As the full time whistle rang out in Lyon on Sunday afternoon, Irish hearts and bodies sank to the ground. Dejected, they knew this was the end of their Euro 2016 journey.
Robbie Brady’s penalty after only a couple of minutes had given the nation hope, and while France never showed their true power in the match, their quality shone through as much as it needed to in order to get the job done.
The Boys in Green go home now, ready to go through another qualification process with the World Cup in Russia to come in 2018.
But where Wales, Austria and Serbia may have seemed like daunting tasks before, but not now. Not when they have beaten Italy and given such a good account of themselves against France.
There had been a sense of defeatism infecting this team for too long. After a certain point a side has to stop worrying about its limitations, but embracing them. They are limited technically, but they have already shown that they can make up for that through hard work and organisation.
Even if Wes Hoolahan retires from the international scene after this tournament, and at the age of 34 there is every chance that he will follow Robbie Keane (and, one would assume, Shay Given) in departing, a midfield of Robbie Brady (who, we can finally all agree, is not a left back), Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy and James McClean has enough about it to be effective.
Aside from that, from the team in its current guise, this could – and should – be the dawning of a new age for Irish football. It can’t be overstated, but this tournament can be every bit as significant for the sport here as Italia 90 was, or Giant’s Stadium in 1994.
The 2012 European Championship was a wretched campaign for the Ireland team. Giovanni Trapattoni knew the team’s limitations but didn’t know to work within them. Trap’s assistant Marco Tardelli admitted as much last week when he said that Irish players “lack intelligence.” He has since backtracked on those comments to a degree, but the sentiment was obvious.
Trapattoni was a serial winner, but Ireland are not a team who are used to winning. His own method for the side therefore, was to bypass tactics completely – because those Irish luddites wouldn’t know what to do with a tactics board if it was staring them in the face apparently.
In Martin O’Neill, however, they have a manager well versed in working with a team’s shortcomings. Winning trophies with Leicester long before it was fashionable to do so, reaching a UEFA Cup final with Celtic – and every time Ireland have doubted the Kilrea native, he restores our faith and then some.
Now, to some degree, the hard work begins. Maintaining the high spirit surrounding football in Ireland is crucial now. Where in 2012 most of the country would have been happy to never see another football match again, the attitude towards the side now could not be higher (not to mention the disproportionately high number of children called Robbie being born in nine months).
Ideally, that would translate to bigger crowds at the Aviva – if we can send 100,000 fans to France, we should be able to fill a stadium in Dublin that holds half that. These players are Irish sporting heroes now – especially the likes of Hendrick and Brady – and should be treated as such.
The Euro 2016 dream may be over for Ireland, but this an opportunity to capitalise on what the team achieved in France – they have brought respectability back to Irish international football, and if we fail to build on that then it will be a missed opportunity.
To Serbia in September, when the road to Russia begins in earnest.