When I first read that Uruguay’s population was just over three million, I thought “misprint.” Someone had clearly left a “1”, at least, off the figure. How could a population which would make London seem like a ghost town could be SO consistently good at football? I thought of Uruguay when the island of Ireland, population 6.3 million, qualified two teams for Euro 2016 and three million-strong Wales qualified too. The Republic of Ireland’s achievement is arguably the least remarkable of the three; I would place Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland top. This, however, is not a fully-informed view, as I only watched the Republic’s matches in full. That debate can rage elsewhere. This article is a resounding “COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN (SHORTS)!!!”
Since Martin O’Neill became Ireland supremo in 2013, there have been fewer changes from predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni’s ultimately-failed regime than many would readily admit. Trap’s Ireland were organised, compact…and as hard to watch as to beat. Much like the outfit which opened Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with a scruffy 2-1 win in Georgia so reminiscent of the Trap days the Italian could copyright the video highlights. Likewise, the plucky-beyond-belief draw in Germany, the late-earned point in a “tight” game against Poland. And the lack of quality and luck over 180 minutes against Scotland. Scotland played far better football against Germany, for four points less reward, and in Warsaw, for only one point more. They deserved the four points they took off Ireland and until September looked possible automatic qualifiers, never mind beating Ireland to the play-offs. That they are the only UK nation watching the finals on the telly still seems wrong.
In May 2014, Ireland showed flashes of flair (i.e. ‘some’) in an entertaining nil-nil draw with World Cup-bound Italy at Craven Cottage. But the result and the performance soon looked less impressive. Italy were badly hampered by the ninth-minute injury to Riccardo Montolivo in Fulham. Ireland were walloped 5-1 by Portugal in New Jersey twelve days later. And Italy were shite in Brazil. This seemed the proper context for Ireland’s first six games in Euro 2016 qualifying. And after Scotland drew in Dublin in June, you could understand the SKY TV pundits’ reaction. Davie Provan offered a qualified confidence, prophetically wary of the task in Georgia but knowing Scotland controlled their own fate.
Niall Quinn’s hope-against-hope that Ireland could get something from the Germany game came with a sense that they would have to and that any hope beyond “you never know” was pushing it a bit (to paraphrase late cricket commentary legend Richie Benaud: “Football’s a funny game, but it’s not that funny”). Neil McCann’s smug-gitness was, for once, not entirely misplaced. Yet, ha-ha!! One ridiculous Irish victory over Germany, one Scottish meltdown in Georgia and one late Poland equaliser in Glasgow later and Irish eyes were on Uefa secretary-general and potential Fifa president (chortle) Gianni Infantino, in his best-known role as Uefa competition draws host. Uefa’s Gaby Roslin, you might say.
Of unseeded Ireland’s four potential seeded opponents, Sweden appeared the toughest draw, Hungary the ‘easiest’ and Ukraine and Bosnia neck-and-neck in-between. So when Bosnia-Herzegovina v Republic of Ireland was drawn, manufacturers of commemorative match scarves had more concerns. But Fifa’s international rankings, as ever, told an unlikelier story, with Sweden ranked below Ireland, let alone the other seeds, and the highest-ranked seed… Bosnia. Ulp. From losing at home to Cyprus to beating already-qualified Wales, Bosnia had improved as their qualifying campaign progressed. And Ireland went into the first leg in Zenica missing keeper Shay Given, striker/Germany-slayer Shane Long (injured) and Jonathan’s, Walters and O’Shea (suspended), O’Shea after the daftest professional foul, seconds from the end of the already lost qualifier in Poland.
Ireland produced a remarkable four-nil Euro 2012 play-off first leg win in Estonia. Bosnia were no Estonia and Ireland were going to need everything they had from everybody they had. Yet for all the similarities between Trapattoni and O’Neill, differences proved crucial. Right-back Seamus Coleman’s progress from potential to actual world-class, O’Neill overcoming Trap’s allergy to selecting skilful midfielder Wes Hoolahan and the emergence of one Robert Brady. Perhaps more helpful was that Bosnia, over 180 minutes, were terrible. The Zenica’s crowd’s pre-match din disappeared within minutes, as Bosnia resembled a series of Dmitar Berbatov tribute acts. Mind you, Ireland failed to muster a shot, on or off target or blocked, in the first half and were horrendously weak at left-back, with Stephen Ward playing like the Burnley fringe player he currently is. So the mists which descended during the long-awaited interval were arguably a blessing.
The TV director took an age to figure how to capture as much of the fog-bound second-half as possible. Pitch-level cameras were effective (“they’ve found a clear bit,” my Dad said, momentarily forgetting how fog works) and replays from behind the goal were clear enough, yet the game was in its final quarter before these angles were used properly. There wasn’t a camera behind the other goal, which didn’t matter because Ireland were only nominally attacking it. A low-level sideline camera caught “striker” Daryl Murphy’s header onto the roof of the net. But it took a while to register how good a chance it was, the TV director understandably caught unawares by Ireland creating something. Maybe the far touchline advertising hoardings were contracted to be in shot and only once the fog even masked some of the illuminated ones, could the cameras behind the goal be fully utilised without undermining Uefa’s business model. But no camera could properly cover Robbie Brady’s goal.
Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne guessed that “a long ball over the top” isolated Brady against a Bosnian defender and it took three replays to discover that someone’s head (nationality indeterminate) had flicked the ball into Brady’s path. So TV viewers had check for any white Irish shirt moving from left-to-right (particularly notable for its rarity), concentrate on the reactions of Aidan McGeady, the closest white shirt, and listen to the 800 Irish fans in the nearside corner of the ground. Two shirts kept moving left, McGeady’s suddenly moved up and down, the crowd roared and an air-punching Brady emerged from the murk.
Ireland didn’t lead for long. The cameraman behind Ireland keeper Darren Randolph was in charge for the final minutes. And James MacLean is never the right answer to “who can plug that defensive gap?” Three Ireland defenders had to miss the sort of low cross they’d spent the night clearing into the fog for Bosnia talisman Edin Dzeko to get a shot away. But he applied the sort of finish ‘top, top’ players make look easy yet really isn’t. Dzeko almost immediately did himself a mischief tackling back. And the prospect of Dzeko not being 100% fit for the second leg tempered the frustration of conceding a late lead. That frustration wore off pundit Niall Quinn entirely. He and Ireland goalkeeping legend Pat Bonner made the soppiest-imaginable ‘good cop, bad cop.’ But Bonner forcibly insisted that Bosnia could not be that bad again, while Quinn believed, smug as a McCann, that the tie was there for the taking.
On RTE, Irish state television, Liam Brady bet Eamon Dunphy ten euro that Hoolahan wouldn’t start in Dublin, despite Hoolahan’s early-ish substitution in Zenica to rest him for that purpose. Dunphy (“I’ll give you two-to-one”) was razor-sharp to recall Brady being “part of the regime that kept Hoolahan in the wilderness for five years.” However, Dunphy could have played and Ireland would still have mastered another 90 minutes of Bosnian dispassion. For a football team lauded as a unifying force for a war-torn, ethnically-complex nation, Bosnia’s lack of drive was bizarre. Walters returned from suspension to partner Murphy up-front (“still playing a lone striker, then”, I cruelly pondered). Out went Ward, his calf muscles probably still rigid from Zenica. And in stayed Hoolahan, to Dunphy’s benefit.
The 2,000 mostly black-clad Bosnian fans in the Aviva Stadium on the old Lansdowne Road site made more noise than their 10,000 compatriots in Zenica, sadly during the minute’s silence for the Paris attack victims too. But the “Lansdowne roar” had made a timely return when Long scored against Germany. And Monday’s crowd kept roaring. However, the crucial last difference from Trap’s era was…luck. “Yeeeesssssss!!!!!! (never a penalty),” tweeted Irish comic Dara O’Briain as a Murphy cross gently brushed Ervin Zukanovic’s forearm hairs, triggering 94,000 comparisons with an unpunished 2009 handball. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know the one. Walters beat Stoke team-mate (a sentence rarely used in international match reports) Asmir Begovic from the spot. And Ireland were on their way. Ish.
The goal didn’t “change the dynamic” of the tie. And, briefly, Bosnia showed the requisite urgency for the situation. It didn’t last far beyond Haris Medunjanin’s 34th-minute effort which might have landed in the River Liffey but for the stand behind the goal. Matters were still fraught though. Co-commentator Ray Houghton got his balls mixed-up, suggesting “Geordan Murphy” was getting advice from the touchline. Substitute MacLean had the calming effect of a pinball-firing blunderbuss carrier with hiccups, as unfortunate to be booked for an early foul as he was fortunate not to be booked again at least twice. And Bosnia’s Senad Lulic acknowledged the Irish roots his first name hinted at by missing a semi-sitter when Ireland’s left-flank frailties briefly resurfaced just after half-time.
Still, another 34 minutes after Medunjanin’s flight-path threatener, matters became less fraught when Walters volleyed in Brady’s deflected free-kick. And while Long could and should (and normally would) have made it three-nil four minutes later, Ireland had done enough to withstand some actual (too) late Bosnian pressure. This included one mad melee involving at least one Irish handball as clear as anything by the luckless Zukanovic and Vedad Isibevic’s close-range volley which gave the crossbar a fearful thump with Randolph a spectator. The ironic cheers which greeted the ball’s flight to safety started a party which won’t have stopped if you are reading this in November. “There won’t be a cow milked in Chiswick tonight,” tweeted O’Briain, probably correctly.
O’Neill and Keane’s unexpectedly passionate immediate post-match embrace was uplifting and disturbing in equal measure… Keane’s even joking about Saipan these days, for heaven’s sake. But Bosnian coach Mehmed Bazdarevic was less thrilled, calling referee Bjorn Kuipers the “worst on the pitch,” which was technically correct, although probably not what he meant (and the behind-the-goal official made the crucial penalty call/mistake anyway). It was also a let-off for highly-strung Bosnian defender Emir Spahic, whose use of Jeff Hendrick’s leg as a long-jump pit could have been harsher punished and whose comically-clumsy challenge conceded the free-kick which created Ireland’s second goal.
Ireland have now beaten top-ranked nations in consecutive home games after years of failing to beat any (insert your own London bus joke here). But fears remain of a repeat of 2012’s dismal finals effort, which left many fans half-regretting even qualifying. There is some truth in the observation that this squad is among the least talented of Ireland’s major tournament qualifiers since Jack Charlton’s boys went to Euro ‘88. Yet it remains hard to imagine Keane allowing a repeat, especially if he recalls his many harsh words from an ITV studio in Poland three-and-a-half years ago. And although the “there for the party” stereotyping of Ireland’s support was part of what so riled Keane back then, that support will be enormous with the tournament being so much nearer the 26 counties than Poland and Ukraine. Camper van shortages in Ireland are forecast. And the “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work” tricolour will be getting another airing.
And…and…there’s the, currently, blessed Martin. The Derry man alongside Cork man Keane (although Middlesex/London man Steve Walford was more often in TV shot throughout the campaign). North and South men, Derry and Cork on opposite ends of Ireland’s small island, almost as far apart as the two men’s public temperaments. And with the (in)famously Derry-born MacLean in the squad, the Aviva banner with the Soldier’s Song lyric “North men, South men, comrades all” rang joyfully true.
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