By Damian Spellman, PA
Nathan Collins walked away from the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2024 showdown with World Cup finalists France not quite sure how he had ended up on the losing side.
Ireland would have emerged with a hugely creditable draw had goalkeeper Mike Maignan not somehow clawed his 90th-minute header out of his top corner with a save manager Didier Deschamps later admitted was as important as the Benjamin Pavard goal which secured a hard-fought 1-0 Group B win in Dublin.
The 21-year-old Wolves defender said: “I thought I’d done everything. I got as high as I could, I got power behind it, but it’s an unbelievable save.
Highlights | Ireland 0-1 France
Spirited performance ends in defeat as late Nathan Collins header denied
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) March 27, 2023
“That’s the difference at the top level. It’s so frustrating. I’m heartbroken for the lads as well.”
That it took Maignan’s intervention to see France home is a measure of how well Stephen Kenny’s game plan worked as the Republic stifled the visitors for long periods before launching a late and concerted counter-assault.
By that point, however, Pavard had pounced on an uncharacteristic error by midfielder Josh Cullen to give his side a 50th-minute lead which they retained, if only just, until the final whistle.
Collins said: “They’re so good, they’re going to get a chance and they took it. We did so well to stay in the game and throw the kitchen sink in the last 10 minutes.
“But I’m proud of the lads’ performance, there is so much to build on.”
Much of the focus in the build-up to the game centred on the havoc France skipper Kylian Mbappe, who had scored twice in last Friday night’s 4-0 rout of the Netherlands, might wreak at the Aviva Stadium.
In the event, he endured a quiet 90 minutes by his remarkable standards, thanks in large part to the attention paid to him by Collins and skipper Seamus Coleman, who shook off a thigh strain to start Wednesday’s game.
Collins said: “Listen, I had help, didn’t I? Seamie there who was class again. We were helped. It wasn’t just me, it was the whole team. We nullified Mbappe, but it was the whole team.”
On March 27th 2021, Ireland suffered the ignominy of losing a World Cup qualifier at the Aviva to European minnows Luxembourg by the same score, a result which sparked a lasting debate over Kenny’s tenure.
Two years on, both the manager and his players are confident the benchmark they set in the face of the sternest of tests will serve them well when they head for Greece in June before Gibraltar head for Dublin.
Collins said: “We’ve set the standard ourselves now. It’s on us, nobody else, only us. Not the manager, not the coaches, it’s the level we set, the players have set, we’ve got to keep driving that.
“I think you have seen it so many times against the big teams, we put on performances and people are a bit shocked how well we do and how we hurt teams so much.
“But again, it is not just the big teams we need to perform against. We have to have that standard against the so-called smaller nations, who still have quality. We need to keep those standards.”