Ireland are at their best with their backs against the wall and when they're prepared to scrap for it.
France? Bring it on.
Ireland’s incredible performance and result against Italy means that now we face the hosts France in the last 16. And how exciting is that? France might have the better players – Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Dimitri Payet – but Ireland as a team and as a country are greater than the sum of its parts. We are at our best with our backs against the wall and we’re prepared to scrap for it. The supporters were unbelievable against Italy. I’ve experienced it as a player and as a manager but that was something else on Wednesday night – it was really incredible. Lyon won’t know what’s hit it on Sunday!
We’re now in a similar position as we were when preparing to play Spain in the Last 16 in the 2002 World Cup. We were underdogs and nobody expected us to win but you can’t let that feeling filter into the squad. There were lads going around getting autographs and getting stuff signed beforehand. I pulled them all into a room and had to have a word. It was almost akin to the belief that we were going out. I got the sense there was a feeling of, ‘Quick, get everything signed because we might not be here tomorrow’. I didn’t want any negative thoughts going into the game so I had a meeting with them the next morning and said to them, ‘Are we going home or what? We’re playing Spain. Let’s get our heads around the fact that we can win and we want to be here for the next game after that’. Although we lost the match I thought the lads were brilliant and played like their lives depended on it.
There was a lot of negativity in the press before the final group game against Italy on Wednesday and the general feeling among fans and media was that Ireland couldn’t win and were heading home. Now the negativity has gone, and everyone is giving it ‘Ole Ole Ole’. The country is rocking and rolling! And we’ve gone from not being expected to qualify after the Belgium defeat, to a team who can win it! Amongst that rollercoaster of emotions, that’s when players and managers have to keep focused, calm and concentrated. They can’t be up and down like a fiddler’s elbow like they are in the media. Managers have to keep everyone steady – you can’t let a defeat completely deflate you, and you can’t let a win run away with you. Focus on the facts instead. The facts are Ireland played very well against Italy and put in a performance that deserved the win. But we’re still the underdogs against France.
That being said, I don’t think you should ever play for the draw and hope for some luck in a penalty shoot-out. We never did when I was manager. You’ll take a result no matter how you get it, but we didn’t set out for a draw in any of the knock-out games. That’s not my style. If you start out like that and you concede a goal and you can’t change it, then you’ll always regret not having a go. The only time it ever happened was away to Croatia in Euro 2000 Qualifying. We set out not to be beaten but lost 1-0, Davor Suker scored in the 92nd minute and that really hurt me. The tactics were right for the game but we lost in the last minute so it didn’t feel right. Every other time we set out to win the game, and that’s how it should be.
When it was needed against Italy, Ireland put up a fabulous performance, but this wasn’t a typical Italian team and for that reason I can’t put it up there with Ireland’s greatest results. Not when the Italian team made eight changes to their line-up. I don’t remember the opposition making changes when we beat England 1-0 in 1988, or Italy in 1994, or when we drew 1-1 with Germany in 2002. It sounds like sour grapes because I played in and managed in some of the great games for Ireland, but it’s not that at all. Ireland played very well, but that Italian team wasn’t a good side. I said in a previous column that Italy had 23 good players and Ireland should expect a tough clash – but I’ve seen it in League Cup games in my career, when you make that number of changes you never get the same level of performance from a team.
Putting aside the changes though, Ireland played very well and deserved the win. You could see at the end of the game the emotion from the players and the management. That’s how much it means to them.
There was a lot of surprise at Martin O’Neill’s team selection before the match, but to be honest I didn’t see it until kick-off. I try not to watch any of the pre-amble on the TV beforehand. I can’t be arsed listening to all these pundits on TV. They’re there telling Martin O’Neill what to do, and who to play – but few of them have been in that situation before. Slaven Bilic is doing the coverage for the BBC and he can say what he wants, he’s been there and done it and he’s very good on TV. I get arsey with the rest of them but then that’s probably me just being me! When I switched the game on I was struck by how attacking the line-up was. It was a brave decision and Martin was clearly looking for a response. I was delighted Ipswich’s Daryl Murphy started, and he put in a good shift up front and could have scored with a header in the first half. Robbie Brady was excellent in the middle of the pitch as well and he deserved the winner.
Can Ireland win?
Well if your involved in professional football you’re not allowed to bet and I’m not a gambling man anyway, but if someone gave me €10k to put on Sunday’s match I’d put it on France. That would be the case with most people. But there might be a few who say, ‘Yeah stick it on Ireland there’, and they’ll look very loyal and patriotic in theory, but it’d be an interesting experiment to see what they’d do if they actually had the cash in their hands. If the Euros were in Ireland in 2000 and we were playing France at Lansdowne Road I’d be putting my €10k on Ireland. That’s the importance of home advantage. I would have fancied us to beat anybody at Lansdowne Road. Absolutely anybody.
France are heavy favourites no doubt about it, but Ireland have been there before and upset the odds – what’s stopping us doing it again?