Wales 0 Republic of Ireland 1: This Irish team may rarely if ever command games but they certainly provide magic moments. And sometimes, as on this incredible night in Cardiff, they’re special enough to far outlast the 90.
Just short of the hour mark, James McClean buried a shot into the corner of the Welsh net to finish off one of the few moves of real class which Ireland had managed all night. But it was enough to transform everything, crushing Welsh dreams of a first World Cup finals appearance in 60 years while putting Martin O’Neill’s team into next Tuesday’s play-offs draw in Zurich.
You often hear people complaining that Ireland always have to do it the hard way. Maybe it’s time we began celebrating the fact. Sure, it would be nice to imagine an Irish football team cruising its way through qualification but, as England habitually show, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything when the chips are down.
For Irish teams, there’s something about the odds being stacked against them — whether that’s through their own self-inflicted wounds, having to play away from home or coming up against theoretically superior opponents — which seems to bring out if not the best in a footballing sense in the players, then certainly an indomitable spirit. It seems there’s nothing like the sensation of their backs against wall to put the boys in green on the front foot. And that, ultimately, is how last night panned out in Cardiff too.
With Shane Long a late withdrawal with a hip problem, it had all begun with Daryl Murphy as the lone spearhead in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the striker hoping to take the form he showed when grabbing two against Moldova into the much more testing surroundings of a do or die game in the Dragons’ lair. Robbie Brady and James McClean returned as scheduled and Harry Arter was the third change from the side which beat Moldova, Callum O’Dowda, predictably and, Wes Hoolahan, regrettably, failing to make the starting line-up, Martin O’Neill citing two games coming in quick succession as the reason the team’s most creative player was consigned to the bench. For Wales, Chris Coleman made one change up top, Burnley’s Sam Vokes making way for West Brom’s Hal
The home fans, with their spine-tingling people’s choir rendition of the Welsh national anthem, set the temperature in the ground to red hot even before a ball was kicked, and from the referee’s first whistle the volume inside Cardiff City’s intimate stadium rarely dropped below 11.
From the earliest moment too, it was worryingly clear that Wales were going to boss possession and even more obvious that Murphy would cut an isolated figure in the absence of any kind of decent, let alone reliable, Irish supply. If Martin O’Neill’s intention with his selection had been to keep things as tight as possible for as long as possible while hoping for the odd opportunity to hurt Wales on the break, that strategy already looked to be asking for trouble after only seven minutes when Darren Randolph was obliged to tip an Aaron Ramsey shot over the top.
After a quarter of an hour, a wild challenge on skipper David Meyler by Joe Allen, which earned the Stoke man a yellow card, allowed Ireland their first opportunity to threaten the Welsh goal from, inevitably, a set-piece. But first a free and then a corner came to nothing, and Wales were quickly back in control.
Jeff Hendrick did have a sight of goal after the red shirts struggled to clear their lines from a long throw by Cyrus Christie but, in keeping with Ireland’s lack of poise, the Burnley man fresh-aired his effort. And it said something about the general poverty of the visitors’ general play that, on the half-hour mark, it fell to the Irish centre-halves to improvise a little bit of creativity between them on the edge of the Welsh box, Ciaran Clark setting up Shane Duffy for an angled drive which drifted wide.
Encouragingly, Ireland began to do better as the half progressed by the simple expedient of playing higher up the pitch and getting much closer to their opponents, too close in the case of the luckless Joe Allen who found himself the meat in the sandwich between Meyler and McClean and was forced out of the game after 35 minutes, a costly blow for the Welsh who, having by now begun succumbing to more than a few ragged touches themselves, had lost the main player who had been doing for them what Hoolahan might have been doing for Ireland.
It all meant that the first half ended with both sides playing as if a must-win match was a must-not-lose, this much-hyped World Cup cruncher having turned into something more like a bad advertisement for League 1, even if the atmosphere in the stands was never less than fever pitch.
It was certainly one of those games that could do with a goal, as the neutrals would have it, not that there were any of those to be found anywhere in the vicinity. And the breakthrough almost came in the 52nd minute, substitute Jonny Williams’s superb cross finding the head of Robson-Kanu whose fine effort brought a strong hand and the best out of Randolph.
And then, with the stadium clock striking 57, came the transformative moment for Ireland. Sheer persistence by Jeff Hendrick forced Ashley Williams into losing the ball on the right and, having tight-roped his way along the line, the Burnley man did well to pull a low ball back across the box which Harry Arter brilliantly dummied, allowing James McClean to smack a first-time drive with his right foot that left Welsh ’keeper Wayne Hennessey rooted to the spot. Cue green bedlam.
Chris Coleman emptied his bench in a bid to retrieve the situation as Wales, with an increasing sense of desperation, laid siege to the Irish goal. But, amid the excruciating tension and one or two nerve-jangling close shaves, the monumental Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and company stood firm, with Randolph a reassuring presence behind them, the Irish team as a whole showing terrific character and spirit to protect their lead and close out the game, even if a moment of ill-discipline right at the death has cost Meyler his place in the first leg of the World Cup play-off.
And so an extraordinary night ended with the visiting Irish choir drowning out Welsh tears with ‘The Fields of Athenry’, as Martin O’Neill and his men somehow conjured another winning result to go down in Irish football history.
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