O’Neill takes time to cherish latest great night in Irish soccer

Ireland manager grins as he recalls moments of magic from Wednesday’s defeat of Italy

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill celebrates as the final whistle blowsin Lille on Wednesday. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill celebrates as the final whistle blowsin Lille on Wednesday. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

 

It was around 5.30am and bright when Martin O’Neill finally put his head on a pillow in Versailles yesterday morning.

His mind must still have been swimming with sounds and images, and with the shining fact of the night: Ireland 1 Italy 0.

O’Neill burns with restless energy even on maudlin afternoons in winter, so he couldn’t really rest just hours after such a blazing football occasion. He was up again at 9am for breakfast, his mind turning.

Here is the dilemma for the Irish manager.

The relentless nature of these tournaments demands that once a match has ended, you turn your mind to the next.

After the acute disappointment against Belgium that task was a relief, but the 90 minutes in Lille on Wednesday night contained so many moments of magical transport that it would be wrong not to dwell on them for a while.

It was 27 degrees and breathless in Versailles in the afternoon then O’Neill sat down to relive a match which compares to any of the other cherished Irish football moments.

O’Neill nods and grins and enthuses, and talks about the rush of anecdotes like someone recalling a great night out – which is exactly what it was.

“It was extraordinary, really,” he says of the seconds when it appeared the referee had blown the final whistle.

“Seamus hugged me, jumped on top of me, and nearly broke my back. Obviously I thought the game was over – because the referee had blown his whistle – I didn’t think because he was coming over that there must be something happening here.

“And then the little Italian player came up beside me, Insigne, looking for the ball. It was as big a surprise for Conte as it was for me. But I knew regardless that it would take a few seconds to get that ball up the pitch, depending on whose free kick it was. Once I knew it was ours, I was happy.”

Second Captains

High-fiving

Or when Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s garlanded goalkeeper who was held in reserve for the Ireland game, made a point of fulsomely congratulating O’Neill and Roy Keane when it actually was over, high-fiving and praising them longer than seemed decent for a player whose team had just lost.

“He was very, very nice, very pleasant. It was really nice of him considering he’s been one of the great goalkeepers of all time.”

O’Neill was coy about what Buffon actually told the Irish men but it wasn’t simply a “well done”.

“It was a wee bit more... but it was obviously a lie,” he says with a sardonic grin. “But I took it in great heart. No, he was more than complimentary, which was really nice of him.”

O’Neill had seen the replays of Robbie Brady’s goal and the moving embrace with the fans afterwards.

“I hadn’t realise for a while...I should have done because he looks like him, that it was Robbie’s brother he went over to.”

He saw video posted by the players singing COYBIG.

“It was raucous, I must admit,” he says of the journey back to Versailles.

O’Neill misses little. Someone had drawn his attention to observations by former Irish assistant manager Marco Tardelli. O’Neill nodded when asked about Tardelli’s glowing appraisal of Jeff Hendrick but it was clear that the Italian’s more general comments about the Irish players’ limited football intelligence had rankled.

“Someone told me last night what Marco had said: he’s recommended him [Hendrick] to a couple of clubs. I don’t know if he recommended him about 10 minutes after the game last night or whether it was something he did a couple of years ago, or was Jeff actually one of those players that didn’t have any brains.

“I’m not wildly sure what Marco was saying, talking about players who don’t play with their heads, and then singles out Jeff for special attention, saying he’s a really good player.”

Host nation

That Ireland have been paired against France has intrigued the host nation. Ireland’s outraged reaction to Thierry Henry’s handball in the World Cup playoff match in Paris is relatively fresh in the memory.

The buoyant good humour of the Irish fans has charmed Paris, Bordeaux and Lille, and Lyons is also certain to get a big beery love hug from the Irish. Yet the ghost of that Henry night hovers on the margins of Sunday’s occasion. O’Neill nodded when informed that Henry is apparently reluctant to talk about the incident.“What a surprise,” he said dryly.

But that handball was seven years ago and irrelevant. Of more significance to French fans is the bothersome matter of whether Ireland could actually go and knock the hosts out.

“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We will have to replicate that performance last night,” says O’Neill.

“We will have to go produce energy when we don’t have the ball, but we have to go and produce the type of football that we played last night. And we have to replicate it in spades.

And I think we can. I think last night’s performance would go very, very close.”

Should be pretty dull, so.

Follow full live coverage of France v Ireland from midday on Sunday with Ruaidhrí Croke's live blog

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