Within minutes of Ireland’s thrilling win over England setting up a quarter-final meeting with Germany in St Petersburg, Duolingo tweeted that 73% of accounts in Ireland had suddenly switched to Russian. Удачи тебе в этом, they snarked. “How do you say beer in Russian” spiked on Google trends, and Ryanair’s website crashed despite the fact they don’t even fly to Russia. Belavia, Belarus’ national airline, was the quickest to react to the desperate Irish desire to see the Boys in Green in action, offering cut-price tickets from Dublin to the Venice of the North if travellers were willing to take a 72-hour stopover in Minsk in both directions. A quick check of prices for beers and hotels in Minsk and St Petersburg made this a no-brainer for most.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the cut-price booze they had enjoyed for the previous two days, the Krestovsky rumbled with a lusty rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann, as though those travelling Irish fans knew that this was the final destination in their UEFO 2020 journey. Perhaps the players knew it too. If they didn’t, they knew within three minutes of the kick-off, when Timo Werner and Serge Gnabry combined with vicious efficiency for what felt like the 100th time in UEFO 2020. Their one-two exposed the lack of coordination between Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark, standing in for the suspended John Egan, and as Darren Randolph rushed out to undo the damage, they simply stroked it back and forth beyond him as though telepathically linked. The finish was Werner’s, but it wasn’t hard to imagine three or four more swift passes and a Gnabry finish.
With that, the Irish game plan was out the window. They needed a goal now, and they needed to make it happen rather than rely on counter-attacks, set-pieces, and luck. It was the Irish worst nightmare: a situation where creativity and skill were required more than graft, determination and good organisation.
To their credit, they responded as well as they could. Michael Obafemi’s pace and movement are potent weapons when used correctly, and the young Southampton striker was coiled and ready to spring as high balls came over the top. Just before half-time, he ran clear but was forced wide by Manuel Neuer and his shot hit the side netting. In truth it was only a half chance, but Germany had been content to sit on their early lead and there was precious little other action of note.
The Germans continued in second gear after the break, content to hold possession and probe patiently as Ireland launched speculative punts upfield, hoping for McGoldrick to provide flick-ons or Obafemi to break clear. In essence, nothing of note was happening, and it looked very much as though nothing would continue to happen until the timer ran down. As the nothingness became more and more pervasive, it became clear that there was only one man on the pitch with the will and the power to prevent the entire stadium from being sucked into a deep state of nihilistic despair. That man was James McClean.
He single-mindedly raged against the soporific rhythms of the game, his roars of rage and passion audible over a quietened crowd (who were perhaps finally feeling, in the form of a thundering headache, why exactly that Belarusian vodka was so cheap). First he barrelled into a hefty challenge on Toni Kroos, who Jogi Löw swiftly withdrew as a precaution, and McClean seemed to take the lack of a caution as encouragement. Next up was Gnabry, who got shouldered off the ball so powerfully that he skittled into Reus and Kimmich, knocking them both off their feet like a game of Kegelbahn in a smoky German Eckkneipe. When McClean still wasn’t booked, the crowd suddenly realised that they were here to witness something much more compelling than goals: would McClean actually have to break a German clean in two before getting cautioned?
Both Matt Doherty and Seamas Coleman attempted to calm the Stoke midfielder down. To no avail. His next victim was the referee’s assistant for a perfectly good offside call, with no expert lip-reader required to understand the content of the Derryman’s tirade. Out came the yellow card at last, and within five minutes both McClean’s personal crusade and the match as a competition were over – and despite how McClean deserved to go and Ireland deserved to lose this game, the manner of how both came to pass will feel particularly unjust to Ireland fans.
In swung a corner from Reus, and McClean was clearly shoved in the back by Niklas Süle as the pair jumped for a header. Up went McClean’s hand, inadvertently deflecting the ball away to safety. Both sides protested furiously, McClean, naturally, most of all. He had received his second yellow even before the referee carried out the VAR check and awarded a penalty to Germany. Werner put it away, and with no more James McClean to rage against the encroaching nothingness, the rest of the game petered out with Germany comfortably in control in the face of a couple of late packed-box set-pieces.
Mick McCarthy now steps aside as Ireland manager, to be replaced by Stephen Kenny. Despite the poor performance here, this tournament has been an overwhelming success for the Boys in Green – not just for some stunning wins, but also for the introduction onto the international stage of exciting youngsters like Obafemi, Idah, Jayson Molumby and Ryan Manning. With Kenny’s oft-stated vow to play a more proactive and creative style of football, many Ireland fans, as they trek home through Belarus, will hope that many more exotic journeys lie ahead.