Vincent Hogan: Walters a leading light in a team whose heart can't be questioned
Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30
Wedged between the low-slung north stand of Zimbru Stadium and a sports hall doubling as the media centre, some metal barriers funnelled players out under a white canopy.
It made for a contrived loop en route to the team bus and some navigated it, heads bowed, like felons being invited to be frisked. This was the mixed zone on Sunday night in Chisinau, a dirty club in need of service.
Journalists one side of a line, professional footballers the other, the game's lowest caste tossing solicitous glances towards its highest.
With Ireland, roughly the same players always stop, giving their time courteously whilst roughly the same ones always walk sullenly by, as if to linger in such company might be to risk infection. It's a peculiar exercise, yet repetition seems to have numbed both sides to its awkwardness.
The players who keep walking appear to have long since decided that, even in a winning circumstance, the assembled media aren't worth the time of day. They don't actually reject requests for "a quick word". They stonily ignore them.
It seems to reflect a broad defensiveness within sections of the group, whether it be Martin O'Neill's curiously edgy interaction with Tony O'Donoghue just doing his job on TV or the press officer ringing senior print journalists to communicate the manager's dislike for a particular line of questioning.
O'Neill clearly felt unfairly broadsided by last week's Harry Arter (unfounded) rumours straight after the Georgia win, but the curse of social media is its immediacy, placing fact, rumour and fiction all before a gaping world without distinction. As Friday had been deemed a "media-free day", journalists had no real option but to focus on the Arter story instantly at a time O'Neill - palpably - believed their attention should have been on the positivity of an important win.
If Arter had indeed declared for England, it was a big news story. That much is self-evident. So the idea that journalists should, out of sensitivity, suspend questions on it for 48 hours seems scarcely credible.
These are good days for O'Neill, good days for Ireland.
Having performed well in France last summer, the team has made a fine start to World Cup qualifying. The draw in Serbia now changes complexion given Austria's defeat there and Wales's difficulties on Sunday night clearly elevate the victory over Georgia to a higher plain too.
Aesthetic grumbles have followed Irish teams on their travels for as long as I have been reporting (36 years), so much so it seems almost fatuous to take such grumbles personally. As my colleague Aidan O'Hara pointed out in yesterday's paper, the issues causing vexation within the Irish game today are precisely those that were causing vexation half a century ago.
Edited down, we would quite like Ireland to play like Barclona but, uncooperative wretches that they have always been, they keep choosing not to.
What Irish teams consistently deliver, however, is character. They consistently play a game franked with competitive integrity and reflective of something fast diminishing in certain countries; that is pride in a national shirt.
Maybe you had to be in Zimbru Stadium on Sunday night to appreciate the physicality of the exchanges and the willingness of Moldova's players to test the resolve of their opponents. Just seconds in, Alexandru Dedov needlessly upended Seamus Coleman in a gesture designed, palpably, to set down some kind of marker.
And James McClean alluded afterwards to the physical provocation of the hosts, something that led eventually to a late outbreak of hostilities in front of the dug-outs, with O'Neill intervening in the role of peace-maker.
That late squabble was triggered by a by a high boot striking Jonathan Walters (below) in the chest.
Walters is emblematic of all that is admirable within the group and was not about to blithely wave away any cheap shots from a by then beaten Moldovan team. Seconds earlier, he witnessed what he considered a "naughty" challenge on young Callum O'Dowda. Nobody wisely takes liberties with the Stoke man and his eruption triggered instant support from team-mates.
Given the gulf in FIFA rankings between Ireland and Moldova, maybe the inclination is to disregard the qualities required to summon that largely commanding second-half performance which prised victory from a quarrelsome place. Shane Duffy's error on the stroke of half-time gifted the hosts an equaliser they hadn't remotely threatened and the roars following them down the dressing-room tunnel spoke of an occasion, suddenly, electrified.
For Walters, the minutes that followed went to the very heart of this Irish team.
"We can say things and it won't get taken to heart," he reflected. "It's in the game and it's forgotten about. We have characters and we're not afraid to say things to each other and it's a great trait to have.
"It was pretty fiery in there again, some choice words at half-time as there was the other night (against Georgia). But you take it on the chin and we came out much better in the second-half. So it worked."
The collective humility of the group, the absence of conspicuous ego, may well be their most compelling attributes. Qualities reflected in match-winner, James McClean.
"I'm delighted for him," Walters said of the Derryman. "He works his socks off on the left, sometimes on the right. And it's not an easy position. It's unforgiving and you have to chase back a lot.
"But he's a good lad James. He can be a bit ... stupid with what he says in the press down the years, but he's learning. He's a good lad and we haven't a bad lad in the group. No egos and nothing about anyone. Everyone gets on and James is a good lad and we'll keep him under wraps.
"Listen, the likes of Moldova and Georgia, they're not easy games. They have a way of playing and I said it the other day, you can compare it to a cup game where you're playing a lower league team. They have a game-plan and they work on it very hard and they execute it.
"We should have seen the first-half out with the ball in the corner. So there were some choice words said. I think if we made the right decisions in the final third and we could have been two or three up going into the break. But the second-half was much better. In the end, it's about getting the points. It's not about performance."
As to the late hostilities, Walters observed flatly, "It got a little bit ... towards the end, but games like this will. I got studs in the chest. Ah, it happens. Just try and keep our heads. There was a little naughty one on Callum just before it that wasn't very nice and the referee let it go when he shouldn't have.
"But yeah, we have to stick together and see these games through."
He believes that complacency will come at a cost for either Wales or Austria if they are infected by that condition traveling to Chisinau. "I think if they don't take it seriously enough and the focus is not on small details...yes you can come unstuck," he reflected.
With seven points from a possible nine, Ireland now head to Vienna next month, joint top of a group in which - as the Welsh and Austrians discovered on Sunday - few cheap points will be available.
"It's never plain sailing," said Walters. "We're not a team like Germany, Brazil, Spain or Italy where we're favourites for every game, we have to fight for every point. It's going to be a difficult campaign and the next game coming up is going to be huge."
Chisinau hadn't delivered the prettiest of wins, but it did italicise the principles to which this group remains unfailingly faithful. Cornered in an unfriendly place, they held together, got the job done. It won't have won them any Valentines from neutrals, but as Shane Long so succinctly put it "I'd rather play bad and get a win than rip it up and lose!"
O'Neill has a team that can be trusted. It's just a pity the instinct to see enemies at every turn keeps some of them strangers.