It must be the dawn of a new era when one of Ireland’s great recoveries didn’t require the deft touches of Wes Hoolahan, but this wasn’t an evening for silken skills.
The usual outcry accompanied news of the Norwich City playmaker failing to make Martin O’Neill’s starting line-up for a crucial competitive match but different elements were needed on a night when quality levels were on the floor.
The warrior-like attributes of David Meyler and Shane Duffy were more important to Ireland in the Welsh capital than the capabilities of Robbie Brady or Jeff Hendrick and it took last-ditch tackles and blocks to repel the hasty hosts.
Gareth Bale’s injury-enforced absence robbed this concluding Group D fixture of the one world-class star eligible for either nation. O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane may consider Seamus Coleman to be in that bracket but the evidence doesn’t support their assertion.
Coleman could well be back and available for the play-off in mid-November, but until he graces the Champions League like Bale does on an annual basis, the Donegal man has work to do.
This contest took on a similar pattern to events in the reverse fixture in Dublin when once again the ball might well have needed a stretcher before the full-time whistle sounded.
In a game populated by players operating in English leagues, all of the same characteristics were on view in this derby.
A wayward free-kick from Tom Lawrence deep into injury-time said much for the limitations of a squad minus the Real Madrid Galactico.
During that stalemate in Dublin, the class of Bale came closest to making the difference twice in the second half and Ireland won’t worry about what might have been had his calf injury not struck last week.
Much like the displays of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England 24 hours earlier, another of the UK’s home nations were caught short when it mattered most.
Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are Bale’s understudies in the Wales team, so the loss of the Stoke City midfielder in the first half following a collision with Meyler and James McClean robbed Chris Coleman of one of his mainstays.
Try as Ramsey might, the Arsenal midfielder was shadowed and shackled throughout by Harry Arter and Meyler. That he was restricted to aimless shots from distance as the clock ticked down testified to a side devoid of alternatives to the tried and tested.
For Ireland, there was nothing off script. Daryl Murphy ploughed up front in the absence of Shane Long, hassling and harrying defenders into making mistakes.
Hendrick didn’t apologise afterwards for recognising Ireland are prepared to sacrifice fluency for a direct approach and there’s nothing to suggest that will be altered in the play-off next month.
Meyler, in particular, symbolised that approach, vindicating O’Neill’s decision to axe Glenn Whelan for the Corkman when they needed a result against Serbia last month.
Whelan has had his day in an Irish shirt and though Meyler will miss the first leg of play-off through suspension, he’ll play the role of Coleman and Jon Walters by remaining an influential force in the dressing-room and from the sidelines against whoever they are pitted against in next week’s draw.
Whether Hoolahan has a part to play is a moot point, but with O’Neill and Keane staying on for the next campaign, Irish fans and pundits better get used to the Dubliner not being at their disposal.
Besides, though he didn’t show much of it last night, Brady has the qualities necessary to retain possession and dribble past defenders.
McClean, too, has it within his locker to keep the ball on the deck but in the raucous atmosphere of the Cardiff City stadium wasn’t conducive to that style. Indeed, Wales outpassed Ireland by a ratio of nearly three to one.
“It’s not pretty to watch,” sighed Liam Brady afterwards.
Right now, Irish supporters will settle for a winning, rather than silky, team. If that occurs without the presence of one Wes Hoolahan, they won’t crib either.
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