Monday 24 October 2016

Results make regrets feel more painful

But Ireland still winners in Euro 2016 after fine adventure

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

With every passing day, Ireland's Euro 2016 odyssey is given new perspective and it has to be said, spawns lingering regret.

While we watched with ever widening eyes as a nation which is covered in ice, snow and darkness for most of the year beat up Blighty, Antonio Conte was sitting pretty with another big scalp in the bag.

Belgium are romping through games now scoring more than everyone else and carry the look of finalists.

Tough group alright and yet, the door to a Euro 2016 semi-final would have been swinging wide open for Martin O'Neill if they could have somehow held out in Lyon.

With some luck, we could have been planning another weekend in Paris and a game against a set of players like our own.

Iceland are a good team with a good manager who made Roy Hodgson look like a dullard. They have talent, pride, physical power and mental strength.

England were gutless and you can do nothing when haircuts are more important than goals.

This Ireland team is full of heart and they can play a bit too. It would have been a great game, Ireland v Iceland and France must be very wary.

They will, of course, have 70,000 of the 80,000 seats in the Stade de France but Iceland should take a great deal of encouragement from the fact that Ireland's intensity and commitment was nearly too much for France.

At least our cousins won't have to start running uphill thanks to tournament seeding. Well, it should be noted that France have landed another week off between games, Iceland a day less. Small margins.

All in all, there's a mild blush of sourness emerging from the adventure.

Italy boss Antonio Conte. Picture Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Italy boss Antonio Conte. Picture Credit: AFP/Getty Images

It has nothing to do with anyone who wore green or the many, many variants. Endlessly charming and completely hammered Irish fans were welcomed by very nice people everywhere they went. No portaloos though. What was that about France?

Nor anything to do with the players who were brilliant.

We found two new stars in Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady and as much of a grind qualification for Russia 2018 will be, there is a greater sense of anticipation about the road ahead than anyone entertained before Euro 2016 began.

It had nothing to do with the manager, Martin O'Neill or his assistant, Roy Keane, who got themselves in a needless mess before they flew to France, backed themselves and got most things right.

We can argue (and we will) for a long time, until the cows come home as Keane often says, about decisions and defensive mistakes and whether James McCarthy will ever … etc etc etc.

But fundamentally, this team has a great heart and they try their best.

Everyone who was in Lille when Ireland beat Italy in a major tournament again will savour the experience until they die and if Ireland caught a break from our Italian friends, it was the only one in the tournament and a vital one.

Italy could go all the way in France and Conte looks like the best manager in the tournament.

Ireland played their B team, still formidable but without the core togetherness the Azrrui have shown in every other game.

They were battered by pure willpower and some great football and Ireland more than deserved the win.

Tournament football presents opportunities and Ireland grabbed theirs when others did not.

The win was a memory for a new generation of players, fans and journalists who read the stories and watched the Youtube videos of the glory years but it was also an extraordinarily emotional evening for those of us lucky enough to be in Giants Stadium and made us think about people lost along the way.

Some great writing was done, the most moving a piece by long-time colleague Garry Doyle which made the connection better than anyone else.

We mainlined on glory from 1988 through to 1996 when we had the last such moment, waving goodbye to a great man Jack Charlton. Tears flowed freely all around Anfield that cold November evening.

Japan/Korea had too much bitterness and acrimony attached. By the time Gaizka Mendieta's penalty hit the back of Shay Given's net in Suwon, we were weary.

Huge disappointment and regret about a game lost which could have been won but we were hollowed out by Saipan.

Regret now is underpinned by the knowledge that we had great days in France, one very bad one against Belgium but gave it a right lash, not to be too technical about it.

As the cavalcade moved from Paris to Versailles to Bordeaux, Lille and then Lyon, it thinned out until we had about 7,000. There were many more than that in the city, spending vast amounts of cash but without tickets and for that, UEFA should hang their heads in shame.

There is a ferocious corporate ethos at work in Nyon and the darkest consequence of that was the three-day turn around O'Neill had to cope with before facing fully refreshed France.

It had a direct impact on Ireland both on and off the pitch and at tournament level, a small disadvantage is magnified.

Seeding rewards success and has always been about the money makers but it has now gone too far.

Usual Suspects

There are no stand-out teams any more. Sure, the usual suspects are lining up in the quarter-finals but there has been a great levelling out.

When great teams were truly great, a three-day turnaround was the difference between a plucky 3-0 or an 8-0 hammering.

Now, a small advantage can be the difference between winning and losing. There was a difference in class but only one goal between 10-man Ireland and France in the end.

Ireland came to this tournament with memories of Leicester City's Premier League win fresh in their mind and the theme of well-organised underdogs continues with Iceland, Wales and Poland.

The tournament is the better for it. Just a bit more fair play UEFA. They're big on fair play, those lads.

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