Friday 23 February 2018

Now this squad can point to a display of their own as the blueprint for success

Martin O'Neill celebrates at the end of the match
Martin O'Neill celebrates at the end of the match
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

One of the greatest results in the history of Irish football was achieved by a weakened team from a relatively limited squad against the reigning champions of the world. Almost everything in the game against Germany went the way Ireland fans would have liked, but there were virtually no reasons to expect beforehand that it would.

Citing big wins by Ireland teams in previous eras doesn't make sense. I don't know why you would be optimistic about a current squad because of the achievements of different players in the past. It's like being confident in Glenn Whelan because Roy Keane used to play well in the position. Or saying the full-backs will deliver because Denis Irwin so often did. Teams need to earn respect for themselves. They need to give people reasons to expect a performance and genuine grounds to be optimistic. Approaching a game with confidence based on other people's performances is barmy, but we're no longer limited to that with this Ireland team.

And we're no longer limited to looking at Martin O'Neill's career in club management for signs of what he can do. We knew he could inspire teams to play to the limits of their abilities and that passion and commitment were ever-present in the performances they gave. We knew he could maximise the potential of the players he worked with and that his enthusiasm for the job would get the crowds back on board. Coming into the final week of the campaign, there was little sign that it was happening with Ireland, but that concern has been smashed to pieces by Thursday's result.

That's the most significant aspect of the victory over Germany. People need only recall what they saw three days ago for signs of optimism. Everything from the courageous blocked tackles, to the moments of controlled possession, to being able to close the game down in the final minutes. It will all be required again against Poland, but Ireland have already shown they can do it. They've now earned the right for people to believe they are capable of qualification.

There will be people saying the result will count for nothing if Ireland lose to Poland and go out in the play-offs. If the outcome of a campaign defines everything that happens within it, they may have a point. It's like hearing strikers say that a great goal is no consolation in a game that they lose, but there's a broader victory here that was badly needed.

Thursday night felt like more than picking up three points. It was far more than securing a top-three finish. It was the occasion when this Ireland squad under Martin O'Neill connected meaningfully with the public, creating memories they will never forget. It's been years since any manager delivered that. Regardless of what happens in Warsaw or beyond, it has boosted the level of support for O'Neill and his players. For the first time in a long time, there's genuine hope.

Irish football has progress to make in many areas, primarily in the field of elite player development. Defeating Germany doesn't change that in any way, nor will anything that happens in the rest of this campaign. It's going to take far more than the influx of qualification revenue to fix. O'Neill deserves huge praise for beating a side like Germany with a team that comprised five players from the Championship, but future managers will be feeding off scraps if things don't drastically change. It's a conversation for another day, but it shouldn't be kicked to the kerb indefinitely because of the heroics of one night.

There's an obvious point to be made here, too. If Germany had performed better in front of goal, they would have won. If they hadn't defended a long-ball clearance from Darren Randolph so shambolically Ireland wouldn't have scored. Perhaps their poor preparation and attitude was the real X-factor here rather than anything O'Neill brought to the occasion himself. These points will be revisited many times if Ireland don't play like this again during his tenure. The challenge for O'Neill is to show it wasn't a one-off performance. Only then will we know for sure we're in the right hands.

Shane Long will spend the rest of his life being asked to explain what it felt like to score that goal. Ray Houghton still can't walk 10 yards in Dublin without being stopped to recall his goalscoring feats from nearly 30 years ago. For the whole squad, though, the greater legacy of European qualification awaits them in Warsaw. And for the first time under O'Neill, they can point to a performance of their own as the blueprint for success.

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