Heroic Ireland book deserved place in the sun
Brace from inspired Walters gives O'Neill's men due reward for performance which showcased best attributes
SIX years after the Thierry Henry controversy gave Irish football a painful play-off memory that outranked all the other disappointments, a contentious handball decision sent Martin O'Neill's side on their way to the European Championships.
The crucial distinction is that this game will not be remembered as a tale of injustice. When it came to the crunch, Ireland were better than Bosnia, displaying a superior level of composure in an occasion that demanded it.
A goal in either half by Jon Walters, the first after Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers stunned the Bosnians by pointing to the spot, ensured that O'Neill successfully completed his mission to bring this spirited group of players to France. The opposing camp didn't play well enough to argue that they were unlucky. That is because Ireland didn't allow them to do so.
At the full-time whistle, O'Neill shared a warm embrace with Roy Keane before they joined the rest of the backroom staff in the centre of the pitch and drank in the acclaim. After a rocky road that looked to have veered off course in June when Scotland celebrated a point as though they had qualified, the dream team have delivered a sixth appearance at a major tournament.
The victors saved the best all-round performance until last.
"I couldn't be more proud," said O'Neill, who praised the 'phenomenal' contribution of his number two. "Sometimes he polarises opinion, but certainly not in the dressing room. The biggest decision I made was bringing him in.
"Even after that Scotland, game, it was still in our hands," he stressed, "There's a great spirit in this group of players, and it carried us through the match," continued the 63-year-old, who went on to thank his players, the FAI board and the fans before chiding himself for the overuse of the word 'special'.
It was a fair description of this uplifting occasion, however.
The achievement preserves the memory of the big moments along the way that all played a significant part: Aiden McGeady's opening day heroics in Tbilisi, John O'Shea's strike in Gelsenkirchen, Jeff Hendrick's fancy feet against Georgia and Shane Long's late contributions against Poland and, of course, Germany. The full-time roar here matched the noise generated by that epic win over the world champions.
It was hairy at times, although not exactly as much as anticipated, but O'Neill did enter this second leg with a team which lived up to his pre-match promise to go for the win.
He made one change from Zenica, with the inspirational Walters, the star man of this journey, coming in for Stephen Ward. Goalscorer Robbie Brady reverted to left-back, a bold move given his struggles in Poland, with Hendrick positioned ahead of him in a narrow midfield to add extra protection.
Wes Hoolahan was retained as the playmaker, with fitness doubts John O'Shea and Shane Long left on the bench.
At times, the Norwich schemer was deployed as the forward-most Irish player with bruise brothers Walters and Daryl Murphy splitting wide. Formation talk can be too rigid sometimes; what Ireland had was a fluid set-up that adapted to every scenario.
Bosnia's coach Mehmed Bazdarevic made three changes, pushing Miralem Pjanic up behind Edin Dzeko, but the problem from his perspective was that white shirts were being put under so much pressure in their own half that the star duo were subdued.
Ireland meant business from the outset, and a bulldozing run from a sprightly James McCarthy instigated a move which showcased the positive aspects of O'Neill's system as the Hendrick and Brady axis dovetailed to allow the latter send in a cross that Asmir Begovic just about cleared from Walters.
That was the pick of the passing moves, as Ireland struck the right balance between long and shorts. Bosnia screamed fragility at the back, with veteran Emir Spahic increasingly agitated and the Irish opener came from pressure which yielded a throw 30 yards from goal.
It was tossed towards Hoolahan who released Murphy with a delicate flick that was followed by a cross that, according to the match officials, was handballed by left-back Ervin Zukanovic. Their protests were valid, and their attempts to distract Walters futile; he sent his old Stoke buddy Begovic the wrong way to put Ireland ahead. "I won't speak about the penalty because it would have consequences," said Bazdarevic, who was honest enough about his side's overall failings.
From the restart, Dzeko sought an even quicker response than in Zenica, with the lone striker escaping the close attention of Richard Keogh to shoot into the side-netting. Brady was nearly caught in behind from one clever break, but the Balkans were noticeably short on finesse and desperately needed the half-time whistle.
Unsurprisingly, Bazdarevic made a switch with Everton's Mo Besic sent in for the cumbersome Edin Cocalic. They emerged with the heads screwed on, and controlled a 10-minute spell which might have ended in disaster for the natives if Lulic had kept his balance from a Edin Visca centre.
O'Neill sensed that Ireland were flagging and sent for the aggression of James McClean and the pace of Shane Long with Hoolahan and Murphy sacrificed as the hosts flirted with trouble by falling deeper. The excellent discipline which had rendered the set-piece skills of Pjanic redundant was lost as Hendrick and then McClean committed fouls in the defensive third.
The subs were sent in with a view to shifting play to the other half of the pitch and McClean had some success in that regard as the pendulum swung back towards the men in the green.
There was an encouraging sight for the Irish bench as the game entered its final quarter when Pjanic lashed out at his team-mates for failing to read a pass. Whelan and McCarthy ran a tight ship that kept him quiet. Bazdarevic sent for another fresh face, the imposing Milan Djuric, which opened a window to their game-plan.
Soon, the writing was on the wall. Spahic, who remained a calamity throughout, was guilty of another rash foul 35 yards from goal. It gave Brady an opportunity to make up for his erratic deliveries; he stepped up to whip in a left-footer that was scuffed by Ognjen Vranjes into the path of the grateful Walters.
The 32-year-old did the rest. "He's been exceptional," enthused O'Neill. Long duly had a chance to remove all doubt from proceedings when he pickpocketed the hapless Spahic only to fluff his lines. The German hero looked short of 100pc, which is hardly surprising given his interrupted preparation.
Bosnia were further off the pace, though, and lacked a sufficient excuse with Darren Randolph managing to get through the evening without being called upon for a major save.
They wasted a clearcut opening at the death, just after John O'Shea was pitched in by O'Neill, with their final sub Vedad Ibisevic finding space to aim a shot on goal. He hit the bar.
Seconds later, the jubilant home support were preparing to do the same.