Brady rekindles Irish love affair with its football team.

23 Jun

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What a night to be Irish. What a night to be a football fan. What a night to be an Irish football fan in the Stade Pierre in Lille last night. What a night to be Robbie Brady who joined Irish winning goal scoring hero Ray Houghton in the annals of Irish footballing folklore by glancing home Norwich team mate Wes Hoolahan’s sumptuous pass to send Ireland and their outstanding supporters on to a Last 16 showdown with hosts France in Lyon on Sunday.

Houghton’s winning goals against England and Italy in 1988 and 1994 were opening group games so Brady’s winner carried extra significance as Ireland simply had to win to prolong the Irish party in France.

Ireland’s dreadfully disappointing defeat to Belgium four days previously in Bordeaux resulted in Martin O’Neill making four changes to that starting eleven. Increased youth, vigour and strength saw Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh oust John O’Shea and a battered Ciaran Clark in defence while Glen Whelan and Hoolahan made way for Daryl Murphy and James McClean. The centre half clear out was a calculated gamble by O’Neill and Seamus Coleman was handed the armband.

Antonio Conte also rang the Italian changes but for altogether different reasons as key players from their opening two wins were rested with the Italians already group winners.

New skipper Coleman displayed instant intent with a crunching calling card on a yelping Italian and Jeff Hendrick followed suit moments later. Ireland were here to win and though both were lucky to escape a card from Romanian rookie ref Ovidiu Hategan, the two challenges set the tone and Ireland drove forward.

Hendrick went agonisingly close with an early piledriver that shaved Sirigu’s post and James McCarthy, McClean, Shane Long and Murphy were aggressive, tenacious and terrier like in unsettling the Italians.

Long and Sirigu squared up for a mutual yellow card as Ireland’s pressure was clearly rattling Italy and Sirigu pulled out a fine save from Murphy’s header from Brady’s corner but Ireland were well on top in the opening exchanges.

Defensively Ireland were comfortable although Duffy was nervy in possession early on but Coleman was relishing his captaincy as he cajoled and roared approval at a McCarthy challenge.

Ireland’s fans sensed blood as well and though Immobile went close enough with a snapshot it was their only shot as the half drew to a close. Before it did close however, Ireland fans were seething at referee Hategan.

An earlier Ogbonna foul on Murphy inside the box should’ve been punished by the ref, but when Brady fed McClean in a promising position, he was clearly fouled and bundled over by Bernardeschi but amazingly Mr Hategan let it pass. Robbery, daylight robbery from the Romanian.

Italy emerged for the second half with added appetite after a likely dressing down from
Conte and Zaza had a volley just too high to remind Ireland of his danger, but Keogh and rookie Duffy grew in stature as the game wore on and Ireland fans willed their warriors on relentlessly.

Murphy tested Sirigu and from the follow up Coleman might’ve done better but this pressure remained incessant as Italy were flustered and passing the ball terribly due to Irish pressure and harrying.

Ireland still needed that priceless goal and O’Neill sacrificed a much improved McCarthy for McGeady and a spent Murphy made way for the mercurial Hoolahan.

Italian sub Insigne almost gave Italy a most undeserved lead when he set off on a solo run and his excellent shot beat Randolph all ends up, but rebounded off the post to safety.

As Robbie Keane was readied after 81 minutes, Ireland looked like their moment had arrived. A defensive lapse allowed Hoolahan in on a one on one, but agonisingly his shot lacked conviction and Sirigu saved easily.

That moment looked to have passed but a moment later and with Keane still chomping to get on, Brady took possession in his own half. He advanced and fed McGeady to his right. Brady ran on. And ran on. And nobody tracked the lung-busting late run.

McGeady fed Hoolahan with a key pass and if anyone was in
doubt about Hoolahan’s state of mind, they needn’t have had
any. Hoolahan’s cultured left peg and wonderful football vision pierced Bonucci’s retreat and such was the pace on the pass, the still running Brady only had to make sure he made contact with the ball. He did. Sirigu had no chance and the Irish fans behind the goal sent up a Celtic cacaphoney of celebration as a spent and already emotional Brady slid to acclaim a memorable and bloody good goal.

He had started the move, showed desire and intelligence to keep going and Hoolahan’s magnificent delivery was final redemption for all those lonely years being ignored by Trapattoni. What a moment. Lille was in utter pandemonium.

Keane put his kit back on as Stephen Quinn came on instead to keep the Irish door shut for the final five minutes and stoppage time. Italy were done however, reduced to a cynical and beaten team by a Herculean Irish performance and the Boys in Green saw the time out without incident.

The final whistle was predictably wild in Irish celebration of a famous but ultimately meaningful win. Given little chance following the loss in Bordeaux, O’Neill deserves huge credit in having the balls to make key and brave changes to the starting XI.

The players deserve massive praise for a performance of guts, discipline, skill and belief and it was these traits and more besides that kept the huge Irish support’s similar belief. The fans deserve the extra game (and who knows maybe more) in France.

Make no mistake, Ireland have a chance next Sunday in Lyon. They have momentum, belief, purpose and unity. France will write them off at their peril. The ghost of Henry 2009 still stalks Irish fans and this team will do its utmost to banish it. Forever.

This is a turning point in the O’Neill reign. Things weren’t right in Bordeaux and he moved to put them right. He did. This is also a turning point in the Irish public and their relationship with its football team.

They are in love again. It has been too long.

 

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