Robbie Brady’s header from the sky and Ireland’s ‘temporary joy’

Ireland, as is often forgotten, is a sporting nation. From football (his own football) to hurling, boxing back to football (the World football), the Irish seem to be constantly playing whatever they can.

Often enough, they’re actually pretty good at what they’re trying to do. Katie Taylor is probably the greatest female boxer of all time, the Irish rugby men’s team is constantly beating England at their own game and football…well, occasionally they’re pretty decent.

To paraphrase WB Yeats: “To be an Irish football fan is an enduring sense of tragedy sustained by passing bouts of joy.”

This is the reality of modern Irish football on the international stage – moments of high spirits savored all the more for knowing how fleeting they will be.

Nothing in recent history was more fun than Robbie Brady’s header on that one June night in Lille.

Bad cop, bad cop

At the 2014 World Cup, Martin O’Neill was on expert service for ITV alongside Patrice Vieria and Fabio Cannavaro.

As Adrian Chiles led the podium, he glared at the two iconic figures, trying to elicit valuable analysis and footballing knowledge from the audience.

Finally he turned to O’Neill, who had been sitting fairly quietly for most of the night.

“Were you in the defensive wall a lot?” he asked the Northern Ireland football manager.

“I can imagine you flinching a bit with your glasses in the wall!”

O’Neill, whose academic-looking looks are bolstered by the fact that he dropped out of law school to play football, released a justifiably bitter reaction that had clearly built over the night.

“I didn’t actually wear glasses when I played,” O’Neill began while Chiles laughed nervously.

“What you’re looking at now is an elderly gentleman, but eventually I actually played the game.

“Despite the fact that there are two World Cup winners here, when it comes to European cups, I’ve actually won two of them… I’d just like to know how many you’ve won?”

O’Neill had only been appointed Irish boss a year before, so such a grumpy manager was probably tamed with a ‘good cop’ by an assistant. But that would be too sensible, so he was paired with Roy Keane instead.

Together, Brian Clough’s two disciples formed the duo of an excited, hungry team tasked with leading Ireland to Euro 2016 in France by the Football Association of Ireland.

“The good old FAI is still the exploding clown car that keeps giving in,” commented comedian Michael Nugent on the decision.

There weren’t any great expectations.

“Let’s go positive”

Ireland’s 2016 qualifying group was anything but easy as the boys in green faced Germany, Poland and Scotland, as well as Gibraltar and Georgia.

“Let’s go positive into the group,” O’Neill said at the time in an almost biblical tone.

And so positively they went. Third, they qualified for the play-offs on 18 points, notably four of which came thanks to a late winner from Shane Long in Dublin and an even later equalizer from Germany away from Germany by John O’Shea.

But all of that would be for naught if O’Neill and Keane’s team lost to Bosnia in the play-offs.

Playing almost exclusively in thick fog, it was Brady who equalized at Zenica to give Ireland a crucial away goal in a 1-1 first-leg draw. That set his side up for a 2-0 win in Dublin and the prize was a ticket to France 2016.

It wouldn’t be Brady’s last pivotal contribution to this campaign.

Courage and Balls

“A blind person could see that we need to improve,” said Keane after Ireland’s 3-0 defeat by Belgium in the second group game.

Despite a 1-1 draw against Sweden in the opening game, the Republic faced a major challenge on the last day of the game. They would need to win against Italy to qualify for the knockout stages as one of the best third-place finishers.

Competing against Italy in major tournaments was nothing new for Ireland. There was the hard-fought defeat in the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals, mercifully redeemed by a 1-0 win in the group stage in LA in 1994.

Both were mentored by Jack Charlton, with Keane and O’Neill trying to summon his spirit for the 2016 squad.

“You have to play with courage and the ball,” Keane said at the start of the match.

“Courage is part of being a footballer. Courage doesn’t mean bullying someone. It’s wanting the ball when you don’t want the ball sometimes, if that makes sense. Courage. Courage. We have to see that.”

And courage is exactly what the Ireland national team have shown.

For 85 minutes they battled the Italians in a tough match. There were 40 fouls in total, possession was almost evenly distributed and chances were few and far between.

Wes Hoolahan had the best of the game, a defensive error sending him on target against Salvatore Sirigu with no defender over him… only for the midfielder to pass straight to the Italian in the net.

“Is the moment over?” asked the Irish commentator as the clock ticked closer to 90.

Seconds later, Brady answered him.

The gate was almost heaven sent. A moment of destiny upon which everything from the years before had been built.

If O’Neill and Keane hadn’t been nominated Ireland might not have qualified in the first place, if Ireland didn’t have to get through the play-offs they never would have gotten the group they had and if Hoolahan didn’t Missing so spectacularly moments before, he might never have delivered the ball he did.

And oh what a pass; As Moses parted the Red Sea, Hoolahan’s left foot split the Italian defenses. It floated and curled beautifully in the air as it flew first outwards and then inwards towards the Italian box.

On the other side, Brady, who had sprinted into the Italian box from deep within his own half at exactly the right time, was in exactly the right place.

Sirigu ran to forestall him, but Brady was driven by something else; Courage and Balls.

He outplayed Sirigu without having to head the ball, nor did he have to run into the stands of Irish fans who turned the entire Stade Pierre Mauroy, and indeed all of France, into a sea of ​​swirling emerald green.

Ireland have not played a major tournament since then and given the major problems the national team is facing it may be a while before they play a tournament again.

But despite the “sense of tragedy” surrounding Irish football, there will be “times of joy”.

And no matter how fleeting they are, nobody knows how to celebrate them like the Irish.

By Patrick Ryan


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