Thursday 29 September 2016

Dion Fanning: Nobody has done more in qualifying campaign than goal scoring hero Jon Walters

Dion Fanning

Published 16/11/2015 | 22:07

The Republic of Ireland players celebrate their side's victory, resulting in qualification for EURO 2016. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Play-off, 2nd Leg,
The Republic of Ireland players celebrate their side's victory, resulting in qualification for EURO 2016. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Play-off, 2nd Leg,

When Jon Walters stood over the penalty at the Aviva, one thing told you this was a moment of significance.

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All around the ground, camera phones lit up as people recorded what they were about to witness. You don’t tend to get that when you’re playing Georgia in front of an apathetic crowd.

It felt right that it was Jon Walters standing over the ball and it felt even better when, after a tense 25 minutes in the second half, Walters volleyed in Ireland’s second to ensure qualification for next summer’s European Championships.

When the final whistle went, the Irish players ran giddily across the field trying to make sense of it, and then some of them headed towards the man who had made sense of it for all of them.

Walters scored the goals here at the Aviva that got Ireland past Bosnia and to the finals but the truth of this campaign is that nobody had done more to get Ireland to the European Championships.

This was another night when it was demonstrated that all those soulless nights in the Aviva were down to the absence of something to be soulful about. This was a team overcoming its deficiencies in a way the Irish support can relate to.

There will come a time to worry about those deficiencies but the night when Ireland qualified is not that time.

In Poland three years ago, Walters was sent from the bench, often when things were lost, which was almost from the third minute of the first game. Injuries permitting, he will be more involved next summer.

Nobody had done more on nights in Tbilisi, the Aviva or points in between. Walters had embodied all that this team thinks it could be in the best version of itself.

His industry reflects the effort of this squad which makes up for its lack of show-stopping talent with effort. Walters has plenty of talent and an ability which managers cherish of producing it reliably.  A career which has taken him to some of the places they don’t tell you about when you dream of being a professional footballer has provided him with a knowledge of what he has achieved. He always calls on that knowledge and maybe where he has come from keeps him going because he never stops.

He didn’t start O’Neill’s first match as manager but that hasn’t happened much since. The manager always purrs when the subject of Walters comes up and it’s not surprising. He gives everything for every manager.

Asmir Begovic described him as an 8/10 player, a player who is reliable and reliable not just in the unheralded things. Walters has scored five goals in this campaign, none of them coming against, say, Gibraltar so he got them when Ireland needed them most. As Begovic, his old Stoke team-mate said, he never lets you down.

Begovic would have known what was coming when he faced him for the penalty and he wouldn’t have been surprised when Walters’ second made sure of things. At the end of the game, after Walters had been embraced by his team-mates, he made his way to Begovic and the friends hugged.

Ireland had been rewarded for their positive intent and Bosnia faltered because they couldn’t figure out what to do. O’Neill had promised to go forward and his team selection confirmed his intentions.

A team designed to attack had one core message: Ireland should forget any notion of sitting on their lead and ensure that they didn’t have to chase the game if Bosnia scored. It seemed inevitable that Bosnia would score but pretty soon it seemed inevitable they would fall apart.

If Ireland and Bosnia had learned anything about each other during the first leg, it might have been that they didn’t like each other very much.

The disruption to the minute’s silence for those murdered in Paris from a few Bosnia fans and the foolish notion some Irish fans had to mark their displeasure by booing provided the game with an unseemly opening.

From there, Ireland took O’Neill at his word and looked to get forward relentlessly. At times, it was done without subtlety as the defenders hit long straight balls to Daryl Murphy who must have wondered what he was supposed to do with them.

But with every fresh-air shot and every sliced clearance, Bosnia eased the nerves of the Irish team. With half an hour gone and Ireland one up, they appeared in the verge of a complete collapse. A sending-off or a comical own goal looked likely.

This was the Bosnia which had lost to Cyprus, the Bosnia which had stumbled through the early months of the campaign and not the team which had recovered to make the play-offs.

Ireland took advantage. James McCarthy played as he had against Germany while Wes Hoolahan floated around. Robbie Brady had moments of brilliance but they never came when he was standing over a free-kick.

Miralem Pjanic found room inside the box which made the Ireland defence nervous but if Bosnia had nothing to lose, they weren’t showing it.

They were demonstrating some weaknesses which they thought they had shaken off and then they had a grievance to go with it.

Ireland will justify the penalty by pointing to the wrongs done to them in the past but there was no handball when Murphy’s cross brushed against Ervin Zukanovic.

Bosnia could never lose this feeling of injustice even if Emir Spahic was lucky to stay on the field after series of fouls including a kick into Walters’s stomach. His ongoing presence could only suggest the referee felt guilty about the penalty.

There were tense moments either side of halftime but then Walters ensured qualification. Sometimes attempts to makes sense of things retrospectively can seem contrived but as the crowd hailed him at the end, it seemed that Walters had been heading towards this moment for a long, long time.

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