Daniel McDonnell: Seamus Coleman and James McClean epitomise everything great about this Ireland team
Austria 0 Ireland 1
Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30
The fear heading into the opening phase of Ireland's World Cup campaign was that they would be gripped by a Euros hangover. Fittingly, it is a pair of teetotallers that has ensured the opposite is the case.
Seamus Coleman and James McClean have taken control of Ireland's destiny and their ability to lead by example has lifted Ireland to the top of Group D.
The end-of-year discussions will be as much about looking forward as looking back. Memories of the summer are just that; Ireland are making new ones.
Saturday's win in Austria cannot be compared to the epic June night in Lille in terms of the magnitude of the stage and the emotional significance, but in terms of football significance, it's really not lagging too far behind.
It's almost 30 years since the last major away win in a qualifier against a higher ranked side; a 1987 success in Scotland that is often referenced as the greatest example of the quality available to Jack Charlton. Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath were moved to full-back to stack the side with top-level performers.
Ireland's pool of talent is shallow compared to that golden generation. However, in Coleman and McClean, they have two players that have the determination to leave a legacy. There is a tendency to over-analyse international football. The reality is that spirit, organisation and a good attitude can bring a team a long way.
With 10 points from 12, Irish followers can now dare to dream about the possibility of a trip to Russia and the footprints of Coleman and McClean have dominated this part of the journey.
They might have slightly different public personas - McClean is fiery and has talked himself into trouble, whereas Coleman avoids all controversy - but they have a lot in common.
Both men started in England late, and they are genuine League of Ireland success stories - evidence, as if it's still needed, that the future of the international team is dependent on investment in a stronger production line at home.
They also both have a work ethic which has allowed them to flourish as late developers and appreciate the life they lead.
The duo are extremely passionate about representing their country, even if it took them a while to properly establish themselves in the side. McClean was peripheral at Euro 2012, while Coleman didn't make Giovanni Trapattoni's final 23.
When Ireland lost to Austria in September 2013, Coleman had played himself into the team, but McClean was only a sub behind Anthony Pilkington.
Under Martin O'Neill, they have thrived, even if it's taken McClean a while to nail down a guaranteed place in the starting XI.
Their dedication to the cause has been demonstrated by their willingness to play through the pain barrier in the past three months. Coleman was the warm-up act in the simmering feud between O'Neill and Everton manager Ronald Koeman by lining out in Serbia in September even though injury had prevented him from contributing to the opening weeks of the Toffees' season.
McClean tore a back muscle seven days ago and had an epidural last Tuesday in order to ensure that he was capable of figuring in Vienna. "His back was hanging off him," said Coleman.
And, just like his captain, he is now consistently rising to the occasion. In the October double-header, Coleman dragged Ireland out of a hole against Georgia before McClean came to the rescue in Moldova with an excellent brace.
At the Ernst Happel Stadium, they were again involved in the key moments: Coleman with a brilliantly timed last-ditch, first-half tackle that stopped Marko Arnautovic from taking aim; McClean with the game's only goal, a calm finish that followed superb build-up play from unlikely hero David Meyler and the artistry of Wes Hoolahan.
O'Neill said afterwards that any number of players could be singled out for praise after a performance which lifted several notches following an extremely ropey opening 30 minutes.
The loss of Glenn Whelan paved the way for Meyler to come into proceedings and the midfield diamond was abandoned in favour of a 4-2-3-1. Harry Arter slotted in next to Meyler and the new partnership grew into a situation which they could not have been prepared for. Character carried them through.
Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy tightened things up after Ireland rode their luck before the interval. Marc Janko missed a late header, but the visitors otherwise succeeded in restricting the hosts to speculative, long-range shots. Jon Walters ran himself into the ground as a lone striker, while Hoolahan was smart when it mattered.
And behind it all, of course, lies O'Neill, who kept a low profile in the build-up, but delivered a third success of real substance in the space of 12 months - the Bosnia playoff, the Italian job at the Euros and a first ever win in Austria that leaves the hosts on the brink of elimination.
He has moulded a team which has developed the welcome habit of getting the job done and it's happening too often to be attributed to luck.
The leaders of his dressing room reflect this group's personality.
"Coleman was great," enthused O'Neill.
"He's a great player, a great player. He's taken on that captaincy like you wouldn't believe.
"He had to deal with Arnautovic and then he has to deal with keeping everybody else going.
"He was absolutely and utterly up to the task. He has taken that captaincy up to another level."
He speaks of McClean with similar affection. O'Neill gave him a chance at Sunderland and then had to cope with the consequences of the player struggling to get his head around his new position and making some foolish mistakes.
In his early days in the Irish job, he would wearily shake his head if McClean ever made his way into the headlines for the wrong reasons.
However, the player has learned to express himself better both on and off the pitch and that has not gone unnoticed.
"At the ripe old age of 28, he's improving," said O'Neill.
"I know I've said he wouldn't have been fit if the game was last Tuesday. Knowing McClean he would have tried to declare himself fit. He loves playing for us, which is very important."
The road ahead is paved with promise. Wales's draw with Serbia leaves O'Neill's men in a remarkably strong position heading into the new year.
Four of the six remaining group matches are at home, with Wales up next in March and then the battered and bruised Austrians at the Aviva in June. The only low point from Saturday was Robbie Brady picking up a daft booking that rules him out of the Welsh encounter.
Unsurprisingly enough, O'Neill was keen to play down the strength of Ireland's position as he considered the situation before flying back to Dublin.
"After four games in our Euro 2016 group we'd just been beaten by Scotland and we felt then that the home games were going to be vital," he said.
"But we didn't win the next two home games (against Poland and Scotland). So I'm not going to go back on what I said. I think the matches in 2017, at the Aviva, are going to be big for us."
He can expect big performances from Coleman and McClean when those games come around.