This felt big, but Martin O’Neill greeted victory last night with a cautious optimism.
The yellow cards picked up by Glenn Whelan and James McClean may require a tactical rethink against the Republic’s next opponents, who just happen to be the reigning world champion Germans. After that, it’s off to Warsaw for one last date with Poland.
He was no killjoy. “Delighted” was the first word out of his mouth and he spoke about how “we all want to get to France for a few weeks, do a bit of drinking”, when asked to look ahead and envisage how the last two rounds and the group itself would pan out.
“I said here in June (after the draw with Scotland) that there would be twists and turns because winning football matches is not easy and winning away from home is not easy. We have a long way to go with two difficult matches. We have the world champions next and we have to find a win.
“We have to play better for the whole game. Germany are the best team in the group and the world champions and possibly the best side in Europe at this stage so we have to do better across the 90 minutes of the game.”
O’Neill stated last Friday evening that news of Scotland’s defeat in Tbilisi had sent a spark through his players, but evidence of that was largely absent on the pitch in Faro and again last night in a first half which vied with any in recent times for the honour of least forgettable.
Robbie Brady, one of the more talented of players available to the Republic these days, set the tone early on by gifting soft possession to the dangerous Levan Mchedlidze and followed it up by thumping an aimless pass out over his own goal line.
It took 37 minutes for Nukri Revishvili to be forced into a save, Seamus Coleman’s wonderful technique in sending the dropping ball dipping towards the Georgian goal standing in stark contrast to anything he or his colleagues had managed up until then.
“We were very tentative first-half,” O’Neill agreed. “I’m not sure why we should be, when we won on Friday. Maybe it was expectation or whatever, but we lacked energy. We created very little, but the players came very strongly in the second half and deserved to get the goal and to win the game.”
He didn’t profess to have made any Churchillian speeches or mine any magical tactical insights at the break, but the change in demeanour throughout the team was astonishing and only partly attributable to the introduction of the more mobile Shane Long for Robbie Keane.
That switch was one that didn’t come easy. Ireland needed a goal and there he was, removing the team’s one reliable scorer from the ranks. Quite the conundrum, and one to which there is rarely a black or white right or wrong answer.
As it was, it was Jonathan Walters who provided the gutsy finish after a few moments of magic down the left flank from Jeff Hendrick.
“It came right out of the blue. It was a great run too and the final ball hoping someone would come in, as Jonathan Walters did. I’m delighted for Jeff too because he has improved for us and is a strong lad. For us, he is growing in stature.”
His night ended with the inevitable query about Jack Grealish and Roy Hodgson’s insistence that he wasn’t about to be kept on the long finger too much longer as the Aston Villa player debated the location of his allegiances.
“That’s encouraging,” he said with a wry smile.
Not a bad night for him all round, then.
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