Welsh dragon put to the sword in tense clash of Celtic nations
Victory deepens O’Neill’s reputation for producing huge results against tough sides
James McClean celebrates after his strike gave Ireland a 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff and a place in the World Cup qualification play-offs. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.
It fell to James McClean to slay the Welsh dragon and the Derry man didn’t disappoint. His 57th-minute goal now stands as one of those moments for Irish football. The shot rung throughout the valleys and silenced Cardiff and shocked Wales into submission. These may be two ordinary teams but the occasion was extraordinary.
The victory brings Martin O’Neill’s Irish team to the threshold of the World Cup finals and deepens the Irish manager’s reputation for producing huge results when the stakes are highest. Serbia finished top of Group D but Ireland have their coveted play-off spot.
It was McClean’s fourth goal of this campaign but easily his most famous; a deft left-footed shot after Harry Arter cleverly allowed the ball to skip past.
But it began from Ireland’s river-source: a willingness to chase lost causes. Jeff Hendrick had no right to win the ball from Wales captain Ashley Williams but he did anyway and then somehow kept it in play before making a brilliant cross along the right touch line.
Time seemed to slow down as the ball moved towards McClean and there was a split second of silence before the small band of Irish fans erupted in joy. It was one of those nights, one of those moments, one of those goals.
It was a perfect raid by O’Neill’s team because there were moments in the first half when Ireland made Wales look like Spain. The home team crafted passes with sumptuous ease, rolling the ball along the carpet and shimmering with menace around Darren Randolph’s penalty area. Cardiff was in full voice, the visitors couldn’t get on the ball and it felt as it was only a matter of time before Wales scored. But after half an hour, the tackling was becoming wilder and meatier. And the truth began to dawn: Wales are not Spain.
With their lone superstar, Gareth Bale sitting in the stand, these were two honest teams going at it. Chris Coleman, Wales’s manager had it right. Celtic nations these may be but this match was the essence of the British game.
Joe Allen, Wales’s nifty playmaker, was the first of the gang to feel the brunt, failing to recover from a McClean-David Meyler sandwich.
It was 0-0 at half-time and the night felt as it would be fine for the Welsh until the moment it wasn’t. After McClean’s thunderbolt, time was against them and none of the early composure was evident when they needed it.
Wales crash out then and O’Neill’s Ireland continue to defy the odds. You can never fault their heart.