Saturday 24 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: Baggies star's vital strikes a just reward for winger with huge appetite for work

James McClean shots to score Ireland’s second goal in Moldova last night DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
James McClean shots to score Ireland’s second goal in Moldova last night DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

No place for faint hearts in this dark corner of the East, but Ireland took what they had to take from Chisinau.

Under a pouting half-moon and in a stadium silhouetted against gaunt Soviet-era high-rises, James McClean's two second-half goals delivered a haul of points that may prove priceless in this claustrophobic group. It felt fitting reward too for the Derryman who brings such work ethic to these nights you could believe he is on commission for kilometres covered.

His strikes certainly subdued a threadbare home following, briefly emboldened by Igor Bugaev's goal on the stroke of half-time, a concession that could have been ruinous to a less resilient group.

Ireland weren't exactly composed against earnest hosts, but they never ceased agitating and grafting in that way that ennobles them even on these plain nights. For Martin O'Neill, there is not much more he can rationally ask.

And Chisinau felt a throwback of sorts. A glance over the shoulder to past forays into a splintering East, so many new republics still catching their first breaths of independence. Jack Charlton's time as manager brought us to towns like Vilnius and Riga when they'd barely had an opportunity to process the implications of a post-Soviet existence.

They return to us now as drab places, conformist grey, everyone blinking like newborns in an unfamiliar sun as the great Western gifts of McDonald's and Starbucks prepared to come rolling their way.

In reality, they were much more earthed and beautiful than that, but - looking back - we tended to see only rain and stark, utilitarian high-rises. Grimy, charmless blocks just like those towering above the south stand of a prim-perfect Zimbru Stadium last night, a few hundred living-room lights within communicating broad indifference to the business of chasing World Cup points below.

Some people did emerge on to balconies but their number seemed to thin instantly as soon as Shane Long slotted home that second-minute opener.

In Jack's time, Ireland visits to the East tended to involve the scrabbling of ugly wins on heavy pitches, but this had a more structured, considered feel to it, albeit it was scarcely anxiety-free. For a start, with Wes Hoolahan as an attacking fulcrum, Ireland's football carried refreshing subtleties too.

Hoolahan is the kind of safe-cracker lacking so conspicuously on Thursday against Georgia (a game that changed context pretty profoundly with Wales's struggles last night). His early, dinked pass for that Long goal was sublime, but the finesse you gain with Wes probably works in inverse proportion to the athleticism you lose by fielding a 34-year-old number 10.

Still, it was Long's first goal in 19 games for club or country and you had to hope the Tipperary man would be re-invigorated by it. He might have had a second after 16 minutes, his header from a Seamus Coleman cross ricocheting to safety off a defender.

McClean volleyed narrowly past Nicolae Calancea's left-hand upright too but, despite their nightmare opening, the locals slowly began to find discernible traction.

What Moldovan football might lack in erudition its players more than compensated for here with heart and plain aggression. Their manager, Igor Dobrovolski - hinting beforehand at "rats" in his midst - all but implored his team for a show of unity following broadly toothless efforts against Wales and Serbia and they delivered on that entreaty at least.

But a team that can lose at home to Liechtenstein (as Moldova did during Euro qualifying) is always going to have a fight on its hands for the affection of its people. The only supporters visible in Chisinau before darkness fell were dressed in green, some mingling with palpably bemused wedding parties on the steps of the Nativity Cathedral.

And tight and intimate as the 10,000 capacity Zimbru is, scarcely half of the seats were occupied last night, ticket prices, reputedly, the reason.

The few who came held up coloured boards in the west stand beforehand, simulating their national flag, but - with so many empty seats - great chunks of fabric looked to have been eaten out of it.

Still, they beat their drums and bellowed their songs, communicating a message that it would take at least a second Irish goal to defeat their optimism. And that was proving complicated for O'Neill's men.

A foul on Walters did present a free-kick in a promising position but McClean's effort was unconvincingly high. Ireland's momentum had largely tapered now and then, on the stroke of half-time, well...the unthinkable happened.

A ball broke to Bugaev just inside the Irish half after Hoolahan had been out-muscled at a distant corner-flag and the Moldovan number 21 showed a clean pair of heels to a defence palpably caught in neutral. His finish was unerring too and, suddenly, Zimbru Stadium had all but shed its moorings with the noise.

Seconds later a stone-faced O'Neill came crossing the field, just staring blankly ahead despite an animated Seamus McDonagh trying vainly to engage him in conversation. The manager's interval talk would, you knew, require a pretty significant redraft now.

With the tenor of the evening so utterly transformed, old worries about ball retention and coherent attacking movement began to form. It isn't O'Neill's way to change personnel lightly but he needed something different here. If this wasn't quite crisis it was no more than one more bad moment from becoming one.

Hoolahan did test Calancea with a low 53rd-minute shot, but there was a real sense of ferment and edge to business now.

An injured Long was gone just past the hour mark, replaced by Callum O'Dowda in a reshuffle that left Ireland now without a dedicated striker. And for a time the uncomfortable possibility of even losing to a country 130 places below Ireland in the FIFA rankings did threaten to find expression.

But then McClean's double intervention calmed Irish hearts, a plain, poked finish after 69 minutes and then a classy pass into Calancea's net with his left instep after 76.

Thereafter, the noise of the night was largely Irish, local frustrations spilling over into a late squabble by the dug-outs that drew O'Neill in as peace-maker.

In a group that promises no cheap points, it felt a good conclusion to business in this dark corner of Eastern Europe.

Irish Independent

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