Ireland were tiring. Germany, already given freedom of the flanks by a deliberately narrow defence, were finding gaps in the centre, too. Green-shirted bodies kept getting in the way in the nick of time. But you’d understand if they started getting there just after the nick of time after the effort they’d put in. If they could survive these few more minutes until half-time, who knows how German frustration would affect the German performance. I checked how long had been played: 14 minutes 53 seconds.
It is difficult to quantify just how huge Ireland’s one-nil Euro 2016 qualifier win over Germany actually was. If someone retrieves the form book from wherever it landed after Shane Long’s goal propelled it out the window, the win might only signify the play-off place it guaranteed. And, in the longer-term, it might not even be the most significant Irish win of the night. Hats off to the North for their qualification. It was an easier group but if they WIN it? Blimey! The immediate comparison is with Ireland’s one-nil 2001 World Cup qualifying victory at the old Lansdowne Road over the Netherlands, Roy Keane’s finest (only fine?) hour-and-a-half in a green shirt (like all Ireland’s backroom staff, it was “the wearing of the grey” for Roy last night, although he seemed curiously absent from the SKY TV coverage – if he was on-screen, I missed it). There are, though, a number of factors which give Thursday night the edge.
That Netherlands team, managed by the bloke with the funny hair and the over-precise English, were not as good as the current Germans, especially when the Dutch reverted to the old style 2-3-5 formation used in football programmes for team line-ups long after it was consigned to the tactical dustbin. Yes, at times… OK, most of the time, Germany were drawn into the same formation by an ultra-defensive first-half from Ireland boss Martin O’Neill’s men. But Germany looked sharper, more purposeful and passed the ball far better than the Dutch, i.e. at all. During that first fourteen minutes and fifty-three seconds Germany had the volume, and comfort, of possession outside the penalty area you would normally get against Gibraltar. But once it got to that penalty area, Ireland built a defensive wall similar to Manchester United’s magnificent shut-out of Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, when Wayne Rooney sulked to great effect at wing-back.
Few doubt, too, that Ireland 2001 would beat Ireland 2015. Then add what Ireland were missing on Thursday. Absentees both vaunted (Seamus Coleman) and unvaunted (Glenn Whelan). And after 40 minutes, goalkeeper Shay Given through injury. Germany lost Mario Gotze through injury too but Darren Randolph proved a far more effective replacement than ex-Chelsea, and current Wolfsburg, reserve Andre Schurrle. Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne was not wrong to call the game as “Champions League v Championship,” perhaps momentarily forgetting that Sky have lost the rights to the former. At one point Hawthorne said “Marco Reus gets to the ball before Richard Keogh.” Well, of course he did. Wes Hoolahan’s EPL experience intermittently showed…when he wasn’t handling the ball. And he was Ireland’s only creative player who might not have looked out-of-place in a German shirt. But if West Ham won the World Cup in 1966, Derby County beat Germany on Thursday, with Keogh Cyrus Christie and Jeff Hendrick in the Moore/Peters/Hurst roles.
My memory played tricks on my nerves. After half-an-hour, Germany started to look less terrifying as they moved forward. Then total recall kicked in. Wasn’t it 0-0 after half-an-hour when Germany won 6-1 on their last visit to Dublin? It surely was. Thirty-two minutes, in fact, before Reus opened the scoring. The same Reus that was battling Richard Keogh of Derby County for possession.
So Ireland getting to half-time on level terms felt worth writing an article about. News that they’d had 26% possession suggested that “possession” included the time between German attacks ending with goalkicks and Given/Randolph taking said goalkicks. There must have been at least one ballboy who saw more of the ball in the first half than Daryl Murphy. “No way this is going to end 0-0,” I typed on social media, barely resisting the temptation to add #temptfate, as that would have…well…tempted fate. But if the second half didn’t get too embarrassing, I had an article to type. Germany were bound to step up the required gears as Ireland’s players tired, especially those for whom “regular starts” at their clubs meant once every two blue moons and even then only in the League Cup. That Burnley full-back Steven Ward was the first to cramp up to the point of withdrawal was no surprise.
Plus, the game would get “stretched,” especially if Ireland committed bodies forward. As happened when German keeper Manuel Neuer pinged a seventy-yard pass to Reus which demonstrated the talent about which Neuer is such an arrogant w**ker. Reus’s pass to Schurrle was as good. Mercifully, Schurrle’s shot demonstrated the talent of an ex-Chelsea, and current Wolfsburg, reserve. It felt like Sky were taking the p*ss when they showed “shots on target: Ireland 1 Germany 0.” Ireland’s shot, a John Walters first-half effort, would barely have crossed the line. And Walters was in the six-yard box. Then suddenly…
Martin O’Neill’s post-match suggestion, that Shane Long felt “quite comfortable” with a second-half substitute’s role that “kinda suits him,” was not exactly borne out by Long’s own post-match revelations of pre-match upset. Cynics may have linked Long’s upset with Keogh’s head-bandage at kick-off, which Keogh discarded after half-time. Being selected behind Robbie Keane is one thing. Behind Daryl Murphy is quite another. Long was happy enough straight after full-time, though, screaming “yesss!!” into the microphone of RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue to start his on-field interview… and startle O’Donoghue and half the country watching on telly.
Goalkeeper David Forde’s open-mouthed expression when Randolph was preparing to replace Given suggested that he was discovering how Long felt pre-match (although TV cameras didn’t focus on Forde until Randolph’s number was held up on the substitutes board, and by then Forde might as easily have been aghast at a dirty joke by Roy Keane). However, Randolph’s selection was already resembling the right move when Long replaced the one-legged Ward. The Long/Walters partnership proved the key to Ireland surviving the fraught final minutes, when Walters won an amount of aerial duels and Long picked up an amount of second ball. The goal, though, was far better than that. It might have looked like a punt upfield by Randolph and a fortunate bobble off Long’s right knee before the Tipperary man’s right-foot rasper left the net bulging and Neuer grasping at thin air (hello cliché corner). But even Sky’s obligatory German pundit Dietmar Hamann had to admit that Long’s control was deliberate.
Long’s and Walters’ runs in opposite directions completely outwitted the German defence. Walters took the fullest advantage of the complexities of the current offside rule. Long “arced” his run like all the best strikers do. And the quality of the finish was undeniable. Even Neuer’s ego wouldn’t have stopped it. Equally undeniable was the quality lacking in Thomas Muller’s finish minutes later. Incisive German passing opened up some small gaps, David Meyler’s untimely slip opened up one big one and all Muller had to do was kick the ball straight, like a father in the park passing to his eight-year old kid. Muller’s kids will be doing a lot of running if he makes ten-yard passes to them like… that.
Ireland went for the corner flag a little earlier than some nerves could stand. But they wasted time with stereotypically German efficiency. And Germany’s final chance, Mats Hummels’ stoppage-time header, was in Randolph’s hands before there was time to say “feck.” Those closing moments were as fraught mathematically as anything else. “We could do with a Poland equaliser” was my only publicly-expressed thought in the last 10 minutes that didn’t involve an expletive. At no time did my calculations involve Ireland hanging on. But ultimately, Robert Lewandowski’s late equaliser in Glasgow did Ireland few favours, leaving them needing at least a 2-2 draw in Warsaw to nail the group’s runner-up spot instead of just any old draw.
It did Scotland even fewer favours, of course, which was desperately harsh, although recalling SKY pundit Neil McCann’s campaign-long smugness part-tempered that sympathy. The Scots played better in Germany than Ireland did. They were more entertaining at home to Poland than Ireland were. The Irish will have to go some and then go some more if they are to match the Scots’ display in Warsaw. And Scotland were the better side over the two games against Ireland. And, with all due respect to Northern Ireland, you wouldn’t back Scotland to finish bottom of a regurgitated Home International Championship. However, Scotland will likely be the only “home” nation not in France next summer. Weird.
German boss Joachim Low was similarly puzzled post-match, although somewhat sourer with it. I’ve never heard a defeat called “un-necessary” before (makes you wonder what a “necessary” defeat looks like…Germany v Austria in the 1982 World Cup perhaps?). And Low’s suggestion, no pun intended as he interviewed in German, that Ireland’s “100th long ball was one long ball too many” was a load of balls. Not least because it was difficult to remember Ireland having possession 100 times. O’Neill wasn’t “even sure we kicked it 100 times long.” However, the difficulties he had remembering the phrase “play-offs” in his SKY post-match interview didn’t inspire trust in his memory. It was, perhaps, an indication of the chances Ireland really thought they had that O’Neill couldn’t bring to mind the very thing his side supposedly went into this international weekend targeting.
“We were brilliant,” which was O’Neill’s ultimate response to Low’s bitterness, drew appreciative laughter from the attendant press pack. It was a funny kind of brilliance which involved playing almost no football at all yet built a crescendo of noise from the nervous Aviva Stadium crowd and produced high-quality drama, with the happiest possible ending. Yet Ireland’s defending was brilliantly disciplined, not conceding a caution until Hoolahan’s tired forward’s challenge in the 89th minute.
It will probably take something even more “brilliant” in Warsaw for Ireland to automatically qualify for the finals. Johnny Giles told RTE’s Darragh Maloney that qualification was “highly likely,” but that was immediate post-match euphoria talking (or a snifter from fellow-pundit Eamon Dunphy’s hip-flask… I’m joking, of course, call off the lawyers John). Aside from the Gibraltar games, they’ve only once scored twice, thanks to Aiden McGeady’s stoppage-time winner in Georgia, and didn’t really look like scoring twice even then. So the 2-2 draw which would beat Poland on the head-to-head rule seems as distant a prospect as the win which would guarantee second in the group, assuming Germany don’t come over all unnecessary again at home to Georgia.
Ireland could, though, qualify automatically as the best third-placed team, a prospect somewhat underplayed, and in some cases overlooked entirely, by the football media, quite possibly due to the complicated arithmetic involved. Suffice to say, the eighteen points Ireland currently have would almost certainly not be enough. nineteen points might, just might, be. The play-offs will provide a mixed quality of potential opposition, comprising as they do of third-placed teams. At the time of typing, Turkey, Israel, Ukraine, Slovenia, Hungary, Sweden, Croatia and Albania are third in their groups while nearly twice as many sides could yet fall or rise to third over the next three days. Including Germany. And reaching them was not something seriously contemplated by Ireland fans after the Dublin draw with Scotland in June. Ireland’s 2001 win over the Dutch helped them to play-off victory over Iran and qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals, Saipan and all that. If Thursday helps produce a similar outcome, it won’t be quite so difficult to quantify just how huge a victory it was.
Either way, it is as likely to be forgotten as to ever be understood.
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