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Dublin: 1 °C Tuesday 22 January, 2019

'I've never been prouder of a group of players'

The manager joked that Wes Hoolahan would have “lost his head” if Ireland hadn’t won.

Ireland coach Martin O'Neill hugs Robbie Brady as they celebrate at the end of the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match.
Ireland coach Martin O'Neill hugs Robbie Brady as they celebrate at the end of the Euro 2016 Group E soccer match.

- Paul Fennessy reports from the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille

MARTIN O’NEILL SAVOURED arguably the greatest managerial moment of his career following Ireland’s unexpected 1-0 win over Italy last night.

The 64-year-old coach was a European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, and steered Celtic to a number of memorable victories including a defeat of Barcelona, but beating the Azzurri was undoubtedly on a par with any of his achievements.

O’Neill said he had never been prouder of a group of players and unlike opposition coach Antonio Conte, felt that Ireland “deserved” their win.

“International football is still relatively new to me, but this was very special.

“The enormous support kept us going throughout the game and I think the players and fans fed off each other.

“I became rather emotional at the end. It was a great win.”

O’Neill said he thought it wouldn’t be Ireland’s night after Wes Hoolahan missed a gilt-edged chance when through on goal in the dying moments, only for Robbie Brady to head home the winner moments later.

“I didn’t want it to be one of those ‘if only’ nights.

“We should have had a pretty clear-cut penalty but it doesn’t matter — we won the game and we dominated for incredible periods within the game.”

O’Neill suggested the team’s habit of getting late goals was a testament to their character as “when you do it so regularly, it can’t be a coincidence”

“Some players have come of age,” he added. “They came up really big tonight.”

Having resisted the urge to respond to Marco Tardelli’s controversial comments at Tuesday’s press conference, he also belatedly hit back at the former Ireland assistant boss.

“Marco said we didn’t play with our head.

“Tonight’s performance against his nation might have put that to rest, at least for a day or two,” O’Neill added wryly.

And as for Sunday’s last-16 match with France? “Easy,” O’Neill joked.

The manager said that the French team had an advantage given the extra days they have had to rest, adding: ”It’s a great game for us because we’re playing the host nation.

“France are very strong at this minute. They’d be strong favourites to beat us.

“We got (to the last-16). We can recover (from tonight’s match) in time.

“We want to play as strongly as we did tonight, naturally we will need to. It’s a big test but one that we are looking to.”

The Derry native singled one player out for special praise, after Blackburn’s Shane Duffy impressed on his competitive debut.

“You would have thought that Duffy was playing his 35th international game,” he said.

O’Neill joked that while Wes Hoolahan did well to keep his head, assisting the winner after missing a golden opportunity moments before, he may have “lost it” afterwards in the dressing room had Ireland not won.

“It was a great cross,” O’Neill added, as he reflected on a night that is destined to go down as one of the most memorable in Irish footballing history.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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