LIAM MACKEY: Critics have no answer for O’Neill

Now that we’ve all just about re-entered earth orbit after that ‘I-saw-it-with-my-own-eyes-and-I-still-can’t-believe-it’ final act in Gelsenkirchen, it’s time to draw breath and ponder a couple of the deeply philosophical questions posed by Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Germany.

Such as: does the end justify the means?

And when is a moral victory not a moral victory?

The first, first — and the answer, at least on this occasion, is self-evident. The end definitely justifies the means when the end is as sensational and significant as the one provided by the flick of John O’Shea’s right boot in the 94th minute on Tuesday night. Timely barely does it justice: the veteran’s act of divine intervention meant the euphoric travelling support didn’t have to endure even one minute of the traditional onslaught of gut-wrenching terror which normally ensues when a big result is almost within Ireland’s grasp.

As for the moral victory conundrum — blame Martin O’Neill for any confusion here. Immediately after the final whistle, the manager declared that he’d waved Ireland forward near the end because he wanted more than to come away from the home of the world champions with a creditable narrow defeat.

He wasn’t prepared, he said, to settle for one of those old “moral victories”.

Nice to hear, of course, except for the fact that a moral victory is precisely what Ireland achieved on Tuesday night — unless, of course, I missed that new Uefa directive awarding three points for a draw which simply feels as good as a win.

And, make no mistake, that’s exactly how it felt at the death in the Veltins-Arena as O’Shea’s touch directed the ball into the corner of the net. Which might also explain why one Roy Keane — a man who has often gone on record with his disdain for the concept of the draw-as-win — could be seen yahooing as if he’d just spotted Fergie being overcharged at the till for a copy of ‘The Second Half’.

And why not? Even the cold statistics arising from that winning equaliser can still warm the heart. At the outset of the campaign, a cautious assessment of Ireland’s qualification prospects would have posited four points from the first three games: a draw in Georgia, a win against Gibraltar and defeat in Germany. And, outside of a few crazy dreamers, the most optimistic prediction would have happily settled for six, based on three points gleaned from a victory in Tbilisi.

Instead, following Tuesday night’s draw — and after two away games in three — unbeaten Ireland are now joint top of the table on seven points, a hugely encouraging achievement by any standards.

Except, it seems, by the now almost absurdly exacting demands of the RTÉ panel. Sure, they acknowledged the value of the result on Tuesday — how could they not, other than by denying the evidence of the table? But the dominant tone of their post-match analysis was one of shrill criticism — or “telling it like it is”, as Eamon Dunphy would rather have it — of O’Neill’s selection and tactics.

Indeed, the Dunph even scored the punditry equivalent of an embarrassing own goal with his declaration that Ireland only began playing well after Glenn Whelan was forced off — an observation which rather conveniently ignored the small point that Germany actually took the lead following the Stoke man’s departure.

You don’t have to be an unthinking, cheerleading fan-with-a-typewriter to conclude that the three wise men almost entirely missed the point — pun intended — this time.

Yes, they made some valid observations — Aiden McGeady playing centrally hardly helped the Irish cause and Robbie Keane was once again isolated as the lone frontman — but these should have been relatively minor caveats in the context of what was almost a textbook away performance against superior opposition.

The plan made perfect sense: frustrate Germany for as long as possible and then, if it turned out that the game had to be chased, be prepared to throw caution to the wind. Which is precisely how it all panned out and, for that, O’Neill should get enormous credit.

That this was a weakened Germany is beyond dispute but they were not so unrecognisable as the world champions that this comparatively ordinary Irish side — which, lest we forget, was itself also weakened — could ever have afforded to go toe to toe with them in a contest of attacking football.

Personally, I would still have preferred a place for Wes Hoolahan from the off because his composure and intelligence on the ball would surely have helped Ireland make more of what little possession they had in that almost entirely one-sided first half.

Yet, what the visitors did without the ball was stupendous, their shifting, drifting collective defence matching the movement and runs of Germany stride for stride. Epitomising the levels of concentration and energy required was a terrific covering dash by makeshift full-back David Meyler to muscle Karim Bellarabi off the ball in the penalty area, on one of the very few occasions in that first 45 when the Germans actually penetrated the green line. A small detail, maybe, but a crucial one, and typical of the way the Irish players stuck to their task in what must have been exceptionally draining circumstances — mentally as much as physically.

For next month’s game against Scotland, O’Neill can afford to be bolder — and I hope he will. But for now, he’s done more than enough to make his harshest critics seem decidedly out of touch.


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