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Wednesday 29 March 2017

Miguel Delaney: Have Ireland ever scored a goal as good as McClean's?

James McClean has eyes only for the ball as he scores against Austria. Photo: Reuters
James McClean has eyes only for the ball as he scores against Austria. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

It was a night when everything came together for Ireland, from the resilience shown at the end to results elsewhere, and especially with James McClean's glorious winning goal.

The movement was just so fluid, with every part working perfectly, but that thereby raises an imperfect question: have Ireland ever scored a goal as good as that, in any meaningful game like that?

James McClean celebrates a brilliant goal. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean celebrates a brilliant goal. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

If that sounds like typically reactionary exaggeration in the immediate emotional aftermath of a big win, it is worth more coldly considering the exact elements of the goal.

What is still so striking about what is the unhesitating ruthlessness of it.

This was genuinely the kind of clinical counter-attacking we've become accustomed to from elite sides over the last few years - but not from Ireland.

There was also the tactical calculation of it all. Austria had intentionally started both halves strongly, looking to catch Ireland out, but Martin O'Neill's side instead just caught them in a near-perfect trap.

Onslaught

They had learned from the onslaught of the opening minutes, and this time weren't pinned back. They were ready to pounce, to use Austria's willingness against them.

From there, everything flowed supremely. And that's another key element to the goal - the cohesiveness.

This wasn't one player suddenly stepping up from a hopeful passage of passes with something high-quality.

It was a team move performed at high speed and high precision, that still had brilliant individual elements.

First of all, there was the base tenacity of David Meyler in winning the ball and carrying it up the pitch with vigour, a spirited aggression that has come to define this team, so adds even more depth to this goal.

The Hull City midfielder did even better to get it to Wes Hoolahan right in the centre of the pitch, before the playmaker offered a pass that possibly can't be bettered.

Hoolahan inspires an awful lot of histrionic debate of the type we seem to have heard so often before with similar players, but this is why it really is different with him.

He does things we haven't really seen before. That is why he certainly isn't the usual cause célèbre, one of those who is always a better player when he isn't actually playing.

When he does play, Ireland are undeniably a better attacking team.

No-one in the squad - and, it should be acknowledged, not too many players around Europe - could have produced a through ball like he did for McClean.

It was as impressive as any long-range strike we've seen in Irish history, and also involved the technical inventiveness of goals like, say, Liam Brady's strike in the friendly against Brazil in 1987.

Yet there was still even more to this goal.

Although Hoolahan's pass had been weighted to such perfection that McClean could seamlessly move onto it with his strong foot and didn't have to break stride, it wasn't like he could just hit it.

He didn't have the out of just instinctively reacting; he had a lot to think about, including the ominous figure of the assistant manager, as McClean revealed after the game.

"If I'd missed the target I think Roy would have killed me," the winger said. "Roy hammers us in training about making sure we hit the target. He drums that into us.

"So when I was going through I was just thinking if you hit the target you've always got a chance. I've managed to hit it sweetly, it flew through the 'keeper's legs and hit the back of the net."

It also hit the spot in more ways than one. The way that the ball so cleanly swished into the net was really the best way for that move to finish, so ideally building on and complementing the sweeping move that had led to it.

Flew

That it flew through the goalkeeper's legs only added to the aesthetic.

Again, everything just came together.

And that's the thing. It's genuinely difficult to remember an Irish goal of such consequence that involved such high technical quality with such aesthetic elegance.

When you actually start going through them, few compare.

Read more: Golden goals a feature of Irish teams in every decade

Ronnie Whelan's volley against the USSR is still so brilliant for the way it boomed into the net from such a distance in a game of such history against a side of such quality.

However, put against the precision of Hoolahan's pass and purity of McClean's strike, it's impossible to escape the fact it came from a long throw and went off his shin.

It's similar with many of our best long shots, from Matt Holland against Cameroon in 2002 to Glenn Whelan against Italy in 2009 and Aiden McGeady against Georgia in 2014.

If it's obviously very unfair to say 'they just hit it' - especially with the magic involved in McGeady's strike - they don't quite involve the specific accumulated difficulty of the various parts of McClean's goal. There's a more instantly speculative element to them, even if that makes them spectacular.

The goal against Austria had that and that more, as is also the case when you compare it to Brady's ingenuity against France in 1977 and strikes like that.

Perhaps the move with the most similar elements was the sweeping counter-attack in the play-off against France in 2009, but there was no individual part of it as high in class as the McClean move.

Even Robbie Keane's supreme finish involved his innate off-the-cuff instinct, rather than the requirement to create. He instantly reacted, rather than proactively crafting something.

Hoolahan's own strike against Sweden in Euro 2016 required exquisite technique to keep it down, but the build-up was scrappier.

The playmaker also provided a divinely delivered arching ball for Robbie Brady against Italy, but the headed finish is much the same as Keane's against France, in that it's a case of do-or-don't rather than having to fashion something. This is not to disparage any of these brilliant moments, of course, merely to discuss them relative to McClean's goal, and it's clear there's a common link to some of the most recent: Hoolahan.

In setting up the strike, he should really have settled the argument about his place in the team.

This is why it's worth persisting with any misplaced passes, or an occasional propensity to give the ball away.

It's because those moments all part of the creative mindset that brings inspired creativity like that pass. You can't have one without the other. O'Neill now surely has to have Hoolahan in his team?

The manager was asked about it at the end of his press conference on Saturday night, just as the defeated Austrian boss Marcel Koller was walking in for his, lending an uncomfortably comic moment to it. O'Neill had to hurriedly answer and leave, but got his point across.

"Listen, that was a big match tonight and he was picked for the side so that should give him great confidence," O'Neill merely said.

That confidence is one other thing with the team too. Much has been made of the importance of going into the long winter break between internationals with a positive, but it's almost a pity that the side can't build on this right away, that they can't build on a moment like that.

That goal, after all, should give this entire team a new confidence about themselves. It's something as rare as a big away win. And something to treasure.

Irish Independent

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