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O'Neill's men worthy of heroes' welcome home after Irish soccer's best moment in over a decade

The Boys in Green bowed out of Euro 2016 after a hard-fought loss to France yesterday.

Republic of Ireland players and staff applaud their fans at the end of the game following the round of 16 match at the Stade de Lyon.
Republic of Ireland players and staff applaud their fans at the end of the game following the round of 16 match at the Stade de Lyon.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

- Paul Fennessy reports from Lyon

THERE HAVE BEEN calls for a civic reception as Ireland prepare to return home from their Euro 2016 adventure in France, and the Boys in Green certainly deserve all the credit that comes their way.

It has been a historic European Championships campaign with the Irish side reaching the second round of the tournament for the first-time ever.

Not only that, but over the course of the past two weeks, the Ireland team managed to secure an incredible 1-0 victory over Italy — an occasion unlike any other in Irish footballing history in front of thousands of rapturous fans who spent two weeks singing their heart out as they followed the team across France.

It felt as if Ireland had won the Euros last Wednesday night, and regardless of whichever team does eventually triumph in the competition, it’s hard to imagine them causing the same kind of joy as the Boys in Green invoked in their supporters on that unforgettable evening in Lille, with Robbie Brady’s classy goal destined to be repeated over on Irish TV for the next decade or two.

Indeed, you’d probably have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a moment as thrilling and inspirational in Irish soccer as the Italian triumph — and even then, the 1-1 draw with Germany would struggle to match the euphoria of Robbie Brady’s late winner.

What also made France 2016 so special is that Ireland enjoyed a degree of success playing an often adventurous, intelligent brand of football that the Boys in Green are usually accused of being unable to produce.

It is enough to banish memories of the debacle four years ago in Poland, when Ireland were undoubtedly the worst team at those European Championships and promptly exited the tournament having lost all three games in comfortable fashion.

Euro 2012 was embarrassing and left the FAI and the team’s supporters with many difficult questions and inconvenient truths. Were the team not good enough to challenge on the international stage? Was everyone wasting their time singing the Fields of Athenry? Could all the millions that is ploughed into the game in this country be better spent elsewhere?

Yet four years on from this stark disillusionment and a feeling of Charlton-era-esque ebullience has returned to the national side. Suddenly, the players are no longer spoken of as being inaccessible out-of-touch millionaires. They are ordinary guys with proud and emotional family members who are gripped by the games like the rest of us.

Moreover, there has been a definite evolution since the rather intriguing and somewhat eccentric appointment of Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill to the management team.

Unlike Trap, O’Neill has brought through several young players and is willing to adapt to any given situation rather than continually sticking with the same XI and hoping they’ll come good.

And while the Derry native is often portrayed as a conservative manager who favours long-ball football, this perception is far from the truth.

The 64-year-old coach has embraced technically excellent players such as Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick in a way his predecessor seldom did, while invariably encouraging his side to play the ball to feet, even if they can’t always live up to this ambition.

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France v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given applauds the fans after the round of 16 match at the Stade de Lyon. Source: Jonathan Brady

The team now look as difficult to play against as they were under Trap — the Belgian game aside, there has been an impressive consistency about the backline in terms of performance — in 12 qualifying matches, they conceded just eight goals.

Yet there is also a vibrancy about this Ireland side that was often missing in the fallow years between Mick McCarthy’s similarly spirited bunch of footballing heroes lost out to Spain at the 2002 World Cup and the latest incarnation of the Boys in Green recovered from the wreckage of the Trap era to prove — despite continual suggestions to the contrary — that Ireland are at least capable of seriously testing the best sides in the world (and beating them in the case of Germany and Italy).

O’Neill’s men may have ultimately been outclassed by Didier Deschamps’ side, but going 1-0 up and keeping it that way for a whole half of football is no mean feat in itself, and if Ireland had more time to recover from their miraculous Italy win, then a different game entirely may well have panned out.

So, will 2016 be rated as up there with ’02, ’94, ’90 and ’88 in terms of memorable major tournaments to look back on for Ireland fans?

When asked after yesterday’s match whether their campaign should be judged a success, John O’Shea — who has seen it all during 100-plus caps for his country — said: “Ultimately, yes. The positives outweigh the negatives and that’s the big thing, because the World Cup qualifiers come around so quickly. The feeling of this tournament compared to four years ago is very different.”

Certainly, in that respect, no one can argue, as a nation held its breath all over again on Sunday.

O’Neill, meanwhile, summed up the mood of a country beautifully post-match, when he said: “I honestly thought for a few glorious moments we could win the game today.”

And while only those who were around for Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 can comment definitively on how this time around compares, a younger generation of Irish fans now at least have a template, something to feel inspired by, and hopefully something that will ultimately create many more Robbie Brady-type Irish footballers in future.

Or, at the very least, we might get a memorable Roddy Doyle book and an iconic “f**k Schillaci” style t-shirt out of this glorious, once-in-a-generation experience.

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Paul Fennessy

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