Ireland still standing after concocting another feat of magic
Martin O’Neill’s side deliver another performance of limitless bravery and passion
Martin O’Neill saw his Ireland side qualify for the World Cup playoffs thanks to a 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff. Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP
Things come full circle. After another spine-tingling football night of thrills and spills from the Ireland football team, Martin O’Neill didn’t quite rule out the possibility of captain Seamus Coleman returning to the squad ahead of the world cup playoffs next month.
O’Neill has a gift for concocting magic results out of unpromising moments and in the week when he agreed a new contract with the FAI; he underlined his talent for these epic international nights by becoming the first manager in four years to win in Cardiff.
Ireland’s qualifying campaign took a dark turn on the night in March when Coleman suffered a horrible leg break in a turbulent home game against Wales. The Group D fortunes seemed to drift away from the Republic in the months afterwards. It took until Monday night to get back on track, a night when James McClean’s beautifully crisp 57th minute strike quenched the Welsh fire and silenced the choir and forced even the sceptics to stand back and applaud the limitless bravery and passion of this Irish team. They haven’t a clue of when or how to quit.
“I have never doubted the character of the players,” said O’Neill sometime after ten o’clock, as the locals traipsed home to leave St Mary Street to the Irish. The manager was reflective, almost subdued, as he sometimes can be after these epic occasions.
“That is instilled with them. They have great courage and that is never in doubt. Sometimes we can do better with the ball. Trying to qualify for the World Cup is a monumental task. Different conditions, different results. You mentioned the disappointment in Georgia. I knew we would fight back. We had to win on Friday night first.”
It was a match which Ireland had to first simply not lose in order to win.
For the first fifteen minutes, the Welsh played as if inspired by a passionate rendition of Land of My Fathers and looked to crush the Irish with a series of crisp, expansive attacks. Chris Gunter had the run of Ireland’s right flank and time and time again, James McClean was caught between trying to help Stephen Ward cover the Reading defender and adding his heft to the Irish midfield. McClean’s full-bodied tackle on Aaron Ramsey was about the only moment of solace during that torrid opening fifteen minutes when it was all Wales, everywhere. The band of Ireland fans behind Darren Randolph’s goal had seen it all before: their team under the cosh, balls fizzing left and right of the goal, last gasp clearances and near misses: living on the usual nerves and courage and crunching tackles, the meatiest of which saw Joe Allen leaving the field in the first half seeing stars.
“We missed Joe,” grimaced Chris Coleman, whose revitalising six seasons in charge of Wales may finish on this bitterly disappointing note.
“Joe Allen when he went off. We were a bit short. We didn’t have enough imagination. I have to give Martin O’Neill a huge pat on the back. They came with a game plan and it worked and good luck to them. It’s a shame for us and no complaints. It’s hard. It’s tough. That’s life. You learn from that.”
Wales missed Gareth Bale, too, who was watching a teak-tough derby in the shadows as McClean left his mark on the occasion. McClean’s goal, after Jeff Hendrick closed in to catch Ashley Williams in possession, work the ball down the right wing and deliver a dangerous cross which Harry Arter let run through, was the cleanest chance Ireland produce all night. It needed a composed strike and McClean delivered it. He has been the lodestar of Ireland’s qualifying campaign.
“He is brilliant for us. He might not have the same total ability as Gareth Bale but he has been brilliant for us. He has been magnificent. His energy....when you see James get tired with ten minutes to go you realise the rest must be very tired because James just keeps going. He keeps going. His drive and determination have become a trademark for this team.”
The result vindicated O’Neill’s choices over the last two games: Wes Hoolahan was the architect of the 2-0 win on Friday but didn’t feature in this demolition derby. After McClean’s goal turned the night on its head, leaving Wales suddenly chasing and increasingly anxious, O’Neill sent Glenn Whelan in to counsel the team through what was a predictably straightforward barrage of long balls as Wales chased a goal. Darren Randolph remained incredibly assured and Shane Duffy led a hugely brave defensive performance. It wasn’t pretty and it became increasingly basic as the match ebbed towards five minutes of injury time. The Welsh choir had turned angry by this stage: nothing about the build-up to this match promised this outcome.
“Once we started knocking it long, the Republic back four enjoy that,” said Coleman.
“In the end we didn’t look like scoring. We were huffing and puffing and we never lacked endeavour but we couldn’t break them down.”
He’s not the first manager to say that about Ireland. O’Neill’s team go into the play-off draw unseeded and still face a stiff task if they are to go to the World Cup next summer. But who would write them off? And O’Neill grimaced when asked if Jonathan Walters and even Coleman might be back to deepen his options for those home and away encounters.
“You are asking me ...there is no chance of Jon Walters. Seamus is doing really well. He was magnificent for us here around the camp and it was great to have him. I would say....I couldn’t call it. I would have to speak to our doctor and to Everton. He hasn’t played for some time and the playoffs are around the corner.”
That they are. What Wales would give to be preparing for those this week. Ireland, after everything, are still standing. Just about time to catch a breath.
“I don’t think everybody would want to play us,” O’Neill reasoned.
“Do I fear teams in it? Absolutely: every one of them, every single one of them. I’ve always feared teams, that’s the best way to be. Then we go out and beat them.”