Friday, 17 October 2014

Friends in Löw Places

A combination of the poor standard of the opposition, an early morning flight and the fact that plenty of recovery time was needed on Sunday to get ready for a morning flight to Germany after the pre and post game beers at Saturday's facile 7-0 victory over Gibraltar meant the lack of A False First XI on that game.  To be honest, there wasn't much that could be said about it, Gibraltar were by far the worst team I've seen us play in all my years going to games and having gone 7 up on 57 minutes I was actually disappointed not to see us beat our record score set in 1983 when we put 8 past Malta.  But it's splitting hairs to be moaning about a 7-nil victory and by the time Monday morning rolled around the fact that we were heading to Germany with the maximum 6 points on the board had put a spring in the step of the fans thronged around Dublin airport making their way to various departure gates to flights going to the various German airports that were within striking distance of the Ruhr valley by train.

My own flight was into Bremen and had a fair few fans on it that were making their way down towards Düsseldorf (in the larger Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area), Essen and Gelsenkirchen which were the three main bases that the support had stationed themselves in.  As Terry the Tash and an advance guard of the London Irish boys had made their way over on Sunday and Philly and Greg weren't travelling till Tuesday, I was travelling alone but there was plenty of chat about the game on the plane and as soon as we touched down myself and a couple of Galway lads jumped on the tram outside the airport and managed to make a 12:44 train heading in the direction of Düsseldorf with seconds to spare.  As the next train wasn't for another hour we were chuffed to make the early one which got the lads to Gelsenkirchen and myself to Dusseldorf by around 4 in the afternoon.  A quick freshen up after checking in to the hotel I made a quick call to find out where the lads were and took a stroll up to the old town and down to the banks of the Rhine for a couple of the local Altbier, which for a man fond of an ale like myself was a great change from the lager more prevalent elsewhere in Germany.  The views from the riverbank as the sun started setting was class and Düsseldorf seemed a great setting to have based ourselves in.

Given the advancement of the age profile of most of the lads I see on these trips, eating a decent meal rather than just relying on a kebab at the end of the night is necessary, so having moved on from the riverbank we hit a traditional Brauhaus for some typical German fare and treated ourselves to some pork knuckle, roast potatoes and sauerkraut.  The craic was good and once we'd eaten our fill we moved back up through the town and decamped to the local Irish bar, McLaughlins, to catch some of the Dundalk v. Shamrock Rovers match and see if any of the other YBIG'ers were around.  I generally prefer heading to a few local bars on trips rather than sticking to the ubiquitous Irish pub that each city has but, in their favour, they do tend to be good meeting spots and the atmosphere is always lively.  As it happened, this one was in the middle of a strip of bars and the balmy evening made it pretty easy to drop in and out of the various places and mix it up a bit.  As some of our usual number, such as the Quinn Towers, Caimin, Karl and the Brummies were based in Gelsenkirchen and Essen respectively it was a good chance to meet a few others and a good laugh was had with a few of the Derry lads and lasses from YBIG (shout out to SHH and his gang) before I wound up in a local bar round the corner with a few Cork heads having a bit of a sing song.  By the time I came back around to McLoughlins, it had closed but Terry, Peter and a few of the lads were in another local bar across the road.  A couple of night caps later we were astonished to see it was around 4:30 and deciding discretion was the better part of valour, we left a few of the lads to carry the torch and jumped a cab back to the hotel.

Spot the sauerkraut

A few hours sleep later and matchday dawned without too much of a hangover from the previous night although the throat was already feeling pretty raw from the singing!  My room mate for the couple of days, Tommy, had rolled into the room at about 10am so I was feeling pretty happy to have bailed out when I did.  Another couple of mates were arriving that morning so when I got a call from Philly to say himself and Greg had arrived, we decided that getting moving relatively early in the day was the best course of action so a plan was put together to meet up with a few of the others and head to Essen where the Brummies were based and have a drink and food there pre match  before getting the train up to Gelsenkirchen to hit the fanzone outside the ground around 6.  From all reports, they're wasn't a huge amount in Gelsenkirchen itself so a lot of the Irish support seemed to be congregating in Essen and we had a great afternoon sitting outside in the sunshine catching up with familiar faces as they arrived before heading up by train and then tram to the ground.  The ground itself is a fair distance outside the city but the atmosphere was good on both the train and tram rides with plenty of classics such as "The 12 Days of Paul McGrath", "A Team of Gary Breens" and "The Lonesome Boatman"ensuring that any recovery on the vocal chords would have to wait!  More friends were met up with at the ground where the excitement was building nicely although as most of us were thinking the World Champions would be looking to bounce back from their disastrous defeat to Poland on Saturday, the pre match nerves weren't as pronounced as they've been in the past.  Soon enough it was time to go in and having walked around the ground to our area we made our way in in plenty of time for a rousing rendition of Amhran na Bhfiann and got ready for game time!

Shalke's home ground, the Veltins-Arena

First things first and there are a few things to crib about on the team that Martin O'Neill picked for the game.  I questioned Robbie Keane's suitability for the lone striker role in the blog after the Georgia game and have indeed questioned it during the Trap era.  Even at his peak this was never a role best suited to him and, while there is still no doubt he's our best finisher by a mile, his effectiveness in playing in games like this means questions rightfully have to be asked.  I had thought that Shane Long not getting a run at all over the weekend had him in pole position to start this game but O'Neill really doesn't seem to fancy him for whatever reason although it may just be down to his current indifferent club form.  I've also said on previous blogs that Aiden McGeady's inconsistent end product means he was worth a go in the hole behind a lone striker but I don't think that a game against the World Champions and in behind Keane rather than a player such as Long or even Jon Walters was the time for that particular experiment.  The return of Glen Whelan and Stephen Quinn at the expense of Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson indicated to me that we'd attempt to soak up pressure and that we could struggle to retain possession as did Walters' inclusion ahead of Wes Hoolahan, ostensibly to add additional cover to David Myler in his unfamiliar left back role.  As the game began this issue with possession soon came to pass and those missing pre match nerves came back with a bang on 5 minutes as Erik Durm unleashed a cracking shot from 25 yards that cannoned back off the crossbar.

However, although the pattern around possession remained the same, we were managing to defend stoutly and despite one headed chance from a set play, Germany weren't really getting in behind us or threatening our goal.  The only real chance we had to ease the pressure was from a free after a foul on Keane but when the ball came back to Whelan a few yards back from the penalty area, his safety first instinct kicked in and the ball was played back to halfway without us creating a chance.  The first half continued in the same vein and bar an opportunity when a slack pass from Marc Wilson was charged down and although Forde came from his area to get to the ball ahead of Thomas Muller, instead of booting it to row Z, he tried to control the ball but mishit it straight to the opposition although they failed to create anything with the chance and the ball was eventually cleared.  A couple more half chances were all that were created with a shot from local boy Julian Draxler straight into Forde's chest on the dot of half time summing up the lack of incisiveness on the part of the hosts.

So, half time and O'Neill's gameplan for a nil all was still alive and we hunkered down for more of the same for another 45 minutes. Jogi Löw reacted to the goalless first half and our lack of possession by removing his defensive midfielder,Matthias Ginter and replacing him with the Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski.  The change did give Germany a little more impetus but bar a couple of long range shots that went wide, the second half began to pan out in a similar fashion to the first with an early half chance for Ireland from a McClean cross that Neuer saved at Keane's feet before the Germans regained control for a spell until Tony Kroos let go a swerving shot that David Forde did well to claw over the bar for a corner which also coughed up another chance that was blocked by James McClean's trailing leg.  Just before that, Whelan had succumbed to a knock and been replaced by Hendrick and the pressure was beginning to build but with every minute that passed the hope from the away end started to grow that we somehow might hang on.  Another substitution followed with Gibson replacing Keane and Walters moving up front with McGeady moving back to his more natural position out wide.  We seemed to be getting a few breaks as the game reached the 70 minute mark with a couple of penalty calls waved away (one never a pen, the other I've seen given on occasion) but just as we started to believe it might be our night disaster struck.

When the ball fell out to Kroos he was in exactly the sort of position that we'd been closing down all night.  However, although it seemed like Quinn had the time to get out and at least try and put the player off, he held back for a second and allowed Kroos to take a couple of touches and arrow a shot in off the post.  Joy for the home fans in the ground but to be fair to our support, who hadn't stopped singing all game, as soon as we tipped off again the roar of "Come On You Boys In Green!" began again as we tried to lift the team. While Germany remained on top in the immediate aftermath of the goal, O'Neill made his final change in bringing Wes Hoolahan on for Stephen Quinn and as the game reached the last 10 minutes after another great save from Forde, this time from Mario Gotze, the Germans seemed to settle for 1-0 and started sitting back a bit, allowing us more time to work something on the ball.  I was worried any chance we had might be gone when Stephen Ward, who'd probably had his best game for Ireland to that point, pulled up with an injury that was effectively reducing us to 10 men but he battled on bravely and our pressure increased as the Germans sat deeper and deeper.

On 85 minutes, McClean, another man who'd played very well defensively on the night and had been one of the few getting into attacking positions, got the ball on the left and managed to slide a ball into Hoolahan that looked certain to be the equaliser only for Erik Durm to somehow slide over and get a block in.  It's fair to say that nearly all the Irish fans in the ground turned to each other and said "That was the chance" at that moment and with the clock running down it seemed unlikely that we'd create another opportunity as good as it.  In fact, although we were now enjoying our best spell of possession we didn't really get near their penalty area again until stoppage time.  In the first minute of it another half chance arrived but Hoolahan dithered on the ball when he had options left and right and was tackled.  However, the Germans were getting decidedly nervy and we immediately won a free around the halfway line which was pumped forward to McClean who hit a cross-shot that pin-balled around the box before going out for a throw.  Despite giving away possession straight from the throw the composure on the ball normally associated with this German side had gone and the ball was just booted back to the half way line where Wilson returned it and it went out for another throw,

At this stage, I was nearly convinced that the 4 minutes stoppage time was up so was screaming for the ball to be put back in the box but when the ball came back to Hoolahan from McGeady it looked like the cross was too deep and the chance was gone.  What happened next was one of those moments that will go down in the annals of Irish soccer history and led to possibly the biggest celebration in the stands since Robbie Keane's stoppage time equaliser in Japan in 2002!  Jeff Hendrick somehow managed to hook the ball back across the box and, in fairytale fashion on his hundredth cap, John O'Shea managed to get himself across Matt Hummels and connect with the outside of his right boot to find the corner of the net!  Cue absolute mayhem in the stands as the heady mix of elation and disbelief cascaded through the away section!

View of celebrations from German stand

It's moments like that that make all the early starts, the travelling and the bad results worthwhile,  There's always something special about a late goal such as Keane's equaliser v Italy a few years back but that was a game we'd really been on top in and in fact we had another chance to win it in the couple of minutes after that.  This time the celebrations were still going on when Germany tipped off again and the ref blew for full time to up the decibel level another notch just as it was beginning to subside.  It must have been at keast 3 or 4 minutes of full on screaming, bouncing around, hugging your mates, hugging total strangers and laughing our heads off !  A truly special moment.  The reception the team got as they came back to our end to applaud the fans was a great moment as well and after a result like that it's one of those times you're happy enough to wait around the ground for the extra few minutes it takes to be allowed out. 

Spot the sour kraut ;)

The atmosphere walking out of the ground and back onto the concourse was something else as well and even the snail pace tram journey back to Gelsenkirchen which led to us missing our direct train back to Düsseldorf wasn't enough to dampen our spirits and gave us a bit of time to meet up with a few others who'd been in other sections of the ground and share a celebratory drink with them as we waited for a connecting train to Essen.  Even a comedy moment from Brummie Bren as he failed to mind the gap getting onto the train and promptly fell straight between the platform and the train before being dragged back up by us couldn't wipe the smile off his face despite the resultant bad gash on the leg and sorry for laughing mate but it was comedy gold seeing you drop about 3 feet and bounce off the train but was glad to see you weren't too badly hurt!  When the lads staying in Essen got off we said our goodbyes and decided to jump a taxi back rather than waiting another 40 minutes for the next train.

A lot of the support had been delayed getting back to Düsseldorf but there was still a good crew back in McLaughlins when we got back there around 1.30.  That said, a lot of energy seemed to have been sapped by the time people had made their journeys so after a few beers around that strip of local bars, a chat with a few fans and locals and an essential donar kebab, myself, Philly and Greg bailed back to the hotel around 4.30 and called it a night.

The following day brought the usual combination of a hangover tempered by a sense of elation that you get after a good result.  A 3.25 flight meant we didn't have to get on the road too early and also that we missed the nightmare that some had due to the train strike from 2 that afternoon that no one seemed to be aware of and the bomb scare in Dusseldorf airport that caused the delay and cancellation of a number of flights that evening and night.  Lucky for us really because at that stage I just wanted to get back and sink into my sofa.  On checking the Irish paper's websites that morning, I'd seen a bit of controversy had erupted from the analysis by the holy trinity of Irish punditry in Dunphy, Giles and Brady.  We'd heard from texts during the game that Dunphy had called Martin O'Neill "Trapattoni with a Derry accent"  but before making a call on it I wanted to see what they'd said for myself so once I'd settled in at home I stuck on the RTE player and went to the end (stopping to relive O'Shea's goal en route!).  While there are some valid points made around team selection and our ball retention which was poor for the first 80 minutes with numerous misplaced simple passes, it has to be said that some of the analysis borders on the farcical, in particular Dunphy's comments.  Eamon always has to have a cause celebre and unfortunately for Wes Hoolohan, he's the man who has taken this mantle in recent times.  I've always had time for Hoolahan as a player since his Shels days and was delighted to see him have a great game on Saturday albeit against Gibraltar.  However, it did him no favours to have Dunphy lauding him as a game changer on Tuesday night when the impact on his game had been limited at best.  There were 3 occasions when he lost the ball in similar fashion to players earlier in the game, one in particular when he had great options in McClean and Walters on either side of him.  And claiming that he was the architect of the goal when he had in fact seriously over hit the cross leaving Hendrick with a huge amount to do to get the final ball across was frankly laughable.  The fact that Dunphy didn't even mention Hendrick's superb assist added another element of farce to it.  And while Glen Whelan my not be everyone's cup of tea, Dunphy's consistent spiteful belittling of him is tantamount the the sort of bullying behaviour that he claims to hate.  I'd argue that Whelan was part of the reason why we hadn't conceded while he was on the pitch and that there's a fair chance he'd have been there to close down Kroos for the goal as he'd been doing that all game.  And Liam Brady's credibility was done no favours when he'd described David Meyler, who'd done a great job at right back for a midfielder being played out of position, as a Championship player despite the fact he's plied his trade with Hull in the Premier League for the last year and a half. 

John Giles was a bit more balanced but I can't agree with his idea that we'd have been better off going toe to toe with Germany over 90 minutes.  Martin O'Neill has always had a streak of conservatism in him and there's more than one way to skin a cat so he was perfectly entitled to set up defensively for an away game against the World Champions.  To me, the game swung on 3 things, Germany sat back after they scored (which is possibly reflective of their current lack of confidence), we started pushing forward a bit as we tried to get something from the game after falling behind and the manager made a number of positive changes to take advantage of the above.  For all the talk of the difference Gibson and Hendrick made with their passing ability when they came on, both were on the pitch when we conceded and it was really only the last 10 minutes when we started getting a real foothold in the game rather than from 70 minutes as Giles has said since on radio and in his Herald column today. Had Germany not scored when they did it's unlikely they would have sat back in the manner they did and its impossible to say with any certainty that we'd have got the space to play our way back into the game.  By all means have a philosophy about the game but there has to be an acceptance that there are different ways to approach a game and I feel that focusing on the positives rather than the negatives would have been a more suitable way to analyse the game but it seemed to me that they had their angle prepared before our last gasp equaliser and weren't prepared to change it.  Goals change games may be a cliche but it's true.  They also change away trips and with that swing of his right boot John O'Shea put this one right up near the top!!