Ken Early: Game changed when Joe Allen was forced off
Martin O’Neill’s side again proved why they are such a hard team to kill off
Ireland’s David Meyler and James McClean tackle Joe Allen of Wales resulting in the Welsh midfielder leaving the pitch through injury in Cardiff. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There have been times in 2017 when Martin O’Neill’s Ireland team have been hard to watch, but it turns out they are even harder to kill. This team fights best when it’s fighting for its life. All those wasted opportunities in the home games against Wales, Austria and Serbia were forgotten on Monday night in Cardiff as James McClean’s belter gave Ireland a famous win and sent them through to the World Cup playoffs.
The late injury to Shane Long meant Ireland started with Daryl Murphy ahead of a five-man midfield that did not include Wes Hoolahan, as O’Neill went for physical strength and staying power in the face of the anticipated Welsh onslaught. This robust selection proved wise. From long before kick-off there was a sort of electricity in the air that had seldom been felt in Uefa Qualifying Group D. The Welsh fans set the tone, singing their national anthem with spine-tingling fervour, and the team started as though inspired by that energy, taking control of the game from the kick-off and threatening to blow Ireland away.
The first 20 minutes Wales were a whirlwind and Ireland were clinging on for dear life. The five-man midfield looked porous and after seven minutes Hendrick, Arter and Meyler could be seen in the centre circle in what looked like a heated discussion about what was going wrong.
Wales had 86 per cent possession over the first 15 minutes and forced five corners in the first 20. And yet the closest they came to scoring was when Ciaran Clark shinned a cross just wide of Randolph’s near post. They had been in full flow but after the flow comes the ebb. And the dynamic began to change, first slowly, then all at once.
During that first half-hour there was plenty of evidence that Wales were simply on a different level in organisational terms: this is what you can do when you establish a clear football identity. Yet Ireland were still in the game, getting closer, putting in tackles, breaking up play. Then, on 35 minutes, almost unnoticed: the turning point.
David Meyler and Joe Allen’s collision looked innocuous but Allen stayed down. It turned out to be concussion. When Allen stumbled from the field Wales’ ability to play football went with him. With Allen on the pitch, Wales made it look so easy to find their forwards between the lines and spin it out to the flanks. Without him it was as though their guidance system had short-circuited. The sudden dramatic deterioration in Wales play was a reminder that in football we talk too much about managers and gameplans. It’s no use having a great gameplan if you don’t have the players who can make it work. By half-time it was clear that Ireland had successfully dragged Wales down to their level and it was anyone’s game.
The big change from the first 20 minutes is that while the away side still had not strung together many spells of control, they were at least pressing Wales further up the pitch, and that is ultimately where the winner came from.
The decisive moment will be remembered as a horror show for Ashley Williams, but neither could it have happened without the initiative of Hendrick, who sensed the Wales captain might be about to dawdle over a pass from his goalkeeper and sprinted over to press. Hendrick then twisted away from Davies with a turn down the line, just about keeping the ball in play and knocking it towards the corner flag. Williams should have closed him down and cleaned him out but again he was indecisive and allowed Hendrick time to swing over the cross. Harry Arter skipped over it at the near post and there was McClean waiting unmarked, Wales’ executioner, to smash it past Hennessey with his right foot.
There was a thumping finality to the finish and even though there were 33 minutes still to play you sensed that Wales felt like they were sinking in quicksand. Their dominance in the first 20 minutes was now a haunting memory – it’s hard to redouble your efforts when you know you have already given it your best shot. The crowd tried to rouse them, first with songs and then with curses, but there was no mistaking the sinking feeling around the Cardiff City Stadium. Ireland were too big, too strong, too awkward, Wales could no longer find the gaps. If this was going to be a siege, then Duffy and Clark were ready for it. Duffy in particular was immense in the last quarter of the game, repelling every attack and making 19 clearances in total.
Wales looked in vain to Aaron Ramsey for inspiration, but he was nowhere to be seen: his ineffectiveness summed up by the shocking free kick he blasted over 10 minutes from the end. The 17-year-old star Ben Woodburn came off the bench but one dangerous diagonal cross aside, he couldn’t make any impact. Wales’ hearts were broken and everyone knew it. The five minutes of injury time sped by. The Irish supporters, kept behind after the final whistle, were still singing 20 minutes later.
For O’Neill it was hard to imagine a sweeter vindication: four days after unexpectedly agreeing that new contract, he has defied the odds to reach the playoffs. He has won more games away from home against higher-ranked opposition in the last 12 months than Ireland had managed in the previous three decades. Who can bet against his team doing it again next month?