Ken Early: Brady’s magic moment didn’t come a minute too soon
Wes Hoolahan makes full amends for fluffing earlier line to help secure an advance against France
Italy’s captain, Leonardo Bonucci, took a heavy touch at the edge of his box, realised he was in trouble and went down looking for a free kick. But this time the referee didn’t give it and every Irish person in the stadium rose to their feet realising that Wes Hoolahan had an unobstructed run on goal. Our best player with the ball at his feet and all the time in the world.
Too much time. Hoolahan took several touches as he sized up the chance and the last touch got it stuck slightly underneath him. His side-footed shot was lame. An easy save. An abysmal, career-defining miss. Wes, the street footballer, the best player. Remembered for all time for missing a sitter, the goal at his mercy, all the time in the world.
We were still thinking about that a few seconds later when the ball came back to Hoolahan, who had retreated to an inside-right position. This time he just did what came naturally. He arced a beautiful ball in behind Bonucci to intersect with Robbie Brady’s run.
Irish eruptedSalvatore Sirigu came running out and jumped like a European goalkeeper from the days when British teams ruled Europe. Brady headed it past him into the net and continued his run all the way to the corner flag as the Irish erupted.
Failure, redemption and glory in a minute. As minutes go, that was probably the best in the history of Irish football.
It had all begun with a leap of faith. Ireland had been so damaged by the shattering defeat against Belgium that it made sense to change a few of the players. But nobody managed to predict the changes O’Neill would make.
Conventional wisdom, expressed here among other places, said that James McCarthy had played so badly in the first two matches that it would be difficult for him to keep his place. There must be something up with him. Whether it’s an injury, or an issue of confidence.
Instead, O’Neill decided to drop Glenn Whelan and move McCarthy centre-stage. Instead of allowing the performances to make the decision, he took responsibility for the decision. It was a huge statement of belief in McCarthy. Everyone was waiting to see if he could repay such a show of faith.
The changes O’Neill made were designed to make Ireland a taller, stronger, tougher side. In came Daryl Murphy, James McClean, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh, out went Whelan, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark and Wes Hoolahan. Hoolahan’s absence is never popular with Irish fans but O’Neill clearly felt the third game in a short period would be too much for him, and at least keeping him in reserve meant that O’Neill had a weapon to bring off the bench.
The aim was to stay in the game, not let it get away from us as the Belgium game had. The closer it came to the end, the greater the chance of winning with a late goal.
As for the Italians, it’s fair to say that this is not the greatest Italian side Ireland have ever faced. Antonio Conte had made eight changes from the team that had played against Sweden. It’s not an exceptional generation of Italian players: the number 10 shirt that was once worn by Roberto Baggio is worn in this squad by the aging enforcer Thiago Motta. And the reserves are evidently not as good as the first team.
Tactical obsessiveBut this is still Italy, and they were still managed by Conte, the managerial star who is on his way to Chelsea, a tactical obsessive who won’t even let every member of his staff in on the tactical sessions, so jealously does he guard his secrets.
Watching Conte on the sidelines it occurred that if a movie was to come out featuring a character exactly like Antonio Conte, they would be attacked for absurd Italian stereotyping. His theatrical demeanour is so over the top it’s hard to understand how players who are exposed to it on a daily basis don’t all end up finding it totally ridiculous.
Certainly his elegant, histrionic presence appeared to be having little inspirational effect on his players, who were giving the ball away and miscontrolling passes in a manner that didn’t scream “Italia.”
The Italians were under fierce physical pressure from the Irish with Coleman, McClean and Hendrick all putting in early reducers, which the referee Ovidiu Hategan let go.
Penalty appealsIreland’s spirit could be glimpsed in the moment when McCarthy dived to head a ball out of the area, risking a kick in the face for his bravery, and as he got up Séamus Coleman grabbed his face and screamed into it. The players were looking out for each other.
But it was hot and close under the roof in Lille and as the match wore on and the referee ignored some strong penalty appeals, the team began to tire. They still needed to score. With 20 minutes to go O’Neill made his first substitution, bringing on McGeady for Murphy, then, with 15 minutes to go, Hoolahan came on for McCarthy.
The McGeady introduction seemed baffling. Nothing about his season or his tournament had suggested he could make a telling contribution. It was the sort of change that suggested O’Neill had been watching too many sentimental sports movies.
When McGeady smacked a shot wide with his left foot from 25 yards out, a distance from which he has seldom ever troubled goalkeepers, the Irish crowd screamed in frustration at the waste of possession.
But at the crucial moment it was McGeady who took the ball in midfield, moved forward and calmly rolled it to the feet of Hoolahan to deliver the ball that pierced Italy’s defence.
If Martin O’Neill really is the kind of guy who believes in miracles, maybe he’s exactly the guy Irish football needs.