For hours afterwards, Irish fans looked at each other with wide-eyed astonishment and utter exhaustion. There were faces daubed with green paint and dazed smiles everywhere as people came to terms with the knowledge that they had been witness to a truly momentous Irish performance.
And it was nothing short of momentous. Historic even. Robbie Brady’s goal has joined the pantheon of legendary moments along with Houghton’s goals, Bonner’s save, Keane against Germany and Keane against Overmars. Brady’s header was this team’s version of those memories.
Under the closed roof of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, a new-look Irish side had out-played, out-thought and out-scored one of the powerhouses of world football. Cowed by the way that Belgium had toyed with his side, Martin O’Neill had turned to the younger members of his squad and told them that this was their moment. It felt as though the likes of Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy came of age last night as they were handed control of the team – Shane Duffy made his competitive debut last night.
The temperature within the stadium had risen steadily throughout the evening, as had the volume of the Irish supporters as they dared to believe. The two combined formed a potent combination that seemed like a cross between a sauna and a tsunami.
Undaunted, the Irish players hurled themselves into the game with Coleman, McClean, Hendrick, McCarthy and Ward all flinging themselves into early challenges. The Italians seemed unwilling to match their intensity and Ireland grew in belief and dominance. Hendrick drilled a shot wide, Daryl Murphy’s header was saved, Shane Long and Duffy got in each other’s way at the back-post. Fans roared in approval but at the same time looked at each other in shock – this wasn’t what they had expected. And then there was the penalty that wasn’t...McClean and Long were still arguing with the referee as they trudged off the pitch and the stands were filled with righteous anger.
Shane Duffy and James McClean both produced excellent performances last night.
With the entire half-time break to consider the decision, there was a nervous energy to the second-half as both players and supporters wondered if their chance had passed. That belief seemed to harden into certainty as Hoolahan’s meek shot was saved with an unmarked Long also joining-in on the screams of frustration...only to be joining-in on the celebrations minutes later as Hoolahan’s pass found Brady and history.
Afterwards, even O’Neill seemed drained by the tension, the drama and the heat.
"I know I don’t look it," he dead-panned afterwards, “but I’m absolutely thrilled...I didn’t want it to be one of those ‘if only’ nights."
“Some players have come of age,” he continued. “They came up really big tonight.”
As the dazed grins gradually found a voice and the songs began to ring through the fanzones around the stadium the conversation also turned to Lyon and flights, train schedules, Airbnb bookings and, of course, tickets. As the Group A winners, French fans have already stolen a march on their Irish counter-parts when it comes to the logistics of getting to the Stade des Lumieres on Sunday – but the Irish fans will get there, hoping, once again to bear witness to greatness.