A keen observer of the Republic of Ireland football experience over many years, Martin O’Neill was as outraged as anyone else by the most famous of all our play-off games — the ‘Hand of Gaul’ match in Paris in 2009.
“That was shocking, it really was shocking,” O’Neill reflected. “It must be the biggest sickener of all time to lose to a goal that everybody other than the referee and perhaps the officials beside it, didn’t see.
“Didn’t France then end up playing Ukraine last time in the play-offs? And I think they got every decision going. I think it was a case of ‘oh, we’ll get France through here, whatever’.”
As Aston Villa manager at the time, O’Neill was well-placed to see the impact of that defeat on Richard Dunne when he arrived back at the club.
“Richard was devastated, absolutely devastated,” he says. “It was just so big — but he got his rewards a little while after that with his big performance in Moscow.”
That scoreless draw in Russia turned out to be a crucial stepping stone the last time Ireland reached the Euro finals, in 2012, although Giovanni Trapattoni’s men also benefited hugely from the kindness of a play-off draw which saw them paired with the weakest link, Estonia.
“The last one couldn’t have worked out better,” says O’Neill. “The draw, and great victory away from home and the party atmosphere (in Dublin). It must have been fantastic to have got that draw at the time. I’m not saying it guarantees you, it absolutely doesn’t, but it must have been the draw you could have died for.”
Unfortunately for Trapattoni’s successor, there was no equivalent minnow in the pot in Nyon on Sunday.
With deliberate understatement O’Neill smiled: “I think the opposition we’ll be playing this time will be slightly different.”
The play-offs might be all too familiar territory for Irish football but next month’s double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina will be a new experience for O’Neill.
However, he feels he can find a point of comparison in his own illustrious playing career — specifically, the penultimate two-legged games which Nottingham Forest had to negotiate en route to back-to-back European Cup glory in 1979 and ‘80.
“I remember really clearly the first one, against Cologne, who’d won the double the previous year. In the first leg we drew 3-3 at the City Ground. I would have said it was probably the most dramatic game played at the City Ground, maybe ever. 3-3!
“It meant we had to go and win in Cologne — and we did, 1-0, to go through.”
Astonishingly, 12 months later, Forest were at it again, Dutch aristocrats Ajax their semi-final opponents this time.
Recalls O’Neill: “In the first leg we won 2-0 at the City Ground and then played them in the Olympic Stadium and lost 1-0. And the last 20 minutes was just unbelievable. We played the game about five yards in and outside our penalty box. And they had great players playing, like the Danes, Frank Arnesen and Soren Lerby, really good players.
“So there are similarities with these (Euro 2016 play-off) games.”
As he begins to sharpen his focus on what will be required to overcome Bosnia-Herzegovina next month, O’Neill says he would like to see more in the play-offs — and, hopefully, beyond — of the James McCarthy we all saw against Germany.
But the manager appears not to be on the same page as those who maintain that the Everton man came to the fore in that game in large part because of the absence of Glenn Whelan.
“I think regardless of who he is playing alongside, James feels that, playing for us, he probably has to assume a wee bit more responsibility in the side,” O’Neill said. “He plays week in, week out, in an Everton side that has a set pattern to it, so he knows what he has to do every single week, not only to play in the side but be successful and do what the manager is instructing him to do.
“Here, I think that he’s got the capability of expanding his game, and against Germany I thought he took the responsibility. You couldn’t get more world-class opposition, and his performance was terrific.
“I don’t think it should mean, whoever he is playing alongside in midfield, that he should retreat into his supposed shell. I never see it like that, I just think it’s right for us to hope that he himself thinks he can do more for us in the side.
“If that is a change to what he is normally doing at club level, then he will get used to that. I thought he was absolutely brilliant. People can read into it whatever they want; maybe it was just James deciding, ‘this was the night, against Germany, that I can show people what I’m capable of doing’.”
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