By Liam Mackey
The only bit of good Nations League news out of last night for Ireland is that, with Denmark’s stand-off with their federation now resolved, they are sure to present a rather more formidable obstacle to Wales in Aarhus on Sunday than sorry Ireland were able to muster in Cardiff.
But then, on the basis of last night’s horror show for the visitors, you suspect that so might the Danish futsal team.
We knew in advance that a weakened Irish side would be up against it but not even in the worst nightmare scenario could we have predicted that the game would be done and dusted before half-time, as the vibrant Welsh, scoring three times, put their hapless opponents to the sword.
By the end of a torrid night for Martin O’Neill and his players, a home side full of youthful verve and established class had piled on even more pain though at least Shaun Williams, having come off the bench, has the memory of a debut international goal to take away from what was, otherwise, another night to forget for Irish football.
And I say ‘another’ because, if the inaugural game in the Nations League was meant to furnish an opportunity to dispel the gloom and uncertainty still lingering from Ireland’s last competitive outing in Dublin in November, the reality is that all this latest heavy defeat achieved was to prolong and even deepen it.
The headline news before kick off in the Irish camp had seen Preston’s Callum Robinson handed his competitive debut in a move which ensures his international future will remain green. Sean Maguire, one of a host of missing persons for the visitors, was quick to hail the development, tweeting to his Deepdale team mate, ‘yes brother, go do your thing’.
On his first home appearance as national manager, Ryan Giggs had no qualms giving youth its day, with 17-year-old Ethan Ampadu – who had been eligible to play for Ireland – being handed his competitive debut, as was Bournemouth’s David Brooks (21), while Connor Roberts (22) and Chris Mepham (20) also featured in the starting line-up. But the big guns were marshalled too, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen all present and correct, with Ashley Williams once again wearing the captain’s armband.
The game began with some pretty frantic end to end action but the clock had barely struck six minutes before Welsh class reared its head in decisive fashion, as Joe Allen opened up the Irish rearguard with a superb slide-rule pass and Tom Lawrence, leaving Ciaran Clark in his wake, supplied the killer blow with an emphatic finish to the roof of the net.
Then, on 18 minutes, more Welsh class, this time from the maestro himself. Ireland were trying to get on the front foot but when Jeff Hendrick’s attempted pass to Cyrus Christie was all too easily cut out, Ben Davies had time to look up and sweep the ball downfield to where Gareth Bale was loitering with intent on the right flank. In something we’ve seen so many times before from the Real Madrid man, one cool piece of control on his chest and a little jink inside were enough to take him away from Ward and Clark and create the space for a trademark whipped shot from 25 yards out which dipped in under Randolph’s crossbar.
As the Welsh threatened to score with virtually every attack, on the half-hour mark Randolph was all that stood between Lawrence and a third home goal as Ireland, already desperately trying to chase the game, were again left back-pedalling and panicking in the face of another swift counter-attack.
Five minutes later, there was a suggestion that the gloom might briefly lift for the visitors as a rare passage of neat attacking football ended with Seamus Coleman cleverly setting up an inviting chance for Robinson but, disappointingly, the new boy couldn’t keep his shot down.
As if offended by their guests’ presumption, the Welsh wasted no time in showing the Irish how it should be done. Again, there was an element of the self-inflicted wound about it as the impressive Ampadu robbed Walters in midfield, took a few strides forward and then supplied the lancing diagonal pass which allowed Ramsey to take a touch before beating Randolph low inside his near post.
The Welsh crowd, lustily singing the praises of Ryan Giggs while merrily heaping abuse on the team which had crushed their World Cup dream, didn’t want the half to end. In stark contrast, Ireland had the look of a side who were already wishing the referee’s whistle was the final one.
Four minutes after the resumption, a Shane Duffy header reminded Welsh ’keeper Wayne Hennessey that he was actually involved in a game of two sides but, a couple of driving runs from Christie apart, there was little enough about Ireland to suggest that they could hope for anything more than damage limitation in the second half.
And even that modest ambition was off the agenda in the 54th minute when, with most of the Irish rearguard dragged out of position as they converged on Bale, Lawrence was able to tee up Connor Roberts who supplied another terrific finish to put Wales four to the good.
Then, entirely against the run of play, came a moment to remember for Irish substitute Shaun Williams. Perhaps it was complacency or maybe even a fit of generosity on his part but Ramsey suddenly lost his bearings in front of his own penalty area, and the Millwall man showed admirable opportunism and composure to poach the ball and then dink it over Hennessey.
However, a consolation goal has rarely felt less consoling.
Wales: Hennessey, C Roberts, A Williams, Mepham, Davies (Dummett 81), Ampadu (Smith 62), Allen, Ramsey, Lawrence, Brooks, Bale (Roberts 74).
Republic of Ireland: Randolph, Coleman (C),Duffy, Clark, Ward (Stevens 60), O’Dowda, Christie, Hendrick, Hourihane (Williams 57), Robinson (Horgan 77), Walters.