The end of the World Cup dream and the end of Giovanni Trapattoni’s time as Ireland manager. All that’s left now is for the FAI to activate the process of replacing the veteran Italian. The action moves from the pitch to the boardroom, even though there are still two World Cup qualifiers to play. And now a nation turns its lonely eyes to Martin O’Neill.
Just for the record, and not to offend the pedants, yes, there is still a way Ireland could end up in second place in Group C but it would involve such a wild overturning of the natural laws of football, that the whole thing might as well belong to the realms of quantum physics.
So let’s not bother ourselves with what might have been and instead observe that a spirited Ireland went out scrapping in Vienna last night but that scrapping will never be enough at this level.
Probably the last significant act of Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign as manager was also emblematic in its own way, Conor Sammon coming on as a final substitute while Wes Hoolahan was once again left to cool his heels on the bench. Barely three minutes later, an Irish defence which had been creaking for some time finally cracked, as the best player on the pitch, David Alaba, smashed one high into the net to keep Austrian World Cup hopes alive.
An hour before kick-off in Vienna, the news of Sweden’s 1-0 win in Astana had turned what was already an exercise in mountain-climbing for Ireland into something positively alpine.
But, as the action rolled in the Ernst Happel Stadium, you’d never have guessed the locals were also clinging on by their fingertips. Perhaps because they’re so well-adjusted to giddy heights in this neck of the Viennese woods, there was no gloom inside the ground, a capacity crowd of 48,500 instead giving it the full choral treatment.
Somehow, the visitors couldn’t help feeling Ireland’s all-black strip seemed much more appropriate to the daunting task at hand.
As a sunny day in Vienna gave way to teeming rain, we once again saw a good, composed, positive start from Ireland but, after the way things have panned out so often before — and not least as recently as last Saturday in Dublin — the hardy band of visiting supporters making up a little handkerchief of green high up behind David Forde’s goal, were not about to give in to the temptation of getting their hopes up again.
And especially not when, after with that promising start, the Irish had not managed to even work Robert Almer in the Austrian goal, before the home side began to up the tempo and apply some pressure of their own. Soon enough too, Ireland were reverting to grim type, dropping deeper and hitting aimless balls that had Shane Long chasing lost causes. By contrast, Alaba was beginning to exert his creative influence.
To his credit, Paul Green was working overtime to plug the gaps but, passing the 20th minute, the balance of the game was clearly tilting towards the home side, even though there still had been nothing remotely resembling a goal chance at either end.
And, in an all too familiar tale, there was precious little in the way of creativity coming from Ireland’s midfield, where the Austrians were quick to close down space, repeatedly forcing the boys in black backwards and then long.
Ireland’s percentage game did almost offer a breakthrough in the 29th minute when the Austrian back four were caught flatfooted under the bounce of another high ball and, though he reacted quickly, Robbie Keane’s scuffed effort from a tight angle rolled harmlessly past the far post.
Three minutes later, Anthony Pilkington rippled the side netting as Ireland enjoyed a bright spasm but, even as the visitors uncharacteristically pushed bodies forward, danger man Alaba broke superbly for Austria, his piercing run and shot drawing a good save from David Forde.
In the first half’s final moments, John O’Shea was yellow-carded — and ruled out of the game against Germany — for a foul on Andreas Weimann and, even after he’d blown for the break, the Portuguese referee found time to add a bemused Keane’s name to his little black book for apparently speaking out of turn.
O’Shea lasted only a few minutes after the resumption before an ankle injury forced him off and Ciaran Clark entered the fray. But, notwithstanding that disruption, Ireland again started brightly, Seamus Coleman imposing himself in the opposition half.
With a draw of no use to either side, the game began to develop an exciting, end to end momentum, the cup tie mood now increasingly one of death or glory, even if the glory would ultimately prove illusory. And it was Ireland who were rising best to the challenge for a while, a gutsy display confirming that they were not going to go down without a fight.
Richard Dunne also saw yellow, thus ripping the heart out of the defence for next month’s trip to Germany, before Weimann spurned a great chance shooting straight at Forde.
Ireland looked like they could badly use some fresh legs, and it was to James McClean Trapattoni turned with just under 20 minutes remaining. But in one final decisive push to keep their own World Cup hopes alive, it was the home side who now upped the ante, Green and Coleman having to clear successive efforts off the line as the Irish defence came under sustained pressure.
The game had now become an absorbing scrap, a brutal test of muscle and lungs, likely to be decided by one moment of magic or misery. In a last bid to nick it, whether by hook or by crook, Trapattoni sent on Sammon for the exhausted Long but, just three minutes later, it was a class act who sealed it, the stretched and jaded Irish backline finally coughing up a chance which Alaba was only too happy to bury.
And buried with the ball was the Italian era in Irish football.