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Scotland 1 Ireland 0 - A throwback to uncertain times


Scotland's Shaun Maloney celebrates after scoring his side's first goal

Scotland's Shaun Maloney celebrates after scoring his side's first goal

Scotland's Shaun Maloney celebrates after scoring his side's first goal

Those who rail against modern football would have felt very comfortable at Celtic Park on Friday night.

The loose talk of a violent tension in the stands turned out to be just loose and unnecessary talk. The crowd howled and they hounded Aiden McGeady but it never felt menacing, although McGeady himself might have felt differently. A block of seats beside the official away end in the Lisbon Lions Stand was kept empty except for the police cordon protecting the Irish fans on one side from, well, from the Irish fans on the other side who had most of the seats in that block too.

The game itself was a throwback, even if it was a throwback to a time when people would despair about the state of football.

Fuelled by the passion of the crowd, both sides hurled themselves into tackles and if Ireland were not lacking in desire when it came to making ferocious tackles, in other areas they were inferior.

In the marquee set up beside the statues of Jock Stein, Jimmy Johnstone and Brother Walfrid in front of the main entrance to the old ground, Gordon Strachan acknowledged on Friday night that as a "pure football spectacle" the game hadn't been up to much but in other ways it had been "mesmerising" which was the best way of describing it.

Strachan's view chimed with the general Irish assessment of the game. This had been a derby game, there was nothing between the sides, it was just one of those things, a bounce of the ball. A set-piece had decided it, although O'Neill felt his players should have been quicker to it. "We've got to react to that."

Strachan, however, made one other point as he talked about the contribution of his goalscorer Shaun Maloney and Steven Naismith. There were, he said, different kinds of bravery required in football and those two players had shown the bravery to try and play in an environment that was hostile to people trying to play.

O'Neill saw it a little differently. "The victors can say what they want," he said, suggesting that in a game as tight as Friday night's, history is written by the winners. But there was more to it than that even as O'Neill insisted that Maloney had rarely been a threat.

"You would have to turn around and say that Maloney scored a really good goal but it was a frustrating night for Shaun Maloney as well. I'm not so sure that he really got on the ball in areas where he was causing us any problems."

O'Neill felt that this was a problem shared by McGeady. "Aiden didn't get on the ball in areas where he were hoping that he'd be able to hurt. That is something we have to look at, we have to look at it from our team perspective for a start and then obviously look at the individual too. Aiden is as talented as any footballer out there on the pitch."

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The difference was that Maloney and Naismith demonstrated it within a team framework and Ireland didn't.

Ireland were irritated to concede from a set-piece but it was also a moment of imagination and those moments came entirely from Scotland.

O'Neill's appointment had led to the expectation that Ireland would at last be freed from the chains of Trapattoni's anti-football. There had been glimpses of it but on Friday night, Ireland played like a Trapattoni team with only one key difference: they lost.

Until his final dark night in Vienna, Giovanni Trapattoni had never lost an away qualifier with Ireland, a remarkable statistic even if it involved even more remarkable levels of luck at times. Trapattoni struggled when it came to beating anyone, especially at home. In competitive matches at the Aviva, Ireland only beat Georgia, Cyprus, Armenia, Andorra, Macedonia and the Faroe Islands. Those lifeless and forgettable nights have added to the feeling that the Aviva is a place you go to for a bit of peace and quiet away from the maelstrom of the daily grind. It is not somewhere you go to if you want to be caught up in the elemental passion of the game. In short, it is not Parkhead.

The forthcoming home games are, O'Neill acknowledged, "vital" and Ireland will require victories, not moral ones, if they are to qualify automatically. The FAI will now hope that the games against Poland and Scotland are sell-outs and there can be some return to the atmosphere that once made a trip to Dublin something that other teams dreaded, something that Roy Keane felt had been lost.

The incident with Keane and a fan in the team hotel was just a distraction O'Neill said again on Thursday. These distractions will always be with us. As O'Neill was talking in the Celtic Park marquee on the night before the game, Keane and Seamus McDonagh walked by and were spotted by a few cameramen. They weren't interested in filming Seamus McDonagh and as O'Neill continued with his press conference, the lights from the cameras were now outside the tent filming Keane who was wandering back in the opposite direction.

O'Neill seems resigned to these monthly diversions while the other issue debated in the weeks before the game didn't result in any of the anticipated apocalyptic outcomes.

The FAI had rightly been criticised for the manner in which they allocated tickets and it is a matter which should not rest but they also worked hard to ensure that the Scottish FA were aware of the location of the Irish fans who had bought tickets from Scotland, something which also should be recognised.

Now Ireland's supporters must wait until March for the Poland game when things will have to change even if much of the atmosphere might come from the Poles.

It is tempting to say that Wes Hoolahan would have made a difference on Friday night if he hadn't been injured. But if he had been fit, Hoolahan probably wouldn't have played and the burden of doing something creative would have fallen at the feet of McGeady.

Apart from a bright spell early in the second half, Seamus Coleman found it difficult to get forward. O'Neill said on Friday that Coleman starts 15 yards further forward for Everton but the demands are different in his side.

On Thursday night, O'Neill talked to Robbie Keane and informed him that he was considering dropping him for the game the following day. On Friday, he confirmed this to the man who had captained the side in the opening three qualifiers. It was a decision that shocked very few after Keane's disappointing performances in Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen.

After the game, some might have thought differently, especially as O'Neill had dropped Keane and then played Jonathan Walters as a second forward, albeit a forward playing a little deeper than Shane Long.

Keane said afterwards that if O'Neill played with a lone striker, he was not the man. "If the manager wants to play with one up front, I'm not fucking Niall Quinn. I'm not Shane Long. They're better at that than I am. If you play two up front and you want to score goals, then that's my game."

But O'Neill had played with two strikers even if he might not have made goals a priority. Long was selected to stretch the defence and get behind Scotland as they went forward, while O'Neill hoped to surprise Scotland by playing Walters centrally as well.

Grant Hanley might have been fortunate to stay on when he brought Long down but overall it was a disappointing night for a forward who has waited for these opportunities.

"Shane's ability is really trying to stretch sides and I thought today, particularly if they were going to play a little bit further up the field, that it was exactly what we could do if we could have the armoury to put him in once or twice," O'Neill said.

"I think what we can do, every single one of them, is improve our hold-up play. It's alright sending balls in that direction but when it's played into you, this is what is important, to try to get hold of that ball because everything evolves from that."

Given the manner in which Scotland played with Charlie Mulgrew dominant in midfield, Ireland's manager might regret not playing an extra man in that position. Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick did little in the game and Glenn Whelan became more appreciated in the hours after the defeat than he had been for most of his time playing for Ireland.

James McCarthy would certainly have made a difference and his absence was the source of frustration for O'Neill. Injuries were part of the game, he said immediately after the game, but talking afterwards to a group of Sunday journalists, he admitted that the situation with McCarthy was more complex.

On Thursday, O'Neill had announced that the scan on McCarthy's hamstring was clear but by that stage the player was back at Everton. O'Neill suggested that the situation would have been different if he had picking him for a club game.

"I think that's absolutely right. At club level, I think we could have afforded to risk him in the game if that's the case. I know as a club manager, if you think that a scan is clear on a certain day, then you would have to really give that consideration, maybe more than we were able to. Psychologically, I think it's important too that the player feels it's alright. That's always a consideration too."

A player's anxiety that he might tear his hamstring won't necessarily disappear because a scan is ok but there may be more frustration when McCarthy appears for Everton next weekend as O'Neill expects him to do.

"James was getting better every single day and I'm quite sure he'll be available to play for Everton next weekend. It was important for us that he did some work on Thursday and it wasn't to be the case so we thought, 'Well, we must leave him now because he might last two minutes in the game'. At club level, he belongs to the club and it's their prerogative to do what they want."

O'Neill dismissed the idea that McCarthy didn't want to play against Scotland but without him Ireland lacked composure in midfield. "I think they controlled the tempo of the game a little better," Jonathan Walters acknowledged.

The tempo was barely controlled. When every tackle was met with an exhilarating guttural roar, the tempo belonged to wilder forces. But Scotland controlled the aftermath. They were the victors and the history of the night was theirs.

The win created even greater uncertainty in the group but Scotland did what they had to do. Celtic Park on Friday night was an event from another era but Ireland looked like the side stuck in the past.

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