Teary eyes, bottles of vin rouge and renditions of Joxer. The Irish descended on Saint-Denis with an optimism that was alien to four years ago. No disdain for Il Trap, no negativity about Mr. Green, just pure craic and a belief that this Irish team has a genuine chance of progression.
Like a bottle of Bordeaux 2005, Martin O’Neill’s selection quenched the thirst of the travelling army and spirits were high. Shane Long, figuratively at least, was “on fire”. Unfortunately, the Swedish defence were not in fact “terrified” and the Southampton frontman began the game quietly.
Had it been 2001 and Gary Doherty at the back post, the extra few inches would have seen Ireland one nil up. Alas, it was not to be and John O’Shea missed a glorious opportunity to send the Stade de France into madness.
The most composed player in a Swedish shirt for the first half was undoubtedly the 33-year-old Kim Kallstrom. Had he been bottled and slapped with a label stating ‘Paris 2016’ right there and then, there’s no doubt that the wine connoisseurs of the world would have snapped him up instantly.
Robbie Brady threatened to break the deadlock on the 29th minute, but skied his effort. However, a moment of magic from Jeff Hendrick occurred a few minutes later; only the crossbar preventing him from putting the Boys In Green in front. The Irish could smell blood.
Like a drunken French tramp, the Swedes stumbled aimlessly to the forty-five, lacking direction, conviction and determination. Where was Zlatan?
In truth, the Irish rearguard was untroubled for the first half, James McCarthy giving his best Roy-Keane-vs-Holland-2001 impression. No Overmars this time, but Keano would have been proud of the Scot’s work rate and courage. The renditions of the ‘Fields of Athenry’? Not so much.
Ireland reached the midway point in the ascendancy. Would they rue their missed opportunities?
Definitely not….or so we thought.
Wes ‘Hot Lips’ Hoolahan came up with a moment of magic. A goal crafted in Tolka Park and delivered to the world. Ireland were 1-0 up. Delirium ensued.
Houghton. O’Leary. Keane. Duff. Where were you when Weso scored that goal! Zlatan this, Zlatan that. Our boy from Shels stunned the lot. You could almost feel the sweat dripping from Christy Moore’s forehead, as the class of 2016 wrote themselves into his latest album.
The goal awoke the Swedes; a top drawer save from Randolph spared Ciaran Clark’s blushes, while Zlatan came close to opening his account.
Jonathan Walters left the game just past the sixty-minute mark. Job done, time for the energetic James McClean to take over. Energy, enthusiasm, excitement. Three things that the great Zlatan must’ve left back in Sweden.
This Ireland team were different. The demons of 2012 appeared to have been exorcised. We were on our way to the knockout stages.
Or so we thought…
A characteristic of all good players is the ability to do absolutely nothing for a game and then come up trumps. Enter Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
A run down the wing, followed by a dangerous Zlatan cross and the Swedes were level. Just like that.
Ciaran Clark’s name would be on the scoresheet, finishing with aplomb. Robbie Keane would have been proud…had it been in the right end.
Weso left to a standing ovation just after the 75th minute as Ireland’s record goalscorer entered the fray. Sixty-seven not out, would we be counting another Robbie goal tonight?
The ghosts of tactics past were left back in Poznan; McGeady for McCarthy signalling the difference in ambitions between Martin O’Neill and his Italian predecessor. Ireland were chasing the win.
Sadly, the ever-elusive second goal never came to fruition. Ireland secured just the solitary point, but the confidence this performance will instil in the squad should reap dividends as the tournament progresses.
One game in, Ireland look a banker to progress to the next round. Alles les verts!