Eamonn Sweeney: He's not all that easy to love, but it's impossible not to respect Martin O'Neill
Monday night in Cardiff felt like a football equivalent of the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa. The outsider began the contest under pressure, lay back on the ropes absorbing punishment, bent but did not break.
As the early storm petered out, the feeling grew that momentum had shifted and the favourite might have shot his bolt. Eventually the underdog came off the ropes and landed the knock-out blow. What had seemed a risky strategy was revealed to be a master plan. A victory which had looked supremely unlikely in the early stages now appeared inevitable all along.
As was the case in Zaire, the difference between the opposing parties seemed as much mental as physical. There was, even before James McClean struck, a sense that Ireland were tougher and possessed a spiritual resilience which would enable them to prevail. That was encapsulated above all in the moment that Jeff Hendrick hunted down and dispossessed Ashley Williams.
It may merely have been a prelude to the cross, the Harry Arter step-over and the emphatic McClean finish which have already been installed in the pantheon of memorable national sporting moments, but something about Hendrick's initial intervention, his awareness, urgency and combativeness at the crucial moment, seemed emblematic of the night.
The three players involved contributed hugely to the overall performance, as did David Meyler, Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark among others, yet above anything else this was a personal triumph for Martin O'Neill. His strategy was the same as it had been in must-win games against Italy and Germany, to focus on defending with steadfastness and working diligently to close down the opposition in the belief that a chance would eventually present itself at the other end and that Ireland would be good enough to take it. He was proved right.
He's been proved right quite a bit since taking over from Giovanni Trapattoni, so much so that he is now just a play-off away from becoming only the second Irish manager to qualify the team for successive major tournaments. Jack Charlton was the first to achieve the feat, in 1988 and 1990, and it's an odd thing that, as was also the case back then with Charlton, there seems a slight reluctance to give O'Neill credit for his achievement.
Instead there are claims that the character of the players is somehow saving the manager, that O'Neill is actually holding back a team which would play a much more expansive game under a different kind of boss, that he's been lucky or even that in some mystical way the presence of Roy Keane is making a huge difference. All of these contentions are unfair.
People can find it difficult to be fair to O'Neill. Our manager is an abrasive character who marries an inability to suffer fools gladly with an apparent conviction that there are an awful lot of fools out there. He's not all that easy to love. Yet it is impossible not to respect him. The way Ireland have chiselled out victories against the odds is similar to the way Celtic managed to do it under O'Neill during their great UEFA Cup run in the 2002-2003 season.
There's also a resemblance there to the memorable European victories enjoyed by the Brian Clough-managed Notts Forest team on which O'Neill starred in the late '70s and early '80s. Ireland's win on Monday was not unlike Clough's most famous European night, the 1-0 away win over Cologne in the second leg of the 1979 European Cup semi-final when Forest soaked up the pressure, grew in confidence and then produced one deadly strike. Clough's failure to get the England job may be one of the great sporting injustices. But with two of his most famous protégés in charge of Ireland, perhaps his canny spirit lives on in Dublin.
Like Clough, O'Neill always gives the impression of knowing what he's at and of being able to convince his players to buy into his vision. The complaint that his pragmatic approach is preventing the team from playing a more sparkling variety of football seems spectacularly ill-founded at this stage. This complaint goes all the way back to the Charlton years and has continued ever since. Yet is it really likely that half a dozen managers have, independently and for some odd reason of their own, all failed to notice a rampant desire for self-expression in the Irish team?
It seems more likely that they, like O'Neill, took a decision to play to our strengths. When we have failed in the past it has not been because of a failure to unleash the Brazilian side of our character, it's been because we didn't properly execute the things we can do well.
Will these strengths bring us all the way to Russia? It depends to a certain extent on Tuesday's draw. Our record against Italy is good yet it's hard not to feel that they would be too strong for us over two legs. The Italians tend to get things done when the pressure is on, and their presence in the play-offs is the result of the bad luck they had in drawing Spain rather than any decline on their part. They play the same kind of canny game we do yet possess a technical proficiency which will make them contenders for next year's title. They won't be going out at the play-off stage.
Denmark, on the other hand, might be the ideal opposition. They've qualified for just two of the last six major tournaments and on both occasions played poorly in the finals, and in the current qualifying campaign their closest rivals for the runner-up spot were little Montenegro.
Their 4-0 win over Poland last month illustrates that there will be no easy games for Ireland whoever we draw. Yet they are the one side who we would probably start as favourites to beat. Connoisseurs of irony may relish the fact that their main danger man, after Christian Eriksen of Spurs, is named Delaney. Should we draw the Danes, Thomas Delaney of Werder Bremen will give those so inclined two Delaneys to give out about instead of one.
Neither Croatia nor Switzerland would provide an insurmountable obstacle. The undoubted quality of the former is mitigated by a certain flakiness which saw them lose to Iceland and Turkey and draw at home to Finland in the group stages. They needed a final-day win in Ukraine to clinch a play-off spot, and the ease with which they did so summed up the vast potential within their ranks. All the same, an aura of slight underachievement always hangs over the Croatians, the presence of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic notwithstanding. They are both the kind of team who should not lose to Ireland and the kind who might well do so.
Switzerland are more like ourselves: solid, consistent, defensively stingy and hard to beat. The 2-0 defeat by Portugal in Lisbon on Monday was their first defeat of the competition. Yet they scarcely set the European Championships on fire when going out on penalties in the round of 16 to Poland after two draws and a 1-0 win over Albania in the group stages. There is little to choose between us and them.
The one thing we do know is that, whoever the opposition, under O'Neill Ireland will enter the games perfectly prepared, with an intelligent plan of campaign and without fear. He has predicted success in unlikely situations often enough for us to know he really does believe in the ability of this team to prosper when the heat comes on. It's likely that no other manager will be looking forward to the challenge of the play-offs with quite so much zeal.
It has been a remarkable campaign so far for O'Neill, not least because over the past year and a half the team has been almost entirely reconstructed. Only four of the players who started our first European Championship game against Sweden - Darren Randolph, Clark, Robbie Brady and Hendrick - began against Wales. We're always told that O'Neill (a) has very few options and (b) is a very conservative man. Yet he completely rebuilt his team on the hoof in a difficult World Cup qualifying group.
The injury to Seamus Coleman was a huge blow but Cyrus Christie's gutsy and largely successful attempts to make up for the gulf in class have been a notable feature of our progress. Shane Duffy has a Dunne and O'Shea-type solidity about him and should, injury permitting, go on to win as many caps. The injury to James McCarthy has proved something of a blessing in disguise, as in both Vienna and Cardiff it was the energy and commitment of Meyler and Arter in midfield which set the tone for our display. O'Neill has had to cope too with Shane Long's loss of form and the fact that Jon Walters, perhaps our most important player two years ago, is being undone by long-term wear and tear.
He has also, and this may be his most important achievement, drawn the best out of his fellow Derryman McClean, who has been the other outstanding contributor to Ireland's Group E journey. So central a figure has he become that it's hard to believe he did not make the starting line-up for our first two games in the European Championships and was the player withdrawn after Duffy was sent off against France. I suspect these days he is the first name on the teamsheet.
There's a tendency to see McClean as almost a fan with boots on, an embodiment of the spirit of the guys with the green flag wrapped round them. But in Austria and Wales what was notable was the coolness and precision of the two finishes which won the game. McClean, like Ireland, is brimful of passion and character yet to dwell too much on those qualities can be to damn both player and team with faint praise.
Passion and character will only bring you so far. There is plenty of method and intelligence there too. We can thank Martin O'Neill for that. And we should. Profusely.
There's two games to go. Believe.
Sunday Indo Sport