Friday 30 September 2016

Shane Long is not a favourite of Martin O'Neill's but his goal will be up there with our best

Tipperary ace proves a world beater as stadium rocks to beat of past glory

Published 09/10/2015 | 02:30

Shane Long prepares to throw his shirt into the crowd after scoring the winner against Germany last night
Shane Long prepares to throw his shirt into the crowd after scoring the winner against Germany last night

The finish was so clipped, so cold it could have been typed formally on a slip of paper. Yet Shane Long's goal drew a great thunderclap of noise that, frankly, changes everything now. Watching, Jogi Loew might as well have been looking at Martians slip down, the ghosts of the old Lansdowne finally stirring to life again.

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Until last night, Irish dreams seemed hopelessly restricted by the team's history since Jason McAteer did that number on the Dutch in another lifetime. It was as if the whole country had become entombed in resignation.

But a bolt of lightning knifed through the old city last night.

Ireland found a recognisable team again and Martin O'Neill, finally, delivered a strident statement to the people. Victory guarantees his team a play-off place but, in reality, it does so much more than that.

It gives them a face, a personality, a heartbeat.

Long is no favourite of the Irish manager, but his goal will be up there with McAteer's now when grandparents dandle grandchildren on their knees and talk of days when we all but lost the run of ourselves through sport.

Ashen

The Germans? They looked ashen at how quickly things spun out of control. They didn't see this coming, never imagined it as a possibility. Maybe none of us did..

O'Neill's team selection drew a collective hush from the stands when publicly revealed maybe 25 minutes before kick-off and one could but imagine what Stephen Ward made of the dissection of his return to left-back on stadium TV whilst still limbering beneath a giant screen at the Lansdowne Road end.

Equally, the choice of Daryl Murphy - yet to score this season and, indeed, for Ireland at all - to start ahead of Long.

Yet hearts were quickly soaring at the early news from Glasgow, the logistics of the situation rendered curious by a Robert Lewandowski goal. That was the skewed reality of the affair. A defeat, even a humiliating one, would not necessarily deny us a play-off spot.

Ireland pressed high from the start, but the rhythm of the game had an innate cruelty to it, the Germans so unhurried in possession, their elegance drawing down jeers from the stands.

They play with a calm, almost lawyerly style, everything scrubbed clean of emotion. A team so elegant they could belong in the society pages not in sport. So full of cold, unromantic, self-contained intensity, casting their stiff-backed shadows. Bringing something like geometrical perfection to their football.

And there, on the tramline, kitted out like a Versace model, Loew stopping just short of checking his phone for messages. They had accumulated six corners by the fifteenth minute alone and only two wonderful, last-gasp interventions from John O'Shea and Richard Keogh denied them the freedom of an early goal.

These games never feel entirely fair. But then physical superiority isn't fair. Extravagant reserves of native confidence aren't fair. Ireland v Germany, at its most fundamental level, is never fair. Maybe it never can be. The differences between the teams can seem intergalactic at times.

But that's its beauty. The underdog gets his shot.

Much was made of what Ireland achieved during those final seconds in Gelsenkirchen a year ago, but they were a team playing with a headache back then. One still waving to the crowd. This was different.

Maybe we were hoping for indifference last night, the tiniest threads of ambivalence. And on 24 minutes, Mesut Ozil went to ground under such a faint brush-stroke from Wes Hoolahan that even the Spanish referee seemed affronted by his preciousness.

Little signals, little signals . . .

With each goalless minute, O'Neill seemed to edge closer and closer to the whitewashed field, hands raised in wild animation to a sooty sky, eyes riveted to the action. This was a throwback to the man who once electrified the east end of Glasgow, who won cups with Leicester City and who - for a time - seemed to breathe new life into Sunderland.

O'Neill as Irish manager has, at times, looked oddly disconnected. But, here, he was track-suited again and, gloriously, connected to the mains.

Nonchalance seemed to be insinuating itself like a virus into the German movement and, perhaps, he sensed it. They sidestepped collisions. They kicked lazy passes. They dodged anything that might lead to a bruise. Watching, you got the sense of a team palpably unwilling to extend itself.

James McCarthy cruised midfield in a deeper than customary role, shutting doors, slapping up warning notices. In front of him, Hoolahan glided regally through the lines. But then Ozil should have scored on 40 minutes when a wonderful low delivery from Thomas Muller reached him unattended at the far post and you were reminded of the endless reasons for misgiving.

The German box might as well have been circled by a barbed-wire fence and, when they chose, their midfield was all natural panache and sharp-toothed use of the ball. Up front? Take your pick. One moment Muller, the next Mario Gotze or, after the latter's substitution, Andre Schurrle.

And, by half-time, news of a Scottish equaliser had settled upon the place like a reality check, everyday sounds occasionally floating in over the curved silver shell of the stadium

Hearts began to flounder then with news of another Hampden goal, maybe even a quiet gloom beginning to slip down like invisible rain. Still, the Germans strolled and, still, the Irish thrashed for traction. Yet, with even the merest tremble of movement towards Manuel Neuer's goal, the crowd convulsed.

Little signals, little signals . . .

On 64 minutes, the madness almost splintered lightbulbs, Murphy's left foot torpedoeing a drive past Neuer's right ear but rising fractionally high and wide. It would be the Waterford man's final contribution, Long sent on to chase the rainbow.

And, boy, did he reach it.

The clock had ticked to its 70th minute when Long ignited onto Darren Randolph's kick to out-pace two German defenders and snap that gloriously decisive finish past Neuer.

Holy Moses. A team we mistook for artisans staring up at a frescoed ceiling had produced a masterpiece.

Irish Independent

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