by John O’Hara
Tonight is a pivotal night for Ireland and their management team, who have taken us from the brink of Euro 2016 disappointment to the possibility of automatic qualification. Few would have given Martin O’Neill and his charges any hope of success in this group, after Scotland grabbed an equaliser in the Aviva in June. In fact, many, including myself thought that it was over, that all hope was lost.
But Thursday night’s game has changed everything. It has changed many people’s perception of this team and of the management. This was the first time, in my mind, that I saw a ‘Martin O’Neill’ team take the pitch. He has now stamped his authority on this squad and the positivity that has come from the game will give is the impetus to get to France 2016.
When you look at the exploits of our neighbours, north of the border, it is clear that with the right attitude, the right management and a little bit of luck, success can be achieved at international football. On Thursday night, we did exactly that. Three of our back four are plying their trade outside of the Premier League and Stephen Ward had not played since August. Ward, who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism during his time in the green of Ireland, showed real determination on Thursday night, giving his all for the cause. On paper, we should not have been on the same pitch as the Germans, who ply their trade in the best leagues in the world and regularly play in the Champions’ League. But we showed that football is not played on paper, that heart, guts and determination still mean something in the modern era of football.
Although he didn’t get man of the match, James McCarthy was immense against the Germans. McCarthy has been vilified in many quarters, not least by the RTE panel, who have questioned his desire on numerous occasions. He answered his critics in emphatic fashion, with a lion-hearted display that set the tone for Thursday’s victory.
Hoolahan, who has come to the party a little late in his career, picked up the man of the match award, for his ability to keep the ball, something we have been missing for a long time in the Irish side. The diminutive Norwich midfielder may be older than a few of his colleagues, but he seems fresh and the lost years will be more than compensated for if this Irish side can get themselves over the line and into the draw for Euro 2016.
And what about Shane Long? There were sighs of exasperation when it was announced that the Southampton sharp shooter was named on the bench, with O’Neill preferring to start Daryl Murphy, just as he did against Scotland. But credit to the Tipperary man, who didn’t throw his toys out of the pram, but instead chose to show O’Neill what he was missing, with one of the finest strikes in Irish sporting history, that will surely live long in the memory. The packed house in the Aviva were on their feet, along with millions at home and abroad, as he dribbled towards the world’s number one ‘keeper, before unleashing a shot that has surely matched Jason McAteer’s winner against Holland in 2001, which sealed our world cup qualification.
The only way that Long’s goal can be diminished is if we don’t finish the job and join our neighbours at the biggest party of the summer. Had Scotland held out for a win over Poland, we would have only needed a point to qualify automatically, but as it stands, a win or a 2-2 draw is now needed for us to get the coveted second spot in the group. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise, as Ireland fans will know that playing for a draw is not an ideal position to be in and the hearts of many would not be able for a such an excruciating ninety minutes. This way, we can play with freedom, if we lose we have the play-off, if we win, we qualify, it’s that simple.
So how will O’Neill approach the game? To me, there is much more confidence in O’Neill and Keane, something that has been lacking among the Irish football fraternity in recent months. This is an important corner that has been turned, as O’Neill has recently looked like a grumpy old man, looking for a fight with the media and anyone who questioned him. He looked like a different man to the one who had led Celtic with such distinction and class. Perhaps we will now see a different O’Neill, a happier manager who does not feel that the world is out to get him.
It will be interesting to see who O’Neill picks in his starting eleven tonight. If we know anything about O’Neill, it’s that he likes to surprise us. He has Coleman, Whelan and McClean back for tonight’s game, but whether he starts them remains to be seen. It was interesting to see the difference in McCarthy’s play when he was not partnered by Whelan, with many suggesting that they are trying to fulfil the same role in the team. Coleman, who is obviously first choice right back, has been struggling with a hamstring injury, which will always be a worry for the manager. McClean, will probably be kept in reserve, just like he was for the home game against the Poles, when he set the tone with a crunching tackle.
Murphy, Long or Keane? Again, second guessing the Derry man is a little pointless, but the trio provide different options and Keane cannot be totally over-looked, as he can be good for a goal in any circumstances.
With a genuine ‘Super Sunday’ about to unfold, we’ll cheer on the Irish against the French, before the real business begins. A night of nail biting, jumping, shouting and throwing expletives at the TV is in store for football fanatics and if O’Neill can deliver the holy grail, it could be one of the greatest nights in sporting history. Sundays as they should be.