Tuesday 20 February 2018

Miguel Delaney on Austria v Ireland: Old burdens banished by a goal of rare beauty

Big scalp in Vienna and quality of winning strike have elevated these Boys in Green to a new level

James McClean celebrates a brilliant goal. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean celebrates a brilliant goal. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Austria’s Julian Baumgartlinger tries to dispossess Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan in Vienna last night. Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

For all the stats and figures out of what is genuinely a historic win for Ireland, there is still something purer - something more human - that stands out from it all. It was the elegant beauty, and efficient ruthlessness, of James McClean's winning strike.

In short, it's difficult to remember Ireland scoring a goal of such proper elite quality. It ensured that they also got a win that the side have traditionally found so difficult.

The Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in action. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in action. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
James McClean pulls the trigger to score Ireland’s vital goal against Austria in Vienna last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman tackles Austria’s Kevin Wimmer in what was a battling display by the Donegal man yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Just as there was so much more to this goal, however, there was also so much more to this victory. It was not just a first away win against a side ranked higher than Ireland since the triumph in Scotland in 1987 - and that was not the only reference point and historical hang-up that can now be consigned to the past.

There was also the fact that this was Ireland's fourth win over a ­higher-ranked side in the last 13 months alone. That was something that didn't happen at all in the 15 years between the 2001 victory over the Netherlands, and then the October 2015 win over Germany, but it is now something that has become a hugely encouraging trait of this team.

It is something that Martin O'Neill should get huge credit for. This team have an intensity and assertiveness that marks them out from so many of their predecessors, and you only have to consider the contrast with the last Irish side that came to Austria, losing to also cost Giovanni Trapattoni his job. Like so many of this country's squads, they were to content to cautiously sit back, so often giving up the initiative as well as goals.

This side don't have to keep looking back in that way. They have too much going for them that they can look to the future with.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates with assistant manager Roy Keane after final the whistle. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates with assistant manager Roy Keane after final the whistle. Photo: Sportsfile

In that sense, it now seems remarkable that so much of the build-up to this match was dominated by Ireland's poor record against Austria, and the fact they had never won in the country. That just didn't matter to this team. They were prepared to run right through them.

That is also why there was such an extra symbolism and significance to the manner of the goal. To use a word O'Neill was all too willing to, it "epitomised" the elevated nature of the win.

There was something extra to it. It was above the usual Irish level. The players involved also specifically personify this lift, this banishing of old burdens.

First of all, there was the manner in which another decision paid off for O'Neill. With the way Austria had run through Ireland in the first 25 minutes, and how Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter were struggling to get on the ball and use it, it could have been a real negative for the main midfield organiser, Glenn Whelan, to go off.

Instead, substitute David Meyler was one of many who seized his chance. He won possession on the right side of the Irish box, and then assertively got the play moving to Hoolahan. McClean was demanding the ball with a driving run, and suddenly Austria were stretched. That was something else that was so impressive about this move.

Austria had started the second half with the same vigour and speed as the first, but Ireland weren't just sitting back and hanging on this time. They had learned. As O'Neill said, they were "prepared".

There was still a precision and searing quality to what happened next, though.

Hoolahan didn't just play any forward pass. He slightly delayed it, waiting for exactly the right moment so that the weight of his expertly threaded through-ball wouldn't require McClean to break stride. McClean then broke there.

There was no hesitation or ­uncertainty to any of it. There was pure assertiveness.

Some might point to the many times that Hoolahan gave the ball away ­beyond that, but this one move proved the point. It won the argument, as well as the game. He occasionally gives the ball away because he is trying things like that, because he is taking the risks. In doing so, he takes Ireland's attacking play to a level they otherwise just wouldn't be able to reach.

McClean's international career has, meanwhile, moved on another level itself. He is becoming a properly important player, a big goalscorer, and a big-game scorer.

"He's got a great attitude," O'Neill remarked, also referencing how the winger wouldn't have been fit for this match had it taken place on Tuesday. "At the ripe old age of 28, I think he's even improving. He's been splendid, but he's been splendid for a long time. He may well take over that mantle."

Time - this Irish team can now look back over it from a winning perspective, rather than one of wishful thinking.

Just look at the quantity of angles to this win that a goal of this elevated quality allowed them to banish.

They have a first win in Austria.

They have a first big away win since 1987, and we no longer have to reference that Scotland match.

We no longer have to worry about beating big teams, because this was also the fourth win against a higher-ranked opponent in the space of just 13 months.

It could also mean Ireland top a qualification group for the first time since 1987.

That is how good things are looking right now, from a goal that itself looked so beautiful.

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