It was a tough and gruelling encounter - but Ireland deserved to win the crunch World Cup tie against Wales, and to progress to the play-off stage.
Ireland have qualified for the World Cup play-offs.
After an extraordinary and emotional night in Cardiff, Ireland emerged as 1-0 victors over Wales, securing one of the eight spots available to second placed teams.
It was a night of high drama and extraordinary defending, in which Ireland repeatedly defied the odds. Wales were clear favourites to win – and to go through to the play-offs. But for Chris Coleman's side, in the end it was not to be. "We came up short," the Wales manager admitted. And he was right.
Instead it was Martin O'Neill's night. The football was not pretty – in fact, for the most part it was as ugly as it gets. But a single goal, struck home emphatically by James McClean, was enough to prevail. Afterwards, the Irish in Cardiff celebrated long and loud. And who could blame them?
The general view in advance of the game was that Martin O'Neill would opt for footballing brawn rather than brains – and so it proved. When the news filtered through earlier in the day, that Shane Long would not be fit to play, it seemed more likely that our footballing talisman Wes Hoolahan would be selected. Wrong.
Martin O'Neill chose to go with Daryl Murphy – who bagged two goals against Moldova on Friday night – upfront. That was hardly a surprise, all the less so in Long's absence. But in the centre of midfield, he opted for David Meyler – who has grown hugely in stature n recent games; the in-form Jeff Hendrick; and Harry Arter of Bournemouth.
Wales opened brightly, hogging the ball and dictating the play. They had the vast bulk of possession – but they created very little, as the Irish defence kept its shape superbly. That Ireland seemed incapable of getting the ball down and stroking it around was hugely disappointing. But they held firm. And not long after the halfway mark in the first half came what may have been the game's most crucial moment.
Joe Allen had earlier dished out some punishment to David Meyler. Shortly afterwards, Allen and James McClean went for a ball in midfield. Pressure from McClean pushed the Stoke midfielder into the onrushing Myler, who was trying to head the ball. Allen was brutally sandwiched between the two Irish players, and sent sprawling; his head seemed to smack back against the Cardiff turf. He looked groggy and, having been checked by the Wales medics, was withdrawn. It proved to be a mortal blow to Wales.
From the 25th minute on Ireland began to get a foothold in the game. For all Wales' possession, in the first half, Ireland fashioned the better chances, though nothing came of them. With the score at 0-0, after 45 minutes, it was still all to play for.
In the second half, Ireland started to press higher up the pitch and Wales began to look rattled. And then after 57 minutes came the breakthrough. Wayne Hennessy, in the Wales goal, rolled the ball out to captain Ashley Williams. Before Hennessy released the ball you could see Jeff Hendrick pressing Daryl Murphy into doing his shift, getting ready to put pressure on the Welsh defence. When the ball was thrown to Williams, Hendrick immediately raced across to close down the Everton man. He blocked Williams' pass and – in an improbably determined bit of work – held off the full back Gunter, saved the ball from drifting across the line into touch and surged forward, as the ball hugged the sideline.
Cutting in along the by-line, he looked up and spotted Hary Arter, who had raced into the area. The Burnley mid-fielder passed the ball to the onrushing Bournemouth man. Arter promptly stepped over the pass, letting it arrow on across the area, for McClean to pounce – and score. Cue bedlam among the Irish supporters.
Did Harry Arter 'mean' the dummy? If you watch the replay in slow motion, you can see Arter do what all great midfielders try to do. As he races forward, he has a quick look behind him and sees Daryl Murphy and McClean. There is no doubt that he knew what he was doing when he let he ball pass between his legs. McClean raced onto it and gratefully smacked the ball home with his weaker, right, foot. 1-0!
Martin O'Neill seemed to be remarkably reluctant to make changes. Daryl Murphy looked out on his feet but the manager didn't seem to have the slightest interest in replacing him. Shortly afterwards, Arter, who had run his guts out, was replaced by Glenn Whelan. And then, with only a few minutes remaining, the striker was withdrawn, to be replaced by a central defender, Kevin Long.
The Welsh bombarded the Irish area, but the general feeling was 'who cares?'. Ireland hung on to win 1-0. And so we were home and hosed.
On one level, a victory of this kind brooks no argument. Football is a results game. And in particular, the performance showed that there are depths of honesty, commitment, heart, courage and determination in this squad – at a level that few teams could ever match. There is a fantastic spirit in the Irish camp right now. They play for one another, and for the manager. And that spirit has brought them through to the play-off stage at least. Who knows where it will all end?
The maddening thing is that you can never know how things might have turned out if Martin O'Neill had gone for a more footballing approach. Would Ireland have won bigger, if he had played Wes Hoolahan in Cardiff? I have little doubt that we would have played far better football. That's what tends to happen. But we can never be sure that we'd have got a better – or even an equivalent – result.
And so it is a case of hats off to Martin and to Roy. We are entitled to go into our play-off match in good heart. Of course, just how much good heart depends on who we are drawn against.
I am not going to claim that I have grasped every possible nuance, as to how the draw will be structured – apart from the fact that Italy, Portugal and Croatia are likely to be among the seeded teams. There is a possibility too, that we might be drawn against Northern Ireland - a fixture that would be ripe with historical significance.
Equally, we could find ourselves up against it, taking on the clock-makers of Switzerland. Ultimately, I still believe that a different approach to Martin O'Neill's might yield far greater dividends. Don't let anyone fool you: we can play football. But until we embrace the notion, then we will always end up pumping long balls, deep into opposition territory.
The bottom line is that, during this campaign, it seems to have worked. And so a big congratulations is in order. To Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane and the backroom team. To the players who ran their hearts out tonight in the Irish cause. And above all to the two Derry men, who best symbolise the courage and commitment of this new Ireland side and who – appropriately – are the our two brightest stars in Martin O'Neill's firmament: Hot Press cover star James McClean and Shane Duffy.
With these guys involved, there are times when anything seems possible. Tonight was one of those occasions. It was possible - just about. And they prevailed against the odds. However you might want to criticise, it must be said: someone somewhere is clearly doing something right.
Now for the play-offs...
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