Clough would be proud as O’Neill era finally takes flight
In a single campaign Hoolahan has gone from luxury player to beating heart of side
Martin O’Neill masterminded one of the most famous wins in Irish sporting history against Germany on Thursday night - but now attention turns to Poland. Photograph: Inpho
Thursday night belonged to the O’Neill men. In Dublin, the team managed by Martin revived, suddenly and without warning, the belief that Irish football teams can summon a collective will to achieve results above all reasonable expectation. On logic and on paper and on tradition and all principles of common sense, a weakened Republic of Ireland team, ranked 54th, should not have beaten the world champions Germany. National stereotyping has long held that the Germans are wedded to logic and a cursory examination of the Irish team sheet must have convinced Joachim Loew and his squad that it could only be a matter of how many goals. Ireland should not win.
And yet they did and with an attitude of sustained valour and commitment and fearlessness which gave Irish people in the stadium and watching across the country old, familiar shivers of pride. This was the Irish football team of myth: punching above its weight, indefatigable and, finally, unbeatable. The terrace anthem, ‘You’ll Never beat the Irish’ had, particularly after the scarifying experiences at the hands of Spain and Croatia at the European championships of 2012, come to acquire a blackly comic edge. Now, its relevance has been restored.
Not long after Shane Long’s audacious strike, Karim Bellarabi took possession of the ball along Ireland’s right flank. The compactness of Ireland’s defensive structure gave Germany the run of both flanks all evening and the sight of Robbie Brady and Geoff Hendrick full-out sprinting to close down Mesut Ozil or Mattias Ginter or Marco Reus as they leisurely studied the Irish penalty area for a striker (and wishing Miroslav Klose was there...) became a common sight.
In this instance, Brady got his body in the way of Bellarabi’s cross and Wes Hoolahan, who covered acres of ground, joined his team-mate in the sprint for possession near the endline. Brady tackled again and Hoolahan won possession before Bellarabi and, with his back to the field, neatly back heeled it into Ireland’s penalty area for Brady to collect. He couldn’t have known that his team mate had fallen after the tackle. So instead, Hoolahan’s pass rolled towards a German player and thousands of Irish supporters emitted a simultaneous falsetto scream of horror in the seconds before David Myler thumped the ball clear.
If Brady had been on his feet and waiting to receive the pass, the passage of play would have been lauded as an example of Hoolahan’s regal composure.
It would have been beyond cruel if the stray pass had resulted in a German goal because for all evening, Hoolahan’s smoothness and invention on the ball was the one element of Ireland’s play which befuddled the Germans. They didn’t enjoy James McCarthy’s physical, biting impudence and became vexed by the regularity with which John O’Shea and Richard Keogh managed to interrupt their final pass with a stretching toe-poke or a last-gasp block and they became increasingly irritated, too, by Jon Walter’s bustling, clever use of possession in the last ten minutes, when it suddenly dawned on the Germans that the impossible- an Irish win- was materialising before their eyes.
But Hoolahan was the one Irish player of whom they did not know quite what to make. The quicksilver intelligence and feet to match; the slide-rule passes; the constant movement and the fact that he clearly was not intimidated by their cast of superstars was not something they expected to encounter in a green shirt. In both physique and style Hoolahan stands in direct contrast to the qualities which all mainland European managers trot out about the Irish, including Loew- the passion, the fighting qualities and all the other stock odes. Thursday night’s was a game with many moments to be cherished but one that stands out is Hoolahan with the ball at his feet in the German box and dancing in front of their towering central defenders. The Germans were wary of diving in on Hoolahan because they recognised from very early on that he had the stuff to make them look foolish.
In the space of a single campaign, Hoolahan has moved from being a considered a lightweight luxury whom Ireland could not afford to play to being the player around whom the team evolves. If there is a tinge of regret that he has had to wait until the age of 33 to flourish, it is tempered by the fact that he is now primed to play a central role in the Republic’s bid to qualify for a sixth major tournament.
Those ninety minutes have changed everything. There was something fretful about Ireland’s campaign to date and it has been accompanied by the troubling doubt as to whether the O’Neill era would ever truly fire and take off. He could hardly conceal his boredom through the interminable series of friendly games that marked the opening year of his tenure and at times seemed distant and not particularly thrilled with his job during this campaign.
But there were shades of the younger O’Neill in Dublin on Thursday night, all passion and wild gestures on the sideline where he stood in vivid contrast to Loew, who spent most of the night looking like a man waiting on a train platform for the arrival of the 6.07 from Dortmund. This was the O’Neill that everyone had conjured up when he was originally appointed; professorial and schoolboy-ish all at once. When you manage a team that beats the world champions, it ought to feel like the culmination of something but instead, Ireland have it all do to again in Warsaw tomorrow night. It would be a shame if Ireland don’t go to France now, after demonstrating that they have tapped into the tradition for giant-killing nights. So although O’Neill doesn’t have much time to savour this victory, it has to go down as one of the biggest nights of his football life. To beat Germany; to halt their imperiousness if only for an evening: Clough would be proud of him.
And there was a wonderful symmetry about the fact that even as O’Neill enjoyed that unexpected voltage of love of the game, Northern Ireland was enjoying its own carnival an hour and a half up the road. Stormont may be on the brink of dissolution but the re-emergence of Northern Ireland under Michael O’Neill has, without question, been the story of the Euro 2016 campaign.
It is history’s dark joke that an island of this size and population should end up fielding two separate international football teams (even as the rugby cousins front up as one in Cardiff against France tomorrow afternoon). The odds are always stacked heavily against Irish football teams, which is why qualification years become touchstones. For Northern Ireland, 1982 and 1986 contain magical chimes while for the Republic, 1988 and 1990 set the tone. They are all the sweeter for being unexpected. That was the story of Thursday night. The thought of Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on the road to France: it doesn’t get any better.