Sunday 19 November 2017

German magic fuels belief for free shot at unexpected glory

Shane Long celebrates his stunning strike in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany
Shane Long celebrates his stunning strike in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It could go down as the greatest result secured by an Irish side in a competitive qualifier, but the players and management that masterminded a remarkable triumph over the world champions had a brief window to bask in the afterglow.

Martin O'Neill cancelled Friday's activities to allow his squad to recharge the batteries after their German exertions ahead of today's flight to Warsaw for an encounter that offers them a free shot at glory.

On Thursday night, as the bars around Dublin profited from an unexpected outpouring of joyous activity, the Ireland manager mulled over the new permutations for the Group D finale. He was aware that a 1-1 draw would put Poland through to the finals, but a 2-2 tie or a higher scoring equivalent would book a ticket to France.

The recent history of Irish international football is littered with so many draws that the default reaction is to immediately consider what that familiar result would mean. A contrast in the prizes between different types of draws is a novel variation on the theme.

But, if Thursday is to represent a turning of the corner, a mindset has to change. Winning is a habit and so too is embarking with an approach that considers it a realistic outcome.

The players have always said that they go out to win every match. Few people at a good level of professional sport approach any interview with an alternative line of thinking. They're easy words. The significance of Shane Long's strike is that it's given their public a reason to believe it and this generation a reference point for when they have done it against an opponent of real substance.

Ireland do not possess a golden generation, but they have watched many nations around Europe with a similar profile overcome the odds to sample sweet victories courtesy of a sharp plan and a unity of purpose. Our neighbours in Northern Ireland are the prime example.

Now that a selection containing three players who have never lined out in the Premier League (Richard Keogh, Cyrus Christie and Jeff Hendrick), a sub 'keeper making his competitive debut (Darren Randolph) and an individual whose last league start for his employer came 10 months ago (Stephen Ward) has displayed the requisite character and composure to conquer a side littered with World Cup winners and Champions League regulars, a template has been established for insisting that anything is possible.


John O'Shea spoke honestly in the aftermath of his latest starring contribution in a Euros race where he has embraced senior responsibility. "We've needed to start beating these teams," he said, getting straight to the point and eschewing the temptation to declare that doubters were silenced.

He should know that the doubts were built from experience because the centurion has never sampled a comparable high in a green jersey; his 2001 debut came a month before the memorable dismissal of the Dutch at the old Lansdowne; the Manchester United novice was too young to be considered for a role in the occasion.

Near misses have peppered the intervening period. Paris stands above all others but images of suffering can be produced from Italy at Croke Park, David Alaba's late goal for Austria that sucked the remaining life from Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure and, further back, Brian Kerr's World Cup campaign of ifs, buts and maybes. In the Charlton years, 'You'll Never Beat The Irish' was the familiar catch-cry. At the Euros in 2012, a false dawn if ever there was one, that tune adopted an ironic personality. Ireland had turned into a football nation that couldn't beat anyone.

It will be fascinating to observe how O'Neill's squad react to a burden being lifted, even if relative newcomers such as Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick have provided encouragement because they seek to make things happen rather than worrying about the consequences of errors.

When it came to the crunch, good decisions lay at the heart of Ireland's triumph. The little details, as the previous incumbent used to say. For an example, in the passage of play before Long's breakthrough, James McCarthy had a simple opportunity to halt a menacing German counter-attack with a straightforward foul that is commonplace in the Premier League. Culprits take the deserved and inevitable booking and move on.

McCarthy was a caution away from being absent for the decider and stopped himself before assisting in tracking back and trusting in the rearguard's ability to clear the danger. Within 60 seconds later, Ireland were in front. A break, perhaps, but the vignette demonstrated that the 24-year-old was clued into the wider picture.

Jonathan Walters also came into the match on a tightrope, yet he was savvy enough to impose himself on physical adversaries in his usual combative manner while staying on the right side of the officials. This all fed into a satisfying conclusion where Ireland were the smarter protagonists as the top seeds floundered.

O'Neill had to acknowledged that fortune was a factor. "Somehow we survived," he said, in a fair depiction of the first 20 minutes. Ireland made their own luck after the interval, though, and it's the calmness under fire in the last quarter that forms the strongest argument for reasoning that a stupendous six-point haul from this double-header is viable.

"We know what we have to do," said the manager yesterday, in a brief interview that was recorded for the FAI's online TV channel after the planned media conference was binned. "We can have a high-scoring draw but, really, (it's) winning the game.

"Poland will be difficult, there's no doubt about that. And we've secured a play-off place. That's not taking second best at this minute, but we'd all have taken that on Thursday morning. But right here now, at this minute, (the plan is) let's go and try and win the game in Poland."

He can point to the second half showing at the Aviva in March for encouragement, with a less spectacular but equally important Long intervention putting a gloss on an exercise which started ropily. Adam Nawalka was content for his side to take a conservative approach after the break in an attempt to collect three points via the narrowest margin. It allowed Ireland to compete.

They were the form side last autumn, enjoying their own special night at home to the Germans which turned the group on its head. Ireland have that T-shirt now.

In a pair of thrilling 2-2 draws with the Scots, they showcased erratic tendencies. Granted, Scotland's goals at Hampden were top-drawer attempts rather than the product of chaos. Nevertheless, across the group, Ireland have a meaner defence; an achievement for O'Neill given how often he's changed it with O'Shea the only constant.

Robert Lewandowski's outrageous hot streak is a red light warning that will doubtless be central to the homework in the quick turnaround. O'Neill, who will start Darren Randolph with Shay Given sidelined, has a number of personnel issues to consider.

Another aspect of round one with the Poles was the fact that his chosen XI featured seven switches from the previous date in Scotland, including Robbie Brady's baptism of fire at left full, and the impact of the upheaval was evident in a scattered opening.


With Glenn Whelan and James McClean back from bans and the FAI reporting that Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson are available to travel then he will have to balance up shuffling the pack against retaining the bones of a winning formula. Entering the battle with half-fit players risks wasting substitutions. Much as the all-action style of Cyrus Christie has cult-hero potential, a comeback for Coleman would be a serious boost. His other dilemmas have layers to them, and the medical reports over the next 24 hours will be digested in detail. "There's a good feeling here," asserted O'Neill, explaining that the giddy discussion at the hotel in Castleknock post-Germany centred around the incredible atmosphere in the renovated Lansdowne.

"They hadn't witnessed it at the Aviva," he continued. "I know there was disappointment all around the ground when we didn't get that win over Scotland in June but there was still a long way to go, it was just over halfway in the group and, as I mentioned then, a few twists and turns would appear. But even then, we had our fate in our own hands, albeit it meant we had to win at least one of the last two games.

"It will be a tough test, a really tough test. Poland have been strong in this campaign and remain so. And, in Lewandowski, they have one of the best players in the world. This will be a hard task, but we're going there in some confidence."

Irish fans landed in droves in the Polish capital last night, seeking full glasses and wearing glass-half-full expressions.

Ninety magic minutes have shifted the debate from confusion over the direction to the tantalising prospect of reaching the intended destination. The next trick is to get the result which cements Thursday's legacy.

Irish Independent

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