John Giles: Plaudits must go to O'Neill for managing to deliver another play-off spot for Ireland
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He takes the stick when it goes wrong but he takes the credit when it works out. Martin O’Neill’s big game magic is still working.
I’ll admit, I’ve scratched my head often in the last few weeks and months and wondered what is in his mind but, as ever, results cannot be denied and once again O’Neill has delivered on the big night.
I can’t overstate my admiration for the determination of the players in this game. I said last week that six points was doable but my heart wasn’t fully in that prediction and for obvious reasons.
After the Georgia draw away and then the Serbia loss at home, it would have been easy for these lads to find excuses in Cardiff but O’Neill got some response from them.
Team selection is the place to start reviewing any game and when I saw Ireland without Wes Hoolahan, it was obvious that O’Neill intended to ‘park the bus’.
It was just the same as he wanted to do in Georgia when he probably didn’t need to.
I was deeply worried after the first ten minutes of the match. The contrast between the two teams could not have been starker.
Chris Coleman picked nine of the same names that lined up in the Aviva back in March while just five of O’Neill’s pick started in that 0-0 draw.
Leaf back through the campaign and the pattern repeats. Coleman picks from about 14 players and you can see that in his team.
They owned the first 15 minutes and they looked like players who have been through the mill together. It helped that they had Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen prompting in midfield.
But Ireland defended well against good Welsh approach play and even if O’Neill’s players showed not an ounce of ambition during the early blows, they did more than enough to take the sting out of the game.
That was needed because the atmosphere was remarkable and the home crowd created the perfect environment for their own players to play without any fear.
That, of course, is a double-edged sword and as the half wore on and Wales failed to get anywhere near Darren Randolph’s goal, you could sense the home fans getting nervous.
When Joe Allen had to go off after a collision, their grip on midfield weakened. Ramsey dropped back and Ireland held onto possession better than at any time in the half. A couple of half chances followed for Ireland and O’Neill had reason to be pleased with the way the half ended.
He can’t have been anything but delighted with the way the second half progressed, most notably when James McClean produced a finish of true class to give Ireland the lead.
Great work by Jeff Hendrick to win possession and keep the ball in play and great play from Harry Arter to dummy and catch the whole Welsh defence flat-footed. But hats off to McClean for a really brilliant finish.
It was a goal which reflected the course of the game. Without Allen to link everything up, Wales couldn’t control the game and the Irish lads sensed the play turning in their direction.
After that, it was all about digging in and seeing the game home.
I’ve always said and I think every football fan in the country knows that passion and determination are aspects of our character, which play an enormous part in these great nights.
This was one of the best of them and O’Neill must get the credit for delivering a second consecutive play-off with this squad.