Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill could not hide his elation after his side defied the odds to reach the knockout stage of Euro 2016 with an absorbing victory over much-changed and already-qualified Italy in Lille.
Norwich winger Robbie Brady scored a dramatic late winner, moments after club-mate Wes Hoolahan had fluffed what appeared to be Ireland’s best chance of sinking the Azzurri and making the last 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams.
For the first time in their history, Ireland will contest the knockout stage of a European Championship and will play tournament hosts France in Lyon on Sunday afternoon for a spot in the quarter-finals, potentially against England.
While their tussle with France will evoke memories of Thierry Henry’s handball in a 2009 World Cup play-off, Ireland’s heroics on Wednesday were a fitting reminder of their win over Italy at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey 22 years ago.
“I’ve never been prouder of this group of players. That was very special,” said O’Neill. “We won the game, we deserved to win and we played some phenomenal stuff.
“Obviously there’s a great spirit among the players but spirit alone won’t win games. You need some ability and some players have come of age.
“I remember when the draw was made, cursed your luck for a while and then got on with it. Knowing we had to win a game at some stage, they came up really big tonight.”
Winger James McClean had strong first-half claims for a penalty waved away despite an apparent barge from Federico Bernardeschi, while Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne rattled the post with a 77th minute effort.
Ireland wasted a golden opportunity inside the final 10 minutes when Hoolahan collected the ball having been gifted cheap possession but could only fire tamely at Salvatore Sirigu while clean through on goal.
But seconds later he regained his composure and delivered a pinpoint, whipped cross from the right flank which Brady met ahead of Sirigu to plant a firm header past the Paris Saint-Germain stopper. Brady’s strike sparked scenes of ecstasy as Ireland recorded their first win at a European Championship since beating England in Stuttgart in 1988.