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!

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