Saturday 20 January 2018

Dion Fanning: Fear no longer a burden as belief and possibilities return

There is no reason not to seize the day now that Martin O'Neill has turned away from the Trapattoni years when the ball was seen as another enemy

Republic of Ireland team-mates celebrate Shane Long's second haldf goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland team-mates celebrate Shane Long's second haldf goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Robbie Keane takes the field ahead of training Photo: David Maher
Shane Long: 'It is always nice to know we have the play-offs but after putting ourselves in this position it would be a shame not to qualify'

Dion Fanning

Ireland faced Germany at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday night, but by the time the evening ended the game was being played at Lansdowne Road.

The elemental roar that greeted the final whistle, Shane Long's goal and nearly every point in between was a reflection of more than the fact that Ireland had guaranteed a place in the play-offs.

When Long scored, some of us, the dyspeptic hacks in the press box, looked over this scene and then wondered why they had to drown this natural joy with the piped music. Everywhere else people danced to the music. John Delaney could have belted out a few verses of Joe McDonnell and the crowd would have sung along.

If Thursday had been dominated by pessimism and ditches being dug to lower expectations even further, on Friday morning it seemed that every conversation in Ireland was a joyful talk about football.

Delaney's statement that no sport can bring Ireland to a halt like football was manifest. Rugby is in that same position now but to beat the world champions in Dublin, the team of Muller and Reus and Gotze, provided a unifying thrill.

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Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan, Jonathan Walters and Jeff Henderick, during squad training yesterday evening at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw Photo: David Maher
Republic of Ireland's Glenn Whelan, Jonathan Walters and Jeff Henderick, during squad training yesterday evening at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw Photo: David Maher

Of course it was fortunate and naturally there were long spells when Ireland looked inferior for the simple reason that Germany have better players. But there was also evidence that Ireland had a team that could make things happen when they did have the ball or, at least, not always give it immediately back to their superior opponents.

Wes Hoolahan was at the heart of all that was creative but James McCarthy demonstrated that he can be the authoritative presence in midfield that Ireland craves. McCarthy had given glimpses before, most notably in Stockholm in 2013 when he was a late replacement for Glenn Whelan. McCarthy performs best when selected in a deeper midfield role. Equally important, Ireland perform better with McCarthy in that role.

Hoolahan, McCarthy and Whelan all represent in different ways the flawed logic that held Ireland back. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, there was the unspoken belief - except for the moments of exasperation when it was baldly stated - that Ireland were no good and, well, if we were no good, better to have players who understood what the game without the ball was all about.

Under Trap, it became even more perverse: all good teams try as hard as they can to win the ball back but Ireland often explored something else. Why have the ball at all if there was so much danger and risk attached to it? Instead retreat and defend, defend and retreat and make the ball another enemy.

There would be moments of heroism, as in Moscow, but eventually there would be more nights like the evening Germany came to Dublin in 2012. Andre Schurrle spoke after last week's game about the differences between Thursday's game and that 1-6 match.

"The stadium always feels different when you are 2-0 down after 15 minutes or still 0-0 with 70 minutes gone and then you score a goal," he said. "Three years ago, we scored early goals and Ireland were chasing the game and we scored more and then there was no heart from Ireland. That did not happen this time."

Shane Long celebrates after scoring against Germany
Shane Long celebrates after scoring against Germany

Germany took 32 minutes to score in 2012 but because the goals kept coming, it seemed like they started earlier and it seemed like lreland never had heart.

There is a temptation to place a retrospective analysis on the game last Thursday night, to view it as the inevitable progression from the final days of Trap to the more open reign of Martin O'Neill.

The late goals in this campaign are signs of an enhanced spirit but certainly there have been plenty of times during the two years O'Neill has been in charge when it has been hard to tell the difference between the two managers. Yet Hoolahan's continued selection was the surest sign of progress and when he was picked on Thursday night, it was an acknowledgment of the difference he can make.

Hoolahan has been left out too often when the biggest teams are faced and it has become part of conventional wisdom that he is a liability against stronger sides. Last week Hoolahan showed how dumb that wisdom is.

The victory over Germany was one of those magical nights which turned on marginal moments. If Thomas Muller had equalised, Ireland would have been hanging on, anxiously looking towards Glasgow and talking about Robert Lewandowski having done them a favour in the end. Instead the late goal in Glasgow turned out to be, as O'Neill said later, something of a disappointment.

Ireland would always need to catch a break to beat a side like Germany and every famous Irish victory over the years has turned on something similar.

A draw against Germany would have been a good result but it wouldn't have provided the transcendent moment Irish football needed.

What was more revealing afterwards was the way O'Neill talked about the players' disappointment at the first half performance and the collective determination to do something about it.

"We'd set out with a game plan - I hate all these clichés anyway - but that could have been torn apart in the first ten or 15 minutes if Germany scored a goal," O'Neill said of a first half which had made him nervous.

Ireland had to rely early on that unity of spirit but the sense has grown within the squad that unusual things might happen in this campaign.

"There have been special moments like that from the start of the group when Aiden [McGeady] scored that goal in Georgia," John O'Shea said. "There has been a good feel about it bubbling underneath."

O'Shea provided one in the first half when he blocked Ilkay Gundogan's shot and, even in a worrying first period, there were times when Hoolahan and Robbie Brady combined well. But in the dressing room at the interval, all were agreed that something had to change.

"The players came in and felt we had given possession away a wee bit too readily," O'Neill said later. "I think we showed a lot of courage in the second half to get on the ball and that's not easy when you're playing the Germans."

For O'Neill to be stressing this is evidence of the greatest change. Ireland should not be afraid of what could happen when they are on the ball. Equally important, Ireland had the players on the field who could make a difference.

Critically, the midfield of Hendrick, McCarthy, Hoolahan and Brady could all play. At Everton, McCarthy is seen as true competitor, a "warrior", in the words of someone at the club. On Thursday night, Ireland saw that fight.

They were helped immeasurably by Jon Walters who played as he has throughout this campaign. Last week, other players rose up to his level. "Jon Walters has been phenomenal for us," O'Neill said while namechecking Cyrus Christie as another who had done well on the night.

McCarthy, he added, "had his best game for us. I thought he was simply fantastic."

For the Irish players on the field as well as many people in the ground and around the country, this was the kind of night they had only heard others talk about.

"The atmosphere there at the end was like when watching it as a kid. What a result, unbelievable," Robbie Brady said later. "I don't think we had much possession or control of the game for quite a bit, but to come out of the game with the win . . . I'm over the moon."

James McClean joked about getting his blood pressure checked and described a dressing room that was bouncing. Both players talked about the Holland game in 2001 and it was clear that, for these young players, the night had provided the exhilaration they felt international football was supposed to be about.

"It's the exact same feeling I had when I was a kid, watching the older lads do the business," Brady added, but this time he had contributed massively.

McClean touched upon the organisation and spirit within the squad. "How many last-minute goals over the campaign? Youse have touched on it, that is down to sheer desire. Look at the result over the whole game tonight, we weren't carved open, we were very compact, every player knew their job and they carried that out tremendously."

Ireland pushed Germany out onto the wings by keeping their back four narrow. "We felt that if they were going to cross the ball then hopefully we were going to deal with it," O'Shea explained. "At certain times we did comfortably, but at other times they had that many men in the box they picked up some chances."

O'Shea was anticipating a sleepless night after the game as the adrenaline kept the players awake. O'Neill talked about making changes this evening because of the gruelling nature of the victory, with Whelan and McClean available again. Seamus Coleman will replace Christie if he is fit.

But if last Thursday was a defining moment, it might be the night when Ireland sees it has a team which can win. Whelan's suspension allowed McCarthy to play in his natural position and Ireland's midfield should remain as close to that side as possible. There are good reasons for Brady to play at full-back but he offered more in an advanced role. It's a long time since Hoolahan played 90 minutes and started again three days later but O'Neill should take that gamble.

Whoever is selected, they will take the message from Thursday that there is nothing to fear. Management and players looked forward to tonight's game, knowing that so much had changed, even if they are still likely to end up in a play-off.

Robert Lewandowski is capable of ending Ireland's hopes of qualification tonight but O'Neill's side will feel that anything is possible. "Why not go to Poland and think you can win the game?" he asked.

The victory against Germany may turn out to mean no more within the context of the group than the guarantee of a play-off place but it will have a long-term benefit for the players and it can change the relationship the country has with the team. It was, therefore, regrettable that on Friday, with the country wanting to hear more from the team that beat the world champions, the FAI cancelled all media for the day.

But the victory might have a short-term benefit too. "I wish, having won that game, having drawn in Germany, after taking those points from the world champions that it would be even more significant than it was," O'Neill said. "It is great tonight and we'll enjoy it but we are not automatically there."

Instead Ireland need a high-scoring draw or a win tonight. O'Neill had never considered resting players for Thursday's game to save them for Poland and he explained why. Winning the next game is all that matters, for O'Neill it has always been all that matters. "I don't know how you could think about resting players. You can't do that. Tomorrow might never come. That has always been my motto. Tomorrow might never come." Ireland might seize the day in Warsaw this evening and the night may yet be glorious.

Long urges team-mates to make most of golden opportunity

Shane Long provided the greatest moment in recent Irish football history against Germany on Thursday and last night in Warsaw he called on Ireland to make the most of the opportunity against Poland.

"If we win we're at the Euros and we don't need to worry about anything else," said Long, who may start this evening, which would be only his second start in this campaign. All his goals have come in games when he was sent from the bench. "I'm ready and willing wherever I'm needed."

The most memorable came on Thursday and Long said he had watched it several times since and spoke of the tense minutes after he scored when "the clock seemed to go backwards."

Long stressed the need for the goal to have a greater impact than just the three points and that involves a victory or high-scoring draw tonight.

"It would make the goal on Thursday a bit more meaningful," Long went on.

"It was a great night but we have to focus on Poland and make it mean something. It is always nice to know we have the play-offs but after putting ourselves in this position it would be a shame not to qualify. We don't know who we could get and it could be tough. This game is our play-off."

Long and Ireland are in the mood to take the opportunity.

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