The heat was on and Ireland came through, beating Italy at a major finals once again. It was a case of history being repeated in a stiflingly fetid atmosphere.
Not quite as hot as in New Jersey in 1994. But hot enough beneath the stadium roof. Robbie Brady’s header from substitute Wes Hoolahan’s cross with five minutes left will enter folklore, as Ray Houghton’s winner 22 years ago has done.
Ireland left it late. Much later and they would have been out of the tournament, bitterly lamenting missed chances and a penalty that probably should have been given but was not.
They only had themselves to blame for a series of poorly delivered free-kicks, each of them infuriatingly over-hit. Jeff Hendrick’s left-foot curler was just inches wide. Stand-in Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu tipped over Daryl Murphy’s header. Many felt Hoolahan would be the scapegoat when he shot straight at Sirigu when through shortly before the decisive goal.
Hoolahan redeemed himself in glorious fashion by setting up the winner in this part of the world known as France’s low country. Low lie the fields indeed. Ireland now travel to Lyon on Sunday to face France.
Ireland will realise they will rarely be handed a better set of circumstances in which to beat Italy. That’s if you don’t factor in a referee who seemed set to provoke a meltdown by manager Martin O’Neill to rival the seethe that followed Celtic’s Uefa Cup defeat by Porto. The stakes were as high here. If his side hadn’t found a way to win, O’Neill will have felt as let down by an official, in this case Romania’s Ovidiu Hategan.
Condensation hung like Galway mist below the closed roof. The pitch, battered by the unusual amount of rain in northern France this summer, resembled a Connemara showground. The rendition of Fields of Athenry belted out pre-match has rarely sounded louder. This was always going to be Ireland’s night.
Italy, meanwhile, made eight changes in light of their immutable status as group winners, signalling where their thoughts lay – Monday’s last-16 clash with Spain in Paris.
So these were the seemingly favourable conditions that greeted Ireland in Lille as they sought to post another historic victory over Italy.
It was one they needed if they wanted to have any hope of qualifying for the last 16. O’Neill did not shirk from making bold statements. He dropped veteran John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark, his centre-half pairing in the 3-0 loss to Belgium and replacing them with Championship duo Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy – of Derby County and Blackburn Rovers respectively.
A much-changed Italy were still able to list representatives from the usual stellar list of clubs such as Juventus, Paris St Germain and Roma. Their normally Juventus-dominated backline did contain a West Ham United player in Angelo Ogbonna, brought in for his first start of the finals.
Gianluigi Buffon, meanwhile, also dropped out, meaning the Italian players’ rendition of their national anthem, Il canto degli Italiani, dropped a few decibels. Conscious Italy were missing talismanic figures such as Buffon and Daniele De Rossi, Ireland sought to seize their chance to unsettle their opponents with a high-tempo, aggressive start. Only a couple of poor passbacks to goalkeeper Darren Randolph, which put him under pressure on a bobbly surface, betrayed their own nerves.
But Ireland’s approach was of the up-and-at-them variety, as it surely had to be. A banner expressed the sentiment “Wes We Can”, a message influenced by former Livingston player Hoolahan, surprisingly listed only among the substitutes last night. Ireland perhaps missed his invention but they had chances.
No one will ever convince O’Neill his side didn’t deserved a penalty towards the end of the first half, when Bernardeschi nudged McClean from behind. The West Bromwich Albion player was sent sprawling. The Italian defender’s reaction of holding his hands up, as if to say he had done nothing, only seemed to help establish guilt on his part. But the referee waved the appeals – and there were about 40,000 of them within the stadium, including one by O’Neill – and when he did next blow his whistle, it was to signal half-time.
Ireland kept up the pressure in the second half. The Italian manager, Antonio Konte, kept his suit jacket on throughout while everyone else was wilting. But he was a passionate, agitated presence on the touchline. O’Neill, in less dapper sports gear, seemed to be contorted with frustration most of the time.
Aiden McGeady replaced Murphy with 20 minutes left, meaning there was a chance for the winger to redeem a wretched personal season and light up a game that was growing turgid in the extreme.
Of course Italy welcomed the fact the match was now struggling to rise above a midfield slugfest. This is when they are most dangerous, nearly going ahead through substitute Lorenzo Insigne’s curling shot that bashed off Randolph’s far post.
By this time Hoolahan had also made his entrance. Italy, who, despite being already qualified, seemed desperate to keep three clean sheets too as a matter of pride. But Brady’s firmly hit late header from Hoolahan’s cross meant they were denied this boast.
ITALY: Sirigu, Barzagli, Bonucci, Ogbonna, Bernardeschi (Darmian 60), Sturaro, Thiago Motta, Florenzi, De Sciglio (El Shaarawy 81), Zaza, Immobile (Insigne 74). Subs not used: Buffon, Chiellini, Candreva, Pelle, De Rossi, Eder, Parolo, Giaccherini, Marchetti.
REP. OF IRELAND: Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Ward, Hendrick, McClean, McCarthy (Hoolahan 77), Brady, Long (Quinn 90), Murphy (McGeady 70). Subs not used: Westwood, Clark, O’Shea, Whelan, Keane, Walters, Christie, Meyler, Given.