Football is not immune to fairytales but even the Brothers Grimm might have raised eyebrows at the manner in which Ireland concocted one of those fables of defiance and last gasp heroics in Gelsenkirchen.
John O’Shea’s name can be added to the roll call including Aldridge and Sheedy and Houghton and Keane, all scorers of Irish goals which tend to define entire epochs of Irish life. Maybe this was the night the recession finally died.
For on Budget night, on the night of his 100th cap, the popular Waterford veteran fired his third goal for Ireland. It came in the 94th minute, against the world champions and just when the German citizens watching on television across the nation had presumed it was business as usual from their cast of glittering stars. No. Not tonight. O'Shea stole the show in a manner that was truly fabulous.
"Ah, it was everything," beamed the Irish manager after leaving an exhilarated team in the dressing room. "He even had the captain's armband on at the time. Jeff Hendrick did really, really well to get the ball across. And we had a chance, funny enough, just before that with Wes. We just never gave up. We kept going. And I never felt we were out of the game."
That was the thing. This was a dauntless performance from the Irish team, who made good on their promise to ignore the memories of their last two previous, lacerating experiences at the hands of Germany. The statistics will show that the world champions lorded it on the football here. And they did. But they also struggled to break down a fiercely well organised and willing Irish collective.
For seventy minutes, Ireland had rigorously adhered to a plan which revolved around showing the Ruhr a thing or two about industriousness. Attitude was everything and from the first whistle James McClean, above all the Irishmen, signalled a flinty refusal to be intimidated by pre-match show of German superiority or by the company of Antonio Rüdiger. For most of the night, he had to scamper after lost causes but given half a chance to get his head to one of David Forde's many long clearances or to get up close and personal with the German back four, McClean was happy to take it. He clattered into the Toni Kroos late in the first half and shrugged at the Bayern man's protests. That spirit was evident throughout the field and rather than fade after Germany finally concocted a goal through an ambitious strike by Kroos, the Irish became emboldened.
“Well, it was a great point for us to come to the home of the world champions and get something out of the game,” O’Neill said. “Obviously we had to stand a bit of pressure. The idea was to use the ball a bit when we had it in the first half. That was still very difficult. At half time we were okay. What is the point of losing the game if you can’t go for it? That is what we did and there was always a chance that they would score a second goal. But they were fantastic.”
Perhaps they did catch the Germans at a good time. There is no question that Jogi Löw’s squad seem to be lukewarm about the prosaic business of qualifying for Europe after their transcendent heroics in Brazil last summer. Pockets of empty seats were notable in the stadium and just 51,204 fans showed up, almost 3,000 short of a full house. The old coal mining town is not one of the Ruhr’s more prosperous enclaves but it was surprising that the world champions did not fill the theatre. And for all the sharp footwork and intricate passing movements, they weren’t quite as crisp or dangerous as the visiting fans might have feared.
The preamble was an impressive and intimidating pageant of German football lore: the four huge gold stars bearing the gilded World Cup winning years of 1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014 on display as a reminder of the country's sustained tradition of excellence. The home crowd came in the expectation of a show and the Germans were keen to provide it, seeking to unlock O'Neill's well-drilled defensive unit with a quick flick and run for Julian Draxler or Mario Götze or Thomas Müller to work magic with. But after half an hour, Erik Durm's instinctive thumped shot against Ireland's crossbar was all they really had to show for the patient approach work and complex attacks. And after half an hour, the German fans were silent, listening to the Irish corner of the ground belt out a raucous chorus of a Depeche Mode classic.
“Generally speaking it was to be expected that we would fall into this post World Cup hole,” said Löw as the Irish sang on in the stadium.
“ If you look at the players you can see in their eyes that they are a little bit knocked after the World Cup and then a short break and a short pre-season and some players need longer to get back to themselves. So there is a little bit missing still.”
But as O'Neill respectfully pointed out, Ireland were missing regular starters too, including Séamus Coleman, "the best defender in Britain." This is a huge night in O'Neill's first campaign and leaves Ireland well placed after the first series of exchanges in Group D. They lived dangerously at times and relied on two excellent saves from David Forde, controlled and assured all night. Germany's goal came from a familiar source, a deftly driven strike from just outside the box by Toni Kroos but for whatever reason, the Irish defenders chose to back off the Bayern player as he looked for a gap. It was a rare moment of looseness and they paid dearly for it. All of Europe must have assumed it would be the usual story then; a plucky Irish loss in one of the great mansions of the continental game. Still, the visiting fans kept singing and O'Neill urged the players to press, to chase, to gamble. And then Hoolan launched a ball from deep on the right wing and whoever Mats Hummel was expecting to materialise to meet Hendrick's returned cross, it definitely wasn't John O'Shea, who had made a rare venture into the enemy goal mouth. And it all ended happily . . .