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'The ground was nearly full 50 minutes before kick-off... If that doesn't inspire you, nothing will'

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill reflects on a memorable 12 months for the Boys in Green.

Robbie Brady, centre, celebrates with supporters at the end of the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match between Italy and Ireland at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve near Lille.
Robbie Brady, centre, celebrates with supporters at the end of the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match between Italy and Ireland at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve near Lille.
Image: Darko Vojinovic

IT’S BEEN A year to remember for Martin O’Neill and the Irish team.

The Boys in Green did themselves proud at Euro 2016, earning a famous 1-0 win against Italy before narrowly losing 2-1 to host nation France in the round of 16.

Moreover, they have built on the encouraging displays of the summer, and will start 2017 as leaders of their World Cup qualifying group, having played all of their rivals, except Wales, once.

One element that made the Euros so special was the terrific support provided by travelling Irish fans.

Right from the first game against Sweden, the Boys in Green followers — as they always do — made Ireland one of the best-supported nations at the tournament.

France v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (centre) and assistant manager Roy Keane (right) celebrate their side scoring the first goal of the game during the round of 16 match at the Stade de Lyon, Lyon. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Reflecting on the showpiece event, O’Neill paid tribute to all those who backed the Irish team so passionately.

I remember actually going out for the warm-up (ahead of the Sweden game), you’re talking about probably 50 minutes before kick-off and the ground was nearly full at that particular time, well if that doesn’t inspire you to play, nothing really will,” the Ireland boss told FAI TV.

“This is really what it’s all about. I’m quite sure if you asked the players individually what they thought at this moment, they thought ‘this is really what international football is all about, we’re representing our country at a tournament in front of a phenomenal support’.

Me, as a manager, had exactly the same feelings, exactly the same. Then, it suddenly dawns on you that you want to perform now because you don’t want to be letting people down.”

Of course, the various viral videos of Irish fans away from the football pitch was also an integral part of the Euro 2016 story, and O’Neill cites the clip of supporters serenading a nun on a train as a particular favourite.

Source: JOE.ie/YouTube

“I think the one I’d mentioned to you before — and it’s hard to surpass it — is the one about the nun passing down the corridor of the train and the antics of the supporters. Actually the way she took it in fantastic heart, whereas she might have been a bit concerned normally.

As I say, my daughter, maybe the day after a good result, would say, ‘Dad, have a look at this here’. She kept me right up to date. But they were so numerous it was really great. In fact there were about half-a-dozen where it would be hard to differentiate one being better than the other.”

Having outplayed Sweden for large parts of their opening game, the Irish team were slightly unfortunate to have to settle for a 1-1 draw that day, yet the manner of the performance meant progressing from a tough group suddenly looked achievable.

Nevertheless, O’Neill’s men were brought down to earth in their second game — a comprehensive 3-0 loss to Belgium.

There’s maybe a claim for a penalty at the time when Shane Long was upended, that is true — and the more I look at it, it probably was. That was a crucial stage of the game and Belgium might not have recovered from that themselves.

“But overall, it was a disappointing performance and that’s the last thing that I wanted to leave the competition with.”

Consequently, everything rested on the must-win Italy game, and O’Neill made some bold calls, bringing in Shane Duffy, Daryl Murphy, Richard Keogh and James McClean into the starting XI, with Ciaran Clark, Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea missing out.

Italy v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade Pierre Mauroy Republic of Ireland's Robbie Brady scores his side's first goal of the game during the Euro 2016, Group E match at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille. Source: Chris Radburn

But ultimately, the manager’s brave decisions paid off, as a late Robbie Brady header enabled Ireland to secure a 1-0 win over the Italians and progress to the knockout stages as a result.

If we weren’t going to get a result against Italy, it certainly wasn’t going to be because we didn’t have the energy to do so, so we made a couple of changes, some of the older players, who had played two games in pretty quick succession.

“I just wanted to get that energy. We knew that we would have to play at a high tempo in the game. Italy were going to freshen their team up because they had won their first two games and these other players coming into their side were going to be going into that match with a point to prove, so we needed to match them and surpass them if we could in terms of energy.

I was hoping then if we could do that — there might be a stage where we would get tired — but if we could match that for 60 or 70 minutes in the match, then we would give ourselves a chance of winning the game, and so it turned out.

“Tactically, we did very, very well indeed, but I would probably feel the same as you, that that moment that Wes missed that opportunity, I might have thought, ‘That’s our best opportunity gone’.

As it turns out, within 60 or 70 seconds, we have gone and turned it around and that Brady moment will live forever.

“It was never going to be easy, but the winning of the match against Italy, to me it gave us vindication for everything we had done. Qualification, everything seemed worthwhile then because we had made it through to the last 16.”

Ultimately, the team departed the Euros with their heads held high — having to deal with such a quick turnaround between their last two games and having to face a French side along with a deeply partisan crowd in Lyon was never going to be easy and so it proved. A clinical second-half brace from Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann sent Ireland packing, after an early Robbie Brady penalty threatened to secure a shock victory.

groupd

Yet Ireland have since recovered from this disappointment in impressive fashion, with the win away against Austria consolidating a two-point lead at the top of World Cup qualifying Group D.

While O’Neill agrees with critics who say the team have shortcomings in certain aspects of the game, the 64-year-old coach is more than happy with the players at his disposal overall.

The important thing for me is to make sure that the environment is as lively and as good and as vibrant as possible. We lack certain things, it’d be common knowledge to say a natural goalscorer in our team. We missed Jon Walters practically out in the Euros. You’re probably fed up of me saying it but a 27-year-old Robbie Keane might have made all the difference in the world out there as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have him in his pomp.

“This side here, instead of regressing, it has at least stabilised itself and I think has grown in confidence. You see Jeff Hendrick’s performances, you see Robbie (Brady), you see these people, the improvement at international level. They feel as if they belong there now and that’s good, that’s great.

We don’t have a Gareth Bale in our team who can turn matches but we have to find other ways to win matches and the players, so far, have come up big when it matters.”

Austria v Republic of Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Ernst-Happel-Stadion Republic of Ireland's James McClean celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group D match at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna. Source: John Walton

One individual who has stood out in particular of late has been James McClean. The West Brom winger has come up with vital goals in games away to Austria and Moldova, in the process helping to ensure Ireland finished a memorable year on a high.

McClean has taken on that mantle that Jon Walters had for us during the course of the Euros, the qualification. James’ goals have been very, very important. You think of the goal against Moldova at an important stage of the game, 1-1 in a game we probably should have been well ahead of but we weren’t. He comes up with that one and his goal in Austria was just fantastic.

“James, he feels he belongs and that’s the most important thing. Not that I’ve ever thought he was excluded, far from it, but he knows now that he’s an important part of the team and he’s become big in these qualification games so far.”

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