“Germany was a great result,” said Shane Long on the eve of Ireland’s final group qualifying game in Warsaw in October, “but we need to make it mean something— and the only way to make it mean something is to qualify tomorrow night.”
Well, as we know, Ireland lost that battle to Poland but, one month later, they won the war, emerging triumphant from a two-legged play off against Bosnia to finally claim their place, the hard way, at this year’s European Championship showpiece in France.
And by so doing, they ensured that Long’s sensational match-winning goal against Germany at the Aviva Stadium would not only consolidate its claim to being the single greatest Irish sporting moment of 2015 but, to borrow Long’s own phrase, would have the potential to “mean something” even more in 2016, the full truth of which will only become clear in June when Martin O’Neill’s team kick off their Euro finals against Sweden at the Stade de France.
But whatever happens in France next summer, Shane Long’s finest act in a green shirt is destined to remain one for the ages. Even in the nightmare scenario of Ireland crashing and burning again on the big stage, as they did in Poland four years ago, Long’s match-winning strike is no more likely to lose its lustre over time than has the ‘miracle of Moscow’ performance put in by Richard Dunne en route to those ultimately depressing 2012 finals.
And, of course, as a great landmark moment in Irish football history, Long’s strike stands even taller, something to rank up there in the pantheon with the likes of Ray Houghton against England and Italy, Packie Bonner’s save of the century, Dave O’ Leary’s spot kick of the millennium, Robbie Keane’s life-saver in Ibaraki and, a personal favourite, that wonderful Don Givens’ hat-trick against the Soviet Union on a magical day at dear old Dalyer way back in the mists.
Of course, there was far more to Ireland’s qualification effort than Shane Long’s winner against Germany, not least a smattering of other memorable goals, from Aiden McGeady’s thing of beauty in Tbilisi, through John O’Shea’s 11th hour equaliser in Gelsenkirchen and Robbie Brady’s own moment of magic in Zenica, to the decisive, one-two, knock-out combination delivered by Jon Walters on the very last night at home to Bosnia. But it’s no disrespect to any of those to say that Long’s goal must reign supreme.
We will never tire of replaying it in the mind’s eye or, better still, on the screen. The build-up, if such it can be dignified, was definitively stamped ‘made in Ireland’: a great booming kick the length of the pitch from Darren Randolph, with Jon Walters cleverly distracting the German defence in a convincing cameo as ‘an innocent passer-by’. After that, well, it was all about an agricultural long ball alchemically transformed into a breathtakingly brilliant finish.
I remember, immediately after the game, speaking with someone who was being slightly sniffy about Long’s first touch. But I wasn’t having any of that. Long’s best attributes as a striker are his pace and power. The pace was evident the second he left three German defenders trailing in his wake but in order to generate the power to beat Manuel Neuer it was crucial that he didn’t have to break his stride and that he got the ball just the right distance in front of him to invite a full-blooded shot on target.
And so he used his left shin to maximum effect – perhaps the best deployment of that part of the body by an Irish international since Ronnie Whelan’s celebrated goal against the Soviet Union in 1988 – before, with one mighty swing of his right boot, he sent the Aviva Stadium, and probably half the country, into orbit.
(And if that was the best moment of 2015, then surely a candidate for second best came shortly afterwards when the hitman Thomas Muller, of all people, blazed over the bar with Randolph’s goal gaping and the Aviva Stadium, and probably half the country, preparing to crash back down to earth).
Quite apart from securing three unlikely points against the world champions to help smooth Ireland’s sometimes rocky road to France, Long’s goal had two additional layers of significance for the coming year – and beyond.
One is that us scurvy hacks will no longer have to reach back to Ireland beating the Netherlands in 2001 every time we’re obliged to mention the last time a significant scalp was taken in Dublin.
And the other is that the spine-tingling levels of excitement generated in the stands by Long’s goal, and the result it achieved on the night, proved conclusively that when the stars are aligned, the Aviva Stadium has no problem in matching, and even eclipsing, the old Lansdowne Road for atmosphere of the most electrifying kind.
That’s some legacy for one goal, and the fervent hope now must be that Irish football will have even more reason to feel grateful for the Long shot of 2015 when the eagerly awaited summer of 2016 finally comes rolling in.
Looking ahead with hope that Ireland’s greatest football moment of 2015 can acquire even more significance in 2016.
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