We'll leave it there...
One week on and the dust is finally starting to settle on our third European Championship adventure. As statements go, the one that says we were 40 minutes away from knocking the hosts, and pre-tournament favourites, is probably a little generous, but that being said, very few would argue that we didn’t prove a point, and more importantly, grow as a team from the experience. But what were some of the key takeaways? Let’s explore.
Brady, the midfielder
I think we already knew this, especially after his performance against the Germans in Dublin, but the days of Robbie Brady as a left back look to be well and truly over. He and Hendrick gelled incredibly well throughout, particularly against Italy, in the first half against France, and even at times against the Belgians also. Robbie is not afraid to get the ball at his feet in crowded areas, and he is intelligent, always looking to create and go – and albeit very different players, it’s hard to not see a young Duffer in him at times in this sense.
Brady is surely going to get snapped up this summer by a Premier League club, but we’re holding out hope that he’ll be signed as a midfielder, and not as a left back, where he spent most of his time with Norwich and Hull.
Arise, King Jeff
Jeff Hendrick used to have short hair, and it was only this year when he said “I’m not cutting my hair until I get back in the first team” at Derby, that he started to grow the flowing locks. Yes, Derby! Quite amazing when you think about how comfortable he was on this stage. He was superb. Man of the match against the French, the Italians, and the Swedes. He is deceivingly tall at 6’1, has a great physique and engine– a real athlete – a great eye for goal, and contrary to perhaps some of our other midfielders in recent time, Hendrick looks for the ball, and, almost always, seems to make the right decisions when he’s got it – rare for a 30 year old, not to mind a 24 year old.
A decade younger than Wes, it’s hard to see us not building the next generation of Irish football around him. Another man who is almost certain for a move this summer, let’s hope he lands himself at a side who like to play football.
Another 24 year old to enter the fray, another 24 year old that impressed. 6 months ago were you told that Shane Duffy would start over John O Shea in the centre of defence in a must-win game against the Italians, you’d have been laughed at. In fact, some were even laughing an hour before kick-off when the team was announced. But like Hendrick, Duffy seemed to slot in and look very comfortable at this level.
Admittedly, he’s got work to do with the ball at his feet (most players of his stature do –he’s 6’3+), but what he brings from an aerial and attacking perspective is huge. He is also a talker, a (more recently) vastly underrated trait for a central defender. He was a constant thorn in the Italians side, in both boxes, and pretty much kept Giroud out of game against France. In fact, you could argue, had Giroud not had the know-how to change his focus to Keogh, you wouldn’t have been an idiot to think we might have progressed.
Duffy is still raw in some senses – the second French goal probably highlighting this fact most – but he is coming on in leaps and bounds, and if the latest rumours of a move to Brendan Rodger’s Celtic are true, a couple of years playing Champions League football can only help.
2014 saw Roberto Martinez having to push the likes of Man City away from prizing James McCarthy away from Everton. Martinez, having also had McCarthy at Wigan, admires his greatly. But as he walked off the pitch in Bordeaux, it was hard to not question whether he would ever wear the green again. The media slated him after the Swedish game also, which from our perspective, was a little unfair, but he was truly awful against Belgium.
It was almost a given that Martin would drop him for Italy, but what transpired however, was McCarthy being pushed back to Whelan’s role - the one where he played his two best games for Ireland (Sweden in Stockholm, and Germany in Dublin) – and Whelan dropped to the bench. This proved to be, in ways, a turning point in our campaign, and an incredible act of courage and belief from Martin and Roy.
He showed great tenacity and energy in midfield, finishing the Italian and French game with more tackles, interceptions, and blocks than any other player.
He’s not without faults though, and still suffers from concentration issues – particularly in the first 20 minutes of the second half against the French where he could (and arguably, should) have done better for their first goal, and the play leading up to Duffy’s red card. This is his role though, and if given a proper run of games with Roy as his mentor, we believe his future in green will be very bright.
Martin and Roy, Shillings Earned
Signing new contracts just before major tournaments has it’s questions, and after the Bordeaux debacle, one couldn’t be blamed for drawing comparisons with Poland and asking just how far we had come since then. The eerie quietness of the Irish fans on the tram back to the City said just this.
But then came the moment that Martin and Roy proved themselves to be stand-out leaders. Possibly some of the boldest decisions we’ve seen from an Irish management in a long, long time. They dropped the stalwarts, and went for the apprentices.
Our biggest criticism of Trap was not so much that he would publicly discuss the limitations of our side, but that he would do so and not try something new. Roy and Martin realised going face to face with more talented tradesmen was getting us nowhere, and they reshuffled and went for energy, fitness, hunger, physicality, and youth – every category of which the Belgians had beaten us in 4 days earlier (alongside talent, skill, and, ultimately, goals).
One may ask why this selection wasn’t trialed prior to the competition, in friendlies, where the ‘normal’ manager might experiment, but the reality is we got it right just in time, and the two boys should be paraded for that.
James McClean Lite.
He’s actually got temperament in his make-up. And when he finds it, the boy is bloody useful.
So, in our opinion, where does the tournament stand in terms of the others?
1. Italia ‘90
2. Euro ‘88
3. World Cup ‘02
4. Euro ’16 / World Cup ‘94
5. Summer Olympics 1924 (ok, we don’t really count this, but it still comes higher than Poland)
6. Euro ‘12
Conclusion: Some amazing moments, an unforgettable win against the Italians, and the birth of some future stars. But tarnished by a drumming in Bordeaux, and a wheels-off last 30 against the French.