Darren Randolph's pragmatism and commitment captures the Irish way
Middlesbrough goalkeeper believes Ireland will not fear any playoff opponents
Darren Randolph makes one of his second-half saves in Cardiff. Photograph: Inpho/Ryan Byrne
Late on Monday night, Darren Randolph summed up another hugely defiant Ireland performance with an observation that could serve as a manifesto for the team. “Once you keep things tight and take a chance when you get it, you are always going to be a danger or a threat to big teams. So I don’t think we have anything to fear.”
That was Ireland in a nutshell: an abrasive, full-hearted group of pragmatists willing to live off scraps and sharp to the occasional chance they create. Prior to the match, Randolph had been asked why Ireland sometimes seemed to appear more liberated playing away. Bagging eye-catching away results has become the special turn of the O’Neill era. It could be, Randolph suggested, that “it might not suit us being the possession team”.
“We did a lot of defending against Wales. We held on and nicked a goal and hung on. I am not complaining if we keep getting results and keep winning.”
The 30-year-old was content at the prospect of Ireland being ranked among the outsiders in the upcoming World Cup playoffs. “We’re not seeded so it is going to be a tough draw no matter what. I will just sit back and see who we get and we go again next month.”
Randolph has stayed on the very safe side of understated in his public pronouncements but his desire to play for Ireland is fierce. Since asserting himself as the first-choice goalkeeper in O’Neill’s teams, he has shaped his career to retain the privilege.
When Ireland were preparing for their home game against Austria with an early June friendly against Uruguay, Randolph conceded a first-half goal and was replaced at half-time by Kieren Westwood, whose assured display left O’Neill to concede afterwards that he had “plenty to contemplate”.
He said some encouraging things about Randolph, too, but those few months were filled with uncertainty for the Bray man. Randolph had been his first choice for the previous 18 months, but in April he lost his starting place at West Ham to Spanish goalkeeper Adrian, reducing his meaningful game-time to 90 minutes in Ireland’s dispiriting 3-1 friendly defeat against Mexico in New Jersey prior to the Uruguay game.
In the end, O’Neill decided to persist with Randolph for the crucial Austria qualifier and was rewarded when he made a marvellous one-handed save when substitute Floriah Grillitsch looked certain to put the visitors into a two-goal lead. It has almost been forgotten about in a long, draining group filled with arguable turning points but that save was immensely important.
It fell to Jon Walters to rescue a point for Ireland with an old-fashioned first-time strike. And it became clear after that match that nothing would come easy to Ireland in Group D and the prospect of O’Neill wavering in his first choice selection might have convinced Randolph to act on his club career.
With Slaven Bilic having secured Joe Hart on loan for West Ham, Randolph knew he had slipped out of the reckoning and moved quickly to secure a £5 million transfer to Middlesbrough. It meant a drop from the Premier League to the Championship but it gave him the first-team football he needed if he was to stay in O’Neill’s mind’s eye.
Retaining his Ireland spot was central to his thinking and he has thrived at both his new club and for Ireland through the early autumn. In the pulsing madness of Cardiff City stadium on Monday evening, he made two stretching, athletic saves and was strikingly composed and authoritative in dealing with the deluge of long balls and speculative crosses flung in on his goal by a Welsh side desperate for a goal and running out of time.
“I was happy to get a clean sheet; that always helps to get you a win,” was as far as he was prepared to go in describing the experience. “At international level you don’t get many games with loads of chances. Monday was a bit like that and we knew it would be. We knew if we got one chance we’d need to take it as long as we kept the ball out at the other end, and we were always in with a chance.”
James McClean’s defining goal originated in an ill-judged thrown pass to Ahsley Williams by goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy. Within seconds, Jeff Hendrick had turned a nothing moment into a rare, clear-cut chance for the Republic which McClean coldly nailed.
“The goal we scored wasn’t in the gameplan,” Randolph said. “We did have a game play of our own but it wasn’t a case of waiting for them to make a mistake. It just happened that one of their players messed up and we were able to capitalise on it. We got a goal in front and held on.”
Chances are there will be more of that kind of stuff in Ireland’s immediate future – holding on and fighting their way out of corners.
“It’s 180 minutes,” said Randolph. “And we will see how we do. We knew we had to win the last two games to keep it in our own hands so I won’t be picky about who we get next or if we are home or away.”