“Tell mammy send money” read a banner in the crowd as Robbie Brady prolonged the Republic of Ireland’s stay at EURO 2016 for another week with a late goal against Italy.
The midfielder latched on to a beautifully weighted pass from substitute Wes Hoolahan before guiding a header past the onrushing Salvatore Sirigu in the 85th minute.
Just seconds earlier, Hoolahan missed a guilt edged opportunity to put Ireland in front when he shot straight at the Italian goalkeeper from inside the penalty area.
The diminutive playmaker more than made amends though with the assist for the goal, and the scenes of euphoria in the stands as the ball hit the net will erase the memory of anything that went before it.
It’s the second time in eight months that Brady has come up with a big goal for his country; his neat left foot finish in the Zenica fog gave Ireland a precious away goal in their qualification playoff tie with Bosnia and Herzegovina back in November last year.
Having played at left back and on the left wing in Ireland’s previous two games, Brady was deployed in a more central role against Italy as Martin O’Neill made four personnel changes to the team that was dismantled by Belgium.
Somewhat surprisingly, James McCarthy retained his place at the expense of Glenn Whelan, Daryl Murphy partnered Shane Long up front with James McClean on the wing, and both centre backs were replaced as Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy came in for John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark.
With McClean hugging one touchline, the midfield looked quite unbalanced and narrow on the right hand side in particular, a worry considering that was the area exploited by Sweden in the second half of the group opener.
Seamus Coleman was given the captain’s armband and set the tone early with a ferocious tackle that was reminiscent of Roy Keane’s on Marc Overmars when Ireland beat The Netherlands 1-0 at Lansdowne Road in 2001.
Jeff Hendrick, arguably Ireland’s Player of the Tournament so far, followed suit soon after and then came close to opening the scoring with a left foot screamer that flew just past the post.
The 24-year-old, who grew up playing schoolboy football with Brady in Dublin, is currently on the books of Championship club Derby County but will surely draw the attention of a number of bigger clubs after his performances in France.
For their part, Italy made eight changes to the side that beat Sweden 1-0 in their previous outing and created very little in the way of clear cut chances in the first half.
Despite fielding a weakened side, manager Antonio Conte was still an agitated figure on the sidelines as he gesticulated to his players throughout, and Ciro Immobile came closest to beating Darren Randolph in the Irish goal with a shot that went just wide.
At the other end, Murphy had a powerful header tipped over by Sirigu, while McClean was denied a stonewall penalty just before the interval when he was bundled over in the penalty area by Leonardo Bonucci.
Everyone had a brilliant game. There’s a great old spirit there, spirit alone doesn’t get you there, but we have an enormous spirit.
The players who came in wanted to do well; Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh…I could go through the whole team because they were all fantastic.
– Martin O’Neill
Simone Zaza gave Ireland a scare in the 53rd minute as he met Mattia De Sciglio’s cross with a left foot volley but the well struck effort that just missed the target.
Sirigu was again called into to action as he parried an angled drive from Murphy, while Coleman’s follow up was blocked, and Hendrick fired over shortly afterwards.
It took until the 70th minute for Martin O’Neill to go to his bench and, surprisingly, it was Aiden McGeady who got the nod to replace Murphy.
The fans had been calling for Wes Hoolahan’s introduction and the goal scorer against Sweden eventually entered the fray on 77 minutes in place of McCarthy who put in a shift that reflected his obvious ability.
Another replacement, Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne, almost sealed Ireland’s fate with a curling shot from the edge of the area that struck the post and bounced to safety.
As the game edged towards its conclusion, Hoolahan missed his golden opportunity to score before turning provider by placing a delightful pass into the path of Brady.
The subsequent pandemonium in the stadium rivalled that of Euro ’88, Italia ’90, USA ’94 and any of the other great moments in Ireland’s football history.
There was still a job to be done, however, and Ireland stuck to their task to close out the final five minutes, plus an additional three of stoppage time.
Tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of players and supporters alike at the final whistle, and Roy Keane even cracked a smile as he and O’Neill were congratulated by the great Gianluigi Buffon.
There was two years qualifying and we’ve been away a month now. It’s hard work, but everyone talks about what a tight group we are and to share this moment with all those players is unbelievable.
And with the fans as well who have put everything aside and travelled over here, I’m sure it’s expensive, and they’ve been unbelievable for the country – they’re so loud and everyone is praising them.
– Jeff Hendrick
The win went some way to exorcising the ghost of Rome in 1990 when Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci scored the only goal as Italy knocked Ireland out of their first World Cup at the quarter final stage.
Italy had already qualified for the last 16 as group winners with six points having won their first two games and have been rewarded with mouth watering clash against Spain.
Belgium finished second by virtue of their head-to-head defeat to Italy, Ireland came in third on four points, and Sweden propped up the rest after picking up just a single point from the nine on offer.
Next up for Ireland is the daunting prospect of taking on host nation France in their own backyard, and the game will be played in Lyon on Sunday afternoon.
The early narrative is all about revenge for 2005 when Thierry Henry’s handball led to a goal for the French that helped them qualify for the 2006 World Cup at Ireland’s expense.
France will have had three days’ more rest than Ireland after their final group game, and you have to wonder just how much the monumental effort against Italy has taken out of the Irish players.
For now though it’s important to savour the moment and a performance that is arguably the greatest in the nation’s history.