Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill has admitted he made a big call when he withdrew record goalscorer Robbie Keane in a desperate attempt to find a priceless Group D breakthrough.
The 35-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy striker went into last night’s must-win Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia needing to score just once more in a green shirt to match Germany great Gerd Muller’s tally of 68 senior international goals.
However, having seen Keane struggle to make an impact in a poor first half from his team, O’Neill dragged him off at the break and replaced him with Shane Long.
The manager was rewarded when Jonathan Walters fired Ireland to a 1-0 victory, but he later admitted it had been a difficult decision.
O’Neill said: “Robbie has been terrific, but he’s just not getting any younger. I didn’t think we had great energy in the first half and I thought he just lacked that little bit of energy.
“It’s a call because the last thing you want to do while you are still searching for a goal is to remove your specialist goalscorer.”
The Republic were much improved in the second half, although it took a piece of glorious skill by Jeff Hendrick to set the stage for Walters to clinch a vital victory with a 69th-minute winner.
Ireland now have a four-point advantage over Scotland, who beat them in Glasgow and left Dublin with a 1-1 draw in June, in the race for a play-off berth, but face world champions Germany at home and then Poland away next month in an intensely difficult conclusion to the group.
O’Neill said: “Naturally I am delighted to have won the game, very obviously I am delighted. It’s just that with the games ahead, I don’t think that we should start to get ahead of ourselves.
“We have opened up a bit of a gap, but the head-to-head with Scotland might still come into play in a big way. What I said in June was that it was still in our own hands and (right now), it’s still in our own hands.”
There was disappointment for O’Neill, however, when midfielders Glenn Whelan and James McClean each picked up a third booking for the campaign which means they will sit out the Germany game.