Ireland on back foot after Maloney magic

Scotland's Shaun Maloney celebrates after scoring the winning goal against Ireland at Celtic Park last night. Picture: Donall Farmer

EURO 2016 GROUP D QUALIFIER:
Scotland 1 Ireland 0
With group leaders Poland having earlier won comfortably in Georgia, Scotland applied a further squeeze to Ireland’s European Championship ambitions with this deserved victory on a highly charged night at Celtic Park when it all went wrong for Martin O’Neill’s men and they were forced to surrender their unbeaten competitive record under the new manager.

A splendid second-half goal from Wigan’s Shaun Maloney was enough to blow the qualification group wide open and provide revenge for Scotland – after a wait of just 27 years – with a result that was a reversal of the one-nil win Ireland had inflicted here on the road to Euro 88.

But after this at times desperately poor Irish display, enlivened only by a more spirited showing in the second-half, hopes for qualification for France 2016, so high after the heroics in Gelsenkirchen, must now go back into cold storage.

On an occasion already heavy with history, there had been a strange milestone moment in the Irish football story a full hour before kick-off when Martin O’Neill’s starting side was released.

In this newspaper yesterday, Liam Brady had not only advocated Robbie Keane be kept on the bench on the back of his ineffectual performances away to Georgia and Germany but went further by predicting the manager would be ready to, as he put it, “make that difficult call.”

Sure enough, the official team sheet provided confirmation Ireland’s skipper and all-time record goalscorer had been dropped for a competitive match for the first time since 2001 – something the man himself only reportedly learned in the run-up to kick-off — the captain’s armband passing to John O’Shea and the primary role of filling Ireland’s shooting boots going to Shane Long.

With his brace for Southampton a timely boost in confidence for the Tipp man, the hope was Long’s well-documented pace, strength and aerial ability would provide Ireland with the requisite cutting edge against Scotland’s all-Championship back four. But it wasn’t to be and, even with Keane back on the pitch late on, Ireland couldn’t find the goal they needed.

By the time Serbian referee Milorad Mazic blew the starting whistle, the atmosphere inside Celtic Park was already white-hot, the roughly 8,000 Irish doing their best to fight a rearguard action against the majority Tartan Army who had, minutes before, roared out ‘Flower of Scotland’ to the wild skirl of the pipes and then booed the Irish version of the Celtic huddle. And so the scene was set for the ‘Glasgow derby’, the boos intensifying as Aiden McGeady and James McClean stood over an early free, the two wide men briefly within touching distance before reverting to their favoured positions on the flanks, Jon Walters being deployed centrally off spearhead Long.

It was frantic, high-tempo, almost cup-tie stuff from the off, with both sides committed to getting men forward, but it was Scotland who almost got their noses in front inside just four minutes, Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher finding space in the Irish box – where O’Shea was being partnered by Richard Keogh — but unable to keep his powerful header down from Shaun Maloney’s corner.

McGeady didn’t need to give the home fans any encouragement to boo him but when he chopped down Fletcher in the 15th minute the decibel level rose another notch. The travelling ‘Green Army’ did their best to defend the night’s most marked man, chanting his name at every available opportunity.

On a night when rugged physicality was often to the fore and time for a foot to be put on the ball was at a premium, Scotland were still playing by far the most fluent and threatening football. Fletcher was holding up the ball well and linking cleverly with Steven Naismith, while Hull’s impressive full-back Andrew Robertson and Watford’s tricky winger Ikechi Anya were keeping Seamus Coleman and even McGeady well pegged back, limiting Irish attacking options on the right flank.

Irish ‘keeper David Forde took a low blow under a high ball just short of the half-hour mark and, while he was getting treatment, Roy Keane took the opportunity to give urgent personal instructions to Shane Long who was struggling to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with Walters. A moment later, Jeff Hendrick was going into the book for a wild challenge on Steven Whittaker. With the ref’s whistle peppering the atmospheric soundtrack, it was fast developing into a raucous and even rancorous night.

With Hendrick and Gibson unable to get a grip on midfield, it was Scotland who were increasingly on the front foot and Ireland looking decidedly vulnerable, when Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew came close to the breakthrough in the 33rd minute, his header flashing just wide of the post after some terrific build-up play. With the Scots now developing some real momentum and the Irish unable to create anything in the opposition half, the visitors were looking more than a bit punch-drunk as the half-time bell spelt relief — yet nil-nil on the Celtic Park scoreboard showed that Scotland had been unable to deliver a knockout blow.

Martin O’Neill declined to change things at the restart but had clearly urged his side to push further up the pitch and, in the 50th minute, Aiden McGeady’s first teasing cross of the night saw Walters spill blood as his header was deflected for a corner.

Seamus Coleman was next to make a foray forward and when his attempted ball into the box was cut out, the resultant corner saw David Marshall called upon to make a rare save, as Long tried to deflect Walters’ header to the net.

McGeady then came close with a dangerous angled shot across the face of goal as Ireland’s resurgent spell continued but again, Scotland came closest to breaking the deadlock when sub Chris Martin steered a close-range effort just wide in the 65th minute.

That was the signal for O’Neill to try to shake things up, Stephen Quinn replacing the visibly tiring Gibson and Robbie Brady coming for Long, with Walters now the lone man upfront.

Immediately a great Brady run had the Scots back-pedalling but, after a harsh whistle against the Irish, the Serbian referee felt obliged to have words with O’Neill and Keane, much to the glee of both sets of supporters.

In the 73rd minute Walters headed onto his own bar from a Charlie Mulgrew free but the reprieve was short-lived for Ireland as, from the resultant corner, Shaun Maloney collected the ball before curving home a beautifully controlled shot from the resultant corner. Scotland finally had the goal their night’s endeavours deserved — and how the Tartan Army roared their approval Ireland had 15 minutes in which to save the night and, with 12 to go, Robbie Keane was finally called into the fray, replacing Jeff Hendrick.

But with tempers fraying on both sides as time ran out – and even though the Scottish crossbar was rattled in the frantic final minutes of time added-on — there was to be no fairytale salvation act from the veteran striker and no repeat of the late, late shows of Georgia and Germany to rescue Martin O’Neill’s team.

Subs for Scotland: Chris Martin for Steven Fletcher (55) Darren Fletcher for Ikechi Anya (87)

Subs for Ireland: Stephen Quinn for Darron Gibson (67) Robbie Brady for Shane Long (67) Robbie Keane for Jeff Hendrick (77).

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