Whatever about making history, Thurs- day night’s victory over Germany was the result the Republic of Ire- land have needed since the qualification for Euro 2012, and offers a real platform going forward.
I haven’t experienced a home game like that in a long, long time, and to see and hear Lansdowne Road react in the way it did was great to see. This was the boost we’ve needed, and not just for the team.
In the four years since we qualified for Euro 2012, there’s been the feeling we’ve been going backwards. We had indifferent results in Giovanni Trapattoni’s last campaign, and Martin O’Neill’s start to the Euro 2016 campaign wasn’t completely convincing, particularly since we only got one point from two games against Scotland. On top of that, there was all the Fifa business and the controversy over the €5m payment to the FAI after the Thierry Henry handball. It all made things look kind of bleak.
You only have to look at the reaction.
It was all the better because it was so unexpected, and I have to admit being at the forefront of some pessimism before the game. I thought we’d need a minor miracle to even get a draw against Germany and, in many ways, what we witnessed was a miraculous outcome.
The Germans did dominate the match in the first 20 minutes, and created so many decent chances. I felt it was just a matter of time before they would cut through us and get what would have been a customary victory for them.
What was especially encouraging, though, was how the turning point came. I’d put it down to a period towards the end of the first half when players like Robbie Brady and — in particular — Wes Hoolahan got on the ball. There was a spell when we kept possession for about 15 passes in the middle of the park. It didn’t really go anywhere but it was more about the message and the assertion. That willingness to play showed the Germans we could get on the ball and wouldn’t necessarily be cowed, while instilled belief in our team that we can calm this match down when we do those things.
I thought Hoolahan led that superbly. His leadership on the ball gave us breathing space and calmed everybody’s nerves. He was also ably assisted by Brady, as well as the work rate of James McCarthy and Jon Walters. Assurance grew from there.
Up until then, we had suffered a bit of an onslaught, and only last-ditch defending prevented them from scoring. Jerome Boateng had a great chance in the first half when, inexplicably, he had a free header from a corner kick. John O’Shea then put in a last-ditch block when Ilkay Gundogan was coming onto a shot. What we counted on was defenders defending the goalmouth, which they did very well.
At the same time, they didn’t really get in on goal one-on-one from going through the middle, and that was a tactical success. O’Neill was willing to sacrifice the wings and I think that paid off. The German full-backs were more like wingers than they were full-backs. O’Neill put his faith into making sure that we’d deal with all the crosses the Germans were going to play, and we managed that.
We got through to half-time where I’m sure O’Neill would have said, ‘Look, this is going OK, we can believe we’re going to get a result here’.
I thought the team came out in the second half and battened down the hatches.
OK, we did ride our luck a bit. We got away with Andre Schurrle’s chance on about 55 minutes when he should have scored from Marco Reus’s cross after Manuel Neuer’s kick-out. There was another one going across the six-yard box that Keogh slid away, and then Thomas Muller was guilty of missing the target.
But we were still blocking them going down the centre. The work rate and the concentration of McCarthy, Walters, Hoolahan, and Brady in midfield were key to that.
The way things were going at that point, though — with Scotland beating Poland 2-1 at the time — we really needed a win. We got one. It was 70 minutes when the goal came, and we were beginning to believe we could get the win. Then, of course, the whole place went mad.
I don’t know whether you would put the moment itself down to the fact Shane Long came on fresh against tiring defenders. You could give credit to O’Neill on that. Darryl Murphy’s selection ahead of Long was a surprise but that’s nit-picking. Martin got the result — an unbelievable result. His tactics worked on the evening. He also got a performance out of the players that was full of passion and hard work.
You have to say the Irish team always give their all no matter what, but I think they gave more than their all on Thursday. It was an effort from the crowd, the players, and the manager that got us over the line.
I saw Jogi Low after the game had a go at how we played, at how they finally struggled with the 100th long ball. That’s crass and unnecessary. If you compare the levels of the two sides, we have cut our cloth accordingly. He should look at his own team. The comment probably comes from the fact his side were overconfident, bordering on arrogant. They were almost strolling as if thinking all would be well and good if they took their chances, but a 0-0 would be satisfactory. I don’t think they saw the Irish goal coming.
That goal was the shot in the arm we required, and a platform for tomorrow night in Warsaw too. We can go there now knowing we’re at least in a play-off, and perform relatively free of pressure. Hopefully that will produce a performance that can win the match, and settle qualification once and for all.
It does remain to be seen how both teams come out of Thursday. The energy the Irish players spent was immense in just trying to stop the Germans, so there’s a question over whether some can repeat that performance. On top of that, Poland will get a great lift from their injury-time equaliser in Scotland to make it 2-2. Their mental outlook will be completely different — but so is Ireland’s.
Throughout this campaign, O’Neill has had to patch the team together a bit as he’s gone. He’s never been quite sure of his best XI, with three different players leading the line, and Hoolahan not playing away to Georgia or Scotland, or starting away to Germany. On top of that, he’s had injuries and suspensions as he’s tried to find solutions.
To get where we are today, and be assured of a play-off, we should all be thankful.
Bring on Sunday, and let’s see if there’ll be even more to be thankful for. O’Neill has ensured the team has the chance.
It’s also a watershed in the job for him. He forged his club career and his fine managerial reputation on doing more than expected with the teams he’s had. When he went into the Irish job, we were all hoping he could bring that to international level. Until Thursday, there was a question over that. The jury was out. He certainly didn’t have evidence as strong as a win like that.
That’s changed. It can change what’s to come too.
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