Irish strength of will salvages draw in chaotic Austrian battle
A bloody-minded second half from Ireland made for a crazy game, in the best sense
Jonathan Walters celebrates scoring the Republic of Ireland’s equalising goal against Austria. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
This Republic of Ireland team should carry a health warning. They seem incapable of starring in mundane football days. A madcap Sunday afternoon in Dublin lurched from a deeply harmful defeat against Austria to an absurdly heart-filled late victory, but in the end the Irish had to settle for a 1-1 draw – the house special – thanks to Jon Walter’s terrifically smashed right-footed goal in the 85th minute.
Cue a wild and gripping closing stanza, a disallowed Irish goal (Shane Duffy’s point-blank header involved steamrolling Stefan Lainer into his own goal) and a June evening of nationwide debate over whether the genius of Wes Hoolahan (Martin O’Neill gave Ireland’s creator-in-chief just 20 minutes to work his wizardry; he unpicked Austria’s burly, solid back-four with a bewitching cross after just two) is yet another gift that Ireland as a nation continues to squander. As entertainment, this match started in worryingly sedate fashion – as if a collective retort to Roy Keane’s call to arms – but whatever happened in the Ireland dressing room at half time, they returned in bloody-minded, adrenaline-charged mood. The crowd responded, as they always do. And Austria didn’t flinch. It led to a match that was, in the best possible sense, nuts.
When it finished, Martin O’Neill was torn in his emotions: happy and relieved but also frustrated after coming tantalisingly close to a huge home win. That late goal, waved off by David Borbalán, was vivid in his mind when he sat down to offer his reflections.
“I’ll tell you now there might be a player called Andy Gray who mightn’t have ever scored a goal,” he said, in blackly comic mood.
“I think the spin of the ball . . . the Austrian player is in a standing position and the spin, if you get a slight touch on it, is all it will take to go in. Listen, you can’t change it. But it was a good goal. Let me put it this way, I think [Austrian centre-half Sebastian] Prödl said that if it had have been the other way around then it would have been a disappointment.”
Vanilla opening 30
Of deeper concern to O’Neill was the Republic’s vanilla opening half-hour. They did nothing to impose themselves on the visitors, with David Alaba, Bayern Munich’s smooth midfielder, warming to the space and time the Irish were permitting him and looking extremely good. The 31st-minute goal, which stunned the Aviva crowd, came straight from their play book. Alaba had taken Austria’s first corner on the left but now set up on the right-hand side of Darren Randolph’s post for their fourth corner-kick of the half. Aleksandar Dragovic and Prödl both ran towards Alaba’s cross, which scuttled across the surface, the former displaying a nimbleness not normally associated with centre-halves by stepping over the ball. Martin Hinteregger was the outlier, hiding in broad sunlight and his first time shot beat Randolph on the near post.
Just like that, the entire trajectory of the Republic’s qualifying campaign changed radically. The dreamy prematch talk of seizing control with a win and qualifying with the emotional ease of, say, Germany, suddenly seemed naive. This was a return to more familiar country: a furious scrap for a result.
“I just knew at half time that we had left so many things behind,” said O’Neill. “There was a determination in the dressing room to redress that and keep the record going here. And I have to say we were backed by a vociferous crowd, who were magnificent today.”
They were. By the 55th minute team and fans alike had generated the old tempest of pure will and expectation. Yet again James McClean cut a beautifully demented figure out on the left wing, and Ireland’s identikit central defensive pairing of Shane Duffy and Kevin Long were hugely brave and sometimes alarming in defence while also a menace in front of the Lindner’s goal. Both came close to scoring. Elsewhere Jeff Hendrick is for now unable to locate the distinguishing spark and daring of last summer, and the Harry Arter-Glenn Whelan axis is a work in progress.
The Irish energy in the stadium had begun to lull when the equalising goal eventually came. Walter’s lightning bolt came from that endless well of inspiration that Ireland have to call upon in those minutes of dire need: the speculative thump forward. Robbie Brady’s ball hopped in front of Walters and Alekasander Dragovic, with whom he had been engaging in a ferociously physical tussle all day. With the burly Leverkusen defender at this stage labouring with an injury, Walters bundled him aside and made a beautiful connection as the football sat up in front of him.
“A really great will,” O’Neill said admiringly of his veteran forward.
“Jon is not the quickest and yet he has a real knowledge of the game and he has a great will, as he showed in the European Championships for us. He was our talisman . . . a bit like James McClean now. And he was invaluable to us there, particularly in the second half. He was immense.”
The Whelan conundrum
He was also out on his feet. So too was Whelan, whose influence in green will always be subject to interpretation. He was a lynchpin and defensively organised. Consequently he was cautious about pushing forward even when Ireland trailed. “Listen, I have often said it: Glenn did very well for us indeed. Obviously his age is catching up and we wanted to get a bit more width into it,” O’Neill said, referring to the 77th-minute switch for Aiden McGeady.
In the end, whether Marcel Koller’s team had been through Roy Keane’s predicted “war” or not didn’t matter. They certainly knew they’d been through a pretty visceral experience for 95 minutes and can’t have bargained on taking just one point out of a possible six from their meetings with Ireland. As it was, their opening goal here originated, as O’Neill pointed out, “as a consequence from a handball further down the field”.
“It’s a big call,” he said.
“We were fantastic in the second half in terms of energy, drive and determination and we got a legitimate goal chopped off.”
O’Neill’s spectacles were low and the black eyes sparkling at the gigantic, bracing autumn nights ahead against Serbia and Wales. He knows the real stuff is close now. Nothing was lost or won on this summer’s day. Where it all ends up is, as always with Ireland, impossible to call.