Monday 24 October 2016

Players ready to die for the cause

Raw passion and good football a potent combination for O'Neill's green warriors

Shane Long embraces goalscorer Robbie Brady. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Shane Long embraces goalscorer Robbie Brady. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy celebrates the win over Italy on Wednesday. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

As long as I've been involved in football, the default setting for almost every Irish player I've ever known has been rooted in personal commitment.

It's part of our DNA to try our best for Ireland on a football pitch, no matter what the odds, because of our background and upbringing.

But it's always been that way. When I was a player and then manager, I was always heartened and uplifted by the fact that no matter where in the world Ireland travelled, the lads lucky enough to pull on a green shirt understood what it meant and gave everything they have to uphold the tradition of always putting everything into the effort.

I've rarely seen a better example of it than what was witnessed in Lille this week when a group of Irish lads gave absolutely everything for the cause and were rewarded with one of the great victories, one which will be remembered for many years to come.


Beating Italy was a huge achievement and emerging from the group, as a consequence, is a real feather in everybody's cap, including manager Martin O'Neill.

I have some reservations about the team Antonio Conte put out and whether Ireland would have done as well against his first string but you can only play what's in front of you, so, in that context, the team did very well indeed.

I thought O'Neill picked the right team for the job and the proof was in the result. But I still believe that inconsistency is a major issue with this team and manager.

I have to hold my hand up and say that I have no idea what team will take the field against France on Sunday. I don't know whether O'Neill will stick with the team which totally dominated Italy, mentally, physically and in terms of possession.

He should, but I can't be sure he will pick the same players to face France.

There will, of course, be issues of leg weariness after such a phenomenal effort against the Italians and I have a couple of lads in mind, especially one in particular.

I thought James McClean was absolutely brilliant against Italy. He should have played in all the games from the start and Wednesday night's game was the proof of why.

I was concerned about his fiery nature but I think he has learned some very hard lessons in the last few seasons and his performance in Lille was a lesson in controlled aggression.

He has matured and with that has come a much better attitude to his work. I know Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were the popular choices for men of the match but McClean embodied everything I wrote about at the start of this piece.

Brady was marvellous and always anxious to get on the ball and make something happen. This lad can play and he will get better and better.

Hendrick was also excellent in that department and he really is one of the big eye-openers in this Ireland team.

All over the pitch I saw fine performances and enough to think that if they were able to repeat this raw, passionate and wonderfully edgy display against France, we could find ourselves looking forward to yet another game by the time the dust has settled in Lyon.

The enigma in the team is still James McCarthy.

This was much better than what we saw against Belgium. I have come to accept what others have said and now don't expect him to look for the ball and then use it well, but I think he is a more mobile defensive midfielder and in that role does it better than Glenn Whelan.

There were other heroes on the night. Shane Duffy will get better with every game and I thought Richard Keogh put in a great shift at the back alongside him.

Seamus Coleman led the team and if that was a surprise, it wasn't a bad choice. He looked good in the role and could wear the armband for a long time to come.

What I particularly liked about the performance was the number of Irish players who wanted the ball and had no problem keeping possession once they got it.

I've often been critical of Aiden McGeady but he did an excellent job in the short time he had on the pitch.

His movement kept the Italians right on their toes at a time when they must have been both mentally and physically exhausted.

Next on was Wes Hoolahan, the architect of the winning goal and a real handful for the Italian midfield and defence.


He missed that chance but he has nerves of steel and when he saw Brady make the run, there was only one thing on his mind.

He found Brady's head with radar precision and kicked off a mighty celebration.

The connection between the team and the fans which was broken during Giovanni Trapattoni's time has been fully re-established and you can see how proud everyone was of this win and these players.

Can they go another step and is the dream, a quarter-final with England (or Iceland) in Paris on?

Why not? When you have a group of players willing to die for each other, you will always have a chance.

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