching the RTE coverage of last night's match was not how the game developed but the disbelief and outrage shown by Eamon Dunphy in his post game analysis, and then his admission, after an admonishment from Liam Brady, that he had learnt a lot. For this was a typical Irish performance with some of the good and all of the bad elements that have become a hallmark of this team since before Martin O'Neill's time.  Good incisive start and goal?  Check.  Lose our way after scoring and allow the opposition to start dictating?  Check.  Bang long balls forward, cede possession and ride our luck before eventually conceding at least one?  Check.  Regroup and start creating chances when we go behind?  Check.  Equalise and then revert to defensive type?  Check.  And while I'd hoped that our forward momentum post Euros could be sustained in Serbia, none of what transpired surprised me last night.  This is often how we play and considering he's paid to watch us, you have to ask if he ever pays attention.

On the plus side, I'd have taken a draw before kick off and there's no doubt that a point away to Serbia in horrendous conditions may well prove to be vital by the end of the campaign.  Again, the side proved that they're very difficult to beat and although we rode our luck on occasion, we shouldn't forget that the Serbian penalty was clearly a dive.  Of course the question is, would we have pushed on looking for a second goal had the score remained at one each or would we have continued to hang on for the one-all draw? And that's where the frustration comes from because we have shown under O'Neill that we can play reasonable, albeit direct, football when we try to but it seems that doing it when we're ahead in a game or when we have something to lose is generally beyond us.  Whether this is a mental thing or is an instruction from the management is the crux of the matter.

The last couple of hours build up to the game were dominated by talk of whether or not it would go ahead due to the biblical amounts of rain that had been falling on Belgrade the entire day.  Rumours of a potential cancellation had obviously reached those of our crew who had made the trip and I'd had a number of texts from Belgrade from the lads looking for updates.  So, I was relieved for those who had flights booked back on Tuesday when word came through about an hour and a half before kick off that the game was definitely on.  And more than a little jealous as I confirmed that to the lads and got a few replies confirming that they were on their way to the stadium!  The next thing to come through was the team and, to be honest, I had no issues with the eleven selected of Randolph, Ward, Keogh, O'Shea, Coleman, McClean, Whelan, Hendrick, Brady, Walters and Long.  Given James McCarthy's absence through injury, I had thought it unlikely that O'Neill would bring in the likes of Harry Arter for a first competitive start and couldn't have imagined him staring Wes Hoolahan in an away qualifier like this, especially with the conditions.  It looked to me like a fairly standard 4-5-1 with the potential for  Walters to move up beside Long should we look to go 4-4-2.  My hope was that Walters and McClean would provide enough width to get good ball into the box while providing defensive cover for Coleman and Ward who should also have had the potential to overlap forward with the 3 central midfielders providing cover in front of the defence.  Despite Long being up front on his own, it looked a reasonably attacking team.

Although Serbia had the first attack of the game, Ireland reacted positively and once Brady had cut out a Tadic cross, immediately moved forward with conviction.  McClean had gathered possession and his purposeful run was unfairly halted in line with the box on the left hand side.  Given the way we play, set pieces were always going to be important and so it proved again as Brady's delivery was palmed out unconvincingly by the Serbian keeper.  John O'Shea was first onto the rebound and knocked it back across the box where after a bit of pinball, it fell to Jeff Hendrick who managed to  get over the ball and send a first time volley towards the net.  Even then, it looked like the keeper would be favourite to collect it until the ball deflected off Ivanovich and hit the back of the net!  One-nil Ireland with barely 3 minutes on the clock!

While there's always elation once we score, I have to say I'm always happier if we go ahead with a few minutes to go, such as against Italy in the Summer, rather than a few minutes into a game because once we go in front, our approach invariably changes and our mentality seems to instinctively switch to holding what we have when I'd sooner see us continue to do the same things that gave us the lead.  We sat back v Sweden in Paris once we scored and conceded.  Had we scored earlier against Italy I've no doubt we'd have sat back.  And while we stayed competitive in a similar situation for the first half against France back in June before finally unravelling, we couldn't even get that far on this occasion.  It took Serbia maybe 15 minutes after the shock of the goal to start turning the screw as we very quickly started thumping long balls up to Long who wasn't having much joy in getting anything to stick in the wet conditions.  We weren't getting much off the referee either as he ignored what looked like clear bookings for Ivanovic and Tadic only to then book Ward for a perfectly fair challenge around the 20 minute mark.  By this stage, we were looking a little shaky with Randolph making up for an earlier fluffed attempt to gather a ball by getting down sharply to parry a Kostic shot out of danger.  And matters weren't being helped by Hendrick joining Ward in the book due to the referee's insistence on booking Ireland players for challenges that looked far more innocuous than the aforementioned Serbian challenges.  It's possible that this was putting a bit of doubt into Irish heads when it came to committing to challenges in the wet conditions but Serbia were well on top by now with our only break from a succession of corners coming when Long managed to get a block in to open up the chance of a break only to lose his footing as he tried to follow the ball forward.  While Serbia weren't creating many clear cut chances at this stage, we looked nervous at the back and our clearances were bordering on the panicky side with a distinct lack of composure. A similar lack of composure was notable up front with the clearest example being a complete mess of a corner where Hendrick, looking for a return, played it short to Brady only to be caught offside.  Given how reliant we are on set pieces, that sort of  sloppiness is frustrating in the extreme.  As if to prove the point, a couple of minutes later, another set piece that was delivered first time by Brady almost resulted in a second goal as Walters' header was kept out unconvincingly by Rajkovic in the Serbia goal.  Given how poor their keeper was looking, it was unfortunate that we weren't able to put him under further pressure and instead finished the first half on the back foot again with more shaky defending leading to the ball bouncing wide off Mitrovic's shins before he could adjust himself to get a proper shot off.  Half time and we were still leading but surely we had to use the break to regroup.

Unfortunately, the second half started in the same way the first had finished with our midfield sitting in front of the back four and handing the ball back to Serbia as soon as we gained possession.  I hadn't expected O'Neill to make any changes before the 60 minute mark, but given how the game was panning out, I was screaming for the likes of Hoolahan or Arter to come on just to get a foot on the ball and try and retain possession. McClean was next to engage in sloppy play as he tried to beat an extra couple of players when a cross was on but as it was, we managed to hold until the hour through luck as much as design with Tadic putting a reasonable chance over the bar before Coleman was next to give away possession cheaply via a foul throw of all things! It was clear that something was coming and instead of the tactical change I'd hoped for once we got beyond the hour, it, unsurprisingly, was a Serbian goal. 

Given the lack of conviction in our defending, it was hardly surprising that the goal itself was sloppy in the extreme.  An Ivanovic cross was aimed towards Tadic who was being covered by O'Shea.  However, O'Shea seemed to have switched off and managed to lose sight of the ball which bounced clear to Kostic who gleefully smacked it beyond Randolph.  While this seemed to rouse us from our slumber somewhat, there was still no sign of activity on the bench and although we began to push forward a little more, we really could have gone behind to a Tadic chance hit straight at Randolph before the game's most controversial moment ensured that we found ourselves 2-1 down. A ball over the top was chased down by Kostic with Walters in pursuit, only for Kostic to throw himself to the ground as soon as he reached the box.  Considering that it was right under the nose of the ref, a booking for a dive could have been expected but instead he pointed to the spot for a penalty which Tadic was only too happy to bury.  Immediately afterwards we made our first change with Stephen Quinn coming on for Ward and Brady moving to the back. Initially it didn't look like much was changing as yet more keystone cops stuff at the back from Randolph this time saw him spill a shot to the Serbian substitute, Pavlovich, who somehow managed to hammer his shot off the crossbar when he had the goal at his mercy.  Thankfully, the ball rebounded up and into Randolph's hands as at 3-1, it surely would have been game over.

This lucky escape seemed to fully snap us out of it and, as we tend to do when we have nothing to lose, we started playing again and had our best spell of the game.  First off, Walters put away a great header from a Hendrick cross only to be correctly flagged for a marginal offside.  This was Hendrick's last contribution as he made way for Daryl Murphy on 76 minutes in what would prove to be a pivotal substitution. Being honest, I was still hoping for the likes of Hoolahan to be brought on but given how bad the pitch was cutting up, it was clear that O'Neill had decided that route one was the way to go and at least we were now playing that style with a bit more aggression and commitment.  Serbia were now the ones looking nervous as they found themselves with something to lose.  First off, McClean got on the end of a cross but couldn't keep his header down. Then a kick out from Randolph was flicked on by Murphy to put Shane Long in who stretched his toe onto the ball only for the keeper to touch it out for a corner. And it was from the corner that the pressure finally told with Murphy breaking his duck for Ireland, 23 caps and 9 years after his debut!  Having waited so long for that first goal, it's unlikely he'll get an easier one as he was left totally unmarked from Brady's corner and rose to make perfect contact with a free header that had too much pace on it for Rajkovic to keep out.  Two-all and it now seemed the game might be there to be won in the last ten minutes.

Unfortunately, as I've already mentioned, our mindset seems to change as soon as we realise we have something to lose and after one set play which Serbia managed to clear, we began to retreat again.  This resulted in more comical defending as with every defender moving out other than Coleman, Serbia played a ball in to Ivanovic whose shot was saved by Randolph, only to ricochet off Walters towards the goal where Coleman, who had played everyone onside, was able to hack clear from right on the goal line.  Looking at the replay and given his starting position, I'd give Coleman the benefit of the doubt as I think it's unlikely he'd have been able to get out in time to catch Ivanovic offside so his decision to move back was vindicated.  However, had Ivanovic beaten Randolph with his initial shot, all that would be immaterial and the chance itself seemed to sum up the absurd nature  of the Irish defending throughout the game. The next few minutes dragged by as we sat back further before finally lifting the siege around the 90 minute mark with Walters winning a free.  A final substitution with Long being withdrawn for Ciaran Clark to give us another body at the back tightened things up and the game finally finished with Murphy forcing their keeper into giving away possession enabling us to run the clock down and escape with what could be a vital point.

So the positives.  Football is a results driven game and it can't be argued that a draw away to Serbia isn't a decent result.  It's also not the first time under this management team that we have come back to get points late in games where we have been behind and where we have been very much second best in terms of possession.  There's a steeliness and never say die attitude within the team and they don't know when they're beaten.  The old adage about a lucky general being better than a good one can be argued but we've got results from unconvincing performances often enough now for it not to be put down just to luck.  O'Neill is right when he says that other teams in the group will find it hard to come to Belgrade and get results so a part of me says just take the point, put it behind us and move on to the next game against Georgia and the away trip to Moldova next month.

But (and there's always a but) an element of frustration remains.  The fact that they were missing two of their most influential players in Matic and Koralov gave us an advantage that other teams probably won't have when they come to Belgrade.  Also, the players they have coming through from their Under 20 World Cup winners will surely improve during the campaign so getting them this early probably gave us our best shot at bagging 3 points.  They looked iffy  at the back when we got at them yesterday and their keeper looked very suspect but really wasn't put under enough pressure.  And, while the conditions were clearly appalling last night, it was the same for both teams.  We seemed to give up on even attempting to play passing football due to the pitch yet Serbia had spells when they knocked it around with ease. To come out of a game with a sum total of  94 completed passes for the team is beyond a joke. I also can't help but feel that sooner or later our tendency to sit back when we have a lead or are trying to secure a point will come back to bite us.  Our inability to manage a game when we go ahead is very worrying.

All that said, we rarely put together back-to-back poor performances and, most recently away to Scotland and Poland in the last campaign, we've lost games where we've ceded possession like that in the past. It's great to have a point on the board in advance of the home campaign kicking off and a win against Georgia would put us in a good position going away to Moldova.  Having 3 of the first 4 games away from home was always a tough start so rather than concentrate on the negatives, let's chalk up the point and move on.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hello To A New Campaign, Goodbye To A Legend

So, after what felt like the blink of an eye since our Euros came to an end, we find ourselves back at the coalface for the start of our World Cup qualifying campaign.  And, unfortunately for me, with the memories of a great trip beginning to fade, family commitments mean that I won't be able to add new memories from Belgrade for this game and will have to make do with watching it here in Dublin!  There's actually been a long run in to this group, with the strange workings of FIFA coming to the fore as they held the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in July 2015 rather than the normal December date.  The early nature of the draw, coupled with the poor form shown by Ireland at that point in the Euro qualifying campaign, had us seeded in the 4th pot for the first time since the Euro 2008 qualifiers after having been 2nd seeds for the ultimately successful Euro campaign. The problem with the draw being so early was that no chance was given to the manager to try and turn things around in the rest of the campaign so our seeding for this campaign was set well over a year before the first ball will be kicked in anger.

The news of this seeding had been a cause of concern for many at the tine of the draw but I've always argued that too much emphasis can be put on seedings and the luck of the draw can sometimes be just as important as the pot you're in, particularly with the vagaries of the FIFA World Rankings.  And so it came to pass as we ended up in a group that for me, is certainly easier than our Euro qualifying group despite us being two pots lower than we were in February 2014 when the draw for that group was made.

That said, it wasn't looking like our luck was particularly good when we landed in one of the six team groups, with Georgia and Moldova taking up the 6th and 5th seeded spots respectively.  The new UEFA TV deal ensures that England, France, Germany and The Netherlands have to be drawn into 6 team groups so being in a 6 team group increased the odds of getting one of those teams and even though Serbia had a poor Euro campaign which was marred by crowd trouble resulting in point deductions and games being awarded to the opposition, they still wouldn't have been my preferred 3rd seeds.

At the time of the draw, with a group consisting of Serbia, Ireland, Moldova and Georgia and the potential of France or Italy coming out of pot 2.  I was beginning to get worried given the general strength of the top seeded teams.  In that context, Austria wasn't the worst team to come out even allowing for the fact that we only took 1 point off them in the last Trapattoni World Cup campaign.  And our luck definitely seemed to have changed at the time, when with Romania, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia left in the draw, Wales were chosen as top seeds for our Group D.  With all due respect to the Welsh and even allowing for their excellent run to the semi-finals in France during the Summer, having them instead of Germany who've been our top seeds for the last two campaigns had to feel like a bonus. While I see similarities with our last group in that I think a lot of teams will take points off each other, on reflection, I'd sooner have a group consisting of Wales, Austria, Serbia and ourselves as the top four seeds than Germany, ourselves, Poland and Scotland.  But of course, the expansion of the Euros means that there is a radical difference in the opportunity to qualify with only 13 spots available in Europe for World Cup qualification as opposed to the 23 spots that were available for France.  It can't be forgotten that our route to France was secured with a 3rd place finish in the group which would result in a failed campaign this time out.  Hence, having Wales as our top seed should give us and the other contenders in the group a better shot at aiming to top the group than had we drawn one of the traditional giants of the game who, more often than not get the job done.  The potential of a hangover from Wales also can't be discounted as had been seen in the past when Sweden after World Cup 1994, Croatia after World Cup 1998 and Turkey after World Cup 2002 and Euro 2008 all struggled to build on what were unexpected semi-final appearances and failed to qualify from the following campaign.  But I guess all that remains to be seen!

From our perspective, we enter the qualifiers in a reasonable place with the feel good factor generated by how we played in our last two games against Italy and the hosts in France still in place.  The hope now has to be that this can be built upon and that the manner in which we approached those games continues and that we don't revert to the negative approach shown in France against Belgium and after we took the lead against Sweden.  It's hard to believe that the France game was the first game of Martin O'Neill's reign where he named an unchanged team.  But, with the suspension of Shane Duffy and the James McCarthy injury, this is not a luxury open to him on this occasion so I believe it's important that regardless of the personnel that come in to replace them, our approach needs to remain the same and we need to keep up the aggressive attacking style that served us so well against Italy and for the first hour against France before the attrition of a second game so soon after the Italy win took it's toll in the stifling heat of Lyon. The fact that there are doubts over the fitness of Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea is also a concern but the temptation to be conservative to compensate for the absence of first choice players must be resisted and a similar mind-set to the one we took to Sarajevo for the Bosnia play off would be ideal.

Although Serbia have struggled in recent years and have had points deducted in two of their last three campaigns due to crowd trouble, you have to look beyond their final places in those campaigns to try and judge them as opponents within the group.   They have a number of top class players who are Champions League regulars, including Ivanovich, Matic and Kolorov who people will be familiar with from plating with Chelsea and Manchester City and it's certainly a plus for us that the latter two are suspended for this fixture.  But they also have some very good young players coming through and a number of last year's Under 20 World Cup winning squad have now been promoted to the senior panel.

From the point of view of our preparation, there was little in value in football terms to be gained from Wednesday's match against Oman and one had to question how it is that we have ended up playing this opposition 3 times in the past 5 seasons.  That said, the game last Wednesday was certainly an occasion to be part of purely due to the fact that it essentially was an excuse to say goodbye to  a player who deserves to be considered amongst the greats of Irish football along with McGrath, Giles, Brady and his namesake, Roy and hopefully the feel good factor generated by the tournament in France will give another bit of momentum to the goodwill shown to Robbie Keane on his retirement. It was clear from the off that getting Keane onto the scoresheet one last time was on everyone's mind and, having been unable to convert a couple of half chances just after Robbie Brady gave us the lead, it was a real fillip for everyone in the stadium to witness one last goal for the departing captain to go with the consistent 'Keano, Keano' chants that had been echoing around the ground. And the goal, when it came, was a cracker with Walters and Long combining well before the ball came to Keane, who flicked it over the nearest defender and volleyed it into the ground and past the keeper.  It's a long time since I've heard a goal in a friendly celebrated with such fervour as every one of the 28,000 present let out  a huge roar as we witnessed the famous (and less than graceful!) somersault one last time.  As the game was over as a contest by now, it played out at testimonial pace although it was good to see Jon Walters bag a brace after his injury hit Euro campaign.  People were clearly hoping for another Keane goal to bring him past the famous Gerd Muller's international total but it wasn't to be and there was an emotional goodbye as he was called ashore for one last time.  It was nice to see YBIG mark the occasion as the Singing Section banner with the silhouette of Keane with his arms outstretched in celebration was unfurled as he left the pitch.

For me, the criticism that has been levelled at him from some quarters over the years has simply smacked of begrudgery and doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  "He only ever scores against the minnows", I've often heard said.  Outside of the fact that we can only play one or, at most two, of the traditional giants of the game in each qualification campaign, Keane has scored vital goals in competitive games against Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, not to  mention goals against the likes of Yugoslavia and Russia.  He has scored in play-off games against Turkey, Iran, France and Estonia.  He scored 3 goals in 4 games at the only World Cup he played in.  And even many of his goals against what are perceived as minnows have been vital for us.  He has scored in games we've won by a single goal against the likes of Malta, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.  He has scored in every year since his debut in 1998.  I'm old enough to remember Ireland's top goalscorer being Don Givens with 19.  I can remember an 'A' international against Malta just before the World Cup in 1990 being reclassified as a full international after the fact just so that Frank Stapleton's goal would bring him up to 20 and give him the record.  I can remember seeing John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino trying and falling short on 19 before Niall Quinn finally managed  to get to 21.  Robbie Keane has 68 goals for  Ireland.  The argument should end there, it's a phenomenal total and if someone is scoring with that level of regularity then the other complaints about his work rate or the fact that he waves his arms around also fall down.  I don't want someone who is scoring at that rate to be wasting energy chasing lost causes or haring down into the channels.  I want him conserving his energy to get onto the end of  something when the chance arises.  The fact that a number of his big goals came so late in games for us (Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus for example) gives him a pass on that for me, flogging him for 75 minutes and then substituting him was never what he was about.  And while, I really appreciate and admire the lung busting runs and harrying of defenders that is the stock in trade of the likes of Shane Long, that just wasn't Robbie's game.  And with all due respect to Long (who needs to try and take on the mantle in the short term), I don't think anyone believes that he will get anywhere near 68 goals in his Ireland career and it's unlikely that I'll see anyone do it in my lifetime. We won't see his like again and, having witnessed 60 of those goals in person, all I can say is thanks for the memories!

In terms of his departure, it's probably more off the pitch than on the pitch that he'll be missed now given how O'Neill had phased him out of the team in recent years.  And it's further credit to Keane that despite the vaguely ridiculous theory that was mooted a few years ago that he would walk away if he was no longer first choice, he never bitched or moaned when he wasn't playing and instead was practically acting as an additional member of the backroom staff as the previous campaign reached it's critical phase and indeed during the finals.  So now it's time for some of the younger players who came of age in France to step up and provide some of the leadership that will be needed.  Obviously the two biggest pluses of the tournament were Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who interestingly became the first player to score in 3 successive internationals since Keane himself.  Hendrick's move to the Premier League with Burnley is good to see and, while it's a shame that Norwich seemed to price Brady out of a move to that level, that's their prerogative and I don't see him being the sort of player to sulk or spit the dummy as a result.  Both players will be vital this time out and, having missed the Euros, I'm looking forward to seeing Harry Arter finally embedded into the squad along with Callum O'Dowda.  Despite his error against France, Shane Duffy's development at the back has been encouraging and the fact that John O'Shea hasn't followed Keane and Given into retirement at this stage is a positive from the point of view of his experience remaining on board.  Up front, it's as you were bar Keane with the expectation that Long and Walters will make up for the lack of natural instinctive finishing with their exceptional workrate. It's actually up front that I'd like to see someone come through out of nowhere as Walters and Murphy are both now 33 and we look light for goals there. And although Recce Grego-Cox from the Under 21's has had some Premier League and Championship experience in the last couple of seasons, his age of 19 and the fact that he has just gone on loan to Newport County in League Two indicates that this campaign will most likely be too early for him. Therefore with the back up options being the likes of Anthony Stokes and Adam Rooney who have been around the squad for a while without making much of an impact, it's up top where we really need to avoid injuries.

In terms of tonight's game then most people would probably take an away draw before kick off and I'd be happy enough to avoid defeat.  That said, we have started with away wins in each of our last 4 campaigns although Serbia are a step up from Georgia, Kazakhstan and Georgia again!  From my perspective, it's been killing me getting messages from the lads who've travelled on the various WhatsApp groups set up on previous trips so I'm already looking forward to next month's trip to Moldova and the November trip to Austria!  Hopefully, we'll have a start to match that of the Summer behind us by then!

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Lyon Didn't Sleep Tonight

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. 

First off, Sanga managed to find space on the French right and swung a perfect cross into the now centrally based and unmarked Griezmann who powered a header goalwards.  Despite Randolph getting a fingertip to it at full stretch, all he could do was help it into the net and the sides were level.  The next 8 minutes passed in such a blur that even now it's hard to remember specific details.  Initially we seemed to respond well and pushed forward.  If I recall correctly  Murphy seemed to have an opening to shoot but took an extra touch to try and go past the defender and lost possession.  Ward also had an opportunity and this time got a shot off on target which clearly deflected wide off a French player yet  inexplicably the ref gave a goal kick. Once again you have to ask what the officials on the goal line do because the deflection was clear as day from our position at the opposite end of the ground.  From the goal kick France came forward again and Payet banged a shot over the bar. I was now just hoping we could calm things down and hold onto possession but the ball was turned over again from our goal kick and this time France went long to Giroud.  Keogh and Duffy had handled the aerial threat from Giroud well in the first but I don't know if the tactical change from France had confused matters or if they were still just reeling from the goal.  Either way, instead of one of them challenging and the other dropping off, both got sucked in to attack it with neither getting there.  This left acres of space for Griezmann to run into and once Giroud flicked the header on there was only going to be one outcome with Griezmann taking a touch and gleefully hammering the ball past Randolph.  All the above had only taken 3 minutes and we found ourselves behind.

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!

Friday, 24 June 2016

Don't Take Me Home, Please Don't Take Me Home….

Don't take me home, please don't take me home, I just don't wanna go to work! I wanna stay here, And drink all your beer! Please, please, please don't take me home! The refrain of the Euro's so far has been ringing around the host cities as the group stages of the tournament reached their business end and after listening to the England, Wales and Northern Ireland fans singing it over the previous few days, it was our moment of truth on Wednesday night.

As has been the norm with this tournament, the sheer size of France has meant that different groups of us have taken different routes and stopovers on the way. This meant that myself and Lou had left Bordeaux on Sunday morning along with Terry the Tash and a handful of London Irish for a two day stopover in the very nice city of Tours.  Leaving Bordeaux had been pretty non eventful, bar the obligatory customer service debacle at check out when the girl who'd been looking after the apartment rental arrived to check we hadn't trashed the place and on discovering that we hadn't, then revealed that she'd forgotten to bring back our €300 security deposit.  Cue a number of frantic phone calls on her part and a 15 minute wait outside the door before a colleague sped up on a bike with cash in hand!  Luckily, we'd given ourselves a good bit of time to make our train so no harm done.

On sitting down in the carriage, I noticed Borussia, another YBIG stalwart on the train, who I'd met on numerous trips previously, lastly in La Rochelle,  so it was good to see there'd be a good crew up for a bit of craic over the couple of ‘rest’ nights in Tours.  As it happened, we were all staying in the same hotel, a fairly basic Ibis budget but as those hotels go, this one was pretty decent.  Clean and comfortable with an en suite and decent wifi so all good.  Once we'd dropped our bags off  we took a wander down to the old town where we found an ‘Irish’ bar called The Pale showing the Tipp v. Limerick Munster hurling semi so we settled in there for a couple of surprisingly decent pints of Guinness before moving up to the main square for dinner with Borussia and his crowd. The weather was decent and there was a good buzz with the locals as France were playing their final group game v. Switzerland that evening and a few of the bars and restaurants had TV's turned to face the square where people had gathered to eat. Unfortunately, the game did little to enhance the atmosphere as both sides played out the nil all draw that ensured the Swiss would join the French in the next phase. France had done enough to top their group and the hope that everyone had was that Italy, having already topped our group, would take a similarly lacklustre approach to our game on Wednesday.

Once the game was over, we decided that we'd head back to The Pale to try and cheer Shane Lowry on to a maiden Major victory in the US Open but unfortunately the wheels had started to come off that particular bandwagon by the time we got back there. The pub had gotten packed with Irish fans since we'd left and there was a real party atmosphere going on with the Shane Long chant being changed to “Lowry’s on fire! Dustin Johnson’s terrified!” but as Shane's putter was anything but on fire on the back 9 it was clear fairly soon that his challenge was unravelling quicker than our defence had the previous day. The one bright moment came when the Korean American golfer, Kevin Na, was lining up a putt and as soon as his name came up on screen, the entire pub stopped for a second as if to say “Are you thinking what I'm thinking? “ and simultaneously burst into a chorus of ‘“Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na! “! By the time Lowry was walking up to the 17th tee, it was clear his race was run but it still would have been nice to see the end of the round. However, in time honoured French service industry fashion, once the clock struck 2 am, the bar staff insisted on turning off the tellies and moving everyone onto the street despite our pleas for a last ten minutes to watch the finish!  A disappointing end to a disappointing weekend for Irish sport and I've not even mentioned the egg chasers.

Monday morning in Tours brought rain which pretty much stayed down for the day.  Despite this, myself and Lou used the day for a bit of sightseeing and relaxing. A nice 3 course meal in a really good local restaurant and the second half of the England and Wales games was enough for us before grabbing an early night in advance of what we knew was likely to be a couple of hectic days in Lille. As with La Rochelle, Tours was a lovely place to visit and a bit more time would have been nice but there were more important things ahead and by the time we got off the train in Lille and out to our airport hotel, it was time to put the game face on again!

Even though it was only Tuesday at this stage, there was a bit of a Friday feel to the city by the time we arrived in.  The Tir Na Nog was the Irish bar that had been designated as the unofficial meeting point and there was already a decent crowd and good atmosphere outside when we arrived.  It's generally been our modus operandi to check out the meeting place first to get our bearings before moving outwards to find slightly quieter bars and squares and after a swift Guinness in Tir Na Nog, we got a call from Gary and Lina, who'd been with us in La Rochelle, saying that they'd found a spot outside a local bar about 5 minutes away.  There was an army of green moving towards the square Tir Na Nog was situated on by then. So after grabbing a pizza in a proper old school Italian take away, where, in contrast to pretty much everywhere else, the proprietor was determined to serve as many people as possible and make as much cash as he could, we headed over to Gary and Lina for the second half of the Northern Ireland game.

Once we arrived, we sent the address around to the rest of our crew that had landed in Lille by then and before long, the Brummies, Quinn Towers and various others had arrived and we had some good old craic watching the North somehow hold out against a German onslaught to only lose 1-0 and then see their qualification confirmed as the Czechs were beaten by Turkey and Croatia produced a great performance to come from behind and beat Spain 2-1.  I'd said from the off that 3 points with a neutral goal difference should be enough to qualify but it was ourselves rather than the North that I had expected to get that total.  Congrats and hats off to them but it certainly ramped up the pressure on our boys to at least go as far as them for the bragging rights on the island we call home.  With Wales and England already through, and surprisingly finishing in that order in their group, it would have been hard to take being the first of the four neighbouring teams to exit.

A call from Steve Amsterdam saying that his crowd had now touched down at Tir Na Nog brought us back up that direction and there were further reunions with more of the La Rochelle crew.  The chanting and singing had got going by now and while it was rowdy enough, the sheer carnage that was visible in Paris and Bordeaux wasn't on display here.  It wasn't long before the Tir Na Nog closed it's bar (again, no late licences?) but a few of the boys had found another open bar called After Hours so we headed down there to finish the night.  The travelling had taken it's toll a bit at this stage so by about 3, myself and herself decided to bail back to the hotel. We had seen a few taxis in town when we arrived and out by the airport so had hoped to be able to flag one handy enough but as with Bordeaux this proved a problem. And the problem was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in Bordeaux, we were stuck out in an airport hotel due to the lack of available accommodation in the city centre. After about 20 minutes of wandering, I hit on the idea of ordering an Uber. But our second problem was that neither of us have been able to get 3G coverage over here so we couldn't get onto the app! By chance we spotted a shisha pipe smoking bar with a wifi sign on the window so chanced our arm on going in to use it. I got chatting to the guy running it and tried to explain that we'd happily buy something to smoke if we could use the wifi to order an Uber. Despite my lack of French and his lack of English, I thought I'd made myself understood but next thing, instead of producing a pipe, he arrived back with another guy and said this guy would take us back for €40!  We'd been told by a few lads at the hotel that it was between €16 and €20 for an Uber to the hotel when they'd used it and our taxi in earlier had been €22 so the haggle had to begin with us offering €20 before we finally agreed on €30! This didn't stop the driver trying to renegotiate on the drive out but needless to say, he didn't get very far with that! Anyway, we had a bit of a laugh with him and he got us home in one piece so all ended well! One more sleep till Gameday 3.

Considering what was at stake, I'd had a nervy night's sleep but, given the 9 pm kick off didn't want to head into the city too early. However, by half one we were going a bit stir crazy so ordered a cab in which we shared with another couple of lads from the hotel. One of the best thing about trips like this is the sense of camaraderie between total strangers and we'd a good old natter with the boys on the way in.  Another is the friendships you build with those that travel regularly and, as we walked up to the square, we bumped into Saint Tom heading the other direction, had a quick catch up with Borussia as he was queuing for a steak, met my old pal from Bohs, Matt and then met another pal, Bradley on the square itself!  We had planned on meeting up with the gang at Place Charles de Gaulle but in the meantime had got a call from my Da and his mates who were grabbing food down the road by the train station. As they were heading back to their hotel before the match, we wandered down to find them in a packed cafe where they'd been waiting an hour for their food.  We sat down beside them and tried to order food only to be refused because it was now 10 seconds past 3 and they stopped lunch at 3! Wouldn't even do us an omelette!  As we were famished by now, we nipped into the first place we found across the road, got a beer and asked for the menu. Amazingly, the service was actually pretty decent so before long we were fed and watered and I'd given Da and his crew a nod to come and join us when they were finished. There were a few Italians over beside a group of Irish fans who asked me to get a pic of them all.  Maybe it was a sign of how things were going to turn out later but it was funny to see that the Italians were drinking beer and the Irish lads drinking wine when I took the photo!

The place was starting to fill up when Da and Co. joined us and we had a great couple of hours swapping stories of how our trips had gone since Bordeaux. Although Da has been on a good few of the qualifier trips over the years, this was the first tournament since US 94 that we've both been on so it was great to spend a bit of time with him in the tournament environment.  And, speaking of US 94, I had realised the previous day that I had with me the very shirt I was wearing in Giants stadium when Ray Houghton scored the winner v. Italy on that famous day so had made the suitably superstitious decision to dust it off and stick it on for today's game. Luckily, mid 90’s football shirt design was the baggier the better so fitting into it wasn't a problem!  And as I was wearing a suitably 90’s green baseball cap backwards in 94, it was only right that the look be topped off with similar. Unfortunately, there was no potion available to magic my hair back but I don't think I carried the look too badly given the 22 years that have elapsed since! Or more likely I looked a fool but what the hell! 

It was now about 5:30 in the evening so there were still a few hours to kick off by the time we moved back to the square. The place was thronged by now with flags and green shirts everywhere. The fountain was overflowing with suds after someone had put washing up liquid into it which was giving off a bit of a foam party vibe and there were footballs being kicked everywhere as thousands of Irish and a few Italians milled around, chatting, laughing and chanting. The Italian support generally don't tend to travel in numbers as they're always confident of progression to the latter stages of tournaments so there were literally hundreds if not thousands of Irish fans to every Italian around and the closer it got to kick off the more the atmosphere built.  By the time it came to get the train out to the ground, there was a huge gang of us with the whole Amsterdam crowd, the Brummies, the Quinns and their pal Conor all in tow. We all headed to the metro with chants of Allez Les Verts from any of the locals we came across but our merry band was broken up pretty quickly when we got to the metro and the usual shambolic security.  Most of us were held on the top of the stairs despite the platform being empty below and in the resultant push to get on the train when it finally arrived most of us ended up in different carriages.  Regardless, the buzz on the train was quality and we bellowed out everything from the usual McGrath and Breen chants to the newer John O'Shea's a legend and Shake it up Brady chants from this campaign.  The carriage was rocking by the time we got to the nearest stop to the stadium and on the 15 minute walk up we bumped into a few of the gang again and a few we hadn't seen earlier including our Bosnian friend, Braveheart, who'd been such a help to YBIG when we were in Sarajevo.  Despite losing the play off, he's been travelling around France for the tournament and it was great to catch up with him before the game. 

As we were queueing to get in, the word came through that Iceland had got a late winner v. Austria and Portugal had failed to beat Hungary meaning that, should we win, we'd be facing France down in Lyon.  While I would have preferred to play Croatia in Lens, which is only about 20 odd miles from Lille, there is something special about playing the host nation at a major tournament. Add in the small matter of a chance for revenge for the famous Thierry Henry handball in the World Cup play off in 2009 and, if the team needed any further motivation to do a job on the Italians then this was surely it.  Although there was no discernable queuing system once again, we actually managed to get through easily enough and got in in time to get a good spot to hang the flag and be at our seats in plenty of time for the anthems.  We even had time to recreate the photo I'd had taken all those years ago in Giants stadium in front of the original 69ers flag!  Two of the lads who'd soldiered through Poland with us, Niall and Quirke were in the seats beside us along with Niall's Da and brother so there was a good crowd of us to roar out the anthem and share round the nerves before kick off. 

Martin O'Neill had been brave enough to ring the changes for this game as his captain O'Shea, Clark, Whelan and Hoolahan all made way for Keogh, Duffy, McClean and Murphy.  While I had worries about the fact that we were relying on a player up front who'd failed to score in 20 plus caps and if Hoolahan was to be rested, I'd have done so against Belgium but I was delighted to see Shane Duffy brought in for his competitive debut and the team was more attacking than the one which had been rumoured the previous couple of days. As expected, the Italian manager had rested 6 of the 7 players on yellow cards and made two other changes so it was a radically different side to that which had won it's first two games. While it was a concern that the players they'd brought in would be playing for a place in the last 16, the Italians have a reputation for only doing the minimum required in the group stages so it was still a comfort that they'd already topped the group regardless of results due to their earlier win over Belgium.  The fact that Buffon was rested was a huge bonus for us and as it's been a feature of O'Neill's reign that we've bounced back from poor results with good performances, I was hopeful we'd see similar again.  Before we knew it after the anthems it was time for the ridiculous new countdown from 10 to kick off and a huge roar came up from our end as it was game on! 

From the off, it was clear that in effort and application at least, this was a significant step up from the Belgium game. Although Italy had a little bit more possession early on and were first to get a couple of corners on the board, we were biting into tackles and making life uncomfortable for them. While we were tending to rely on long balls to Murphy, they weren't comfortable with that tactic and on 9 minutes, Murphy got on the end of a punt to knock it back to Hendrick who moved forward and hammered a left footed shot just over the top left angle of post and crossbar. This roused the crowd even further and our aggressive approach really seemed to be rattling the opposition. Our next real chance came on 20 minutes with what I think was our first corner when Murphy got a header to a Brady delivery forcing the the Italian reserve, Sirigu, to tip the ball over for another corner. Although the second corner came to nothing, there were encouraging signs that there was something for us in this game. 

I know all fans bitch and moan that referrees are biased against them but no one can deny that we've had a raw deal this tournament. Although Belgium deservedly beat us, had we been awarded what was a stone wall penalty when it was nil all, they may have panicked and it could have developed into a different game.  And similar was visible here, as first off Long got clearly shoved off the ball just outside the area without a foul being blown and then about 5 minutes later was taken out by what looked a forearm smash from Bonucci only for the ref to award a free out.  The confidence we were playing with was personified by Randolph in goals pulling off a Cruyff turn to leave Zaza looking a fool although it's never good for the heart to see a keeper try the likes of that!  

As mentioned earlier, it was a bonus that Buffon had been rested and his replacement was looking decidedly windy and not more so than when himself and Long got involved in some argy bargy 5 minutes before half time resulting in both betting booked.  Sirigu had shoved him in the chest and looked like he absolutely shit himself as Long responded by fronting up to him and roaring into his face which seemed to put the fear of God into him.  This ratcheted up the atmosphere another notch but that was nothing compared to 5 minutes later when Murphy played the ball into McClean who dropped the shoulder to get a shot off only to get barged in the back by Bernardeschi. Once again, it was as clear cut a penalty as you'll ever see and once again the ref didn't give it.  It's fair to say that the anger in our end at that end of the pitch was palpable and the remainder of the half was played out to a chorus of boos and whistles which only increased as the ref walked off the pitch.  Still, it had been a very positive first half for us but if the game was going to finish level then there's no doubt that that decision would have been the one pointed to above any other. 

My phone was buzzing with texts from home all through half time giving out about the penalty decision and so had everyone's around me so there was a real sense of injustice in our end as the second half began.  I always prefer when the team is attacking the goal we're behind and the support was determined to make a difference and suck the ball in if we could.  The team started the half in aggressive fashion again with McClean and Long getting stuck in from the off to give away a couple of frees.  But Italy were still creating little and although clear cut chances were at a minimum, we were still the dominant side.  Time seemed to be moving fairly quickly,  the heat under the closed roof of the stadium seemed to be getting more and more oppressive in the stands so I can only imagine what it was like on the pitch but the lads kept pushing on. Murphy went off for McGeady and as we entered the last 20 minutes I really started thinking that our lads were beginning to pay the price for the effort they'd put in.  The Italian keeper was still looking shaky and had flapped at a McClean cross but the Italians were getting more of a foothold and our hearts were in our mouths on 77 minutes as Insigne broke through and cannoned a shot off the post. Moments later O'Neill rolled the dice again and threw on Wes Hoolahan for McCarthy.  We were entering the last chance salon now. 

This seemed to reinvigorate us somewhat as we weathered a spell of Italian possession and Wes starting influencing proceedings.  But with 6 minutes to go, we were convinced our chance was gone.  Hoolahan had been played through on the right hand side of the box and found himself one on one with the keeper. It looked easier to score than not but he seemed to freeze for a second and placed his shot straight at the keeper!  He could also have played it to Long who was free in the centre so everyone in the stand seemed to look at each other and say that was the chance.  

That miss would have been enough for a lot of players to put their head down and hide but fair play to Hoolahan as he kept going and within a minute found himself back on the ball after we'd regained possession and McGeady played the ball out wide to him.  What happened next will go down in the annals of Irish football history along with Houghton's goals v. Italy and England and Robbie's equaliser v. Germany in Japan. Wes looked up and played a perfect ball into the centre of the box. Sirgiu charged out but he was never getting there before Robbie Brady who smacked a header past him and into the back of the net!  Well, what can I say about the scenes that followed! The mood of despair following the missed chance moments before changed to one of elation, relief, disbelief and whatever else you want to throw into the mix!  There's a famous line in The Italian Job where Micheal Caine says "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!". Our Italian job nearly blew the bloody roof off!  I grabbed Louise and we bounced around grabbing anyone near us as we roared our heads off. I actually had to lean onto the back of the seat to try and regain my breath after about a minute of this with the heat in the ground.  Robbie Keane had been waiting to come on in a last throw of the dice just before the goal but this plan was immediately changed as Quinn came on for Long to shore things up.  My memory was flashing back to that night in Croke Park when Sean St Ledger had put us 2-1 up only for Italy to equalise straight after back in 2009 but back then, Italy needed the point to secure World Cup qualification whereas now they had nothing to play for.  Still, the clock suddenly seemed to slow down as we entered stoppage time and screamed for the final whistle.  We had one false alarm when Martin O'Neill mistook the ref's whistle for a foul for full time but moments later the whistle blew for real and that was that.  We were there! 

The celebrations in the ground were emotional to say the least and you could see what it meant to the players as they came down to acknowledge the fans as The Fields of Athenry rang around the stadium.  And when we did make our way out of the ground it was hugs and high fives all the way back to the train and on the train back to the city.  The security at the station even softened their approach as the one person who was insisting on thousands of us queueing to buy train tickets was overruled by a supervisor who just told us to get on the train and get back to the city. 

When we arrived back at Lille Flanders and came up the escalator onto the concourse the scenes that greeted us were just incredible.  The entire balcony had Irish flags draped over it as thousands of Irish supporters bellowed out The Fields once again. I've seen some of the videos since but even they can't capture the joyousness on display, it really was emotional.  We made our way back to meet some of the others at the square where most of the bars had already closed but got a heads up from the Quinns who'd found a bar called Crazy Lounge open about a ten minute walk away so the gang of us made our way there to hook up with them and spent the next couple of hours just soaking in the atmosphere.  To be honest, I was that drained after the game and the heat that by around 3, myself and Lou decided to grab some food and on finding everything closed, cut our losses and made our way back to the taxi rank to get back to the hotel and crash. The walk back was class as we serenaded every fan we met with our new "Hey, Robbie Brady, Ooh Ahh, I Wanna Know Oh Oh, How You Scored That Goal!" and it was clear the craic would be ninety till the morning but with plans to make tomorrow, it was time to leave it to the youths! 

You have to give immense credit to the management and the team for the way they bounced back from the Belgium defeat and the fact that Italy had nothing to play for shouldn't take away from that.  The game had to be won and they did it.  And while we may not score many goals, we've now beaten the World Champions 1-0 in a must win game in qualifying and done the same to another traditional powerhouse in Italy.  We've consistently fought to the end and scored numerous late goals to prove it.  The team goes on to the end and so do we!  Lyon, here we come!  France, we owe you one!