Guile over grunt decides the issue

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane has a chat with referee Milorad Mazic. Picture: Danny Lawson

So much for ‘home’ comforts.

Glasgow has always been a blue-collar city and, though this occasion aroused all sorts of romantic and emotional notions about identity and history, it was, at its heart, a game that eschewed fripperies and instead exuded a raw, elemental quality.

In the end, Ireland’s industriousness and bite on an evening when the visiting team amassed a succession of yellow cards, fell well short of a home side that was deservedly rewarded for an approach that always sought to prioritise guile over grunt.

How deflating, then, that a night that had promised so much ultimately delivered so little. Not just in terms of the result, which deprived Martin O’Neill’s team of any points, but in a performance that offered little in the way of attacking focus.

As ever, the fans did their bit.

Ireland may have been given only 3,209 tickets by the Scottish Football Association, but the estimate last night was that as many as 8,000 had ferreted their way into a ground that belied official declarations of a sell-out with its pockets of empty green seats.

So much had, inevitably, been made about how this iconic parcel of land in Glasgow would suit the visitors, even if the weight of history on the pitch didn’t exactly augur well with the vast majority of Irish national teams having suffered severely in these parts.

Granted, that was all a long, long time ago. Prior to partition, to be exact, when Irish teams representing the entire island routinely suffered at the hands of their hosts in Celtic Park. Never more so than in 1899 and 1901 when 19 goals were leaked.

The omens yesterday had been far more encouraging for, though Gordon Strachan insisted that this would be home ground for Scotland — and Scotland alone — the reality was always going to be very different on this night of confused geography, loyalties and blood.

There may be a case for claiming that the Irish supporters who took over the Meadowlands for that World Cup meeting with Italy in 1994 felt more at home in New Jersey, but few on hand before kick-off yesterday would have agreed.

From the buses and Celtic Superstore that accepted euros from Irish punters, to the statue outside the main entrance of Brother Walfrid, the Sligo-born Marist who founded Celtic in the late 19th century, this was home from home.

“Welcome tae tha second Dublin,” roared one man in a thick Scottish accent as O’Neill and crew disembarked from their team coach and disappeared into the bowels of a stadium where bollards, walls and cash machines are, at the very least, tinged with green.

The first discordant note was struck when John Delaney clambered off the coach with girlfriend Emma English and was met with a minor chorus of boos. The second came 15 minutes before kick-off when Aiden McGeady’s name was mentioned over the tannoy.

It was to become a familiar tune.

The home fans booed McGeady every time he touched the ball and when he picked up a yellow card for a late challenge on Steven Fletcher and they cheered with a delicious relish on those occasions when the Everton winger was dispossessed.

If there was one thing worse than the boos, it was the lack of them.

As the first-half wore on, the chorus of disapproval towards the 28-year old evaporated. How, after all, could he be targeted from the terraces when he wasn’t touching the ball? So it was as the Scots turned the screw.

Half-time brought with it some respite and food for thought and the sight of the injured centre-back Marc Wilson tucking into a hot dog by the concession stands brought to mind the absence of James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan in midfield.

And, though Ireland showed more intent on the front foot after the interval, the intricate manner in which Scotland took the lead through Shaun Maloney with 15 minutes to go symbolised the gap in creativity on the night.

In Tbilisi, and again in Gelsenkirchen, this Irish team has proven itself to be one endowed with no little amount of character, but there was an acceptance, too, that they had rode their luck by snatching four points from those two fixtures.

That their good fortune finally ran out last night in a venue and a city many regarded as a de facto ‘home’ tie doesn’t bode well given recent difficulties experienced by Irish sides in their own Dublin residence on Lansdowne Road.

Poland, Georgia, Scotland and Germany all visit the Aviva Stadium in 2015. O’Neill said on Thursday that those ties would determine his team’s fortunes to a degree far beyond last night. He’s right, but this has upped the ante.

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