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Ken Early: When the going gets tough, Ireland get going

Under Martin O’Neill there is a steely determination and a willingness to hang in there

Ireland’s Seamus Colman celebrates with James McClean after beating Austria in their 2018 World Cup qualifier in Vienna. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

If you have ever gazed with puzzlement at the vast open-air concerts of Andre Rieu, wondering why on earth people across Middle Europe flock in such huge numbers to listen to him perform classical lollipops, then you should have been at the Prater Stadium on Saturday night to hear the pre-match rendition of the Radetzky March.

You might think you’ve heard it a thousand times before, but until you’ve heard it blasted out to a crowd of nearly 50,000 Austrians waving flags in time to the beat, you haven’t really heard it.

The hyped-up atmosphere in the stadium was reflected in the feverish energy with which the home team began the match. Austria needed the win and they forced Ireland back from the outset, winning two corners in the first three minutes. Ireland’s defence creaked but held firm.

And then... nothing. For 15 or 20 minutes, almost nothing happened. The game meandered along with little pattern or shape. The teams huffed and puffed and gave the ball to each other.

Reaction on social media soon suggested the viewing public was unimpressed, as people wished their eyes could be torn from their sockets, and so on. But this knee-jerk criticism was to ignore the intense psychological battle that was happening out on the field.

Was this the kind of football that people will be talking about in 10 years? Unlikely. But football isn’t all about entertaining the fans for 90 minutes. Sometimes it’s just about hanging in there.

There is an art to staying in a game. Ireland, under Martin O’Neill, are getting better at it. Ireland showed little style but plenty of tenacity, and waited for the pressure to take its toll on the Austrians. By the end of that grim first 25 minutes, the crowd had gone quiet, the Austrian players had become agitated, and Ireland were starting to enjoy themselves.

They hit a speed bump when Glenn Whelan sustained an injury and David Meyler was called from the bench to replace him. Almost immediately, he made a mistake.

A diagonal cross looped into Ireland’s box and Duffy’s clearing header dropped at the edge of the box, into the space where you might have expected Ireland’s defensive midfielder to be patrolling. But Meyler was nowhere to be seen. Ireland were lucky that the unmarked Austrian arriving onto the ball was Marc Janko rather than David Alaba or Marko Arnautovic; his shot went high and wide. Duffy berated Meyler for being caught out of position, and the volleys of abuse seemed to wake the substitute up.

A couple of minutes later Meyler tussled with Alaba and seemed to be out-muscling the Bayern midfielder when Kevin Wimmer came racing up the wing and tried to nick the ball. Meyler chopped him down with a tackle that seemed certain to be punished with a yellow card, but the referee let him away with it. Meyler had found the pitch of the game and from that point on he played as though he was not to be messed with.

He started the move that led to the winning goal, hustling Wimmer out of possession and picking out Hoolahan in midfield. That adroit pass gave Hoolahan the opportunity to create a goal for Ireland with a quality through-ball for the second away game in a row.

Hoolahan might not even have made the team had Shane Long and James McCarthy both been available, but he seized the chance to prove wrong those who argue he can’t be relied upon in tough away games. “That was a big match tonight, and he was picked for the side, so that should give him great confidence,” Martin O’Neill said.

Ireland top the group after four games, and with four out of six matches remaining to be played in Dublin, their qualification chances are looking good. O’Neill urged everyone to remember that the experience of the last qualification campaign demonstrates how easily your luck can change.

“I think that after four games in the Euros – we had just been beaten by Scotland this time two years ago, and the home games felt as if they were vital. We didn’t win the next two home games. We drew with Poland, and with Scotland, who I felt we should have beaten.”

But Ireland have the momentum. After going nearly 15 years without beating a side placed above them in the FIFA rankings, they have now done it four times in little over a year – defeating Germany, Bosnia, Italy, and Austria. There is a sense that the team is going places – specifically, the wide-open spaces of Russia. O’Neill paid tribute to the influence of his captain Seamus Coleman in setting the right tone.

“Coleman is great. He’s a great player. He’s taken that captaincy on like you wouldn’t believe. He’s been terrific for us in the games. Tonight he has to deal with Arnautovic on that side, then he has to deal with keeping everybody else going. So it was a big evening for him, and he was absolutely and utterly up to the task.

“I think the most important thing is that the players do enjoy coming. They want to play for their country obviously. There’s a good spirit. I think some of the senior lads help promote that. I think John O’Shea is excellent doing it as well. We’re not so bad ourselves in the back-room staff. And Coleman, as I say, he wants to play for the country, which is great. And he’s showing it out on the field. He’s taken that captaincy on to a really great level.”