Martin O'Neill hails resilient Republic
Martin O'Neill was once again left to marvel at the Republic of Ireland's resilience as they came from behind in Serbia to open their World Cup qualifying account with a hard-earned point.
Substitute Daryl Murphy's 80th-minute header meant the Republic left the Rajko Mitic Stadium with a 2-2 draw on a night when their fortunes soared, then dipped before ultimately turning once again.
Jeff Hendrick fired Ireland into a third-minute lead, but Filip Kostic's equaliser and Dusan Tadic's penalty looked to have won the day until Murphy struck, like Hendrick, with the first goal of his senior international career.
O'Neill said: "Naturally, we got off to a fantastic start early on in the game, I suppose before all the players from Serbia had touched the ball.
"We scored a goal and I thought we were fine at half-time. Obviously, they got a lot of possession, particularly in the second half because we couldn't get the ball off them.
"They were fine, they were knocking it around, but we were in no serious danger at that stage. Then they score and they get a penalty, so we have come roaring back.
"We had one disallowed - it must have been very, very close - Shane Long made the goalkeeper make a great save and eventually, Daryl Murphy comes up with a blinding header and a point that we definitely deserved."
Ireland found themselves on the back foot for long periods and had substitute Andrija Pavlovic not wasted a golden opportunity to make it 3-1, or had Darren Randolph and Seamus Coleman not combined to deny Branislav Ivanovic a last-gasp winner, they might have emerged empty-handed.
But they kept going and although it was not pretty at times, they got there in the end.
Asked if he regretted not taking the game to Serbia earlier than the late onslaught, O'Neill said: "No, I don't see it like that, the game doesn't go like that, it just doesn't.
"We scored the goal early on in the match, we had a couple of little half-chances maybe to make it two.
"They obviously have possession of the ball - they're the home side, they expect the majority of the possession - and while it might look to you like we sat in, it was because we couldn't get the ball off them. They were playing it again and they started to cause us a few problems.
"But the penalty - I don't know whether you have seen it back or not. I haven't seen it. It might have been soft, it might have been a penalty, it doesn't matter. The referee was always going to give it anyway, and I felt we just came roaring back to get a point.
"We made some substitutions and thankfully, it paid dividends."
O'Neill was particularly pleased for Newcastle striker Murphy, whose first Ireland goal arrived on his 24th appearance.
He said: "It's very, very important for him. He's come in and he's been a very strong header and it's a great equalising goal for us, so he will take great confidence from that and probably take it on to club level as well, which is fine.
"I'm delighted for him and obviously delighted for the team."
Opposite number Slavoljub Muslin cut a more frustrated figure as he reflected upon a game he felt his side should have won.
Asked if Serbia should have collected three points, he said: "Absolutely. We held the ball, we had more chances, we were the one attacking and we absolutely deserved more than one point.
"But that's football, that's what happens."