Saturday 25 March 2017

10 key factors that shaped Ireland’s historic qualifying campaign

David Kelly

David Kelly

1 Keith Fahey's goal in Armenia

Where else to start but at the beginning?

In a region lying upon a series of ever shuffling tectonic plates, Ireland nearly saw the ground collapse from beneath their feet in the Republic Stadium, but ultimately earned an away win which appreciated in value the longer Group B went on.

A scrap in a sauna developed into a streetfight and as the game entered the final quarter, it seemed as if Ireland would have to settle for a draw, with Robbie Keane, out of favour at Spurs, struggling to find his radar.

Keith Fahey was brought on ostensibly to provide defensive cover to a tiring midfielder where Paul Green -- remember him? -- was toiling in the boiling.

After Keane whacked at thin air, Fahey finished a difficult chance to seize a significant victory for Ireland that, with Andorra visiting four days later, ensured six points from their opening two games.

2 Smells like team spirit

Ireland's win at the Philip II stadium in Macedonia last June was important not just for its three points -- it was a vital fillip coming so soon after a turbulent early summer when a certain group of players who were not in the squad created more headlines than those who were.

Ireland's Four Nations campaign in May was riven with discord after a raft of squad withdrawals threatened to undermine the manager's authority and expose a schism within the squad.

Shay Given, captain Robbie Keane, Glenn Whelan and Darren O'Dea received pain-killers to ensure they finished the game -- yet it seemed as if the whole squad had ingested a confidence serum.

"We've always had a good team spirit," insisted Keane. "I said that it was important that we stuck together as a group and we've done that.

"I think it's important for the lads who are here to show that they should be here and that they have a right to be here. The next squad, they should be in."

Typically, Stephen Hunt cut to the nub.

"The last two weeks have brought us closer than ever."

3 Moscow marvel

"Ridiculous. A man mountain. He was just outstanding. Ridiculous." Stephen Hunt's summation of Richard Dunne's contribution to the most one-sided encounter in recent Irish football history was perfectly apt.

Goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was forced to stencil a number five on his jersey in an extraordinary second-half period when Dunne, clearly bored at repelling the entire Russian attack, decided to hop his head off the concrete running track for amusement.

Identification was superfluous. Thousands of miles away, Paul McGrath tweeted his admiration of the best-ever defensive display from an Irishman -- from the hero of Giants Stadium, such acclamation neatly encapsulated the Tallaght man's heroics.

Oh, and his purposeful 40-yard dash and tackle reclaim provided Ireland's with their best attacking moment too!

4 Winning the public vote

It is ironic that such acclamation surrounded Ireland's qualification campaign last night -- however, this was the first full house of the campaign and the familiar sound of bandwagon engines beginning to cough into action very late into the campaign.

Indeed, Ireland were booed off by a significant portion of the less than full Lansdowne Road crowd when they struggled to a 0-0 draw at home to a Slovakia side who were on the verge of imploding in Group B.

Ireland were utterly toothless in attack, with the wide men creating little, the rebranded Captain Hollywood clearly rusty and Kevin Doyle, a sad reflection of his usual, bustling self, addled by his manager's injury doubts.

Only Damien Duff bucked the underperforming trend, but many Irish supporters were clearly unhappy with the manager's limited tactical approach against an average international side.

With the forbidding trip to Moscow to come only days later, many Irish fans feared the worst. They will be the same people toasting the manager and his team this evening.

Such is sport.

5 Goalkeeping giant a Given

As much as Roy Keane's presence during Ireland's last successful championship qualifying campaign overshadowed the Donegal man's efforts, Richard Dunne's totemic displays could yet again relegate Shay Given's contribution.

We would argue that in 2012, as in 2002, Ireland would not have progressed were it not for Given's presence -- from Moscow to Macedonia, the 33-year-old's interventions were utterly crucial, particularly given his side's predominantly spartan approach to attack.

Given's save from Goran Pandev in Skopje was vital in maintaining Ireland's early lead there; so too his later efforts that kept the brave hosts at arm's length; no less than Robbie Keane last season, Given's efforts were all the more laudable given his inactivity at club level at that stage.

"Some of the saves he pulled off were fantastic and just his sheer presence was so important," gushed an enthralled John O'Shea after the victory against Macedonia.

In Moscow, his stunning late save from Konstantin Zyryanov ensured that Ireland emerged from the Russian capital with an improbable point.

"Shay Given saved two or three goals," observed Trapattoni in the dramatic aftermath. "They were fantastic saves."

6 Russian roulette

It remains the low point of the qualifying campaign, but it can be argued that the stunning 3-2 reverse at home to Russia strengthened the resolve of the manager to remain on his charted course.

Admitting that he knew that Russia would outnumber his midfield -- and that he did not really know how to combat that approach -- heaped the pressure on the manager from outside the squad to relax his inflexibility.

He relented -- once and briefly -- in a friendly against Uruguay, when cause celebre James McCarthy played in a 4-5-1 system behind Shane Long. Ireland lost, Trapattoni wasn't impressed and his slavish devotion to 4-4-2 was steeled once more.

7 One-dimensional approach even without 3D stars

The game in Macedonia was significant in that it represented an opportunity for Trapattoni to demonstrate the strength in depth of his squad -- as Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Kevin Doyle all missed out.

John O'Shea slotted in at centre-half, Stephen Hunt operated on the right and Simon Cox, the striker who emerged from nowhere during the campaign, provided a ceaselessly working foil for Robbie Keane.

Trapattoni's main aim in terms of squad development is to ensure that Ireland have enough cover to competently provide two players for each position without altering the team's structure or style.

Skopje presented the first real test for the squad dynamic and they passed it with flying colours.

8 Unsung heroes

While the core quartet of Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff -- pleasantly without major fitness worries for the first time in four campaigns -- and Robbie Keane were vital, key contributions from unsung heroes adorned the journey and emphasised the strength of the squad and their collective spirit.

From Keith Fahey's winning goal in Armenia to the late flowering of both Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox as striking alternatives, Ireland's campaign was full of significant cameos.

Keiren Westwood ensured that Given's rare competitive absence at home to Macedonia would not be a source of anguish with a comfortable display.

On other occasions, Darren O'Dea, Paul Green, Darron Gibson, Stephen Kelly and Keith Fahey stepped up to the plate without upsetting Ireland's imperceptible progress to Euro 2012.

9 Keane habit

Highlighted by the glorious night when he smashed the 50-goal barrier against Macedonia last June, Robbie Keane has continued to be a prolific goalscorer for Ireland during their Euro 2012 campaign.

For every critic that continues to harangue his narcissism, his productivity routinely silences the carpers.

He swiftly added his 51st goal against Macedonia.

His commitment to the Irish cause, evident again last night when he rebuffed his employers' attempts to repatriate him to prepare for their MLS encounter this weekend, is representative of the captain's immense spirit.

His all-round game may not always be perfect, but, as in Estonia last Friday night, when he had a hand in all four goals, his presence up front remains a crucial component of Ireland's game.

10 Luck of the draw

As if to emphasise that both karma and luck would trail Ireland's efforts in this campaign following that fateful evening in Paris two years ago, Trapattoni's men were afforded a relatively easy task in this play-off renewal.

Estonia were the draw that the Irish management and players secretly wanted -- and the manager's old friend from Juventus, Zbigniew Boniek, dutifully obliged in Warsaw.

Granted such a plum opportunity, Ireland's mixture of zeal and zen-like calm in the first leg last Friday, combined with a ramshackle opposition, who steadily imploded, ensured they would not look this gift horse in the mouth.

Irish Independent

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