Richard Keogh’s late chance to secure the 2-2 draw that would have sent Ireland through to the finals in France without the need for a play-off will live long in the memory if we fail to come through the two additional qualifying games next month, but let’s now shed tears of despair just yet.
Collecting 18 points from a group that was more competitive than any other in Europe over the last 13 months was a commendable effort and even though this near miss in Poland left us feeling as if our best chance of Euro 2016 qualification has been snatched away, this story is not over yet.
After the rugby heroes did the nation proud with their thumping with against France in Cardiff, attentions switched to Warsaw for the decisive Euro 2016 qualifier and the drama kicked-off before a ball had been kicked in Stadion Narodowy.
Poland opened the scoring with this effort:
O’Neill picked what appeared to be a more adventurous selection that he named for the Germany game three days earlier, with the prize at stake for a win in this game encouraging the Ireland boss to bring James McClean and Shane Long into his starting line-up.
Yet it was the absence of Wes Hoolahan that inspired the most heated of discussions prior to kick-off, with O’Neill’s suggestion that the Norwich midfielder claimed he was not fit enough to start the game being greeted with scorn by Eamon Dunphy in the RTE studio. That debate over that non-selection – and Dunphy’s suggestion that O’Neill had lied about his reasons for dropping Hoolahan - will continue to rumble on in the coming days.
It was a side-show that O’Neill and his players will have known little about and their focus was trained on securing the result that would complete Ireland’s dream sporting Sunday.
Even though the pressure could not have been any more inflated in the final game of what has been a captivating Group D qualifying campaign, it somehow felt as if the expectation was on Poland to press for a victory on a night, even though a low scoring draw would be enough for them to progress to next summer’s finals in France.
Jon Walters levelled it up from the spot:
In truth, we didn't know what to expect in Warsaw. Unpredictability has been the theme of this qualifying group since Poland beat Germany in the same Warsaw Stadium Ireland were playing their final game in precisely one year ago to the very day, right through to the famous Long goal that beat Ireland at the Aviva Stadium last Thursday.
There was no reason to think the script would change in this final night of action and the two minutes of drama that started with Grzegorz Krychowiak opening goal and concluded with Jonathan Walters’ equalizing penalty summed up that nerve tingling tension.
Ireland were caught out by a smart Polish corner that was spun to the edge of the box and into the path of Krychowiak, with his low fizzing shot leaving keeper Darren Randolph flat footed.
The response from Ireland was aided by a poor decision from the match officials, with a high challenge on Shane Long from Poland’s Michal Pazdan deemed to be inside the penalty box, even though replays suggested the contact was made outside of the area. Walters made no mistake with a cooly slotted spot kick.
The secure Ireland defence that has carried them through Group D conceding just five goals in their first nine matches looked less than stable in what was left of the first half and it was no surprise when the prolific Robert Lewandowksi headed the home side in front again three minutes before the break.
It was a blow to Irish hopes, but one more goal in the second half could still be enough to book their place at Euro 2016 and as clocked ticked down in a second half that was increasingly fuelled with inevitable tension for the home side, the dream lived on.
Randolph pulled off a good save to deny Kamil Grosicki and Coleman’s desperate challenge denied Lewandowski a third Polish goal that would have crushed the Irish resistance, before every packed-out bar in Ireland gasped with despair as Keogh spurned the chance that could have heroically booked our ticket to France next summer.
If only the chance had fallen to Robbie Keane or Shane Long we might have had one another of those great moments to savour, but Keogh did not have the scoring nous to plant his header wide of Poland keeper Lukasz Fabianski. So near, so near to glory.
It was to be the final chance for Ireland’s soccer heroes to etch October 11th 2015 into the history books as one of the greatest in our sporting history, yet there should be no shame for O’Neill and his players at the end of a ten game run that will fuel our hopes of taking one of the final places up for grabs at Euro 2016.
The red card for John O’Shea in the final seconds is a blow Ireland could have done without as he will now be absent for the first leg of the play-off, with the one-game suspension for the booked Jon Walters another hammer blow for O'Neill.
Yet this team of unlikely lads have shown that they can never be written off and the tears of despair in Warsaw can quickly be turned into joyous emotions in a play-off next month. Let’s keep the faith.