Coming of age for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland as Euro 2016 beckons
Within five minutes of being cast into the action in Dublin, Shane Long gifted Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with cause for jubilation, as his second-half strike earned the Boys in Green a famous 1-0 home victory over world champions Germany.
Southampton’s swift forward was the man whose name will be forever remembered, having incredibly fired past the towering figure of Manuel Neuer in the German goal but, as a team, Ireland were simply brilliant.
Yes, at times, O’Neill’s heroic outfit rode their luck, with Thomas Muller somehow firing wide from close-range, numerous low-driven crosses sailing agonisingly close to goal and a list of injuries forcing switches, but fortune is needed when facing such an esteemed international force.
Ireland’s historic home triumph, along with Scotland’s draw with Poland, means a victory on Sunday in Warsaw or a high-scoring draw would see them say ‘bonjour’ to a place in France next summer, and a win is 7/2 with Coral.
O’Neill faced harsh criticism at the beginning of his reign as Irish boss, having previously led Northern Ireland out as captain at the 1982 World Cup in his playing days, but building a disciplined and passionate set-up has finally reaped its rightful rewards.
“It’s an absolutely fantastic win,” stated the gleeful coach. “We showed bravery in the second half and had to withstand a lot of pressure. We have beaten the world champions tonight and that shouldn’t be taken away from players.
“We have a big match against Poland now but one way or another, at least we’ve reached the play-off and we’ve something to go for on Sunday.”
Long’s goal will live long in the memory of fans and those who were fortunate enough to witness such a historic moment for Irish football, but incredible performances all over the pitch were the key factor here as Ireland looked to have come of age.
Defending the Dublin goal, which was guarded by Darron Randolph after a Shay Given knock during proceedings, John O’Shea cast club struggles with Sunderland aside to become a different animal altogether in green, alongside battling central partner Richard Keogh.
The latter stalwart centre back was one of three Derby County starts to produce sublime displays for their country, with Cyrus Christie solidly filling in for Seamus Coleman once again and Dubliner Jeff Hendrick also playing a key role in an energetic midfield. Stephen Ward is not to be forgotten either, making numerous last-ditch tackles to deny Germany, despite not having played a single minute of league action for Burnley in this season’s Championship.
Previously James McCarthy was unjustly attacked as the scapegoat for under-par outings nationally, being unable to emulate majestic club displays with Everton in green. But the fiery-headed midfielder produced a momentous outing in the central areas, covering as the anchorman beside Hendrick, rather than starring as the creative spark that fans and pundits have craved him to be.
Instead, it was Norwich City dynamo Wes Hoolahan that took on his adored role as playmaker, not looking out of place at all on the same turf as seemingly world class attackers and World Cup winners Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze.
At 33 years of age, the Canaries creator is the definition of a late bloomer in this sport, emphatically blowing off the shackles that had been holding him back in his earlier appearances and proving why Giovanni Trapattoni’s decision to exile his talents was truly inexplicable.
Daryl Murphy was the targetman trusted to lead Ireland’s attack from the start, despite having never found the net when donning his international colours, but his strength in battle was a constant nuisance before Long’s more direct approach was decisively introduced.
Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters struck the important winner over Georgia earlier in qualifying and the Potters forward was again impressive beside Murphy, while Robbie Brady provided them both with plenty of astute deliveries.
Three points over the reigning world champions was made all the more satisfying with the reaction of Germany’s coach and players, as Bayern Munich’s Muller entertainingly bemoaning the Irish tactics.
“Ireland only defended and played long balls. We had decent chances and gave nothing away,” complained Muller.
“In the end we wasted too many chances and conceded an unnecessary goal after a mistake, coupled with a lot of play-acting and a week referee. Even if it sounds stupid, we didn’t play badly.”
There is work still to be done in their attempts to secure an automatic qualifying position for the finals, and they are 15/2 to topple Poland with both teams scoring in Warsaw, but under the watchful guidance of O’Neill, the Irish could yet prove to be a defiant force in France.