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!


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.