It’s an old adage in football: if you can’t win a game, at least do your best not to lose it.
And, for a relieved Ireland at a heaving Aviva, it was David McGoldrick who was able to put flesh on those words with a rapturously received late equaliser to cancel out Fabian Schar’s lead for Switzerland.
This was hardly the hoped-for giant step towards qualification which victory would have represented but in maintaining Ireland’s unbeaten record in Group D – as well as leaving them still holding a three-point lead over Denmark at the top of the table - the draw keeps Mick McCarthy’s men on the right course towards the ultimate goal of returning to this venue to play games at the Euro 2020 finals.
For long periods of a match in which the Swiss were dominant, this had looked like being an evening in which McCarthy’s bogey boys would come back to haunt him, 17 years after the same nation brought his first Irish stint as manager to a painful end.
But thanks to McGoldrick’s header, it ended with cheers not boos ringing in the manager’s ears.
If not a defining evening in Group D, this was always going to be a revealing one in terms of delivering a health report on both teams just past the midway point in qualifying. Having played two games to Ireland’s four before kick off, the Swiss had taken full points away to Georgia but, at home to Denmark, spectacularly blew a three-goal lead in the closing stages to share an unlikely and damaging 3-3 draw.
Ireland, for their part, had hardly convinced in picking up the mandatory full points home and away to a Gibraltar, a side the Swiss have yet to play, showed encouraging signs of progress under McCarthy in the 1-0 home win over Georgia and reverted to something more like type – but with a hugely positive outcome – in digging out a valuable point away to the Danes.
There were no surprises in Ireland’s starting line-up, Sheffield United’s Callum Robinson – having opened his Premier League goal account against Chelsea - overcoming a training ground niggle to take his place in a side whose only change from the last outing against Gibraltar was striker Scott Hogan making way, with the veteran Glenn Whelan returning to anchor the midfield. And despite losing his place at Burnley, there was never much doubt that Jeff Hendrick would get the nod to claim his 50th cap for his country.
For the Swiss, the absence of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Steven Zuber and, most controversially, Liverpool’s mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri, was a major talking point but manager Vladimir Petkovic was still able to call on important personnel like Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka to direct traffic in the middle and Benfica’s Haris Seferovic and Breel Embolo of Borussia Monchengladback to provide a powerful attacking edge.
Setting the tone for much of the night, it was the visitors who began much the brighter of the two teams - more composed in possession and more threatening in attack - while a nervy-looking home side succumbed to a number of unforced errors.
But in the 12th minute, the Irish finally got their attacking act together to create the first clear-cut chance of the game, Robinson’s flick cleverly laying the ball off to Hendrick whose dancing feet allowed him to skip past a white shirt and put in James McClean for a run on goal, only for the winger’s effort to be thwarted at the first and then the second attempt.
An early yellow card for Enda Stevens – which rules him out of the game away to Georgia – added to Irish frustration as the home side struggled to build on that first sight of goal, the Swiss, altogether more composed in possession and especially strong through the middle, looking much the more likely side to break the deadlock, albeit without really doing a whole lot directly threaten Darren Randolph’s goal.
And, for all the talk of wanting to play on the front foot, from an Irish point of view there was little enough about their largely underwhelming performance – barring some important defensive interventions by Shane Duffy and some fine work going forward by Hendrick and McGoldlrick – to lift the crowd at a subdued and anxious Aviva.
That was until as late as a couple of minutes before the break when McClean was again able to briefly escape his defensive duties and power forward up the left flank – only to be all too easily be dispossessed before he could do any meaningful damage – and then, after his scintillating turn of pace on the other side had taken out Ricardo Rodriguez, McGoldrick’s ball across the face of goal was just too firm and too far ahead for his Sheffield United colleague Robinson to capitalise on.
Encouragingly, Ireland resumed in the second half as they had ended the first, showing clear signs that the manager had demanded they up the pressure and the tempo but, after soaking up a modest amount of pressure, the Swiss swiftly regrouped, regained control of the ball and began pegging the green shirts back again.
On came Alan Judge to try and help Ireland get a creative foothold in the game but even the schemer’s first important contribution turned out to be a crucial defensive header - and a collision with the post for his pains – as the Swiss looked to turn the screw.
And in the 73rd minute, the visitors duly got what they deserved, a slick move incorporating a brace of one-twos ripping through the heart of the Irish defence and setting up Newcastle United’s Fabian Schar to fire past Randolph.
But, full credit to the resilience and character of McCarthy’s team: back they came again and in the 85th minute – and just seconds after Glenn Whelan had rattled the crossbar with a ferocious shot - McGoldrick rose at the far post to head home McClean’s high, deflected cross.
An equalising goal that was celebrated like by the fans like a winner – it was that kind of night at the Aviva.
Republic of Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Stevens, Whelan, Hendrick, Hourihane (Hogan 83), Robinson (Judge 58), McClean, McGoldrick (Browne 90)
Switzerland: Sommer, Elvedi, Akanji, Schar, Rodríguez, Zakaria, Xhaka , Freuler (Mehmedi 89), Mbabu (Fernandes 93), Embolo (Ajetic 86), Seferovic
Referee: Carlos Del Cerro Grande (Spain)