Friday 20 September 2019

Dion Fanning: Ireland have been at their best with nothing to lose... now that's not the case

Ireland still look ordinary, but they're now showing other qualities that have O'Neill's stamp on them

Manager Martin O'Neill is staying grounded after Ireland's positive score draw in Zenica on Friday night
Manager Martin O'Neill is staying grounded after Ireland's positive score draw in Zenica on Friday night

Dion Fanning

Before Friday night's game in Zenica, Martin O'Neill had one message he repeatedly delivered publicly to his team: Ireland couldn't win the tie in the first leg, but they could lose it.

After the game, the song remained the same. There was nothing to celebrate yet and O'Neill wouldn't have been triumphalist, even if Ireland had held on to the lead and won the game. His side hadn't lost the tie and that was all that mattered. Despite the away goal, despite the draw in a match many expected them to lose, nothing had yet been achieved.

But an achievement is close. Ireland are on the verge of qualification for the European Championships. Neutrals would have looked at Friday's game and seen a good reason for keeping the tournament to 16 teams before expressing some relief that the fog made it impossible to watch any longer. But to make the finals would represent success for O'Neill, given the group Ireland were in, and their play-off opponents.

But it hasn't been achieved yet. In recent times, Ireland have been at their best when they had nothing to lose and now they have something to lose. They have an away goal and they have an advantage, but O'Neill knows how quickly that can change.

An away goal can be wiped out in a minute, O'Neill said in Friday's press conference and Ireland would have to attack tomorrow, something they had little appetite for during most of Friday's game.

Later, in a corridor behind the main stand in Zenica, O'Neill's choice of words were revealing. Robbie Brady had scored a goal that "keeps us in the tie", which seemed a strange way of describing it. Brady's strike was a rare moment of quality. It came late in the game and looked like it would give Ireland their most important win in a generation.

Edin Dzeko's equaliser probably kept Bosnia in the tie, but if the quality doesn't improve tomorrow night, the intensity certainly will.

O'Neill will have other players to call on as well. Jon Walters is the most important as he returns from suspension, while John O'Shea might be fit, too. Ireland's centre-backs, Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark, were excellent in the first leg and O'Neill recalled that the game was a bit like Clark's club debut.

"I reminded him it was a wee bit like his debut which I gave him way back years ago for Aston Villa against Fulham and he performed outstandingly well. So much so that I left him out for the next game."

When a journalist joked that Clark would be dropped tomorrow then, O'Neill replied, "I didn't say that."

Clark's emergence in a key game was essential for Ireland. His progress at Villa has been concealed because they are a club in a perpetual state of crisis and Clark is a quiet and unassuming player.

If O'Shea is fit, O'Neill may yet decide this is a game for experience, but he will hope to have more options in many areas.

In the pre-match press conference on Thursday, Richard Keogh commented in that way footballers do when they are making noises just to get to the end of their media duties, that Ireland had goals everywhere in the team.

The 11 players who started on Friday had one player who had scored in this campaign and that was Wes Hoolahan, who was among the scorers when Ireland beat Gibraltar 7-0.

Robbie Keane embarked on a vigorous warm down as the fog lifted in the Bilino Polje stadium after the game. O'Neill says that a 27-year-old Robbie Keane would start every game, but that time has gone. He may be Ireland's best chance of a goal still, but he is unlikely to be involved tomorrow unless it is absolutely necessary.

O'Neill will wait on Shane Long, who is not a reliable finisher, although he brought so much to Ireland during the games against Germany and Poland. But he has not played since being injured in Warsaw.

Long didn't expect the injury to keep him out for this amount of time and he has always felt he could make at least the second leg.

"All his messages for me the whole time have been 'Don't exclude me at this minute'," O'Neill said. "I wouldn't do and I'll wait until the last possible moment because he's come up with some big things for us. So I'll see how he is."

The fact that Long has played no football for a month may count against him, but he is expected to arrive in Dublin tonight and be available to O'Neill. Then everything would be clearer.

Of course, that was not the case on Friday night. Bosnia's coach, Mehmed Bazdarevic, arrived at the post-match press conference and announced that he would comment only on the first half as he had been unable to see the second.

O'Neill couldn't see much more, but he lived with a fear that the game would be abandoned, which made him anxious until he discovered only the time remaining would be played the next day, not the 90 minutes.

UEFA delegates discussed the possibility that the game would be abandoned during the second half, but the decision rested with the referee.

Ireland had done what they intended to do during a dull first half and Bazdarevic accepted the criticism of the local press and promised to be more adventurous at the Aviva.

Bosnia were cautious and both sides may have learned the same lesson from the first game: there is nothing to fear from their opponents.

In Bosnia, they see the first leg as a missed opportunity. They suffered through the tension of a play-off, but now they travel to Dublin with nothing to lose and expectations low.

Asmir Begovic said the equaliser had boosted his side's confidence, but Ireland can be pleased as well.

O'Neill's side had survived the test of a first leg, a test where survival is often the best a team can hope for, but they had also claimed the advantage over Bosnia. What they do with it remains to be seen.

The manager saw it in terms of survival as he talked of Ireland still being alive. O'Neill may see his role on these nights as providing ballast. If he senses a mood is heading in one direction, he goes the other way. Although given that he has been generally downbeat since he took the Ireland job, this has worked best in recent months when Ireland's campaign began to turn.

In June, he insisted that the group was not over and the games in September proved him right. Ireland took advantage of Scotland's collapse and there has been a sense of improvement which began in the second half of the game against Poland last March and has continued intermittently.

Sometimes it can be hard to spot as Ireland remain an ordinary side desperate for a bit of inspiration. Brady provided it on Friday and he is a dynamic player who takes risks and has the talent to thrive in midfield, where he belongs.

"Robbie loves football," O'Neill said. "He's always with the ball, sometimes he might play the occasional schoolboy pass, but his attitude has been fantastic, it's been great. Although he was very, very tired, he still found the energy to get the goal."

It was an outstanding goal but, because of the conditions, it was also a curiosity. Begovic couldn't see much of the build-up.

"I could see it once he got the ball. I couldn't see anything up to it. I didn't see our goal. Conditions were tough, I thought initially it was just some smoke from fireworks, but it was pretty thick fog. It's just the location here between the mountains, with temperatures changing this time of year, fog is very common."

Brady's goal may have been lost in the mist, but his development over the campaign, particularly when he has played in more advanced positions against Germany and Bosnia, has been encouraging.

Brady rooms with Jeff Hendrick and the pair have been friends since they played together at St Kevin's Boys. O'Neill spent some time discussing the rebuilding of this side whenever the campaign ends, but Hendrick and Brady have developed into important players already.

"Jeff has been a great friend of mine since we were kids," Brady says. "We played in every age group in every team growing up. Every game, it's something we were growing up wanting to do. We were able to share the experiences, hopefully we have more on Monday night."

Tomorrow, there will be another test for a team growing in personality. Ireland and Bosnia demonstrated on Friday that there is great mediocrity in international football, but Ireland are showing other qualities, qualities O'Neill has always relied upon.

Ireland have demonstrated their determination in this campaign. Tomorrow they will have to display an ability to live with a different pressure. Ireland survived the most difficult test on Friday night and now, in front of an expectant crowd, they know the tie is theirs to lose.

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