Liam Brady believes Ireland’s victory fully vindicates the FAI’s decision to agree a contract extension with Martin O’Neill.
In the run-up to Monday’s game, Chris Coleman had talked it up like it was going to be a heavyweight boxing match.
And so it was, but perhaps not exactly how he’d imagined it would be. Instead of the two sides going toe-to-toe from the first bell, this was a case of Ireland doing that rope-a-dope thing, soaking up lots of pressure, especially in the first 20 minutes, and then, when Wales had punched themselves out, taking their one big chance to land the knockout blow.
It had always looked like one of those games which might be settled either by a mistake or a piece of magic.
And when the decisive moment came, it was a bit of both. Ashley Williams made the mistake after Wayne Hennessey had put him in some trouble with his throw out. Jeff Hendrick was alive to the opportunity and did well to get down the right and pull the ball back across the box. Then Harry Arter supplied the inventive dummy and James McClean the emphatic finish.
And that was it. Wales were on the canvas and Ireland were going through to the play-offs.
Before kick-off, the signs hadn’t been so encouraging for the visitors. I was, as you might expect, very disappointed not to see Wes Hoolahan in the starting XI, especially since I thought Shane Long’s late withdrawal might just prompt Martin O’Neill to find space for our most creative player.
But the manager went for a physically strong midfield and, since football is ultimately a results business, you have to give him and the players enormous credit for getting it right on the night.
That said, I was surprised at how poor Wales were. In the end, we just packed the goalmouth, allowed them no way in and, when they were reduced to pumping high balls into the box, their desperation tactics were right up Shane Duffy’s street. Towering in the centre of the defence, and with all those red shirts in close proximity, he was never going to get pulled out of position.
David Meyler was excellent once again in front of the back four, always a cool head right up until his tackle on Hennessey in the last minute which has cost him his place in the first leg of the play-off.
The only other bit of Irish ill-discipline on the night was the incident involving Robbie Brady and Ashley Williams, which went unnoticed by the referee but not by the television cameras, so it remains to be seen if Ireland will have a price to pay for that too.
Everybody played their part in what was a real team effort. On the two occasions when Wales did get big efforts on target — the shot by Aaron Ramsey in the first half and the header by Hal Robson-Kanu in the second — Darren Randolph dealt superbly with both.
It was one of those nights which was memorable for Ireland’s courage and, of course, for the result. One shot, one goal. To that extent, you can understand why the Welsh will feel they were mugged. But I had said before the game that it might come down to which side wanted it the most and, on that score, Ireland certainly didn’t lack for heart and fight and determination. Playing at home, when we have to take the game to the opposition, is probably not our forte. We’re better when we’re defending our goal and trying to nick one on the break. And under O’Neill, these players clearly have huge belief that they can win playing that way.
A key to Monday night’s victory was that we didn’t go behind during that opening 20 minutes when Wales took possession of the ball and we hardly got a touch. The fact Gareth Bale was absent was obviously a huge break for us and then, on the night, the loss of Joe Allen hurt them too because, up until he got sandwiched between Meyler and McClean, he had probably been the most composed player on the pitch. His departure forced Coleman to change things around, with Ramsey dropping deep, and that also definitely helped our cause. Once we began to get a foothold in the game midway through the first half, Wales never looked quite so dominant. And by the end, they had completely run out of ideas.
Looking ahead to the play-off, one thing’s for sure: Nobody will want to draw this Irish team because they’re so tough and uncompromising. To enhance creativity, O’Neill may find a place for Wes Hoolahan, depending on who we play or how the games are developing. The way things were going on Monday, I thought Wes would be brought on to provide the spark to get the goal we needed to win the match but, in the end, it was that mistake by Williams and the great finish by McClean which dictated how we approached the last half-hour of the game.
The usual hope for a play-off draw, beyond getting what you might think is least formidable of the four contenders, is that you get the away leg out of the way first and play what you hope will be the decider at home. But such is the stubborn belief in this team that I suspect they don’t really mind who they play or where.
We’ll be up against a seeded team who will have more skill on the pitch but the way we play means we can stifle that kind of creativity.
The worry remains, however, that when the onus is on us to dictate the play, we really cannot do it.
But all that’s for another day. This morning, the FAI will no doubt feel fully vindicated about the decision to agree a contract extension with Martin O’Neill. My own view, even before Monday, was that it was the logical call.
O’Neill and Roy Keane have done what was expected of them. It would have been hugely disappointing had Ireland not gone to the Euros when teams like Iceland, Wales, and Northern Ireland got there.
The World Cup is a harder tournament to qualify for and, in the context of such a tight group, to have come out with 19 points and earn a play-off spot, is testament to O’Neill’s management skills.
All that said, I thought it was strange that the news of the contract was announced in the form of an interview on the FAI website in which it fell to him to confirm that agreement had been reached.
All football people in Ireland would like to know more a bit more about who made the call and the process by which the decision was made.
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