Don't take me home, please don't take me home, I just don't wanna go to work! I wanna stay here, And drink all your beer! Please, please, please don't take me home! The refrain of the Euro's so far has been ringing around the host cities as the group stages of the tournament reached their business end and after listening to the England, Wales and Northern Ireland fans singing it over the previous few days, it was our moment of truth on Wednesday night.
As has been the norm with this tournament, the sheer size of France has meant that different groups of us have taken different routes and stopovers on the way. This meant that myself and Lou had left Bordeaux on Sunday morning along with Terry the Tash and a handful of London Irish for a two day stopover in the very nice city of Tours. Leaving Bordeaux had been pretty non eventful, bar the obligatory customer service debacle at check out when the girl who'd been looking after the apartment rental arrived to check we hadn't trashed the place and on discovering that we hadn't, then revealed that she'd forgotten to bring back our €300 security deposit. Cue a number of frantic phone calls on her part and a 15 minute wait outside the door before a colleague sped up on a bike with cash in hand! Luckily, we'd given ourselves a good bit of time to make our train so no harm done.
On sitting down in the carriage, I noticed Borussia, another YBIG stalwart on the train, who I'd met on numerous trips previously, lastly in La Rochelle, so it was good to see there'd be a good crew up for a bit of craic over the couple of ‘rest’ nights in Tours. As it happened, we were all staying in the same hotel, a fairly basic Ibis budget but as those hotels go, this one was pretty decent. Clean and comfortable with an en suite and decent wifi so all good. Once we'd dropped our bags off we took a wander down to the old town where we found an ‘Irish’ bar called The Pale showing the Tipp v. Limerick Munster hurling semi so we settled in there for a couple of surprisingly decent pints of Guinness before moving up to the main square for dinner with Borussia and his crowd. The weather was decent and there was a good buzz with the locals as France were playing their final group game v. Switzerland that evening and a few of the bars and restaurants had TV's turned to face the square where people had gathered to eat. Unfortunately, the game did little to enhance the atmosphere as both sides played out the nil all draw that ensured the Swiss would join the French in the next phase. France had done enough to top their group and the hope that everyone had was that Italy, having already topped our group, would take a similarly lacklustre approach to our game on Wednesday.
Once the game was over, we decided that we'd head back to The Pale to try and cheer Shane Lowry on to a maiden Major victory in the US Open but unfortunately the wheels had started to come off that particular bandwagon by the time we got back there. The pub had gotten packed with Irish fans since we'd left and there was a real party atmosphere going on with the Shane Long chant being changed to “Lowry’s on fire! Dustin Johnson’s terrified!” but as Shane's putter was anything but on fire on the back 9 it was clear fairly soon that his challenge was unravelling quicker than our defence had the previous day. The one bright moment came when the Korean American golfer, Kevin Na, was lining up a putt and as soon as his name came up on screen, the entire pub stopped for a second as if to say “Are you thinking what I'm thinking? “ and simultaneously burst into a chorus of ‘“Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na! “! By the time Lowry was walking up to the 17th tee, it was clear his race was run but it still would have been nice to see the end of the round. However, in time honoured French service industry fashion, once the clock struck 2 am, the bar staff insisted on turning off the tellies and moving everyone onto the street despite our pleas for a last ten minutes to watch the finish! A disappointing end to a disappointing weekend for Irish sport and I've not even mentioned the egg chasers.
Monday morning in Tours brought rain which pretty much stayed down for the day. Despite this, myself and Lou used the day for a bit of sightseeing and relaxing. A nice 3 course meal in a really good local restaurant and the second half of the England and Wales games was enough for us before grabbing an early night in advance of what we knew was likely to be a couple of hectic days in Lille. As with La Rochelle, Tours was a lovely place to visit and a bit more time would have been nice but there were more important things ahead and by the time we got off the train in Lille and out to our airport hotel, it was time to put the game face on again!
Even though it was only Tuesday at this stage, there was a bit of a Friday feel to the city by the time we arrived in. The Tir Na Nog was the Irish bar that had been designated as the unofficial meeting point and there was already a decent crowd and good atmosphere outside when we arrived. It's generally been our modus operandi to check out the meeting place first to get our bearings before moving outwards to find slightly quieter bars and squares and after a swift Guinness in Tir Na Nog, we got a call from Gary and Lina, who'd been with us in La Rochelle, saying that they'd found a spot outside a local bar about 5 minutes away. There was an army of green moving towards the square Tir Na Nog was situated on by then. So after grabbing a pizza in a proper old school Italian take away, where, in contrast to pretty much everywhere else, the proprietor was determined to serve as many people as possible and make as much cash as he could, we headed over to Gary and Lina for the second half of the Northern Ireland game.
Once we arrived, we sent the address around to the rest of our crew that had landed in Lille by then and before long, the Brummies, Quinn Towers and various others had arrived and we had some good old craic watching the North somehow hold out against a German onslaught to only lose 1-0 and then see their qualification confirmed as the Czechs were beaten by Turkey and Croatia produced a great performance to come from behind and beat Spain 2-1. I'd said from the off that 3 points with a neutral goal difference should be enough to qualify but it was ourselves rather than the North that I had expected to get that total. Congrats and hats off to them but it certainly ramped up the pressure on our boys to at least go as far as them for the bragging rights on the island we call home. With Wales and England already through, and surprisingly finishing in that order in their group, it would have been hard to take being the first of the four neighbouring teams to exit.
A call from Steve Amsterdam saying that his crowd had now touched down at Tir Na Nog brought us back up that direction and there were further reunions with more of the La Rochelle crew. The chanting and singing had got going by now and while it was rowdy enough, the sheer carnage that was visible in Paris and Bordeaux wasn't on display here. It wasn't long before the Tir Na Nog closed it's bar (again, no late licences?) but a few of the boys had found another open bar called After Hours so we headed down there to finish the night. The travelling had taken it's toll a bit at this stage so by about 3, myself and herself decided to bail back to the hotel. We had seen a few taxis in town when we arrived and out by the airport so had hoped to be able to flag one handy enough but as with Bordeaux this proved a problem. And the problem was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in Bordeaux, we were stuck out in an airport hotel due to the lack of available accommodation in the city centre. After about 20 minutes of wandering, I hit on the idea of ordering an Uber. But our second problem was that neither of us have been able to get 3G coverage over here so we couldn't get onto the app! By chance we spotted a shisha pipe smoking bar with a wifi sign on the window so chanced our arm on going in to use it. I got chatting to the guy running it and tried to explain that we'd happily buy something to smoke if we could use the wifi to order an Uber. Despite my lack of French and his lack of English, I thought I'd made myself understood but next thing, instead of producing a pipe, he arrived back with another guy and said this guy would take us back for €40! We'd been told by a few lads at the hotel that it was between €16 and €20 for an Uber to the hotel when they'd used it and our taxi in earlier had been €22 so the haggle had to begin with us offering €20 before we finally agreed on €30! This didn't stop the driver trying to renegotiate on the drive out but needless to say, he didn't get very far with that! Anyway, we had a bit of a laugh with him and he got us home in one piece so all ended well! One more sleep till Gameday 3.
Considering what was at stake, I'd had a nervy night's sleep but, given the 9 pm kick off didn't want to head into the city too early. However, by half one we were going a bit stir crazy so ordered a cab in which we shared with another couple of lads from the hotel. One of the best thing about trips like this is the sense of camaraderie between total strangers and we'd a good old natter with the boys on the way in. Another is the friendships you build with those that travel regularly and, as we walked up to the square, we bumped into Saint Tom heading the other direction, had a quick catch up with Borussia as he was queuing for a steak, met my old pal from Bohs, Matt and then met another pal, Bradley on the square itself! We had planned on meeting up with the gang at Place Charles de Gaulle but in the meantime had got a call from my Da and his mates who were grabbing food down the road by the train station. As they were heading back to their hotel before the match, we wandered down to find them in a packed cafe where they'd been waiting an hour for their food. We sat down beside them and tried to order food only to be refused because it was now 10 seconds past 3 and they stopped lunch at 3! Wouldn't even do us an omelette! As we were famished by now, we nipped into the first place we found across the road, got a beer and asked for the menu. Amazingly, the service was actually pretty decent so before long we were fed and watered and I'd given Da and his crew a nod to come and join us when they were finished. There were a few Italians over beside a group of Irish fans who asked me to get a pic of them all. Maybe it was a sign of how things were going to turn out later but it was funny to see that the Italians were drinking beer and the Irish lads drinking wine when I took the photo!
The place was starting to fill up when Da and Co. joined us and we had a great couple of hours swapping stories of how our trips had gone since Bordeaux. Although Da has been on a good few of the qualifier trips over the years, this was the first tournament since US 94 that we've both been on so it was great to spend a bit of time with him in the tournament environment. And, speaking of US 94, I had realised the previous day that I had with me the very shirt I was wearing in Giants stadium when Ray Houghton scored the winner v. Italy on that famous day so had made the suitably superstitious decision to dust it off and stick it on for today's game. Luckily, mid 90’s football shirt design was the baggier the better so fitting into it wasn't a problem! And as I was wearing a suitably 90’s green baseball cap backwards in 94, it was only right that the look be topped off with similar. Unfortunately, there was no potion available to magic my hair back but I don't think I carried the look too badly given the 22 years that have elapsed since! Or more likely I looked a fool but what the hell!
It was now about 5:30 in the evening so there were still a few hours to kick off by the time we moved back to the square. The place was thronged by now with flags and green shirts everywhere. The fountain was overflowing with suds after someone had put washing up liquid into it which was giving off a bit of a foam party vibe and there were footballs being kicked everywhere as thousands of Irish and a few Italians milled around, chatting, laughing and chanting. The Italian support generally don't tend to travel in numbers as they're always confident of progression to the latter stages of tournaments so there were literally hundreds if not thousands of Irish fans to every Italian around and the closer it got to kick off the more the atmosphere built. By the time it came to get the train out to the ground, there was a huge gang of us with the whole Amsterdam crowd, the Brummies, the Quinns and their pal Conor all in tow. We all headed to the metro with chants of Allez Les Verts from any of the locals we came across but our merry band was broken up pretty quickly when we got to the metro and the usual shambolic security. Most of us were held on the top of the stairs despite the platform being empty below and in the resultant push to get on the train when it finally arrived most of us ended up in different carriages. Regardless, the buzz on the train was quality and we bellowed out everything from the usual McGrath and Breen chants to the newer John O'Shea's a legend and Shake it up Brady chants from this campaign. The carriage was rocking by the time we got to the nearest stop to the stadium and on the 15 minute walk up we bumped into a few of the gang again and a few we hadn't seen earlier including our Bosnian friend, Braveheart, who'd been such a help to YBIG when we were in Sarajevo. Despite losing the play off, he's been travelling around France for the tournament and it was great to catch up with him before the game.
As we were queueing to get in, the word came through that Iceland had got a late winner v. Austria and Portugal had failed to beat Hungary meaning that, should we win, we'd be facing France down in Lyon. While I would have preferred to play Croatia in Lens, which is only about 20 odd miles from Lille, there is something special about playing the host nation at a major tournament. Add in the small matter of a chance for revenge for the famous Thierry Henry handball in the World Cup play off in 2009 and, if the team needed any further motivation to do a job on the Italians then this was surely it. Although there was no discernable queuing system once again, we actually managed to get through easily enough and got in in time to get a good spot to hang the flag and be at our seats in plenty of time for the anthems. We even had time to recreate the photo I'd had taken all those years ago in Giants stadium in front of the original 69ers flag! Two of the lads who'd soldiered through Poland with us, Niall and Quirke were in the seats beside us along with Niall's Da and brother so there was a good crowd of us to roar out the anthem and share round the nerves before kick off.
Martin O'Neill had been brave enough to ring the changes for this game as his captain O'Shea, Clark, Whelan and Hoolahan all made way for Keogh, Duffy, McClean and Murphy. While I had worries about the fact that we were relying on a player up front who'd failed to score in 20 plus caps and if Hoolahan was to be rested, I'd have done so against Belgium but I was delighted to see Shane Duffy brought in for his competitive debut and the team was more attacking than the one which had been rumoured the previous couple of days. As expected, the Italian manager had rested 6 of the 7 players on yellow cards and made two other changes so it was a radically different side to that which had won it's first two games. While it was a concern that the players they'd brought in would be playing for a place in the last 16, the Italians have a reputation for only doing the minimum required in the group stages so it was still a comfort that they'd already topped the group regardless of results due to their earlier win over Belgium. The fact that Buffon was rested was a huge bonus for us and as it's been a feature of O'Neill's reign that we've bounced back from poor results with good performances, I was hopeful we'd see similar again. Before we knew it after the anthems it was time for the ridiculous new countdown from 10 to kick off and a huge roar came up from our end as it was game on!
From the off, it was clear that in effort and application at least, this was a significant step up from the Belgium game. Although Italy had a little bit more possession early on and were first to get a couple of corners on the board, we were biting into tackles and making life uncomfortable for them. While we were tending to rely on long balls to Murphy, they weren't comfortable with that tactic and on 9 minutes, Murphy got on the end of a punt to knock it back to Hendrick who moved forward and hammered a left footed shot just over the top left angle of post and crossbar. This roused the crowd even further and our aggressive approach really seemed to be rattling the opposition. Our next real chance came on 20 minutes with what I think was our first corner when Murphy got a header to a Brady delivery forcing the the Italian reserve, Sirigu, to tip the ball over for another corner. Although the second corner came to nothing, there were encouraging signs that there was something for us in this game.
I know all fans bitch and moan that referrees are biased against them but no one can deny that we've had a raw deal this tournament. Although Belgium deservedly beat us, had we been awarded what was a stone wall penalty when it was nil all, they may have panicked and it could have developed into a different game. And similar was visible here, as first off Long got clearly shoved off the ball just outside the area without a foul being blown and then about 5 minutes later was taken out by what looked a forearm smash from Bonucci only for the ref to award a free out. The confidence we were playing with was personified by Randolph in goals pulling off a Cruyff turn to leave Zaza looking a fool although it's never good for the heart to see a keeper try the likes of that!
As mentioned earlier, it was a bonus that Buffon had been rested and his replacement was looking decidedly windy and not more so than when himself and Long got involved in some argy bargy 5 minutes before half time resulting in both betting booked. Sirigu had shoved him in the chest and looked like he absolutely shit himself as Long responded by fronting up to him and roaring into his face which seemed to put the fear of God into him. This ratcheted up the atmosphere another notch but that was nothing compared to 5 minutes later when Murphy played the ball into McClean who dropped the shoulder to get a shot off only to get barged in the back by Bernardeschi. Once again, it was as clear cut a penalty as you'll ever see and once again the ref didn't give it. It's fair to say that the anger in our end at that end of the pitch was palpable and the remainder of the half was played out to a chorus of boos and whistles which only increased as the ref walked off the pitch. Still, it had been a very positive first half for us but if the game was going to finish level then there's no doubt that that decision would have been the one pointed to above any other.
My phone was buzzing with texts from home all through half time giving out about the penalty decision and so had everyone's around me so there was a real sense of injustice in our end as the second half began. I always prefer when the team is attacking the goal we're behind and the support was determined to make a difference and suck the ball in if we could. The team started the half in aggressive fashion again with McClean and Long getting stuck in from the off to give away a couple of frees. But Italy were still creating little and although clear cut chances were at a minimum, we were still the dominant side. Time seemed to be moving fairly quickly, the heat under the closed roof of the stadium seemed to be getting more and more oppressive in the stands so I can only imagine what it was like on the pitch but the lads kept pushing on. Murphy went off for McGeady and as we entered the last 20 minutes I really started thinking that our lads were beginning to pay the price for the effort they'd put in. The Italian keeper was still looking shaky and had flapped at a McClean cross but the Italians were getting more of a foothold and our hearts were in our mouths on 77 minutes as Insigne broke through and cannoned a shot off the post. Moments later O'Neill rolled the dice again and threw on Wes Hoolahan for McCarthy. We were entering the last chance salon now.
This seemed to reinvigorate us somewhat as we weathered a spell of Italian possession and Wes starting influencing proceedings. But with 6 minutes to go, we were convinced our chance was gone. Hoolahan had been played through on the right hand side of the box and found himself one on one with the keeper. It looked easier to score than not but he seemed to freeze for a second and placed his shot straight at the keeper! He could also have played it to Long who was free in the centre so everyone in the stand seemed to look at each other and say that was the chance.
That miss would have been enough for a lot of players to put their head down and hide but fair play to Hoolahan as he kept going and within a minute found himself back on the ball after we'd regained possession and McGeady played the ball out wide to him. What happened next will go down in the annals of Irish football history along with Houghton's goals v. Italy and England and Robbie's equaliser v. Germany in Japan. Wes looked up and played a perfect ball into the centre of the box. Sirgiu charged out but he was never getting there before Robbie Brady who smacked a header past him and into the back of the net! Well, what can I say about the scenes that followed! The mood of despair following the missed chance moments before changed to one of elation, relief, disbelief and whatever else you want to throw into the mix! There's a famous line in The Italian Job where Micheal Caine says "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!". Our Italian job nearly blew the bloody roof off! I grabbed Louise and we bounced around grabbing anyone near us as we roared our heads off. I actually had to lean onto the back of the seat to try and regain my breath after about a minute of this with the heat in the ground. Robbie Keane had been waiting to come on in a last throw of the dice just before the goal but this plan was immediately changed as Quinn came on for Long to shore things up. My memory was flashing back to that night in Croke Park when Sean St Ledger had put us 2-1 up only for Italy to equalise straight after back in 2009 but back then, Italy needed the point to secure World Cup qualification whereas now they had nothing to play for. Still, the clock suddenly seemed to slow down as we entered stoppage time and screamed for the final whistle. We had one false alarm when Martin O'Neill mistook the ref's whistle for a foul for full time but moments later the whistle blew for real and that was that. We were there!
The celebrations in the ground were emotional to say the least and you could see what it meant to the players as they came down to acknowledge the fans as The Fields of Athenry rang around the stadium. And when we did make our way out of the ground it was hugs and high fives all the way back to the train and on the train back to the city. The security at the station even softened their approach as the one person who was insisting on thousands of us queueing to buy train tickets was overruled by a supervisor who just told us to get on the train and get back to the city.
You have to give immense credit to the management and the team for the way they bounced back from the Belgium defeat and the fact that Italy had nothing to play for shouldn't take away from that. The game had to be won and they did it. And while we may not score many goals, we've now beaten the World Champions 1-0 in a must win game in qualifying and done the same to another traditional powerhouse in Italy. We've consistently fought to the end and scored numerous late goals to prove it. The team goes on to the end and so do we! Lyon, here we come! France, we owe you one!