Hendrick and Brady caught Mick McCarthy's eye - but it's up top where Ireland may struggle going forward
It's likely that's the last we'll see of record goalscorer Robbie Keane in an Ireland jersey...
Unfortunately, after Ireland’s Round of 16 defeat to France at Euro 2016, that’s probably the last we’ll see of Robbie Keane as an Irish international. I gave him his debut at under 20 level when he was a young skinny 17-year-old, and then he got his first senior cap against the Czech Republic in 1998. It’s a long time ago now! But I have a lot of great memories with Robbie – not least the injury-time equaliser against Germany in the 2002 World Cup. Some of the football he played alongside Niall Quinn for Ireland was superb – they had a brilliant partnership. He is a top player. But unfortunately this day comes to everyone. He’s done remarkably well to keep going for so long, and he’s been the ultimate role model in the Irish set-up. Robbie always wants to play, he always turns up and his record speaks for itself. 67 goals in 144 games for Ireland – he is a credit to his country.
The young generation is exciting. There will be a number of players who might drop off now – Robbie, Shay Given, Glenn Whelan, John O’Shea – as this new breed of players come through. James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Shane Duffy and Jeff Hendrick are all 25 or younger. Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark aren’t much older. It’s good to see quality young players getting big tournament experience.
Hendrick was different class in the Ireland team during the competition. He’s a very good player, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of clubs were watching his performances very closely, particularly as Derby didn’t get promoted last season. Robbie Brady was also excellent with goals against Italy and France. It didn’t matter where he was asked to play, he performed superbly. They were the two stand-out performers for Ireland over the last couple of weeks.
The issue going forward will be up top. Robbie Keane is 35, Jon Walters is 32, Kevin Doyle didn’t go to the Euros but he’s 32, Shane Long will be 31 by the time the World Cup arrives. We need to find a striker who can put the ball in the net. Unfortunately we’re unlikely to ever find another Robbie Keane that’s for sure.
It’s been a positive tournament for Ireland overall. The performance against Sweden was very good – and Ireland deserved to start with a win. The Swedes got very few chances, and although Zlatan Ibrahimovic produced a bit of magic to get the cross in, it was unlucky that Ciaran Clark put into his own goal. The Belgian game was admittedly a poor performance, but the team bounced back in style against Italy. You can only play the team put out in front of you, so whether it was a first-strength Italian team or not is irrelevant. We did a job on them. Darren Randolph was hardly tested in that clash and Ireland could have won by more.
In the round of 16 clash, France were the better side. The game was thrilling although the problem almost was that Ireland scored too early. It gave the hosts 89 minutes to fight their way back into the tie. It wasn’t a case of Ireland deliberately sitting back, but France were so good they were forcing Martin O’Neill’s side deeper and deeper. Former French and Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit said before the game that the French hadn’t played with any intensity in the group games. They didn’t look like they were able to properly get at teams. But Robbie Brady’s goal so early made France take the game to Ireland. It changed their performance.
There were a lot of Irish legs struggling towards the end, but it was a combination of things. Just the three days between the Italy game and the France clash didn’t make things any easier. France had an extra two days preparation in comparison. Then going down to 10-men for 24 minutes after Duffy’s red card and only emphasised the issue as Ireland chased the game with heavy legs.
The positive thing about Ireland’s performance is that they didn’t sit back and invite their opponents onto them. They did that against Belgium and paid for it, but they haven’t done it since. After taking the lead, France weren’t really hurting them in the first half. There weren’t many clear cut chances and Ireland looked quite comfortable going in to the break. However the more France switched the play and moved Ireland around, the more tired the defence became. That’s when mistakes creep in. France are rightly favourites to go on and win the tournament from here, particularly as the hosts. That was their best performance of the competition so far and Antoine Griezmann was different quality. We all knew he was a good player, but he stood out on the pitch yesterday. He was a class above.
Despite being underdogs however, Ireland really put it up to the French and gave the hosts a scare. The future is an exciting one for Irish football.