Mournful lament from Welsh choir as Ireland hit high note

The joys of Cardiff on a Monday night in October.

Who’d have thought it, eh?

The Republic of Ireland have foostered and frustrated their way through this World Cup qualifying campaign but Martin O’Neill’s side possesses the endlessly endearing - and redeeming - ability to surprise and delight at the most unlikely times and in highly unlikely circumstances.

Awful in the first quarter last night, they slowly found their feet - dragging Wales down a few levels in the process - before landing the second-half sucker punch that allowed them pip their bewildered hosts to a place in the play-off picture next month.

The group’s top seeds, semi-finalists at the European Championships in France last summer, beaten on home soil. It’s an achievement all the more remarkable given the landscape last month when a loss in Dublin to Serbia left them needing six points from two games and a lottery of other results to stay alive.

Cardiff last night seemed distinctly unappealing right there and then.

And yet on we go.

Another step closer to a visa application from the Russian embassy and a run on the credit unions. To a fortnight or more nailing dodgy KGB accents, building up a resistance to vodka and cringing at the latest attempt of some jack the lads to change a flat tyre or kick a ball through a window.

Small prices to pay, all of them.

The ticket allocation was a mere 3,500 for this game but the highest estimate of those who made for the Welsh capital had the total number upwards of 9,000. St Mary’s Street in the city centre was colonised from well before lunchtime, the vibe identical to that witnessed in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille and Lyon.

The late scramble for tickets was framed with a realisation that any late windfall was unlikely. One enterprising punter managed to persuade the pilot of his flight yesterday morning to make a plea over the tannoy to his fellow passengers. The mocking tone of the laughter it produced was answer in itself.

Desperation was evident on landing, too. Many was the Welsh fan wandering around the streets with cardboard cutouts on which entreaties for a more valuable piece of paper were hastily written. And no wonder. One local writer described it as the biggest game on Welsh soil in a quarter of a century.

Or, since 1993 anyway.

Terry Yorath was the man in charge for the Welsh back then but hopes of booking passage to America a year later were done with only seven minutes to play at the old Arms Park when Romania’s Florin Raducioiu scored a winner in a game that the hosts needed to win.

Different times, different teams.

That was a Welsh XI boasting Neville Southall, Dean Saunders, Gary Speed, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs and it took a side marshalled by the audacious Gheorghe Hagi to oust them. With Gareth Bale absent here, neither side could count on anything like that level of expertise.

As for atmosphere, it lacked nothing.

Wales could have sold out the Principality Stadium with ease last night but Cardiff City Stadium, the supporters and the team have become something of a Holy Trinity in the side’s rebirth in recent years and it provided a pulsating backdrop for this Celtic clash.

The umbilical cord between team and terrace can be overplayed at times but not here. ‘Together. Stronger’ was the message emblazoned on a giant red banner behind the goal which Ireland, ahem, attacked in the first-half. Written in Russian-style letters, it was hard not to suspect that it all looked a tad presumptuous.

And so it was.

Yet the message itself struck a chord. Few nations can harness the power of song like the Welsh and the rendition of the national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, has been unleashed as a rallying cry in this Group D qualifying campaign every bit as much as the legendary tune from the movie ‘Zulu’.

Impromptu versions have swept down the stands, most notably during the defeat of Belgium at Euro 2016 and in the run-up to Ben Woodburn’s goal against Austria here earlier this year, and then the fans took it upon themselves to finish every verse when the Georgian FA accidentally cut it short in Tbilisi last week.

Not everyone handled the tension well, one Irish gentlemen leaning forward to land a smacker on the jaw of a Welsh fan whose attempts at goading him had obviously worked a tad too well, but this wasn’t Belfast ‘93 even if the temperature seemed to rise with every passing minute.

The setting drew all manner of comparisons with legendary Irish games of yore. The pocket of Irish fans corralled into a wedge behind one corner flag evoked memories of Lyon and the game against France two summers ago. The sea of red surrounding them wasn’t all that far from Gelsenkirchen and the Dutch swarm back in 1988.

That neither ended well for the Republic was left unsaid.

So too, for most of those wearing green in the stands, the fact that the football was awful.

Terrible game, again, but great result. A night for the ages.

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