Good night, Dublin. The Aviva Stadium played host to the Republic of Ireland squad for the final time before EURO 2016 on Friday night and it was all set to be the perfect ‘au revoir’.
Netherlands substitute Luuk De Jong spoiled the party by heading home with five minutes to go as the game finished 1-1.
Shane Long had given Ireland a first-half lead and they came so close to holding on with a solid defensive performance up until conceding.
The Dutch started the game by dominating possession as Ireland took a while to settle. Robbie Brady and David McGoldrick were both guilty of misplaced passes but goalkeeper Daren Randolph remained largely untroubled.
Centre-backs Shane Duffy and John O’Shea were doing a good job of protecting Randolph with a number of headed clearances as the Boys in Green struggled to keep the ball for any prolonged period of time.
It was in the 18th minute when the home supporters first had reason to get off their seats as Stephen Quinn intercepted possession before squandering his cross.
A minute later, international rookie Harry Arter managed to test Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen from outside the box but the Ajax stopper gathered the ball comfortably.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill would have been concerned in the 21st minute when in-form striker Shane Long required treatment after a foul by Jeffrey Bruma.
The Southampton forward received stitches for a knock in training during the week so he had a right to feel cautious.
The resulting free-kick from Robbie Brady was punched clear by Cillessen and the home fans were beginning to see more of the ball in the Dutch half of the pitch.
McGoldrick was impressing and showed excellent vision with a cross-field ball to Seamus Coleman who in turn forced the corner which would lead to the opening goal on the half-hour mark.
Robbie Brady swung an inward ball into the box which was headed down by O’Shea, forcing a save from Cillessen before Shane Long cleaned up from a yard out.
It was the Southampton man’s 16th goal for his country.
Quinn and Arter were both guilty of giving away free-kicks towards the end of the first half and Arter duly received a yellow card in the 40th minute.
It would remain 1-0 until the break and both teams came out for the second half unchanged.
While Brady continues to divide opinion at left-back his threat from set-pieces cannot be overestimated. This was evident all evening and both Duffy and Long should have converted headers from this very outlet early in the second half.
As the sun went down the crowd were doing their best to drown out sounds of rock star Bruce Springsteen who was simultaneously performing across the River Liffey at Croke Park.
While the ever-pacey Shane Long was certainly born to run, his evening came to an end when he was substituted on 67 minutes along with Glenn Whelan and Quinn.
James McCarthy, Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick were the trio that came on in their place.
O’Neill will surely be encouraged that goalkeeper Randolph had a relatively quiet evening. He was however, forced into a save from a Vincent Janssen header on 67 minutes.
Six minutes later, he had a nervy moment when he kicked the ball against the same striker’s leg and was fortunate to escape with his goal unscathed.
On 80 minutes Duffy again missed the target with a header at goal and the anguished look on his face was that of a man who may feel he should have finished the night with his first international goal under his belt.
The Blackburn Rovers man was having an impressive evening until the 85th minute when he looked the wrong way and Netherlands substitute Luuk De Jong pounced with a header to level the scores.
Eunan O’Kane came close with a shot in injury-time but the score would remain 1-1 until the end.
The Irish players and staff embarked on lap of honour after a performance which many will feel was very encouraging heading into the European Championships.
The defence proved hard to breach for the Dutch and there were encouraging signs in midfield, particularly from the tenacious Arter who was announced as man-of-the-match towards the end of the game.
So again, that’s good night Dublin but Martin O’Neill’s green roadshow still has one stop to make before France as it rolls into the more modest surroundings of Cork City FC’s Turners’ Cross to take on Belarus on Tuesday night.
It’s a game O’Neill is looking forward to, as he told us afterwards:
I think it will be nice for the people of Cork. I expect another tough game and we will obviously change the side around as well.
Hopefully by the end of the evening, whatever 23 are picked, that’s it, we’re ready to go.
Asked whether he feels the current Ireland squad can compete with the quality which will be on display against Sweden, Belgium and Italy, O’Neill was sure the confidence gained from qualifying results such as the win against Germany will stand them in good stead:
It’s not a case of whether we can compete. We have to. That has to be our mindset. We have to go into the games thinking that we can compete. Otherwise, we might as well stay at home.
I know it doesn’t last forever but I think if you can’t take some self-confidence and self-belief out of beating Germany I don’t think you’re ever going to do it. Qualification was great but we have to go again.
I can’t predict anything except that the players will put their heart and soul into the games.
Sweden, Belgium and Italy, you have been warned.