Ken Early: Emerging generation banish old fatalism
Ireland has a new team now, a very different one from that broken in Gdansk and Poznan
Shane Long scores the decisive goal for Ireland in Thursday’s European Championship qualifying match in the Aviva Stadium against Germany. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
We all know Ireland’s history in international football is one of the longest hard- luck stories in sport, but there had always been peaks. England beaten in ’88, Italy in ’94, Holland by the 10 men in 2001.
The further those peaks receded into the past, the more impossibly glorious they seemed. For the current generation of players, there had been no peaks at all.
All that recent years had given us was the memory of being the worst team at Euro 2012. As Spain made fools of us in the drizzle in Gdansk, it looked as though we were finished as a force in international football.
The Spanish might as well have been playing a different sport. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t get close to their goal. We couldn’t even get the ball.
Germany’s effortless superiority on their last visit to Dublin had deepened the gloom. They taught us that we were now the kind of team that lost 6-1 at home. The gulf in class that night was encapsulated in Toni Kroos’s two goals, both nailed in from outside the box, one with his right foot and one with his left. We could and did place much of the blame on Trap, but he knew and we knew that we didn’t have anyone who could do things like that.
The fear began to take hold that we would never have another Stuttgart or Giants’ Stadium. Maybe it was time to concentrate on rugby.
Now that depressive fatalism has been swept away by a win that reminds us that football is a sport that always gives you a chance, if you’re prepared to give it everything you’ve got.
Ireland has a new team now, very different from the one that was broken in Gdansk and Poznan. The side that finished Thursday’s match included only one player – John O’Shea – who had started any of the matches in Euro 2012.
Indomitable beliefWes Hoolahan
Hoolahan set the tone for a defiant Ireland performance early in the first half when he charged out and robbed the ball from the unsuspecting Ilkay Gundogan after a German corner. He continued to work at that phenomenal rate all the way to the end.
Watching him tear around the pitch, relentlessly closing down opponents, inspiring his team-mates to do likewise, you wondered how anyone could ever have thought he was somehow a luxury or lightweight player. We’ve already wasted too many of Hoolahan’s best years – let’s not waste another minute of what we’ve got left.
At the back of Ireland’s midfield, James McCarthy delivered his best international performance yet, in the absence of his long-time central midfield partner, Glenn Whelan. Maybe it was that Whelan’s absence forced him to step up and take responsibility; maybe he simply feels more comfortable if he is playing as the main defensive pivot of the midfield.
Whatever the reason, there was none of the diffidence and uncertainty of which McCarthy is sometimes accused. He was expressing himself with conviction and when he swished past Gundogan in the second half with an arrogant sidestep you felt, at last, that he had started to enjoy himself in an Ireland shirt.
McCarthy had tireless support from Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, and it was fascinating to see what it’s possible to achieve when your midfielders are all good on the ball. The intelligence and composure of Hendrick and Jon Walters as Ireland worked to kill the game in the last few minutes were a joy to behold for supporters who remembered the sickening late concessions against Italy and Austria.
And then, of course, there was Shane Long, the young up-and-coming tyro who’s actually 28 years old now and has never yet managed to establish himself as the number one striker. Long started the match disappointed to find that O’Neill preferred Daryl Murphy up front. If the manager’s intention was to provoke a response, that’s exactly what he got.
Long came on as the atmosphere in the stadium was changing from a general dread of the punishment we feared Germany were about to inflict, to a sense of wary optimism that Ireland could get something out of this match. The crowd knew that Germany hadn’t really turned up.
Patience is a virtue in football but sometimes you can be too patient. Faced with a side they thought they could beat in their sleep, the Germans forgot to wake up. The German team that won the World Cup had players like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger who set the tempo for the team. On Thursday, everyone seemed to be leaving that responsibility to everyone else.
As it turned out, Germany’s downfall originated in their futuristic style of play.
Germany’s attacking game plan features defenders who play on the half-way line and a goalkeeper who roams about outside his box, sweeping the space in behind the high defensive line. This set-up allows them to put their opponents under concerted pressure in their own half, but there’s a chink in the armour, if you can find it.
On 69 minutes Darren Randolph found it with that long clearance downfield. The ball dropped perfectly into that awkward strip of the pitch – probably no more than five or six metres deep – behind Germany’s defensive line, but not close enough to Neuer for him to come and intercept.
Long reacted quickest and as the ball dropped over his shoulder he had already got away from Jerome Boateng.
Not that Neuer would have been unduly worried at that point. He likes to stand tall and force the striker to make a decision. More often than not, he wins the mental battle.
But Long was completely in the moment, body and mind acting together as one. There was no flicker of doubt about his intention.
He reached the ball before Boateng and hammered it past Neuer with everything he had. The goal of a lifetime. A moment to stand with the greatest in the history of Irish football.
On Thursday night we saw an emerging generation of Irish footballers giving us the performance we always hoped was in them. Let’s hope they’ve got a couple more where that came from.