'I thought we’d be in big trouble' - Niall Quinn on Ireland's improbable World Cup adventure
Ireland’s position at the top of World Cup qualifying Group D has fuelled hopes of automatic qualification for the finals next summer - with former striker Niall Quinn suggesting the path to Russia will be blown wide open if Wales are beaten at the Aviva Stadium on Friday.
Quinn was part of the last Irish team that played in a World Cup back in 2002 and despite the injury crisis afflicting the Ireland squad ahead of the game against Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales, he believes the structure of the team put in place by manager Martin O’Neill can help them grind out a positive result.
“Even my kindest calculations after the group was drawn, I had Ireland nowhere near this position after the first four games,” states Sky Sports pundit Quinn.
“I thought we’d be in big trouble and would need to try and claw it back with the home games in the second half of the campaign, but we can knock Wales out of the chance to push for top spot if we beat them in Dublin.
“To get 10 points from our first four games is evidence that these players are not satisfied with what happened in the summer at the Euros, when they had a nice little tournament.
“They want more and a little like what the team I was a part of felt, you feel like you are on a wave and you want to go that 20 per-cent further, you don’t want to miss out on this chance to qualify for the World Cup.”
Quinn believes the commitment shown by O’Neill's team in the 1-0 away win against Austria in November will need to be on display again when they take on a Gareth Bale inspired Wales side, as he suggests an Ireland win on Friday will end their opponent’s hopes of topping the group.
“What we are seeing here is an Ireland team growing and maturing before our eyes and the win in Austria highlighted that in so many ways,” he continues.
“The move and finish from James McClean for the winning goal in Austria was a perfect illustration of a changing mentality in this squad.
“This is a team that believes now and that is so important in any sport. To be disciplined enough to keep Austria at bay is one thing. To make last ditch tackles, to do what was needed to do when the pressure was on is great, but to then create a goal of that quality summed up what this team is all about.
“The odds on Ireland winning their qualifying group must have been so high at the start, but this team now has to believe they can get to Russia without the need for a play-off. We can do this.
“If we can beat Wales in this next match, they will be a long way behind us in the group and you would have to say they are probably out of contention to win it in that scenario, which is an incredible thing to say when you consider they are the top seeds.
“There is a still a long way to go for Ireland in this group, but we have put ourselves in a fantastic position and we have to do all we can to make the most of it now.”