Ken Early: For 75 minutes it looked like Ireland might beat the French
Ken Early: Ireland had nothing left to give yet they won back the people
So there was an hour and a quarter when it looked like they were about to turn the tournament upside down by knocking out the hosts. It might have been a bad day for Euro 2016, but it was going to be the greatest day in the history of Irish football.
It’s a strange thing to admit, but leading in such a game is – psychologically – far more agonising than trailing in one. Revolution is a stressful business.
For more than an hour the Irish were going through hell: pounding heart, dry mouth, mild nausea, eyes rolling wildly in their sockets, time itself seeming to distort and stretch out to infinity. And this is just the effect on the people who are watching from the stands. Quite what it must be like for the men on the field is hard to imagine.
It would be wrong to say France’s two quick goals around the hour mark came as a relief, but it’s curious how much more comfortable it feels to be losing.
No more pounding heart or sweaty palms. Instead acceptance, and eventually a kind of serenity. Maybe this is the loser mentality Roy Keane talks about. Maybe it’s just the peace that comes with knowing you’ve got nothing left to lose.
You could see the Irish players had nothing left to give from their wooden-legged running in the last few minutes. You knew then that even if Ireland equalised and forced the match to extra time France would reply with two or three more goals.
Why were Ireland so much more tired? Partly it was because they had three days’ rest, while France had six – although three days’ rest is generally regarded as enough time to get back into fighting shape.
Partly it was that they have a smaller core of players than France, who could bring players like Kingsley Coman off the bench to meet the specific tactical demands of the situation.
Mental strainBut maybe the biggest reason for their exhaustion was the sheer mental strain of holding that lead for an hour, of holding back what began to seem an irresistible tide – the weight of history, the 50,000 French fans in the stadium, the weight of all that French talent, all of it bearing down on the Irish team until they finally cracked.
The game had started like a dream. Ireland kicked off, passed it around at the back, went forward through Darren Randolph to Daryl Murphy. The ball broke to the left where Stephen Ward ran forward and crossed diagonally towards Murphy, and then broke again to Long, who was barged to the ground by Pogba – 61 seconds, France hadn’t yet had control of the ball, and Ireland already had a penalty.
Robbie Brady cracked it in off the base of Hugo Lloris’ left-hand post and Ireland had the lead.
UnrealityThe haze of unreality persevered for the rest of the first half. The French defence looked jittery every time Ireland threatened to play the ball in the box. Stephen Ward and James McClean were positive down the left, Jeff Hendrick, McCarthy and Brady composed and controlled in midfield.
France threatened mainly from free-kicks, with Payet whipping in wicked deliveries and Pogba aiming one superb effort towards the top corner from 30 yards, but Randolph was always well-positioned.
The worst thing to happen to Ireland in that first half was the booking for Hendrick that ruled him out of the quarter-final. You immediately felt guilty for thinking about the quarter-final, but Ireland were already half-way there.
Didier Deschamps admitted later that he’d raised his voice at half time in the dressing room, but he wasn’t the only one; the French substitutes too were getting involved, trying to jolt the team out of their stupor.
Deschamps decided it couldn’t continue the same way. He replaced N’Golo Kante with Kingsley Coman, changing the shape of his team. France had been 4-3-3 but now they were 4-4-2, with Pogba partnering Matuidi in the middle, Coman wide right and Griezmann playing off Olivier Giroud.
The switch had three important effects. Pogba had more time and space on the ball to dictate the game from the centre. The threat of Coman on the French right meant Ward could not come forward any more. Most importantly, Griezmann was now free to do what he does best – lurk between the lines in a central position and pounce on anything that looked like an opportunity.
France immediately looked sharper, quicker and more confident, penning Ireland back. The Irish defence was dropping deeper despite the efforts of Shane Duffy, who could be seen shouting for them to push up at every opportunity. The younger central defender seemed to be the more proactive one, taking on the responsibility of leading the defence.
In the 58th minute, Griezmann headed the equaliser. He’s only five foot eight but headers aren’t about height, they’re about timing, and Griezmann times everything beautifully. The Irish defence did not pick up his late movement into the box. McCarthy was not close enough as Griezmann jumped and sent the ball flashing past Randolph.
Three minutes later, Duffy got a bit too proactive. He came across needlessly as Keogh rose to challenge Giroud for a high ball, finding himself out of position as the French forward’s flick bounced into the path of Griezmann, streaking forward from deep. Against a player of this quality it only takes a tiny mistake, and this was a big one. The Atletico forward stunned the ball perfectly with his toe and lashed it into the bottom corner with his left foot as Duffy launched himself across the path of the ball in vain.
Red cardNow Giroud was bullying Keogh, and on 67 minutes he again dominated the Derby defender in an aerial challenge, keeping his feet as Keogh lost his and turning to see Griezmann darting into the space behind Duffy.
Giroud played Griezmann in and Duffy chopped him down on the edge of the box, taking the red card in exchange for stopping the goal in the manner prescribed by Roy Keane before the Italy game.
A man down and a goal down, Ireland knew that the game was up.
McClean looked like one of the few players who still had the energy to run but O’Neill decided he had to be sacrificed, with John O’Shea coming on to plug the gap at the back. Jon Walters had already come on for Murphy, and looked like a man who was playing his second match of the day; that Achilles needed more time to recover.
ExhaustedWes Hoolahan came on for McCarthy, but he was trying to do too much. Every time he got the ball he was trying to do something brilliant, but it wasn’t coming off; he kept losing the ball in advanced positions. What else could he do? Ireland were so exhausted that combination play was impossible.
The game finished with Ireland failing to create another meaningful chance and the French crowd ole-ing as their team, now motivated by thoughts of individual glory, squandered several easy opportunities on the break. By the time the whistle went the game had already been over for more than 20 minutes.
The Irish players stood before the Irish supporters and gazed up at the stands while the fans sang. They hadn’t turned the tournament upside down. But they had won back the love and respect of the people.
For the first time in years, the future of Irish football seems like a story worth waiting for.