Monday, 23 November 2015

Ireland's Having A Party!!

Well, we've reached the end of the road and what a road it was.  It's been a campaign full of great moments rather than a great campaign but it would be churlish in the extreme to even infer that the players and management didn't get what they deserved.  McGeady’s last minute screamer in Georgia, O'Shea's stoppage time leveller in Germany, another last minute equaliser from Long at home against Poland and the same player's famous winner v Germany at Lansdowne are all moments that will go into the annals of Irish football history and they'll now be joined by Brady’s effort through the fog in Bosnia and Jon Walters’ brace to seal the deal at home. And while there have been lows in the campaign in the away defeats to Scotland and Poland and the second half concession at home to Scotland, it's to the credit of the team and the management that the never say die attitude that was shown in the games themselves was also reflected in the approach to the campaign as a whole with every blow absorbed before we picked ourselves up again and kept fighting.

Having got back from Bosnia on Saturday night, I vowed to try and get some rest but with Brummie Bren staying the night with us on Saturday before Nuge, his roommate for the following couple of nights arriving over from Birmingham on Sunday, we still ended up sharing stories of the trip with my better half till two in the morning. A hearty breakfast early Sunday afternoon was followed by a rewatch of the away leg (or at least as much of it as we could see) while I finished the away blog before we hit the town to meet a few more of the second generation lads in Nuge, Pete McGarry and Pete Fahey for a couple of straighteners and a bit of dinner.  For once, I realised that discretion was the better part of valour and with a big day ahead on Monday, bailed out around half 10 to get a good night's rest in.

So Monday rolled around and an early dinner was had which meant that I was done and dusted by around 4 leaving me free to make my way to to O'Donohues to meet the Brummies.  Before long, Frankie the hands made his way in and after a swift couple we made our way down to the usual spot outside The Beggars where the rest of our crew were congregating. Those of us who'd only got back from Bosnia over the course of the previous 48 hours were obviously feeling a bit rougher round the edges than those who hadn't made it but there was an uplifting atmosphere around the place given the result on Friday and the cautious mood of optimism amongst the support was infectious and enough to shake off the remains of the jadedness.

I was delighted that my old travelling pal from when we started going away in the 90’s and one of the original Drumcondra 69ers, Rich, was back in the fold for his first competitive game in a number of years and was bringing his eldest, my 9 year old Godson Rian to his first competitive Ireland match. I'd been able to sort them out for a code for pre sale tickets on the back of my season ticket and I knew that Rian was really looking forward to the game having been bitten by the live football bug via a trip to Anfield, the Ireland friendly v USA last year and his first season ticket at Bohs this year.  However, it wasn't long after their arrival that the mood turned to one of panic as Rich opened his wallet to get a drink only to find his tickets missing!  He was convinced that he had them when he'd left home so left Rian with me as he frantically retraced his steps back to the car to make sure he hadn't left them there. Ten minutes later he called me back to say he'd had no joy so after a few deep breaths we had to work out a plan  Although the tickets were hard copy tickets that had been sent out to him, the pre sale code I'd given him was for online purchase so I knew he must have had an email confirmation with the ticket numbers on them. So surely a call to ticketmaster could get the other tickets cancelled and reissued at the ticket office?  While Rich was doing that, I'd discovered that one of the lads in our season ticket group wasn't going to make it due to  illness so I had one spare ticket and just needed one more to sort the guys out if worse came to worst. But despite my best efforts, no one from any of the groups of fans I knew had anything else spare and given the demand for the game things were looking grim. Luckily, just as I'd given up, Rich reappeared and although he hadn't been able to get through to ticketmaster, he'd remembered that one of the security guards at the stadium has a son that plays for the same team as Rian and a quick call to him had got him in touch with the ticket office at the ground where they'd told him that they'd reissue his tickets if he got down there straight away.  So although our catch up hadn't gone exactly as planned, at least they'd be getting into the ground and we made plans to meet once the game had finished. I'd have been gutted if Rian had had to miss the game and to be honest would have taken him into the Singing Section with our spare ticket and left his Dad outside rather than the pair of them going home if needs be! Luckily it didn't come to that! Funnily enough, a couple of minutes after they'd taken their seats, a couple of Bosnian fans arrived having bought the original tickets from a tout but there were no longer issues with it and the stewards seated them elsewhere in the ground.  And we were able to sort out a regular away fan who hadn't got a home ticket with our spare so we took that as a good omen!

Panic over, I returned to the rest of the gang to play a very quick catch up with my last pint before we set off to head down to the South end and into the Singing Section. The atmosphere was buzzing on the way down in a way it only can when there's a full house and something big at stake.  Security did seem a bit tighter than usual, presumably in light of the atrocities in Paris the previous Friday, which had created a bit of a bottleneck once we got down to turnstiles Q and R where we enter the ground. In fact, the crush was as bad as I've seen in many years heading into a ground so it was just as well I hadn't got Rian with me although to be fair I'd have gone straight down with him rather than finishing the last drink so would have been in the ground already at that stage. Anyway, having had to battle our way through to the entrance, there were 5 minutes gone in the game by the time we made it to our usual spot behind the goal so we'd missed the anthems for the first time in years and also missed what seemed a contentious minutes silence for the victims of the Paris attacks. From what I saw on TV afterwards, it just seemed to be a tiny minority in the Bosnian end chanting with the boos back at them that followed actually making up most of the noise. Regardless, it certainly wasn't reflective of the Bosnian fans I'd met and had the craic with over the previous few days.

Having missed the first few minutes, it was good to see that the atmosphere was as crackling inside the ground as it had been on the walk up and the team seemed to be responding with the first action of note coming around the ten minute mark when a fine move instigated by James McCarthy set Robbie Brady free on the overlap down the left resulting in the concession of a corner as his cross was cut out just before reaching a lurking Jon Walters.  Unfortunately, in a sign of things to come, the corner was clearly a set piece but was very poorly executed and following a rebound off the ref, we were lucky that Visca ran the ball out of play when it looked like a break may have been on.  The next few minutes were fairly nip and tuck with corners exchanged at each end and the Irish delivery once again leaving something to be desired.  But Ireland seemed to be dictating the tempo and although Brady's set piece delivery was lacking, his defensive work and over lap play was top class and a lot of our best play was coming from that side.  And it was from a Brady delivery that the passage of play resulting in the first telling blow of the night came from.

Walters had flicked a long ball onto Jeff Hendrick around 20 minutes in when Spahic earned himself a booking with a mistimed sliding challenge.  Brady took the resultant free and again failed to cause any danger but the ball was recycled back to him only for Spahic to once again foul recklessly.  This time Hendrick stepped up to take the free and again, incredibly an Ireland set piece failed to beat the first man.  However, this time Bosnia only cleared into touch and the throw in was worked to Daryl Murphy whose attempted cross from the right flicked off the hand of the unfortunate Zukanovic to deflect the ball through to Begovic.  To be honest, there wasn't much of a handball shout from the crowd or a big appeal from the players but next thing the ref has blown his whistle and pointed to the spot for a penalty!  The decision looked very harsh but given some of the travesties I've witnessed following the team over the years, there seemed to be a small sense of karma in Ireland being on the right side of a contentious penalty decision.  The majority of the fans around us had erupted when the penalty was given but I've never been one for celebrating a penalty decision as I'm always too worried we're going to miss it!  And the delay between the decision and the penalty itself  caused by the Bosnian protests and their attempts to put Walters off (led by Spahic who seemed to be on a mission to collect that second booking) didn't help my nerves.  But if there was one man on the pitch who I'd have wanted to be standing over the ball it was big Jon Walters!  I'd said to the lads that I didn't know if it was an advantage or disadvantage that Walters and Begovic were team mates at Stoke for so long given that both would undoubtedly have faced off against each other from 12 yards in training before Begovic's move to Chelsea during the summer but Walters didn't let any game of double bluff enter his head and calmly sent Begovic the wrong way and buried the ball in the left hand corner!  Now was the time to celebrate and although I've never felt that the celebration from a penalty goes as full on as a goal from play due to the expectation that we should score and the relief when we do, it was still fairly intense in behind the goal as we put a bit of breathing space between us and the Bosnians.  But, this was still no job done scenario, there was still a long way to go!

There's always one with the top off!

The next stanza of the game saw Ireland retreat a little bit as the temptation to hold what we had seemed to take hold and Bosnia started to foray further up the pitch.  Dzeko had one effort into the side netting that Darren Randolph seemed to have covered but despite their play happening further up the pitch, their heads seemed to have gone somewhat following the penalty and Spahic once again could have considered himself lucky to remain on the pitch following a blatant body check on Wes Hoolahan on 27 minutes.  However, Bosnia were definitely on top in this little spell but they weren't creating anything clear cut bar a half chance from Medunjanin which went well over and they still looked nervous when we pressured them with Begovic getting lucky when his attempt to clear a back pass ricocheted back off  the onrushing Hoolahan and towards the goal although the chance to apply further pressure in that instance was halted by the ref deeming the ricochet to be a handball.  To be honest, bar yet another Spahic foul on Walters, the rest of the half petered out as Ireland drew the sting from that small spell of pressure and half time was reached relatively comfortably

So with 45 minutes to go to seal our spot in Euro 2016, I was feeling nervous as ever but the generally hidden rational side of my brain was telling me that we'd had a comfortable first half on top of a good 90 minutes in the away leg and Bosnia's discipline had been somewhat lacking.  My concern was rooted in the fact that we had rarely put together a consistent 90 minute performance in the campaign and the game was still balanced on a knife edge. My nerves weren't helped by the first ten minutes of the half as Bosnia came on strong with McCarthy defending well to get a Medunjanin cross out for a corner (although it was a little too close to the crossbar for my liking!).  Our problem again was our delivery with another poor cross from Brady leaving Walters with no chance on one of our forays forward being mirrored by an overhit Randolph goal kick going straight through to Begovic at a time when we just needed to hold possession for a bit.  Martin O'Neill obviously realised that something needed to be changed but it was still a bit of a surprise to see him make a double substitution on 55 minutes with Hoolahan and Murphy withdrawn for James McClean and Shane Long.

We regained a little foothold in the game following the subs and had another set play on 57 minutes which was again wasted by Brady as he hit it straight into the first defender.  I had expected Brady to move up into the Hoolahan role with McClean slotting into the left back role following the changes but instead, Brady had remained in that slot with McClean moving into left midfield as we adopted a more orthodox formation with Long and Walters pushing on.  Given that McClean got himself booked within 2 minutes of coming on for a totally rash challenge then maybe it was just as well he wasn't taking on a more defensive role. I have a lot of time for McClean but he has to learn to channel his enthusiasm and aggression.  It's been useful during the campaign with his tackle after coming on in the home leg v Poland setting the tone for the late comeback but his desire to be involved in everything here was causing problems with the concession of a number of frees in dangerous positions doing nothing to allay the nerves.  However, the emergence of Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh as a centre half pairing of some solidity has been one of the plus points of the play offs and they were mopping up everything thrown at them to the extent that Randolph was rarely stretched.

So halfway through the half and we were looking comfortable and the Bosnian's, and in particluar Spahic's, indiscipline was about to finally get punished.  Ireland had a throw on the left which was flicked on to Walters who was unceremoniously taken out by a boot to the stomach from the aforementioned Spahic.  How it wasn't a second yellow, if not a straight red is beyond me but a free kick was the only outcome.  I've mentioned earlier how poor Brady's delivery had been during the game but when the chips were down this time, he really delivered!  The free had just the right amount of whip and pace on it as it was floated into 'the corridor of uncertainty' (to use the cliche!).  It was too far out for Begovic to claim and was a horrible ball for any of the defenders to try and clear.  Vranjes, to be fair, had the balls to try and clear it but succeeded only in flicking the ball onto that man Walters who picked his spot and smacked a volley with the side of his boot past Begovic on his near post and into the back of the net!  Cue lift off in Lansdowne and the roar that went up dwarfed that from the penalty earlier as the 50,000 plus Irish fans in the ground began to believe!  Although we were down the opposite end of the ground to the goal the celebrations in the Singing Section were immense as they spilled across numerous rows of seats and friends and familiar faces from the campaign bounced around in a mass embrace!

It's that man again!

The celebration then morphed into a Poznan and by the time things had calmed down to the extent that we could watch the game again that pessimistic side of my brain was telling me that even with a two goal cushion, two goals from Bosnia would put them through on away goals.  But, truth be told, we were looking comfortable and, 5 minutes later, really should have put the game away.  Long was released by a ball over the top from Coleman that he really had no right to win.  But, having done the hard work and muscling past the hapless Spahic, he never really managed to get the ball out from under his feet and bobbled his shot miles past the post when he probably could have rounded Begovic and finished.  In fairness to him, it was his first action at any level since getting injured against Poland and had he been fully match fit would probably have been able to get fully away from Spahic after winning the ball and got a shot off under less pressure than he did. Still, it would have done my heart no end of good for the last 15 minutes had we had that extra cushion!

 Countdown......

The next 15 minutes didn't seem quite as long as the last 15 had been against Germany but they still felt pretty long nonetheless.  But by now, we were coping with anything that Bosnia could throw at us and Randolph was confidently either catching or punching anything that came his direction away.  A goalmouth scramble with about 3 minutes left caused a few heart palpitations before Randolph gratefully dived on the ball and the atmosphere in the Singing Section built towards a crescendo with every minute that passed.  John O'Shea came on for Glenn Whelan as the clock ticked into stoppage time to kill a bit of time and while the atmosphere was punctured for a second as Ibasevic crashed a volley off the crossbar in the 92nd minute, it was at that moment that everyone seemed to accept that it was to be our night and the noise began to build again along with whistles from every section of the ground.  And, as soon as the clock ticked into the 94th minute and right on time, the ref joined in with the rest of the amateur whistlers in the crowd and blew up to confirm our third, and first back to back qualification for the European Championships!
Ireland's Having a Party!!

The roar from the Singing Section and the ground as a whole when that whistle went must have been heard all over Dublin and it was great to get that sort of atmosphere and bond between the fans and the players for the second home game in a row after the Germany win last month.  The fact that this  was the first time that we'd secured qualification with a win at home only added to the occasion and it was great to be able to share that moment with the likes of Frankie, Philly, Greg, Stevie, Mark, the 2 Brens and Noel who'd soldiered through the good times and bad during the last couple of campaigns in our spot in 114. The section was a sea of flags and banners as we stayed behind for a while to savour the reception given to the players.  The good vibes seemed to be infectious and there was even a smile from Roy Keane as Martin O'Neill nearly got him in a headlock trying to drag him onto the pitch.  It does look like Keane is happier in his skin these days and that he's using the time he's spent working with O'Neill in a positive manner as I'd hoped he would.  The reception he got from the crowd as he briefly joined the celebrations felt like another step in the rehab of his relationship with a section of the Irish support post Saipan and Euro 2012.

Just the ticket!

Having applauded the players on their lap of honour, it was time for us to celebrate properly so we made our way from Lansdowne and caught up with various friends (including Rich and Rian who was absolutely buzzing with the result) and also with my Da, who'd first brought me to an Ireland game all of 36 years ago, on a crawl that took us back to the Beggars, onto The Gasworks and finally to The Palace on Fleet St where myself, Brummie Bren and Nuge were the last men standing.  As it was my ever understanding better half's birthday the next day and we were heading away for a break, I managed to get myself home around 2 to fall into a contented slumber and dream of France!  And although I did nearly manage to get away from everything football related for the next couple of days, there was still the small matter of a radio interview with Baldrick and Freewheeler from YBIG to go out on Near FM the following evening which needed to be phoned in from the hotel bedroom in Lough Rynn Castle and can be listened to below!

Euro Qualification Podcast

So, as I said back at the beginning, it's been a real rollercoaster of a campaign, with early high moments in Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen tempered by poor performances in the middle of the campaign, particularly against Scotland and then things swinging back again with that famous victory against Germany before the deflation of the away game in Poland where I feared our best chance may have gone.  But when the chips were down in the play off, we produced our 2 most consistent performances of the campaign to take us over the line.  And while it should be pointed out that O'Neill had a large slice of luck in that a 3rd place finish that would have been deemed a failure in any other campaign in our history was enough to get us into a play off this time round, it should also be pointed out that the he had no luck with the draw which put us in the hardest group by a distance.  When things looked bad as recently as September, he still had the belief that we had a chance and as it turned out, once again a victory that was criticised in some quarters away to Georgia at the start of the campaign proved vital once Scotland failed to match it.  Overall, we have to be satisfied with where we are and I really believe that it took a bit of time for O'Neill to settle into International management but he seems to be in a very good place with it now.  We still have to see where we go once we get to the finals but the extra teams this time around should hopefully mean an easier group than the Spain, Italy, Croatia combination that we got last time out.  Add to that the extra qualifying places for the best four 3rd place teams and there's probably more reasons to be optimistic waiting for the draw on December 12th than there was 4 years ago!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Mist Sarajevo

Writing about a football match and trip can't help but seem trite in the aftermath of the news from Paris we received as we were boarding our buses in Zenica to take us back to Sarajevo, after what had already turned into one of the most bizarre experiences I'd ever witnessed as an away supporter following the boys in green. But despite the cloud what happened had put over the atmosphere on our way back, I suppose that carrying on as normal is the only possible response to horror such as that which lies beyond our control.

When the draw was made, circumstances out of my hands dictated that making this game would be very difficult and for that reason I hadn't booked flights in the period immediately after the draw.  But those circumstances changed in the weeks afterwards and as the usual crew were making plans for their trip on various Facebook and WhatsApp groups, I developed an itch to go that simply wouldn't go away. And so, after a week or so of checking various combinations of airlines to find a workable route home, I eventually bit the bullet last Saturday and negotiated a flight only deal on the 747 Travel direct charter flight. Although the price was more than I'd normally shell out on flights, the fact that cheap accommodation was freely available and the cost of food and drink was less than half the price of home meant that I could justify the extra expense and so, come Thursday morning I made my way to a 7 am flight courtesy of a lift from my ever tolerant and supportive better half, Louise! Although the early 4.30 alarm call had been a bit of a killer, the flight was good craic with a mixture of those fans who generally travel via the charters along with a smattering of journalists and ex Ireland boss, Brian Kerr, making up the numbers on board.

We landed safely and got dropped into town on the charter buses.  It was an interesting journey as the vast majority of buildings are stoill pock marked with bullet holes in a sobering reminder of the regions recent history.  After getting dropped in the city centre, I made my way on arrival to the old town of Sarajevo where Steve Amsterdam had booked a room which had space for one more with a couple of his mates in a hostel.  Funnily enough, our take off had been delayed for 90 minutes due to fog at Sarajevo airport which, although we didn't realise it at the time, was clearly a marker for what was to follow!

The Lufthansa strike had also caused havoc with various fans bookings who were routing through them, including Steve's which meant he was arriving a few hours after his initial itinerary.  But the location he'd chosen couldn't have been better, with the hostel directly across the road from the twin pubs of Murphy's Irish Bar and Cheers. So it was in Murphy's where my two other room mates for the couple of days, Carl and Ray arrived to greet me along with another couple of friends of theirs, Ollie and Valeria to kill a couple of hours while we waited for Steve and various other YBIGers to arrive.

Murphy's mural!

Despite the relatively small number of fans travelling, the cosy nature of the quarter where the bulk of watering holes were located meant that even with less than a thousand travelling fans, there still seemed to be a good presence of Irish supporters knocking about and given the familiarity that is bred amongst the regular travelling fraternity, it seemed that every few minutes someone familiar was walking in. And following the arrival of Terry the Tash and the usual London supporters group, Steve arrived followed by Brummie Bren as the flights from various points in Europe began filtering in to Sarajevo.

There'd been a great degree of camaraderie on various online forums between the Bosnian fans and the Irish fans on YBIG since the draw was made with people sharing travel trips and advice about the city.  And of all the Bosnian posters, one in particular, going by the name of Braveheart in a nod to the bonds he'd developed with the Scottish support when they had played there had gone far beyond the call of duty when it came to the help he'd given our support. So it was a pleasure to meet the man on the Thursday night as myself and Bren got to spend a couple of hours with him in a bar called The Celtic and get the chance to talk to him about the football but also about the history of the region and what makes the place what it is today. And if he's reading, there's an open invite for the compliment to be returned any time!

After a couple of hours away from the strip, Braveheart called it a night so he could function in work the following day so myself and Bren headed back to where the usual sing song had got going but after another hour or three, a corporate decision was made to go for the second dinner of the night and following that, after a 23 hour day, 4.30 am seemed as good a time as any to call it a night and rest up before the main event on the Friday.

The lads I was staying with had arranged a trip to visit the war tunnels and various other sites connected with the 90's conflict for early afternoon on the Friday so after dragging ourselves out of the pit, the gang of us, bar Steve who'd stayed behind to finalise the details on the fleet of buses he'd arranged to take the bulk of the support to Zenica that evening, went up to the local cathedral to meet our guide for the afternoon, Dodu. It was a great way to kill a few hours and learn even more about the war as we were driven around the various sites and up to the tunnel that had been built under the old airport in order to bring in supplies to the city during the 3 year siege in the 90's. It was certainly a sobering thought as we heard about how the city had to make do without electricity for 3 years while people had to bring the essential supplies in through the 800 metre tunnel in freezing temperatures before having to face consistent sniper fire just to move from one building to another. The tour finished up in the mountains at the 1984 Winter Olympics site where only a shell remained of the bobsleigh track and the restaurant which had been built to give the most spectacular view imaginable of the city. And in a warning of things to come, even at 3 in the afternoon, there was always a visible layer of fog / smog coming to settle over the city. Local politics was the reason our guide gave us to explain why such a fantastic site had never been redeveloped.

Sarajevo War Tunnels

And local politics probably also explains why the game that evening was fixed for the 12,000 seater stadium in Zenica rather than the 38,000 seater in Sarajevo. As our tour guide had told us, roughly 30% of the Bosnian population would identity themselves as Serbs and a similar amount as Croats. This was really brought home to me as I'd walked down to a bakery with the guide during the tour to get some local food. As we walked back to the car, a car full of local lads drove by and on seeing my colours, rolled down the window and let out a roar of ‘”Fuck Bosnia! Go Ireland!”. Our guide  who'd consider himself a Bosnian first and foremost despairs at the attitude but it seems very deeply ingrained. He told us that his mother will consider herself Yugoslavian till the day she dies and there still seems to be a deep love for Tito present in the country in a way that's fairly rare in other former communist countries.

View from the mountains

Funnily enough, the tour dropped us off at a bar called Tito's which was where Steve had arranged for the coaches to bring us up to Zenica to collect us from. There was a fleet of 5 coaches going up so the place was fairly thronged and there was plenty of the regular crowd there who hadn't been on the tour with us already present along with our local friend, Braveheart. After a quick couple of hours, the time came to board the coaches and we hit the road for the 90 minute journey to the ground, all the while escorted by a noticeable convoy of local police. Despite the no drinking rule on the buses, the journey passed by quickly enough with a serious sing song getting going amongst those of us down the back! We arrived at the ground about an hour before kick off and there was a huge rush into the Hotel Internacional across the road from the stadium which was like walking into a 1970’s time warp but was no less charming for it! A swift one in there and another few songs including a priceless one relating to Jack Grealish’s recent decision to defect to England, followed by a savage rendition of the 12 days of Paul McGrath and it was time to make our way to the ground, get the flags hung and hunker down for the game.

Braveheart and the boys

As regards the game, this has to go down as the most difficult one I've ever had to blog on. It started normally enough with a good rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann and a reasonable enough first few minutes from Ireland as we sought to come to grips with the Bosnian set up. Given the options available to him, I had no issues with the team Martin O'Neill put out but, despite the presence of Wes Hoolahan in the team, as the half wore on Bosnia seemed to be the team controlling more of the possession but they weren't really putting our goal under any sustained pressure.  A shot from Pjanic that was well over and a free header from a corner by the same player that Zukanovic  really should have done much better from were the only chances of note in the first 15 minutes as Bosnia seemed to be taking a fight fire with fire stance and relying on more of a long ball approach than I was expecting from them.  Other than  one corner which was woefully underhit by Brady, Ireland were struggling to get into any attacking positions of note and instead it was Bosnia again who went close on 22 minutes with a Ibisevic shot into the side netting to the left of Randolph's goal which most of the Bosnian fans on the opposite stand started to celebrate before realising it was, in fact, a goal kick.

Pre match tifo display

It was becoming clear that Bosnia were targeting Stephen Ward on our left hand side and his rustiness caused by his lack of club action was highlighted when he pulled down Visca to prevent a run on goal which resulted in a yellow card on 26 minutes meaning he was walking a bit of a tightrope the rest of the game.  Although Bosnia kept targeting our left hand side, we had our own spell around the half hour mark where we finally got to play a bit of ball in the opponents final third but it remained very scrappy with little pattern to the play from either side.  Bosnia created a half chance with a Zukanovic header which was nearly flicked on by Ibisevic who just couldn't get the flick that would have been needed to beat Randolph.  At the time, myself and the lads thought Ibisevic was offisde but looking at the replay I can see that he was being played on by one of our defenders close to the dead ball line so it has to go down as a bit of a let off for us.  However, following that chance and in the last 7 or 8 minutes of the half we began again to get a bit more possession in the opposition half with a couple of free kicks and corners but again, nothing tangible came from any of them with our execution slightly off each time,  The half ended with a bit of a scramble in the Irish area and a shot from Dzeko which was blocked as soon as it left his boot by a combination of Clark and Ward and with the ref blowing up right on 45 minutes, we went in happy enough with the scoreline if not the performance.

First half and visibility still fine!

To be honest, much as we were aware of the issues with fog in the country, there was no indication at half time of how things would develop on that front.  But in the space of 5 minutes coming up to the start of the second half the mist that had been threatening suddenly descended and before we knew it we found ourselves in a situation where we could barely see anything beyond the half way line and 5 minutes later beyond the 18 yard box of the goal directly in front of us.  Obviously that makes it quite difficult to comment on the action. It seemed that Bosnia again were having more of the possession as the only time we could see anything was on the rare occasion when Ireland forayed forward.  The first of these forays was a shot from Whelan which was well over the bar.  That was it with what we could see up to about 53 minutes when Brady whipped a decent ball over which Hendrick did well to get a looping header onto which unfortunately dropped onto the roof of the net rather than over Begovic's head and in.  It had looked for a second that it might dip and that was as close as we had come up to that point.

I had been expecting a more hostile atmosphere from the locals but despite a good co-ordinated tifo display at kick off the atmosphere from the home fans was obviously a bit nervy and following the descent of the fog, the absence of being able to view any action led to things getting even more subdued.  This seemed to be translating onto the pitch as well and I'm sure the players must have been finding the conditions difficult.  For example, there was no way that either keeper could possibly see the other end of the pitch when they were kicking the ball out and it would have been extremely ambitious for anyone to attempt a cross field ball so safety first had to be the only option.   Around the hour mark, the first change was made with McClean coming on for Hoolahan who had had one of his more ineffective games and shortly after I'm told Randolph made a smart stop to keep Lulic out but again we couldn't see it at all. In what would prove to be a decisive move, Brady then moved in to that central role.  Most of the talk on the terraces at this stage were about what may happen if the game was to be abandoned and no one seemed to be sure if the full 90 minutes would have to be played again or just the remaining minutes.  Although  the chants of 'If you feel like Stevie Wonder clap your hands!', 'You'll never see the Irish! ' and' Where's the ball, where's the ball, where's the ball!' had most of the away end laughing!   My own feeling was that UEFA would be very keen to get the game completed if at all possible given the proximity of the second leg on Monday.

Second half view of scoreboard

And floodlights at our end

Stephen Ward still seemed to be walking a tightrope and was possibly lucky to escape a second booking for a foul on Visca judging by the reaction of the home crowd so it was no surprise to see him replaced by Marc Wilson a few minutes later.  Still play carried on, mostly in our half and out of our view, we looked at our watches and phones to keep track of time as we could no longer read the giant scoreboard at the other end of the pitch. We did notice Visca being substituted for them which seemed unusual given that he was probably their best player in the first half but he may well have been rubbish in the second for all I could tell.  With 15 minutes to go everyone around me would have been happy to get out of there with a nil all draw and were just hoping that the game would be allowed finish.  And then, after another 5 minutes of nothing much, the moment of the match for Ireland literally appeared out of nowhere!

Fans eye view of goal!

It was still impossible to see any of the build up but suddenly through the fog we saw Robbie Brady charge through with the ball at his feet.  He seemed to take an eternity to get his shot off but did absolutely brilliantly to take his time and pick his spot as he drove the ball past the diving Begovic to send the net bulging and the crowd behind the goal wild!  Given how little we'd actually seen of the second half it was a huge bonus for the goal to happen at our end and the celebrations were as long and sustained as I've seen at an away game in a long time with Brady sliding to his knees in front of us and the fans rushing down to the fences at the front of the terrace to celebrate with him.  The vital away goal had been got and now it was all about whether we could hold on or not.

Brady celebrates!

And so do the fans!

Unfortunately, as with so many times in the past, that hope of holding on proved a forlorn one.  The celebrations were still going on down our end with a sustained version of the Twist and Shout chant, which would later be morphed into a specific Robbie Brady version, still going on when the Bosnian fans to our right started celebrating wildly.  We couldn't see a thing so didn't know if it was a penalty or a goal and the scoreboard seemed to take an eternity to change.  It was only when we saw the Bosnians retreat back to their own half for an Ireland tip off that we were certain it had been a goal.  In the immediate aftermath, McGeady came on for Brady and it came down to whether we could hold out to full time.  While the remaining action seemed mostly to take place in our half again, we seemed to weather whatever Bosnia could through at us (if you'll excuse the pun) through the remaining few minutes and the four minutes stoppage time and even finished the game on the front foot with McGeady breaking forward only to lose the ball to a defender who appeared out of the fog. As soon as the clock hit 94 minutes, the ref brought a halt to proceedings.  After being held behind for about 20 minutes, we were finally allowed out of the ground and escorted back to the buses where a far more subdued journey back to Sarajevo ensued as news began to come through regarding the atrocities in Paris.  It was around one in the morning when we finally arrived back to the strip and after queuing for what seemed like forever in the Cheers restaurant, myself and Bren finished the evening with a pizza before going back to our respective lodgings and calling it quits around 2.30.

Having checked out at 11 the following morning, those YBIGers still around congregated in Murphy's for some breakfast and some liquid refreshment as people dissected the previous nights performance, the chances for the second leg and compared stories from the previous night.  A number of the lads were staying till Sunday and so were getting up for the craic again by the time the rest of us began to make our way to the airport. A bit of work was done on the new Robbie Brady Twist and Shoot chant (Well shake it shake it up Brady now, Twist and Shoot!) which I'm sure got many's an airing in Sarajevo last night but I was happy enough to get back to Dublin and considered the extra few bob on the direct flight very well spent at that stage.

As regards how the game finished, it was a shame to concede so quickly after taking the lead but being honest, any of us would have taken a nil all with ten minutes to go so given how important the away goal may be, nobody was too despondent about the equaliser.  Having watched our goal again, it was superbly taken by Brady, with the drag back to take his man out of it before picking his spot expertly executed.  The leveller looked avoidable with Wilson and McClean leaving too much of a gap between them to cut out the cross and the marking on Dzeko being a bit slack.  Given how well the defence had generally done it was a shame to see that lapse but it does give us all to play for on Monday.

In relation to Monday, it will be a huge bonus for us to have Jon Walters back and hopefully Shane Long has a few minutes in him. Walters in for Murphy if Long can't start, with Hoolahan slotting in behind.  But the job is clearly only half done.  I can see both sides scoring and it's rare enough to see us score two against higher ranked opposition but Bosnia looked slightly suspect at the back and it's going to be up to us to try and exploit that.  The team O'Neill sends out will tell a lot but I'm hopeful that it will be a positive one and certainly playing for the nil all that would send us through would be a mistake.  But you can't fault the spirit of this team and much as the job is only half done, hopefully that spirit will be enough to see us through.  It's been a long road but we can nearly touch the finals now, fingers crossed come Monday night we can reach that goal.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Return to Poland - Return to Type

It's always said that every high eventually results in a low. And after 4 days of high spirits and celebration from Thursday through to Sunday, the 2,500 souls who'd trekked from Dublin to Warsaw in the aftermath of Thursday's famous win against Germany were faced with our own comedown as Ireland reverted to type and once again, came up just short.

Thursday was undoubtedly and still remains one of the greatest results in our history and was celebrated accordingly.  I had heard stories of lads heading straight to the airport from various pubs and clubs in Dublin on Friday morning to head to Poland and maybe 10 or 20 years ago I may have done the same but the intervening years have brought at least some modicum of sense so myself and my travelling companion, Brummie Bren had made the call to fly out Saturday morning so that we would at least still be in reasonable nick come match day on Sunday.  So Friday was a day of rest to a degree with a bit of dinner in Porterhouse North and a couple of pints either side of taking in a great win for Bohs in Dalymount the limit of our activities ahead of a 7.15 start on Saturday morning.

I had the usual fitful sleep that I always get ahead of an early flight and having avoided the possibility of sleeping in, the two of us were up and ready when the taxi arrived and had enough time to grab a bit of breakfast.  The airport was thronged with Ireland fans making their way over and a few Northern Ireland and Scotland fans obviously using Dublin as a hub to make their own way to Finland and Faro respectively to see out their qualifying campaigns.  The mood around the airport was generally very upbeat as one would imagine given Thursday's result.  The flight was full and pretty uneventful with a lot of people using it to catch up on some of the sleep missed since Thursday or to relive the events of the previous game.  And there was a definite optimism that this time we were heading back to Poland with the hope of having something to cheer about on the pitch rather than what happened in 2012 when it was what happened off the pitch that brought credit to the country.

One of the lads from the YBIG forum, GSpain had made the much appreciated effort to hire a minibus for the 2 hour journey from Lodz where we landed up to Warsaw for 20 of us from the forum to avoid the hassle of getting buses or trains and it was great to get to put a few faces on the names from the online community and the craic and bit of banter on the journey made the 2 hours fly in.  There was a good spread of ages on the coach with some lads making their first away trip along with a few grizzled old veterans like myself and Bren which led to some funny exchanges as we were reminiscing about previous away trips where we needed a result.  It brought it home how many years have passed when we were talking about the last time when a minimum of a 2 all draw would have qualified us back in 1997 in our play off against Belgium and one of the lads in front of us said that was the year that he was born! I swear it seems like yesterday to me.  Talk then turned to the World Cup 94 trip to America and the resulting comment of 'Jaysus, I wasn't even swimming in me Da's ball sack at that stage!" nearly had a few of us choking on our cans!  Still, it's good to see a new generation of fans coming along considering how little there's been to cheer about in recent years.  Although the fact that one of them called for a toilet stop on a service station that didn't have a shop to stock up on more refreshments showed they still have a bit to learn!!

The bus dropped us in the centre of Warsaw and having seen our hotel in the distance just before we got dropped off we were able to make our way there on foot.  Terry the Tash had noticed a deal on Booking.com for the 5 star Westin hotel in the city centre so we had all booked up for a bit of luxury for once.  We'd since heard that the team were also staying there but it was still a bit of a surprise when, after a rest and a freshen up, I called the lift to find a quiet spot to ring the missus back home and when it opened on my floor I found about 12 members of the squad beaming out at me!  Rather than trying to squeeze my way in I thought it better to leave it at a 'Howya lads, it's grand, I'll wait for the next one!  And thanks for Thursday!".  I think they must have been heading out to train at the ground as when I got down to the lobby there was an area roped off leading out to the team coach as my attempt to find a quiet spot for a call was doomed to failure with a big crowd gathered to get a few photos and autographs as the players came down the stairs from the first floor.  Anyway, it wasn't long clearing out as I touched base with home and then went back upstairs to grab Bren and hit the town for the night.

A Mexican restaurant / bar called the Tortilla Factory had been chosen as the congregation spot by YBIG for the weekend so we headed there initially to meet with Peter Mc, Terry the Tash and the London Irish crew but as it was getting pretty busy and we were looking to get food as well as a drink, we doubled back to a place round the corner called Piwiarnia that we'd spotted on the walk down.  There was a decent mix of locals and Irish fans in there including a few familiar faces as Steve Amsterdam and a few other faces from YBIG had nabbed a table and were getting food so we had a good catch up with them while we waited for a table ourselves.  It was our intention to just eat there and then maybe go back to the Tortilla Factory or possibly hit the Old Town but once we'd been fed and watered we got comfortable and before long the chants had started and ourselves and a few supporters at the table next to us over from Down for the game were up on the chairs belting out The 12 Days of Paul McGrath, We all Dream of a Team of Gary Breens, We're on the One Road, The Lonesome Boatman etc and the night slipped away from us! It was about 2.30 when the owners reluctantly told us they had to close up and after the early start and with a long Sunday ahead of us we decided that heading back to the hotel was the best option and called it a night around 3.  The only downer was Bren's jacket being missing at the end of the night which may well have been picked up by mistake but I heard of a number of lads having pockets picked over the course of the weekend which was something that hadn't been a feature of our previous visit to Poland in 2012.

Sunday morning rolled round and we headed out around lunchtime to get some late breakfast and by then had made the call to stay out for the day.  We'd missed the Quinn Towers on the Saturday after they'd been part of the advance party that landed on the Friday so linked up with them and headed down to check out the Old Town where Steve Amsterdam and his crowd had found a nice spot to sit out in despite the dropping temperatures so we made our way down there walking through and getting a daytime look at the city which is a funny mix of old medieval style buildings, some iron curtain era architecture and modern high rises.  It's very spacious but lacks the charm that Torun had when we based ourselves there for the Euros although it certainly has more of a big city feel than Poznan or Gdansk had.  After a couple of relaxing local brews the gang of us made our way back up to the Tortilla Factory where the Irish crowd was gathering pre game. The place was bedecked in Irish flags and getting pretty busy but I managed to get a spot for the 69ers flag to go up and made my way up to a raised section of the pub towards the big screen where a group of the London Irish had secured a spot earlier.  It was standing room only but we squeezed ourselves in and had a spot overlooking most of the crowd in there so we were able to give it a good lash in getting the songs going until the Ireland France rugby game came on and the volume was highered up as most people started watching the game on the TV's dotted round the pub.  There was still time for one more rousing song though as Ireland's Call came on in Cardiff and every man jack in Warsaw belted out a lusty rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann to completely drown out that other dirge!

The twins are the ones at the back!

Yes we mexi-can!

I've never been a rugby fan so, although I was obviously glad to see the team beat France and progress into the Rugby World Cup quarter finals, all my interest was focused on the Poland match.  Like everyone there, I like to see Ireland do well in any sport but would still have gladly swapped the win in the egg chasing for a win or high scoring draw that evening.  And as soon as the rugby finished we gathered the troops and jumped into a number of taxis to head up towards the stadium.  The atmosphere was building nicely despite the cold and after grabbing a bite and a drink outside the ground we made our way into what was a very impressive stadium.  Given that the capacity is only 5,000 more than Lansdowne it is a far more intimidating set up and the steep banks of seating on all 4 sides gave us an unusual view as the Poles had put us up in the nosebleed seats on the top tier behind the goal that Poland were to attack in the first half.

Outside.....

......and in.

The first thing that knocked the sense of optimism that I'd been nurturing since  Thursday's victory was, once again, seeing the team that Martin O'Neill had selected for such an important game.  There had  been whispers over the weekend that Wes Hoolahan was struggling with his heel injury that had been reported since before the Germany game and he had been spotted round the hotel wearing slippers rather than the trainers the rest of the squad had been sporting.  But it was still very disappointing to see him named on the bench.  The general thought was that if he was fit enough for the bench after playing on Thursday that he may have been worth gambling on and trying to get an hour out of him.  Hoolahan has since apparently said that he told O'Neill that 20 minutes was as much as he could manage which may explain his absence but I have my doubts that he would have started him anyway given his innate conservatism and his previous in the big away games this campaign.  Surely the majority of managers would attempt to persuade a player he really valued to play from the start if they say they're fit to give 20 minutes?  Elsewhere in the team I had to question a couple of the changes.  I've never been as down on Glen Whelan as many seem to be and think he can be underrated by some but had spoken over the weekend about how James McCarthy's performance playing deeper on Thursday in Whelan's absence had resulted in him having his best game for Ireland and how Whelan may have to be sacrificed from the starting 11 to allow McCarthy to continue there.  So it was disappointing but not surprising to see Whelan earmarked for that deeper role.  Equally, given how well Robbie Brady had played on the left of midfield in the previous game, it was disappointing to see him slot back in at left back when I think either moving Cyrus Christie across or letting James McClean drop in there could have freed the more creative player in Brady to operate further upfield. An XI of Randolph, Coleman, O'Shea, Keogh, McClean, Walters, McCarthy, Hendrick, Brady, Hoolahan and Long would most likely have been my preferred starting team.  If we're to accept that Hoolahan couldn't start then potentially playing Aiden McGeady in the Hoolahan role could have been considered.  Him playing in that position hadn't worked away to Germany but Poland are no Germany and he had done his best work away to Georgia drifting into that role.  Even with Whelan in the team then pushing him further forward to leave McCarthy further back could have been considered.  But everyone knows that Martin O'Neill is his own man so it was his selection that was going to see if we could get the result we needed on the night to avoid the necessity of another play off.

The game kicked off and was cagey enough for the first 5 minutes before Long went down under a challenge from his Polish marker, Kamil Glik, after a clash of heads in an ominous sign of things to come.  Other than that nothing much happened until the game exploded into life on 13 minutes.  As we expected and feared, Robert Lewandowski was involved when his shot was deflected wide for a corner.  The corner was clipped back beyond the edge of the box where some very slack Irish marking had left Grzegorz Krychowiak free and he dispatched a shot into the corner under little pressure which bounced once before nestling in the net past the unsighted Randolph.  However, we'd only just finished uttering our expletives when a high ball was flicked on by Jon Walters towards Long just as he was moving into the box.  He went to head it and as he did so Michal Pazdan went in with a high boot and caught him in the head sending him crashing to the ground.  Although replays showed that although Long's body was in the box, his head was just outside it but regardless, the ref pointed to the spot.  After a short delay for treatment, Walters stepped up and buried a perfect penalty low to the keepers left!  One all and we were halfway to our high scoring draw target with only 16 minutes on the clock.

Jonny on the spot!

For me, this should have been the signal to raise the tempo and try and take the game to our hosts.  One more goal for us and they'd need two more.  Certainly, after 16 minutes, one all was a far better score for us than nil all so our tails should have been up.  Alas, that wasn't to happen, even after the lift we should have got a minute later when Poland had the ball in the net again when Krzysztof Mączyński beat Randolph from a Lewandowski cut back from an offside position that was correctly called by the officials.  It had been a heart stopping 5 minute spell but rather than us trying to dictate things, the game started to drift again with Poland rather than Ireland having the better of the little creative play that was on display.  As with the game in Dublin, the Poles were going down at the slightest contact with Lewandowski in particular making a huge meal of being caught by an O'Shea arm which earned what would prove to be a costly booking for the Waterford man.  All we seemed to be looking for was set plays and even when we got those, our delivery was generally very poor with a Coleman punt straight into Lucaz Fabianski's arms indicative of our failings.  This pattern was repeated around the half hour mark when the aforementioned Coleman won a corner only for Brady to play it straight to the keeper once again.

While Poland were certainly dominating possession they hadn't really threatened our goal since that offside effort but as the game moved towards half time this began to change.  And after one ball that had fizzed across the 6 yard box just missing the outstretched boot of Maczynski, our defence was finally breached 2 minutes later on 42 minutes.  And of course, it had to be the one world class player on the pitch in Lewandowski who got it.  It was a well worked goal to be fair as Piszczek worked the ball down the right before pulling it back to Maczynski who popped a cross over to the penalty spot.  There was still a lot to do but Lewandowski showed just why this was his 15th goal in his last 6 games by arching his back and neck to generate a huge amount of power onto the header and plant it into the corner.  So rather than going in level at half time, it was 2-1 to Poland as the ref took the players off a few minutes later.

To be honest, much as it hurts seeing us concede any goal, I was thinking that 2-1 didn't really make much difference as long as we didn't concede again.  One all was sending us to the play offs anyway so we needed another goal regardless and I was hopeful that the longer the game went on the more adventurous we'd become as had been the pattern in a lot of our games this campaign.  We hadn't put a solid 90 minutes together in the group so a better 45 minutes would surely be on the cards going by that pattern?  The Polish defence had looked shaky enough dealing with Long on our rare forays forward and I was thinking that moving Walters inside to partner him in a 4-4-2 might enable us to get a better foothold in the game.  Unfortunately the start of the second half saw no change to the pattern of the game and Poland again started on the front foot with a very spurious claim for a penalty after a blatant dive from Lewandowski being the first meaningful action of the half.  He's a great player but his tendency to go to ground is really irritating.  On the one hand he's strong enough to jump over Walters to power his header in yet he'll throw himself to the ground on every opportunity if he can't win the ball.  The fact that he wasn't booked on this occasion left me baffled.

After more of the shadow boxing that characterised the first half with a Whelan shot easily saved by Fabianski the only action of note, we were dealt a major blow when Glik rather cynically followed through on Long after winning the ball to leave our biggest threat laid out in what looked like significant pain. He was eventually stretchered off to be replaced by Robbie Keane who immediately got a shot off but it was well off target.  A minute later McGeady came on for Whelan and we moved to the 4-4-2 which to be fair is essential with Keane on the pitch given that he couldn't play as the lone striker at his peak, let alone in the twilight of his career.  The change was noticeable straight away as we began to move forward with a bit more purpose and Poland began to retreat a little as they began to settle for what they had.  But we still weren't creating anything of note and it took a great stop from Randolph from a Poland break on 64 minutes to keep us that single goal behind. This lifted Poland for another couple of minutes before Ireland moved forward again only to waste yet another dead ball when Jeff Hendrick was the guilty player to put a corner straight into the Polish keepers hands.  And again our wastefulness was shown up a couple of minutes later as Brady contrived to boot the ball straight into touch when attempting to find McClean.

Poland attacks were becoming rarer and rarer but we had another let off after 72 minutes when poor marking from a corner once again was nearly punished as Krychowiak was given a free header which he luckily put wide.  Immediately after this Hoolahan was finally brought into the fray and instantly made a difference as our play become a little less frenetic.  However, chances were still at a premium with a McClean effort miles off target the only thing that could have been considered an opening before the moment which we will regret forever should we not come though the play off.

There are often times in football when you can play poorly but hang on in a game and somehow sneak something that you don't deserve.  And this really should have been one of those times.  On 80 minutes, our increasing pressure resulted in a corner which for once was well delivered. Although Brady's initial cross somehow evaded everyone, the ball was recycled by Coleman who played it back out wide to his Everton team mate, McGeady. A little stepover and shape saw him beat his man and loft over a cross.  Richard Keogh had stayed in the box and managed to lose his man and seemed to have the goal at his mercy but instead of just glancing the header into the corner placed it straight at Fabianski who spilled it initially but,  with no one there to attack the rebound,  gathered it at the second attempt.  I had initially thought that there hadn't been enough pace on the ball and it was trying to generate pace that resulted in Keogh missing it but having looked back at the replay and at the great picture below that one of the YBIG forum members, awaythelads, discovered he had when he went through his pictures, you would have to say that he really should have scored given the space he had.  It was probably an easier chance than the one Lewandowski scored in the first half but that's the difference that having a Champions League player rather than a Championship player can make.
 
  Keogh way back (picture courtesy of awaythelads)

The feeling straight after that miss was that that was our chance to get the second goal we needed and so it proved as our efforts became more and more frantic over the remaining ten minutes with a shot from Hoolahan that looped into the keepers hands and a cross horribly skewed wide by McGeady summing up the increasing frustration.  A flicker of hope was lit when the fourth official indicated 5 minutes of stoppage time which was right given the time-wasting tactics employed by the Poles but rather than that giving us the impetus to push on and create another chance, the stoppage time made a bad situation worse as first, John O'Shea ruled himself out of the play off first leg by pulling back Lewandowski on the halfway line and earning himself a second booking and red card.  Then two minutes later, Lewandowski again went down after minimal contact from Walters who was also booked and will also miss the first leg. You'd have to wonder if Lewandowski had been booked for diving as he should have been in the first half would it have kept him on his feet a bit more in the rest of the game.  Poland ran the clock down after winning that free and once again we had to make our way out of a stadium with ticker tape flying and music blaring reminiscent of previous trips to Brussels 97 and Paris 09 as the locals celebrated qualification.  At least the difference with this time was that we now have a second chance.

It was a subdued train journey back into the centre as the sense of disappointment settled in and we made our way back to Piwiarnia bar we'd been in the previous night but this time there was no singing and just a post mortem as we dissected the game over some food and drinks with the usual suspects and tried to work out what permutations of results would be required to get us seeded for the play offs.  And after a couple of hours of trying and failing to work that out it was time to call it a night and get ready for the trip home the next day.  At least I had the luxury of a lie in as my flight wasn't until 6:20 the following evening, unlike my room mate, Bren, who was last seen ordering a taxi for 5.45 in the morning for a red eye 7:50 flight as we called it a night at 4 in the morning!

So, it's on to the play offs for us but I'm no longer convinced that the corner I thought we'd turned on Thursday has been.  It was extremely disappointing to see us revert to the type of negative mindset that had blighted many of our away performances in the campaign, even in the games that we got good results in such as Georgia and Germany.  We have played better when we have tried to make things happen rather than when we have resorted to pumping long balls upfield and waiting for a break.  Yes, maybe we could have got lucky had Keogh taken his chance but that was the only chance we created from open play the entire game and even then it was a recycled ball from a corner. Given that we were halfway to the result we needed after 14 minutes to not push on and go for it was negative in the extreme.  Relying on taking a single chance when it comes along can only get you so far given the lack of a Lewandowski or a similar world class player in our ranks.  For our squad we really need to create 3 or 4 chances of the nature of Keogh's to give us the opportunity to score the goals we need.  And to do that we need to play our more creative players further up the pitch where they can do more damage.  So, having given Brady a chance at left back and on the evidence of his effectiveness in the last 2 games, I think it's time to let him loose on the wing in the play off.  It's essential that Hoolahan is fit and given a central role.  Walters and O'Shea will be sorely missed.  Despite O'Shea's poor performance on Sunday, he's been one of our better performers this campaign and as stated before, Walters has been our stand out performer.  We have to hope that Long recovers fitness as it's essential he starts for me.

I had issues with O'Neill's team selected v Germany but that was more around the presence of Daryl Murphy ahead of Long and a left back who had barely played for a year in Stephen Ward.  Despite those concerns, it seemed like he had stumbled across his best formation and I'd be happy with a starting XI along those lines with Long in for Murphy and Randolph for Given to start the play offs.  Given what transpired v Gemany it was folly to change back to our conservative default set up against Poland.  To be honest, I expect us to set up in the same manner and for Given and Whelan to start if fit regardless of our opposition come November despite it failing in our away games v Scotland and Poland.  O'Neill can arguably point to us hitting the bar in Glasgow in the last minute and Keogh's chance against Poland and it is on such fine margins that games and campaigns can turn.  But I think that while that approach can pay dividends against the top level teams, we're better served against teams of a similar standard to ourselves by playing a more creative, expansive game.  Looking at the seeded teams in the play offs, there is no outstanding team in any of our potential opposition.  Sweden and Bosnia do however have exceptional attackers in Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edin Džeko who have the top level experience that we lack and having seen the difference that having one of those players can make I hope to avoid them.  Ukraine would be an absolute nightmare to get to so I've fingers crossed for Hungary.  Let's see what Sunday brings anyway, hopefully come Sunday evening the irrational optimism will be rising again.  Whatever happens, we'll always have Germany at Lansdowne but let's hope for much more!

Friday, 9 October 2015

Ireland Über Alles - Playing The Long Game

Where do you begin to describe a night like that? A night that finally seemed to kick start the Martin O'Neill era and a new era in Lansdowne Road.  A night to sit alongside Russia in 74, France in 78 and 81, Holland in 80, Spain in 89 , Portugal in 95 and Holland again in 01.  A night for the ages.

To be honest, a result like that seemed a long way away as most of the usual suspects gathered in the Beggars Bush on Haddington Road beforehand.  A couple of our regulars were missing out with Frankie the Hands laid up sick and Greg being away but with the World Champions in town there was never going to be a shortage of takers for their season tickets.  But all 3 of the Brummies were over, the Quinn Towers were down, Terry the Tash, the London Irish and a smattering of the YBIG crew were all present and correct and a good contingent of German fans mingling in with our support was creating a great atmosphere.  The fact that the game was a sell out meant that there was more of a buzz around the area than there's been for some of the games in this campaign with masses of people milling around and that generally optimistic feeling you get before a game against one of the giants of the world game, of hope rather than expectation, was palpable.

My own sense of hopeful optimism was based on the fact that Germany only needed a draw to secure qualification but that was deflated significantly when the team was announced an hour before kick off.  While our injury list had obviously given cause for concern, I was gobsmacked to see Stephen Ward and Daryl Murphy named as starters.  While both players are very honest and hard working, Ward has hardly played since getting a bad injury last season and losing his place in the Burnley side and Murphy hasn't managed to take his form from last season into this and is yet to score for Ipswich in their 10 games so far.  It seems clear that O'Neill doesn't trust Long to start games but I would have started him and probably would have rejigged the back 4 to accommodate David Myler or possibly even Paul McShane ahead of Ward given his lack of game time.  But managers will live and die on those calls and given what transpired it would be churlish in the extreme to criticise the manager!

As kick off approached we made our way down to the ground and into the Singing Section (with a quick stop to collect my tickets for the Poland game that hadn't been posted due to the postal strike) and we made it to our usual spot behind the goal in time for the anthems.  It was great to see the stadium full after the sparse attendance against Georgia and the atmosphere was as good as it's been in years.  Everyone also had an eye on the match in Glasgow where a Scotland defeat would see us confirmed in the play offs and take some of the pressure off Sunday's visit to Warsaw.  And the news of Robert Lewandowski's early goal for Poland was greeted with cheers as Germany had started strongly and John O'Shea had been called into action very early to cut out a Marco Reus cross that was heading for the normally lethal Thomas Muller.

Early signs weren't encouraging for us as we struggled to get any meaningful possession on the ball but as ever, our spirit was always noticeable and the likes of Cyrus Christie and Richard Keogh were putting their bodies on the line and getting blocks in to deflect balls wide for corners and leaving Shay Given's goal relatively un-threatened.  My own nerves were already jangling and in order  to cope I'd taken to breaking the game down into segments.  15 minutes in and I've turned to Philly who's standing beside me. "A sixth of the game gone now, only five more to go".  16 minutes in and Germany have a shout for a penalty with O'Shea on Hummels but it would have been harsh for me.  19 minutes in and Germany have an Ozil goal rightly disallowed for offside.  Germany are looking ominous at this stage.  23 minutes in, "Quarter of the game gone, Philly, only 3 more of them to go".  24 minutes in and we finally get some possession in their half and Jon Walters goes down under pressure from Matt Hummels and again the ref rightly waves play on.  At this stage we seemed to have settled down somewhat and weathered the early German storm. We had begun to make the odd foray forward into German territory.  30 minutes gone. "That's a third of the game done now, Philly, we're getting there".  34 minutes and a half chance for Walters results in a corner.  Things are looking up.  James McCarthy is having his best game ever for Ireland and it's as a result of a clash with him that Mario Gotze has to be replaced by Andre Schurrle.  Ireland are making things difficult for the Germans and there seems to be a bit of lethargy about the visitors.  That said, they carved out a chance about 5 minutes before half time that Ozil really should have done better with and it looks like he has brought his inconsistent Arsenal form onto the international stage.  Immediately afterwards, the second substitution of the night is made as Given seems to injure himself taking a kick out and Darren Randolph comes on for the biggest game of his Ireland career.  The rest of the half peters out uneventfully. "Half way there, Philly, just one more half".

Just before half time word had come through from Glasgow that Scotland had equalised.  I had said pre game that I would have taken your hand off for draws in both games as that would qualify us for the play offs and also give us the opportunity to pip Poland for automatic qualification with a victory in Warsaw on Sunday.  Most of the talk at half time was of hoping that things remained the same but a lot can happen in 45 minutes.  That said, I don't think anyone expected the drama that was to transpire in both Dublin and Glasgow!

The second half started much as the first had in terms of German possession but we definitely looked to have a more compact shape and Germany weren't  really threatening our goal at this stage.  Everyone in green is putting on a serious shift and I was worrying at this stage how long some of the players would be able to keep it up considering the lack of club action for some of them and the fact that we've already had to use one of our subs.  The first real chance of the half came about 10 minutes in as Reus hit a great cross over to Schurrle who manages to spoon his volley over the bar.  I would have fancied Gotze to take that chance and started wondering to myself if this might be one of those nights.  My feeling was that the longer the game went on the more likely Germany were to take a draw and as long as things didn't change in Scotland then that would do for us.  Unfortunately, that feeling of comfort was blown apart when word came through that Scotland had gone 2-1 ahead.  This left us needing to win in Poland to qualify automatically but also left the possibility of us missing out on the play offs altogether with a draw or a defeat.  Had I any nails left at this point they'd have been bitten and a false alarm that Poland had equalised which swept through the section before being corrected didn't help matters.  60 minutes gone. "Two thirds of the way there, Philly".

We had played ourselves well into the game at this point and were certainly playing better in the second half than we had in the first.  The crowd were really getting behind the team all round the stadium rather than just in the Singing Section and there was a glimmer of a chance for Murphy who was played through by the increasingly influential Wes Hoolahan but he dragged his shot just wide. This was Murphy's last act as he was replaced by Shane Long who received a rapturous welcome from the crowd, most of whom seemed to agree that he should have started.  Immediately afterwards, Ward went down injured having had a far better game than I'd expected and Myler came on which left the outfield 10 that I would have started with on the pitch.  The only concern now was that we had used all 3 subs due to the 2 injuries so if anyone else got hurt we'd have been down to ten men and we wouldn't have any further fresh legs to introduce. To Ward's immense credit he had tried to carry on and had got a vital block in just before he went off to prevent a Muller ball running through to Schurle in the box. "Three quarters of the way there, mate, one to go".

What happened next will go down into the annals of Irish football history as one of the great great moments and like many of our best moments of the last 30 years came straight from the Big Jack playbook.  We were enjoying a little bit of possession after a kick out from Randolph had been flicked on by Long and controlled by the immense Jon Walters who played a one two with Jeff Hendrick before going down in the box leading to hopeful screams from our section for a penalty.  No decision was forthcoming and Germany broke quickly before O'Shea got a tackle in on Reus and Myler  tidied things up with a back pass to Randolph.  Randolph took one look up the pitch and launched a huge ball upfield.  I don't know if the German defence were aware of just how quick Long can be but despite giving three defenders half a yard start he shows electrifying pace to leave them in his wake and bears down on goal. I mean, that pace, I'm still in awe of it.  Everything seemed to slow down for a second as he races into the box still having a lot to do.  His next touch is a super bit of control on his knee and then BOOM!

We're right behind the goal as he hammers his laces through the ball to arrow it past a despairing Manuel Neuer and the net bulges and is nearly torn off the stanchion.  Cue absolute carnage in our section as the entire stadium completely erupts in a way not seen at Lansdowne since Holland in 2001 and not at a home game since Sean St Ledger's goal to put us 2-1 up against Italy in Croke Park.  The celebrations were long and sustained and covered about 3 of the rows around us leaving everyone involved with those strange bruises on the shins from hitting the seats in front that any fans who stand in a seated area are familiar with but I don't think anyone even noticed or will care!  Of course once things had calmed down everyone obviously realised that there were still 20 minutes to go and given our propensity to concede late goals, 20 minutes seemed like a long time.



Germany up things immediately after the goal and a header from a corner just drops wide.  But our tails are up now and Hoolahan gets into a position to unleash a shot that just goes wide. 75 minutes gone. "Five sixths gone now, one to go".  Germany make another change bringing on a winger for a defender and within a minute get their best chance of the game as the ball is cut back to Thomas Muller 12 yards out with all the time in the world to finish it.  A collective intake of breath in the stadium as the man with 30 odd goals in roughly 60 internationals picks his spot.  And a roar comes up from the home support as that spot is just wide of the post!  A couple of minutes later Jerome Boateng fires in a piledriver of a shot for which Randolph dives full length to palm around the post.  Gundogan has a hopeful effort another minute later which Randolph saves comfortably.  Robbie Brady who's run his heart out goes down and there's concern that we'll finish with ten men but it's only cramp and after treatment he carries on.  5 minutes left and Long takes a dubious tumble on the half way line and wins a free.  Another couple of minutes inch past and Cyrus Christie, who's also had an immense game,  plays the ball out off Muller to win a goal kick which is greeted by a cheer louder than I've seen some goals get.  Next thing the word comes around that Poland have equalised in Glasgow meaning that even if we concede we have a play off secured.  Ironically, it would have been better as things turned out if the Scots had held on but the sense of relief at the time was very welcome hence the celebrations!  4 minutes stoppage time are shown and we start bringing the ball into the corner.  Walters has had a man of the match performance for me and he comes into his own here by getting the ball at the corner and using his strength to protect it and win a couple of corners in quick succession.  A minute to go and Germany finally regain possession and move the ball forward. Hummels gets his head to the ball but it's straight at Randolph who slows things down and launches the ball up towards Long who controls superbly and plays it to Walters who again takes it to the corner and holds off the defenders until he concedes a throw.  Germany take the throw but before they can move the ball up front the ref put his whistle to his lips and blows for full time.


The roar that greeted the final whistle was as guttural and as uplifting as anything I've experienced at a final whistle in a long time.  I've seen us throw away so many leads to late goals over the years and most of the big results we've had in recent years against the bigger teams have been secured with late draws so this had serious echos of the win v Holland in 2001.  We had to weather an early storm, grew into the game, scored mid way through the second half and held on until the end. But this is arguably a better result again given that it was against the reigning world champions and that our team in 2001 had numerous players who had played and would go on to play in the Champions League as opposed to the current crop who are more likely to play Championship rather than Champions League.  Yet the likes Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick all played superbly and above themselves. Every player deserved huge credit for the effort, application and courage they showed.  Walters and Hoolahan were stand out performers and Walters has been our player of the qualifiers for me, he has really grown into a leader on the international stage.  And I've been critical of the manager on occasion during the campaign but he can certainly argue his logic that Long would be more effective coming on fresh in the second half to terrorise defenders with his pace. And to see an Irish team close out a game in that manner when you consider the amount of times we've failed to do so was really encouraging.
The job's not done yet but we've now won 3 competitive games on the bounce for the first time since our successful qualification campaign under Trap in 2011.  The play offs could be tricky and I think everyone would prefer if we can finish the job in Poland on Sunday and take November off.  Given how the game finished in Glasgow, a draw won't be enough unless it's 2 all or higher which in a funny way might help us.  O'Neill by his nature is conservative and the temptation to keep things tight and hold out for a nil all may have been there if that would have sufficed.  Needing a win or high scoring draw means that we might as well just go for it.  The squad should have got a huge confidence boost from that win last night and it really feels like a turning point in what's been a bit of a stop start reign so far. Maybe he's been playing the long game all along!

I'm gutted for the Scots who added a huge amount of colour and atmosphere to this campaign and I'd have loved to be travelling to Poland with the chance of returning the favour Gary Mackay did for us all those years ago but it wasn't to be.  I have to congratulate the North on their successful campaign but the onus is now on us to finish the job and join them.  Myself and Brummie Bren have a flight to prepare for to Poland and a Bohs v Pats match to attend so I'll wind up here and hope that the Poland blog to come next week is as upbeat as this one!  COYBIG!!!!

Monday, 7 September 2015

Let Christie Take It

The build up to Ireland away trips is normally charged with nervous energy for me.  The sleepless night before an early start to the airport, the excitement that comes from knowing you'll be spending the next couple of days with like minded friends that you've shared practically every emotion possible with over the years and the nervousness that comes from never knowing exactly what sort of performance you're likely to get from any of the Ireland teams over the last decade or so.  So trips like last week's to Portugal made a nice change by giving you the opportunity to bolt a holiday onto it and actually have a relaxed build up for once!  It's not the first time I've done it with previous trips to Malta, Cyprus and Salonika / Macedonia all providing the opportunity to do similar and as with the latter trip gave me the opportunity to bring the better half, Louise, away for a nice break before the serious business of the football takes over for the last couple of days!

We actually moved into holiday mode the night before we left by having a very nice evening at the gala dinner for the 125th anniversary of that great Dublin institution, the Bohemian Football Club at the Gresham.  However, given that we had a 7.45 flight to Lisbon the following morning, we made our excuses and left around 1.30 to try and get a few hours sleep before our 6 am taxi. A further oversight on my part meant that 20 minutes after I booked the flights I twigged that the Sunday we'd booked our flight for was an All Ireland Semi final day and my heart sank when I checked and found out that it was the semi that the Leinster champions would contest if they got that far.  Having resigned myself to missing the game in person I at least had the consolation of knowing that I could catch a stream of it as we were due to arrive at the friend's house that we were staying the first few days with outside of the the city of Coimbra at 1.30.  Our flight took off and arrived on time landing us in Lisbon at 10.35 which left us an hour to make the 3 stops from the airport to Lisbon Oriente to make our connecting train at 11.39.  Plenty of time you would think given that the board at baggage claim said that the first bags from the flight were due at 11.00.  However, 11 came and went as did the bags from the Heathrow flight that landed 5 minutes after us before our bags finally started coming through about 11.20.  And a sprint down to the underground and up through Oriente station ultimately was in vain as we arrived up on the platform just in time to see our train begin to crawl away from it.  Relaxation was the furthest thing from my mind at that point after we were told that the next train wasn't for another two hours meaning we wouldn't reach where we were staying until 4 at the earliest and the 3.30 throw in left me with the realisation that I'd have to miss the first half of the Dublin Mayo game!  Anyway, after a particularly long stream of expletives and a fruitless online search to find a pub in Coimbra that might be showing it, I had to accept that the first half would be missed and rang our esteemed host, Big Dave aka Geordie, to let him know we'd be 2 hours late for our pick up.

Having hung around for the extra couple of hours and then sat through a 2 and a half hour train journey, we were pretty tired by the time we got collected in Coimbra although we got a great boost by seeing our old friend, the aforementioned Geordie stride up the platform to greet us.  Having moved out to Portugal last year, his house has practically turned into a guest house with the amount of visitors from Dublin and beyond that have ventured over in the last 15 months!  We had previously visited last year and this year, he had one friend, Ray, leaving on the Monday morning, another one, Julie arriving at the same time as us and a further one, Richie arriving on the Tuesday!  By the time we arrived at 4, Ray informed me that the Dubs were level at half time and we settled down for the second half which again was far from relaxing as Dublin contrived to look like they'd put the game beyond doubt only to utterly blow up in the last 10 minutes and end up being lucky to hang on for a draw.  My initial happiness at thinking at least I'd make the replay soon evaporated as I realised that the replay would most likely be on the following Saturday when we were due to travel home.  Mind you, I was already missing the Dublin derby on the Saturday so I suppose at least it saved me having to chose which game to attend!

Anyway, once that was out of the way, we were finally able to fully embrace relaxation mode and had a great few days with Geordie, Julie and Richie taking in everything from shooting competitions with his air rifle, star gazing with his recently acquired astronomy telescope, visits to the city, swimming down the local river beaches on top of a couple of lovely meals out, a couple of great BBQ's soundtracked by some good tunes and great company.  Not to mention fueled by the local brew Sagres and some fine red wines!  Thursday rolled round far too quickly and we were sorry leaving the rest behind as we headed off for our 5 and a half hour train journey to Faro.  The sadness was obviously tempered by the fact that we were heading down to meet a different circle of great friends and even though the match was as close to a gimme as you can get in international football it was still something to look forward to.


Target practice for Gibraltar!


So we arrived in Faro on Thursday evening and having had a wander to get our bearings, found a lovely restaurant to get dinner and following that headed down to Pipers, a local Irish bar where that legend amongst the Irish traveling support of a certain vintage, Tommy Feeley, was celebrating his 60th birthday.  Once inside we discovered a cracking terrace bar on the roof and settled down with some of the regular traveling crowd,  Terry the Tash, McCoy, Pete and Pat for a catch up, a reminisce and some chat about the weekend's fixtures while the party raged downstairs.  All had agreed that Georgia doing us a favour against Scotland could turn things around big time for us but we were looking at that game more in hope than expectation.  Shared concerns over us getting the required result on Monday at home to Georgia were also expressed but before we knew it, it had gone past 2 am and with a big day in front of us on Friday we decided to call it a night.

Our original plan was to possibly head up to Albufeira on the Thursday night to catch up with some of the YBIG crew but Tommy's party had put paid to that idea so myself and Lou decided that we'd head up there before the game on Friday to check out the pre match atmosphere in the Erin's Isle pub where the YBIG meet up had been planned.  The place was thronged when we arrived with a DVD showing the best of the Charlton era on the big screen adding to the festive atmosphere.  We made our way through the crowd and found the Quinn towers with a few of their Newry crowd and said our hello's to a few of the usual YBIG stalwarts like Saint Tom, The GerK and Steve Amsterdam and spent the next few hours chanting and chatting and trying to see if we could blag our way onto any of the buses going out to the ground after being told they were all booked out on arrival. The buses were due to leave at 6 so we were able to catch the first half of the Scotland game before we would have to leave and at 5 the Glory Years DVD came off and the Georgia game came up on the big screen.  To be honest, myself and what seemed like most of the fans present were more nervous about this game than our own.  Georgia started pretty well and fluffed one great chance early on.  I hadn't dared hope that Georgia would do us a favour so couldn't believe it when they kept the pressure on and went one nil up before half time!  The roar that went up from the Irish support would have taken the roof off the Erin's Isle were we not in the open air courtyard!


Erin's Isle

It was the lack of a bus ticket that led us to meet up with another nice crew and again showed exactly why the traveling Irish fans are the best in the world.  While I was checking with one of the lads who was running the buses to see if we could buy tickets if there were any no shows, another fan overheard and said that he had a car going out with 2 spare seats in it and myself and Lou were welcome to jump in with them.  So while all the coaches began to pull out, we followed the convoy with our new friend, Gerard, a Limerick man now living in London who had traveled over with his son Conor and his nephew and designated driver, Laurence!  They were a sound bunch of lads and we arranged to meet them afterwards as they were in the opposite side of the the ground to us even though we had bus tickets back to Faro.  Our mood was improved further when confirmation came through as we were waiting to collect their tickets that Georgia had held on against Scotland for a 1-0 win which put our fate back in our own hands!


Our chauffeurs for the day!

And so onto the game itself.  As I mentioned earlier, these sort of games lack the tension of the majority of qualifiers as the result is essentially a foregone conclusion although as Irish fans,  the spectre of the 0-0 draw v Liechtenstein in 1995 always hangs over us.  The team selected by Martin O'Neill was an attacking one as would be expected  with the only real surprise being the selection of Cyrus Christie ahead of Seamus Coleman who was reported as having a tight hamstring.  O'Neill favourite Aiden McGeady couldn't really have expected to start given his lack of first team football at present and while there is an argument that Robbie Keane shouldn't start every game, it's exactly this sort of game that is suited to him these days and he is scoring week in week out in the MLS against teams far better than Gibraltar so it was a no brainer to start him in this game.

It was no surprise to see Ireland start on the front foot and after a couple of early corners the first real chance came around 5 minutes in when a good Robbie Brady free kick was well saved by the Gibraltar keeper at the expense of a corner which then amounted to nothing.  We kept the early pressure on although having seen Ciaran Clark hit the bar from a chance he really should have put away and then a Walters header into the net disallowed for offside we started losing our composure a bit and those unwelcome and unrealistic thoughts that it might be one of those games began when we reached the halfway point of the first half.  Thankfully, those thoughts were put to bed from the most unlikely of sources as Cyrus Christie waltzed through the Gibraltar defence following a one two with Wes Hoolahan and finished beautifully with the outside of his right boot to unleash a torrent of 'Let Christie take it!' gags on social media!  Ireland upped things again after that and nearly went two up within a minute after a superb strike from Jon Walters on the volley which the keeper did well to tip over but that increase of tempo didn't seem to last long and Gibraltar began to foray further forward and actually made Shay Given work with one decent save that got pushed away for a corner and a second comfortable save that was straight at him to be fair. Christie also had to clear one from under the bar as we got a bit sloppy.  Ireland finished the half huffing and puffing a bit with no real invention going into our set plays and I was disappointed to go into the half time break only that single goal to the good.


Let Christie Take It!

Having foregone a half time beer after discovering before the game that the only beer available in the ground was non alcoholic (I don't think the majority of fans realised it looking at the queue!), we settled back and waited for the second half to start hoping that O'Neill was giving the team a bit of a rocket during the break.  Although head to head trumps goal difference in this campaign, I'm never comfortable with a single goal lead regardless of the opposition so I wanted to see a bit more tempo at the start of the second to put the game beyond the part timers.  And so it came to pass with Keane having a very good shout for a penalty ignored in the first minute of the half before finally getting his chance with one of the easiest finishes he'd ever had to take his Irish tally to 66 goals.  It actually started with Christie involved again when he was caught in possession to leave Gibraltar in a three on two position before Walters saved his blushes by regaining the ball and bringing it forward before playing the ball across where a Gibraltar defender deflected it onto the post and off the keeper I think before rolling across the line where Keane was lurking on the far post to tap the ball in from no more than a couple of yards.  His celebration was no less extravagant than normal regardless of the simplicity of the finish and I think it's safe to say that he still loves scoring goals for Ireland!  


Route 66

The second goal essentially made the game safe and it was put beyond doubt two minutes later when Hoolahan was taken down in the box following some typical trickery and Keane stepped up to put away his 67th international goal from the spot.  Disappointingly, Ireland didn't use this as a platform to put the part timers to the sword as the pace of the game dropped to pre season pace and we seemed to resort to long cross field balls and hopeful punts in the box rather than continuing to pass the ball around and be more creative.  

The first subs came on around 70 minutes as Keane was withdrawn, and deprived of the chance to get his hat trick, with Shane Long entering the fray and James McCarthy who had again been very anonymous replaced by Stephen Quinn (whose name the stadium announcer seemed to have huge difficulty with altough not as much difficulty as he had pronouncing Richard Keogh!).  The changes initially didn't seem to change things too much with Gibraltar actually creating a half chance almost immediately which Brady did well to block but gradually we pushed further forward again with Walters putting a clear chance wide when he should have scored following a ball from Hoolahan which was his last input before being replaced by McGeady.  The fourth goal duly arrived with just over 10 minutes left when Long powered a good header (albeit a free one) home from a Jeff Hendrick cross but again we couldn't push on and get a fifth with the only chance falling to Walters who put a header wide when he really should have left it for Clark who was in a better position behind him.  As with the first half, the second petered out a bit before the ref blew up after 3 minutes stoppage time and we emulated Germany by posting 7-0 and 4-0 wins against the groups whipping boys.

Given the standard of the opposition it's hard to read too much into a game like that.  That said, Walters was impressive and everything that was played up to him stuck to him, Keane did what you'd expect of him, Hoolahan had flashes of creativity although also let the ball get away from him a couple of times.  Christie was a mixed bag for me, took his goal exceptionally well and defended well although his first touch left a lot to be desired on a couple of occasions which could be costly against better opposition.  That said, he got forward well on a few occasions as did Robbie Brady on the opposite flank, particularly early on.  Whelan did what Whelan does, Hendrick was okay without really putting his stamp on the game but McCarthy was very disappointing for me and still lacks the desire to demand the ball that his ability calls for.  I was delighted to see Long get on the score-sheet and hopefully his confidence will build from this and the Poland goal and he can start being more prolific for us as Keane's career winds down.  O'Shea and Clark weren't really tested and neither was Given bar the two aforementioned first half saves.

Regardless of the performance the result was what really mattered and having met up with Gerard, Conor and Laurence again we headed back to Faro and met up with the others on the rooftop terrace in Pipers again before heading off for some Tapas at a lovely place called Bottle and finishing about 3 with a glass of wine on the marina.  Like I said at the start these trips tend to have a different dynamic than the normal away trips with the lads!  After taking a bit of time to explore the old town on the Saturday, we made for the airport and our flight home, during which a perfect weekend of results was confirmed with Bohs securing a draw away to Rovers in Tallaght just before take off and the pilot announcing that the Dubs had won with a storming comeback to secure their All Ireland Final place.  The trip itself finished on a bit of a bizarre note when a huge crowd came out to greet us at the airport! Although maybe that had something to do with Conor McGregor arriving back on a flight just in front of us.......


Notorious! 

Obviously the big results were elsewhere in the group with Georgia's result against Scotland being absolutely huge for us.  A win tonight against Georgia and then we only need to match Scotland's results against Germany and Poland to be sure of a play off.  And Germany's win against Poland only leaves us 2 points behind them meaning that if we can stay within 3 points of Poland when we get to Warsaw that game becomes a winner takes all clash for automatic qualification.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, in general I thought the performance v Gibraltar was poor enough and will need to be improved on to beat Georgia.  But on the positive side, we've been handed a lifeline that none of us really expected.  Now let's push on tonight and use it!