LIAM MACKEY: Ireland beware as Welsh Dragons breathe fire after Euros

Wales’ march to the semi-finals was the continuation of the momentum which had been generated through an impressive qualifying campaign, writes Liam Mackey.

Back in August of last year, John Hartson was in Dublin and in bullish mood as he talked up Wales’ chances of dominating Ireland in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The reaction in Ireland to drawing the Welsh as top seeds in our group was almost celebratory. At the least, there was a strong consensus that in avoiding European superpowers like Germany, Spain and France, a significant bullet had been dodged.

But that’s not the way that the former Welsh international and former assistant manager saw it. Not at all. “We’d beat Ireland all day long,” he stated, daring the Irish journos in front of him to beg to differ. “If we played now, we’d beat Ireland. You know it and I know it.”

You couldn’t say that he didn’t have a point. Wales’ most recent competitive game back then had seen them beat Belgium 1-0 in Cardiff on June 12. Their fourth win in six qualifying games, it moved Chris Coleman’s unbeaten side three points clear at the top of Group B and generated enough of a positive bounce for Hartson to feel safe in declaring – correctly as it would turn out - “They’re there. They’re in France. Book your tickets.”

As for little old us, Dr Hartson’s bedside manner permitted no false hope.

“If this was the Ireland team of 10 years ago, with McGrath, Moran, Keane, McAteer, Quinn, and Robbie Keane as a youngster, I’d say, well, Ireland will thump us,” he went on.

“But right now we’re in the ascendancy and with the feelgood factor. Where Ireland are — and I follow the Republic of Ireland, I’ve played with a lot of the guys and played under Martin (O’Neill) for five years — I just think that they’re going through a difficult period.

And I don’t care if it was Jose Mourinho in charge. I don’t think it’s really got anything to do with the manager. It’s not a fantastic group of players you’ve got.”

Ireland’s most recent qualifier at the time had come a day after Wales had shocked the Belgians when, on June 13, O’Neill’s team dropped two points at home to Scotland, a result which left the Irish in fourth place in the table, two behind Gordon Strachan’s men.

At that moment, France 2016 never seemed further away and Martin O’Neill’s position as manager never under more severe scrutiny.

And, then, barely a month after Hartson had delivered his damning verdict, the wheel turned for Ireland. It was the fourth of September and the Irish were strolling to a predictably routine 4-0 over Gibraltar in the Algarve, a result which would not have been expected to have any bearing on the ultimate outcome in Group D, except that, earlier the same day, the Scots had only gone and done what the Scots have made a habit of doing over the years – tripping up when seemingly in the clear - by losing 1-0 in Tbilisi to Georgia.

After that, well, the Irish highlights reel started to fill up in a way that few – and certainly not John Hartson - could have anticipated: Shane Long’s blockbuster on a night of nights against the world champions in Dublin and, when it eventually came to the crunch, a mature, composed, even command performance to see off Bosnia over two legs in the play-off.

Which brings us up to the long month just ending and, after flirting with disaster against Belgium, a story of Irish redemption at the Euro 2016 finals which saw a growing love-in between management, team and supporters reach its apotheosis on one unforgettable night in Lille.

Yes, we got lucky in coming up against an under-strength and already qualified Italian side, but a vibrant performance on a night of ferocious pressure, crowned by the emotional high of Robbie Brady’s late goal ensured that — taken in tandem with other great moments, such as Wes Hoolahan’s lovely strike against Sweden and Brady’s shock opener against the French — the overall Irish experience of Euro 2016 is destined to be remembered, fondly, as an uplifting one.

But the Welsh experience of 2016, as John Hartson would no doubt be quick to point out, was better. Way better. Where we collapsed against Belgium, the Welsh recovered from a torrid opening to play one of the tournament favourites off the park in what was, arguably, the single most complete performance given by any team over the course of the whole month.

And, but for the critical absence of Aaron Ramsey and then the double-whammy of conceding two goals in as many minutes against Portugal, Chris Coleman’s side always looked to be in with far more than just a fighting chance of being the team which could have ended up facing France in the 2016 final in Paris tomorrow.

Wales’ march to the semis wasn’t about underdogs getting the breaks and enjoying a succession of good days at the office.

This was no less than the continuation of the momentum which had been generated through an impressive qualifying campaign which, lest we forget, had seen the Welsh qualify automatically for France.

And while all due credit must be paid to their collective spirit and work rate and their palpable pride in wearing the red shirt, let’s not overlook the fact that all of the accumulated evidence of the past couple of years suggests that this is also a formidable footballing outfit, not least because it can boast a spine of four outstanding individuals who, fortunately for Wales, also happen to be committed team players. Gareth Bale is the most obvious one, of course but, at the risk of being accused of treachery, I’d argue that he, along with Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams would, if available to Ireland, all be guaranteed automatic starting places in Martin O’Neill’s current first eleven.

All of which is to say that, far from being a bullet dodged in World Cup qualifying, it could have Ireland’s name written on it.

John Hartson was right when he said what he said back in August. And despite all the reasons to be cheerful which the Irish team gave us in France, he’d be even more in the right if he was to say much the same thing now.

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