All good things come to an end and sure isn’t a change as good as a rest?
This morning it was confirmed that after five years in the job, Martin O’Neill will be vacating his role as manager of the Republic Of Ireland football team along with his assistant Roy Keane.
While the past 12 months have been as grim as many Irish fans can remember, it would be unfair on the Derryman to judge his reign on World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark and a dismal UEFA Nations League campaign.
It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, the country rejoiced after a James McClean goal gave us a vital win over Wales in Cardiff but it turned out that this was the last great night of the O’Neill era. However, it certainly wasn’t the first.
O’Neill arguably gave us as many memorable evenings as any manager since Jack Charlton and we’ve put together a list of his and the team’s greatest moments.
Where were you for all of these?
7. France in Lyon – June 26 2016
Perhaps Emily Dickinson put it best when she said ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in soul.’
A memorable summer in France culminated in a the Irish squad and management milking the applause of the traveling support after a heroic defeat at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
We dared to dream as we went into half-time 1-0 up against the hosts thanks to an early Robbie Brady penalty. However, it wasn’t to be as two second half goals from Antoine Griezmann put paid to our hopes.
The team arrived home to a heroes’ welcome at Dublin Airport after a first decent major tournament performance since the 2002 World Cup.
6. Austria in Vienna – November 12 2016
For decades, an away win for Ireland against half-decent opposition was as rare as a compliment from Eamon Dunphy but in the autumn of 2016, we briefly forgot about all that.
A brilliant team performance was rewarded when James McClean struck early in the second half to secure a 1-0 win and put us on top of our World Cup qualifying group.
We all know what happened towards the end of the campaign but for a brief moment, ‘how much are flights to Russia?’ was one of Ireland’s most Googled questions.
5. Sweden in Paris – June 13 2016
Our opening game of Euro 2016 saw Irish fans travel in their thousands to the French capital, with or without a ticket.
For three days straight, we took over the area around the Moulin Rouge as a feel-good factor took hold and excitement levels went through the roof.
In the end, Wes Hoolahan’s opener was cancelled out by the Swedes in a 1-1 draw but the result set us up nicely for what was to come.
4. Wales in Cardiff – October 9 2017
A year after Vienna, McClean struck again to stun the home crowd who had started the evening by nearly blowing the roof off the Cardiff City Stadium with a rousing rendition of their national anthem.
The 1-0 victory secured Ireland’s place in the World Cup play-offs and we all looked forward to finally banishing the ghost of the 2009 Thierry Henry handball.
Sadly, this was to be Ireland’s last great night under O’Neill as we were dismantled by Denmark at the Aviva Stadium a month later. All that was left to do was watch the World Cup from afar and what could have been.
3. Bosnia and Herzegovina in Dublin – November 16 2015
Four years after a woeful Euro 2012 for Ireland, we booked our place at the European Championships once more.
Two goals by Jonathan Walters secured a 2-0 victory and thousands took to Facebook to enquire as to who was taking the horse to France.
What followed was a huge improvement on the previous tournament and memories that will last a lifetime.
2. Germany in Dublin – October 8 2015
When the Irish rugby team defeated world champions New Zealand at the Aviva last week, Shane Long would have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.
Latching onto a Darren Randolph long ball, the Tipperary man fired past Manuel Neuer, the greatest goalkeeper in the world at the time, and the 2014 World Cup winners sank to their knees as Long strutted toward the home fans in celebration.
A glorious moment for Irish soccer and one that left Euro 2016 qualification in our own hands.
1. Italy in Lille – June 23 2016
“It’s there! Robbie Brady brings us all to our feet in Lille!”
These iconic words from the lips of George Hamilton have been heard on repeat by Irish fans who head to YouTube on a regular basis to relive this most beautiful of moments.
With qualification for the knockout stages slowly being loosened from our grip, substitute Wes Hoolahan had us all resigned to defeat when he missed a late chance to put us 1-0 up.
Minutes later, the Dubliner made amends by swinging in a perfectly-timed cross for Brady to head home and bring Irish people all over the world to tears.
The interview that followed leaves a lump in the throat to this day and the night was like Italia ’90 for those who were too young to remember the exploits of Jack’s Army.
Let’s watch it again, shall we?
The FAI now face the task of replacing O’Neill in the role and it would be a shame if the past 12 months are all that lingers in the memory.
A change is probably for the best right now but the Derryman will always have these great nights to reflect on as he enters the autumn of his managerial years.
Thanks for the memories, Martin.