Monday 16 January 2017

O'Neill delighted with rejuvenated McClean as mercurial winger continues hot streak

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

Team boss Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters
Team boss Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters

Martin O'Neill is leading a charmed life. Once again, he travelled away with a cobbled together team and once again, he came back with a result. This, it has to be said, is a great habit.

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Giovanni Trapattoni had a wonderful record and lost just one qualification game on the road in this same stadium three years ago.

It signalled the end of his time with Ireland but now, O'Neill has done something which suggests new beginnings.

For many years, we wondered why Ireland could not beat big teams and O'Neill put that one to bed in France.

Now he has put to rest a 53 year old hoodoo against Austria and more importantly, did it on their own patch. Three absolutely massive qualification points and finally, Ireland have beaten a team ranked above them.

"Naturally I'm delighted after a tough evening. We had to withstand a lot of early pressure but we were very strong in the second half and in terms the achievement. I'm delighted," said O'Neill.

"Team selection is very important but the players still have to go and perform and they did that this evening. It was really brilliant this evening in the second-half.

We asked O'Neill about that before the game and he hedged. Now he can be more certain.

"It was a great goal from James McClean and then a really strong defensive effort. McClean was brilliant tonight, He scored a great, great goal. If the game was on Tuesday, he would not have been able to play. He has a great, great attitude. At the ripe old age of 28, he's improving. He may well take over Jon Walters' mantle.

"I thought David Meyler was really, really excellent. Sometimes when you come on as sub it takes time to get into the game but he made sure that it wouldn't do that.

"It is early days. Austria will be disappointed because they dropped all three points. But something tells me they still have a chance. I always believed this group would be tight and teams will take points off each other.

"We have ten points on the board from four matches and I'm happy with that.

Man of the moment James McClean, now with three goals in three games, held his aching back after the game, suffering for his efforts, but he couldn't wipe the grin off his face.

"It's huge," said McClean. "You look at this group there's no world class teams but there's four very good and Georgia are not bad either.

"We'll take points off each other and for us its about taking points from those around us. It's a massive result.

"Hopefully that gives the platform to really believe we can win this group. There are no easy teams but we have momentum and we're top of the group

McClean had an image of Roy Keane in his head when he advanced on Austria's goal.

"If I had missed the target Roy would have killed me. He hammers us in training that we must hit the target.

"I hit it sweetly and it flew through the keepers legs. It was without a doubt my biggest goal for Ireland.

"I've been around now for four or five years. Only now am I starting to lay down a place and make that my own. You play on merit and the performances you put in it so I want to keep pulling my weight.

In a week of wild global politics and the distinct feeling that the earth is shifting under our feet, McClean's goal gives O'Neill and Ireland a position in Group D which is rock solid.

A win was not really in the minds of the Irish fans who rolled up early to the Ernst Happel Stadium. Thoughts of more sombre days greeted them at the ground.

A year after the Bataclan in Paris and the attack on the Stade de France, the Austrian authorities were taking no chances. Everyone was searched and not just a pat down. This required a stoic acceptance of those waiting in line in a biting wind. The snow we were promised passed west of Vienna but it left a sub-zero calling card behind.

In the stadium, the atmosphere was festive if tense. They do like a bit of knees up in this part of the world and while we didn't get the full on thigh-slapping, lederhosen cheerleading we saw the last time we were here, they had enough flags laid out to cover Vienna.

Most home fans were nervous about this game, fully aware that the internal grief within Marcel Koller's squad which emerged after their disastrous trip to France in June has not dissipated.

From the first whistle, however, it was very clear what type of evening this was going to be. Red shirts buzzed around the Irish penalty area with menace and the 3,000 travelling supporters, already severely challenged by the ferocious blast of cold air pushing in from Siberia, bounced on the spot to stay warm but without anything visible on the pitch to inspire such activity.

They were mightily cheered by the sight of Wes Hoolahan in the starting line-up but in that first-quarter when Ireland were firmly on the back foot, those who argue that Hoolahan is not the man for a physical battle away from home seemed to have a point.

Caught in possession more than once, Hoolahan still managed service both sides of the debate he generates with a couple of pressure easing forward thrusts.

But it was magnificent, precision pass for McClean which cut the Austrian defence open and let McClean through with only Ramazan Ozcan to beat.

The ball flew through his legs and into the net, sparking a huge celebration in the two sections of the ground which housed Irish fans.

Not long after, Walters had the ball in the net but his goal was disallowed. It would have allowed for an less nervous final quarter but to be truthful, Austria never really threatened.

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