Wednesday, 15 November 2017

No Mercy From Christian And The Lord

Scripture taught us that Christians are supposed to show mercy. But there was none to be found on this damp November Tuesday. And by the time the Lord dealt the final blow, it was numbness rather than pain that we felt.

The only charity on offer came from Martin O'Neill's tactics and the Irish players. A campaign that had begun so promisingly had finally crumbled, with the win in Cardiff shown to merely have papered over the cracks.

Like the campaign, the evening itself had started positively with the atmosphere crackling as what would be a full house made their way from work to fill the lounges and bars around Lansdowne Road. Our regular haunt, the Beggars Bush, was packed to the gills with many punters taking advantage of a new initiative where you could get two pints in one plastic glass rather than having to fight through the scrum at the bar once you'd finished your first!

All our usual crew were present and correct and there were also plenty of faces who'd been regular campaigners in the days before parental responsibilities took over. The importance of this game had clearly been enough to prompt them out of retirement! 

Those of us who'd made the away leg were still looking a bit shook with the quick turnaround but a couple of pints eased us back in and the positive result from Saturday had led to a sense of cautious optimism. My prediction had been a battling exit due to a score draw but as kick off approached, it was hard not to begin to believe. We'd made a habit of getting results when the chips were down in the last couple of campaign. We had Germany. We had Bosnia. We had Italy and Wales. We were only 90 minutes away from getting through to the World Cup and still all square.  Surely this squad had one more do or die result in them.

The team, when announced, wasn't overly surprising with the only change being the return from suspension of David Meyler in place of Callum O'Dowda. I had thought that Shane Long would start instead of Daryl Murphy but Martin O'Neill seemed to be setting up to keep things tight as long as possible before springing the pacey Southampton striker from the bench when the game opened up in the last half hour. The lack of Wes Hoolahan, while disappointing, was expected and most of us reckoned his introduction would come close enough to Long's in the second half.

The ground seemed to be hopping as we walked up and a rammed singing section was still bouncing when we made our almost ubiquitous strong start. We were only six minutes in when a floated Brady free wasn't dealt with by the Danish defence leaving Shane Duffy with the chance to get his head on the ball before Schmeichel could reach it. All it needed was a touch over the Danish keeper with the net unguarded and it was bedlam in the stands once Duffy got that touch and the ball dropped into the empty net!

It all started so well....
( Photograph:Seb Daly/Sportsfile/Getty Images )

Leaving aside his decision to try and get the final touch on would have been a winner against Austria, Duffy has been one of the standout players of this campaign. The hope now would be that the pattern after his similarly early goal in Georgia where we immediately ceded the initiative wouldn't be repeated. 

The hope initially seemed forlorn as we retreated back and let Denmark come at us. Two smart saves by Darren Randolph from Kvist and Sisto kept us in front and by the twenty minute mark, we seemed to have weathered the storm.

Little did we know what was coming......

Once we started pushing forward again, we started creating chances of our own, as first a Murphy flick from a Cyrus Christie cross fooled half the ground into thinking we had a two goal cushion but alas, it was the side netting only.  A minute later, James McClean got played through by Brady and was inches away from a tight angle. This was more encouraging than how we'd reacted to our early goals in Serbia and Georgia and as we approached the half hour mark, that sense of belief was still present. It wasn't for much longer.

It's pretty basic to defend a corner but we seemed asleep as Denmark won one and played it short to Sisto. Harry Arter still looked like he should be able to prevent the ball coming across but was made look a mug off as Sisto nutmegged him and forced the ball across. Christensen only got a poke to it band it squirmed back off the post. Had Christie not been trying to cover that post, Randolph could have dropped on the ball but instead, it bounced back off Christe's outstretched leg and squirmed over the line. A really avoidable away goal and one that totally changed the complexion of the tie.

Still only needing another goal to win, now was not the time to lose our composure but the heads seemed to go as we barreled forward to chase it immediately. Stephen Ward had charged forward to join the attack but was caught out badly as he attempted a one-two with Robbie Brady and as soon as Poulsen picked his pocket we were in all sorts of trouble.

One run from Poulsen and two smart passes got the ball to Eriksen in acres of space. He had all the time in the world but didn't need it as he stroked the ball first time in off the underside of the bar. From one up and creating chances to two one down and facing elimination in three minutes. 

 At this stage, I just wanted to get to half time and let the management reassess where we were. With Denmark in the box seat, there wasn't much pressure from them so we were able to get forward but our play was pretty desperate for the remainder of the half. Poor deliveries from Arter and then Brady wasted good positions while McClean's tumble in the box would have been a very soft penalty had it been given. Still, with only a goal in it as the whistle blew, now was the time for O'Neill to earn his corn.

As the teams emerged fifteen minutes later. there was an audible sense of bafflement as both Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady emerged. It actually took a couple of minutes for myself and those around me to work out who had gone off as it made absolutely no sense that those players would be brought on for Meyler and Arter. Surely, it must have been Brady who went off, not both central midfielders? But no, Brady was still there and he and Jeff Hendrick seemed to be playing in the holding midfield roles?  Having started O'Dwda in Copenhagen why was McGeady now preferred? Having recently put enough trust in Meyler to make him captain why was he being hooked at half-time? What the hell was going on?

What's going on?
( Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters )

Marin O'Neill has had a very successful career. He clearly has something about him in terms of management and getting players to play for him. But no one will ever convince me of the logic of those substitutions. We effectively had to move four positions around to accommodate two subs. We were still only a goal away from drawing level. Even had we got that goal with fifteen minutes to go, we could have built some momentum and maybe made the Danes a little nervous. 

One sub would surely have been enough. I had anticipated Long coming on for Murphy, who had been looking a little leggy after starting on Saturday. Patience was needed. Instead, the management seemed to press the panic button and the horror show that followed was the direct result of that. When event the Denmark boss Aage Hareide ends up thanking an opposition manager for playing into his sides hands then it's clear that the tactical errors were catastrophic. 

The first quarter hour of the half whizzed by with Ireland playing with no discernable shape. McGeady got the ball in a couple of promising positions only to waste them and the team as a whole seemed utterly at sea. That said, our tempo increased somewhat and a header saved by Schmeichel from Duffy sand a surging run from Christie gave us a little hope.  

However, with Eriksen the one world class player on the park, giving him all the space in the world was a recipe for disaster and it didn't long for that disaster to occur. Again, we were authors of our own misfortune as a free in a promising position was wasted as Brady booted the ball straight through to Schmeichel. Less than a minute and about twenty passes later, that man Eriksen was back on the ball to curl it past Randolph from twenty yards. Game over.

Long finally got introduced on 71 minutes, bizarrely replacing centre-half, Ciaran Clark. Even more bizarrely, this saw Ward moved over from left back to take over in a position I've never seen him play. 

There was still no recognisable shape and it wasn't long before Eriksen punished us again. Ward had had a torrid time at left back and the move to the centre didn't do him any favours but it was another horrible error from him as he made a complete hames of a clearance. Having effectively laid the ball on a plate to Eriksen, the Danish playmaker hammered home the shot to claim his hat-trick. 4-1 down and thoughts immediately went back to 1985 and Eoin Hand's last game in charge when a great Danish team humiliated us by that scoreline.

No Christian charity for Ireland
(Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP) 

The stadium had half emptied by now, disgracefully so in my opinion. With no chance of a comeback, the intensity of the game had dropped off completely. We were still trying to get a consolation but the only real chance we had fell to Long who showed how bereft of confidence he is in front of goal by scooping the ball over the bar when he should have buried it.

The atmosphere was flat as a pancake everywhere bar the away end and the celebrations got even louder as their cult hero Nicklas Bendtner came on with six minutes to go. I always thought his "Lord Bendtner" nickname was a mickey take but their fans genuinely love him. All I wanted was the full time whistle but all their fans wanted was a goal from him. Doesn't take much to guess who was going to get their wish.

Even though the ref had played advantage after the Lord was tripped by McClean in the last minute, once Randolph saved the resultant Sisto shot, he called the play back and gave the penalty. Up stepped Lord Nick who smashed the ball past Randolph to complete our humiliation. Once the final whistle went, I couldn't get out of the ground quick enough as the Danes celebrating wildly on the pitch.

Oh, Lord.....
( Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile/Getty Images )

Looking back at it 24 hours later, I'm still struggling to work out what O'Neill was playing at during half-time.  Last night was far worse than anything under Trap. Least the Spain and Germany humiliations were against world class teams that went on to win the tournaments. The home campaign as a whole was an utter embarrassment. Draws against Wales and Austria and a defeat to Serbia followed by last night's humiliation is nowhere near good enough.

I'm actually staggered by the lack of any tactical game plan or shape last night in the second half. It was as if he thought I'll give the critics what they want and bring Wes on but I'll hobble him by taking our entire centre midfield off and then bring McGeady on with him. Obviously, that wasn't his thinking that but it was utterly baffling. The lack of direction by the management team transmitted itself to the players and the lack of a coherent gameplan was as obvious as it was worrying. There was a feel of the end of the Trap era about last night's capitulation.

The arrogance shown by O'Neill is his dealings with the media and in particular, RTE's Tony O'Donoghue, is also grating at this stage. The man is paid exceptionally well and dealing with the press is one of his responsibilities. His petty sniping and the way he consistently bangs on about trophies he won in the past come across as arrogant in the extreme. The last trophy he won was 12 years ago and he hasn't won a trophy outside of Scotland since the turn of the century.  It's no longer relevant. To walk out of an interview because a couple of difficult questions were rightly asked is disgraceful behaviour. The fact he's done it more than once reflects very badly on him.

It also indicates to me that he's not prepared to face up to his mistakes and try and rectify them. I find that deeply concerning. Yes, we don't have the best players in the world and we have no one the calibre of Christian Eriksen but watch a Premier League, or even a Championship, game and you can see our players do things they seem incapable of in an Ireland shirt. If they are not getting instructions from O'Neill to simply hoof the ball forward, then they certainly don't seem to be getting instructions not to do it. Why not? What is going on in camp? Things will have to change.

I have always said that a manager who delivers a play-off deserves another campaign and despite how bad we were, I'll stick with that. I wouldn't have offered it to him before he made the play-off but having got there he deserves another shot. I have to say that I wouldn't mind if he walked away though and if he had a chance of a Premier League job I reckon he'd take it, Whether anyone will offer him one after that inept showing is debatable. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dane-ger Here

So we're still in the tie after what was a predictably turgid 90 minutes but I've no doubt that, as is the case with most of the support, Martin O'Neill would have taken that result before kick-off.
For once in my life, I'd actually managed to organise myself sufficiently to book a direct flight before prices went through the roof. In fact, I'd even taken a gamble and booked Friday to Sunday before the fixture dates were confirmed on the basis that due to the rugby international at Lansdowne on the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday were the only possible dates for the home leg leaving Friday and Saturday the only away options. Flights duly booked and with what seemed a favourable draw, it was just a case of counting the days till take off.

After a month of countless messages on various WhatsApp groups (mostly about tickets or the lack thereof to be more accurate), I got my own ticket confirmed the week before the game. Luckily, I had 6 away tickets on my record with the FAI, which was where the cut off was set for independent travellers. I actually had 7 aways but having been rejected for the Bosnia play-off two years back, I had to source a ticket elsewhere so got no credit for it. 

While it's welcome that there are now visible criteria that away fans have been made aware of, there is a whole other question about how someone with, say 5 aways in the last two campaigns can miss out (as regular traveller, Conor McShane did), while there were clearly hundreds of fans with tickets there that had nowhere near that record. It's an argument for another day and I'd like to think that the recent meetings with the FAI that myself and the rest of the YBIG Independent Fans Mandate group have been productive and are moving towards a fair, transparent system. There aren't many games where demand exceeds supply but this one was as bad as I've ever seen it.

Anyway, with my ticket collected last Thursday, all was set for my Friday lunchtime SAS flight which got me into Copenhagen around 5. Despite it being pitch dark and lashing rain on landing, making my way into the city was well handy, with Central Station only 3 rail stops from the airport.

Brummie Bren was rooming with me on this trip and, having arrived a couple of hours earlier, was waiting when I got in. One quick freshen up later and we were on the road to The Dubliner, an Irish bar which had positioned itself as one of the hubs where our fanbase was congregating.
Philly, Greg and Fuggy had also landed earlier and had grabbed a decent spot with a couple of tables and by the time we arrived, the place was absolutely hopping. In fairness, and showing my age here, it was nearly too hopping for my liking but with the Amsterdam and Barca crews en route, leaving wasn't an option so the next few hours were spent chatting (or should I say roaring over the noise!) as the various groups of friends arrived.

The Dubliners!

Another indication of our advancing years is the fact that we generally remember to eat these days so myself and Bren nipped off for a bite into a nice restaurant next door where we had our wallets well and truly rinsed. Trust me, if you think Dublin is expensive, think again! Still, the pulled pork burger was pretty good and we had a bit of craic chatting with a few locals before venturing back to the Dubliner to watch the Italy v. Sweden play-off.

By this stage, with the earlier rain having eased, there was a huge crowd skulling cans out on the streets, so the atmosphere was pretty full on, inside and out. After watching the Swedes beat the fancied Italians with a fairly fortuitous goal, thoughts started turning to whether this might be a weekend for the underdogs.

Trying to get all the different groups we tend to hang out with on these trips together is essentially like herding cats. In fact, it's worse. So the whole time we were in The Dubliner, there were messages coming through from other factions with the Quinn Towers, Terry the Tash and most of the London crew checking in from another boozer called The Southern Cross. After their early start, the Swords mob had headed for home by now and with the Amsterdam boys looking to get food, we managed to get a good crowd out of The Dubliner and towards the Southern Cross. That said, we lost most of them on the way to reaching our destination, a lovely basement bar that was a little quieter than the madness we'd left!

Having ensconced ourselves into a corner where a Danish lad was out drinking with his adult son, we had a great yap about the great 1980’s/90’s Danish team and about my theory that Christian Eriksen's performances in this campaign since Denmark started playing a more direct style is reminiscent of Liam Brady’s renaissance in the Euro '88 campaign under Jack having been poor in the '84 and '86 campaigns. Having to explain to his son who Liam Brady was hurt me a bit though!

The Great Danes!

After reaching the pub, there was one man notable by his absence, we were told that Terry the Tash had taken a tumble on a wet Burger King floor while getting food and fucked his leg up rightly. I've said for years that eating Burger Kings will be the death of him but this wasn't how I expected it to put him in hospital! It's been a long time since this man missed an away fixture but, although I'm reliably informed he'll be there on crutches on Tuesday, Saturday was a bridge too far. Get well soon, mate!
Brummie Bren has always fancied himself as a bit of a dartist and, to be fair, I once witnessed him take out a 170 checkout on an American board in Nagano during World Cup 2002 and instantly back it up with an 8 ball clearance from the break in pool. Now, the way he tells it, you'd swear there were 200 people in the pub giving a standing ovation rather than the 20 that were actually there. I mean, I wound up on the decks banging out tunes on vinyl that night and would love to say there was a jam-packed dance floor screaming for more rather than the aforementioned 20 people! But there wasn't (although the manager did try to book me for the next weekend but alas, I was in Tokyo by then!)

Anyhow, since then, there's always been a bit of slagging about the story, and the Quinns, being decent players themselves, have always said they'd like a pop at Bren on the oche. We've been talking about it for years but it never happened. Until now.

With a dartboard on the wall and a fair drop of drink taken, it was only a matter of time before someone arrived back from the bar with a set of arrows. I'd love to say that the young bucks were able to show him how it was done. But, no. Despite the wily old fox scoring appallingly, once he got down to the double he was imperious. I even had to suffer the indignity of missing a double 4 by a fraction and watch him take out 5 by hitting the double 1 by accident on his first dart and backing it to hit 1 and another double 1 to take the leg! The waxy get!
With fairly lax licencing laws over here, it was nearly 6 by the time we got back to the hotel and I was rudely awakened at about 11 by the Amsterdam crew who fancied a bit of tourism before the madness of game day. As Bren had to collect his ticket at the ground at 1, I threw my shit together and, bleary-eyed, made my way to meet the gang in the lobby.

It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny day but was absolutely Baltic outside. A half hour walk took us down to the famous Copenhagen Street Food Market where everything from Ostrich burgers to vegan bean wraps are available. The market itself is in a nice area by the docks and a stone's throw from our next stop, Christiania.

What's up, dock!
Christiania is an old military barracks that was taken over by hippie/anarchist squatters in the 1970’s. Claiming to be self-governing, it's entire ethic is anti-establishment and despite issues and efforts to bring it into line, it is allowed exist and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
When you walk in, it looks like a standard enough alternative marketplace with stalls selling clothes, jewellery, food and other locally produced goods. However, turn a corner and suddenly you're faced with an entire marketplace where people are selling every form of cannabis under the sun! While everyone is familiar with the Dutch model where shops have licences to sell weed, this is next level. Essentially, the authorities turn a blind eye and despite efforts to regulate it, it survives and thrives.

On yer bike!
A big part of the ethos seems to be that hard drugs are not allowed in the area (nor is photography) and there are signs and graffiti promoting this all over the place. But weed is a different matter and is totally accepted. Needless to say, this reporter made his excuses and left!
After wandering back down to the town and making a quick stop at the Dubliner, the outside of which was like Dante's Inferno by now, the clever call was to go back to the Southern Cross where any tickets that had been sourced could be given to those who deserved them. Once that was boxed off, we had a good bit of craic with a few locals before we started walking towards the ground with the Swords crew. After stopping for a carry-out and a pie and realising how far the walk actually was, a great call to get a taxi and forget the walk was made. Even though it took nearly as long as the walk and left us the wrong end of the ground, it was still worth it to get out of the cold!

Once we were in, I managed to find a corner for the 69ers flag before finding a spot to stand with Steve, Muriel and their kids and got ready for kick-off. To be fair to the Danes, the pre-game formalities were pretty impressive with a huge red and white firework display signalling the end of the anthems and ratcheting the atmosphere up another notch.

View from D1

I was happy enough with the team named as Martin O'Neill didn't surprise me with his selection of Daryl Murphy up front but did surprise most of us with his pick of Callum O'Dowda in midfield rather than Glenn Whelan. Was this move a sign that we'd take a more positive approach than seen recently?

It didn't take long after kick-off to realise that no, it probably wasn't. I'd read an interesting article from ex-Ireland international, Darren O'Dea earlier in the week where he made a good point that I hadn't really considered before. His point, essentially, was that he'd never seen a team as effective at controlling a game when they don't have the ball as this Ireland team. It's a fair argument and he pointed to last month's Wales game as a prime example.

So with us conceding possession again, the first ten minutes passed by with little in the way of free-flowing football from either side. That all changed a minute later with the first real flurry of action, which Denmark may yet rue not making the most off.

Kjaer sprayed a long diagonal pass to Larsen on the left wing who took a touch and hammered the ball goalwards. Darren Randolph did very well to parry it but my heart was in my mouth as the rebound fell straight to Cornelius who looked sure to score. Lucky for us, his nerve deserted him somewhat and while his shot had power, it was straight back at Randolph who somehow got the ball to stick to him. First test passed. Now it was up to us to try and play our way into the game a bit more.

It took another 5 minutes or so but eventually, we got a little foothold in the game. We weren't pressing the Danes too far back but managed to hold the ball for a while and win a couple of frees while withstanding anything coming back at us handily enough. The problem though, was that as has unfortunately been the case for most of the campaign, Robbie Brady's delivery was nowhere near as good as it can be.  

With Denmark themselves reverting to a more direct style, it was through route one that their next chance presented itself about half an hour in. And it was one they really should have taken. Kasper Schmeichel had hoofed a long ball forward but it looked like a bread and butter clearance for Ciaran Clarke. However, instead of getting the ball out of danger, his attempted clearance was cushioned back to Eriksen, who stepped forward and let fly. Randolph again did well to parry but the rebound fell to Sisto, who had an empty net to aim his shot at. Somehow, he snatched at it and dragged the ball right and wide.  

That aberration aside, we settled back into our comfort zone and actually created a couple of chances of our own before the end of the half. James McClean made some headway to square for O'Dowda whose shot was blocked. A couple of minutes later, Cyrus Christie made a run reminiscent of our injured captain, Seamus Coleman, and surged past Larsen to close in on goal. However, putting his laces through it might have been the better option as
 Schmeichel managed to claw away his attempted flick. Hendrick managed to get to the rebound but saw his shot blocked behind for a corner. Which once again, we promptly wasted. Still, we were now at half-time and still all square.

I've mentioned before that these sort of big games attract a different crowd than your average away trip. Like Wales, it was more a tournament crowd which is fine, the more the merrier is generally my ethos. That aside, it has to be said that it also brings out an element more akin to a stag party who don't seem to know when enough is enough. I enjoy a drink as much as the next man on away trips but the levels of drunkenness by a minority in our section of the ground was way over the top. Whether it was the strong Danish beer or the fact that the kick-off was an hour later than the norm at 8:45 Danish time I don't know but you wouldn't see as many fallers in the Grand National as I saw in Block D1. 

I'm talking lads that were incapable of getting up once they hit the deck and myself and another lad actually had to spend a few minutes trying to convince one lad who was absolutely comatose on the steps to move onto a seat where he could get a bit of air and not have someone else fall over him. It's definitely becoming more of an issue at the bigger games and for the life of me, I can't understand why you'd get yourself into a state where you won't remember being in the ground, let alone see the game. And there were plenty around in that state. Where exactly they had got their tickets from is again a discussion for another time.

With our Samaritan duties complete, we settled back to the match as the second half started in similar scrappy fashion to the first. Both sides had resorted to long balls by now with the only moment worth mentioning a half-hearted Eriksen claim for a handball against Arter which would have been even worse than the penalty decision that did for Northern Ireland against Switzerland on Thursday.

A couple of Danish corners came to nothing as our attempts to frustrate Denmark continued apace. We even created a half-chance ourselves at the midway point as a Brady free dropped to Clark just outside the six-yard box but the big centre-half couldn't adjust himself to get a shot off.

The introduction of the much-maligned Danish cult hero Nicklas "Lord" Bendtner livened the home crowd a bit as we entered the last 15 minutes but we still looked quite comfortable as O'Neill responded with a substitution of his own which saw Shane Long replace Murphy.

Still, the cat and mouse continued with the referee being generous to both Arter and McClean by keeping his hand in his pocket when he could potentially have put either of them out of the home leg by flashing a yellow. Arter was replaced by Whelan not long after.

A couple more set pieces came and went with a Duffy header saved by Schmeichel as close as we got to scoring. There was time for a couple more heart in mouth moments as the game ticked into injury time. First off, Larsen managed to get free and swung a cross into Poulsen who made a good connection with the header only to put it straight at Randolph who tipped it over acrobatically.  A couple of minutes later, the ball made its way to Larsen again whose shot deflected off Christie and squirted wide. 

With the corner duly cleared, a further bit of time wasting saw Hendrick replaced by Conor Hourihane before one final effort from Larsen went nowhere near and the ref blew for full time. Nil all and all to play for in Dublin.

Full time

Another cab back to town saw us head back to The Southern Cross to meet a few of the gang including a couple of my cousins who'd trekked down from Sweden for the game. The post-mortem on the game was followed by yet more darts till we hit the wall and headed back to the hotel via KFC en route. Another trip done and now it's on to Tuesday.

A family affair!

Reading the reports of the RTE coverage en route to the airport made for a sobering experience on Sunday morning but I find it hard to agree with the sensational nature of the analysis. While it wasn't pretty, personally I thought we played better than we had against Wales, with that vital goal coming from the sort of mistake that Denmark didn't make on Saturday. Although we conceded more in the way of half chances, I felt that we stuck to a game plan and played further up the pitch than we did against Georgia away, for example. Maybe the fact that Denmark also play in a fairly direct manner suited us and I left the ground fairly satisfied, albeit with that feeling tempered by the lack of an away goal.

Going into the second leg, it's the away goal that I'm most in fear of. I feel that we have a goal in us but with the onus on us to get that goal, we will have to commit forward more. We conceded first at home to both Austria and Serbia but the Austria equaliser remains our only home goal in the campaign against the top 3 seeds in our group. I would like to see Wes Hoolahan start but given how tight the game is, I feel that O'Neill will prefer to keep things tight and avoid conceding as long as possible before making more positive changes in the last half hour or last quarter of the game. So I reckon we'll see David Meyler in for O'Dowda and possibly Shane Long come in for Murphy.

With ninety minutes separating us from a first World Cup in 16 years, we're so close I can nearly feel it. My head is telling me a score draw is the most likely outcome while my heart is screaming out for a comfortable win similar to the Bosnia play-off last time out. Fingers crossed it'll be the heart that prevails.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Making World Cup would be "pinnacle" for old pals act

Darren Randolph and Rob Elliot may be in competition for the Ireland goalkeeper’s shirt but that rivalry doesn’t affect a friendship that goes back to their teens.

 Speaking after training at FAI headquarters in Abbotstown on Tuesday, Randolph said that making a World Cup finals would be the pinnacle of both their careers. “Me and Rob came through the academy at Charlton together so to come all this way and both of us to make a World Cup would be incredible.”

 Elliott added that qualifying for the finals would be “a brilliant achievement for everyone but especially with us two having been in the same youth team together, making Russia would be amazing.”

 Elliot told the assembled press that the pair’s friendship goes beyond their fight for a place on the team; “We work hard together and try to help each other as much as we can. At the end of the day, the manager picks the team and we can only work as hard as we can. It’s then down to the manager. If anything, it makes you closer because you know how hard it is.”

With Elliot having missed out on last years European Championships through an injury picked up on international duty, he believes that getting to a World Cup would be the completion of a journey: “After missing the Euros, it feels like it will have come full circle but we’re not there yet and have two tough games to come. The World Cup is obviously the pinnacle for any footballer so hopefully after this week, that dream will be realised.”

Keane admits "huge respect" for Liverpool

Former Manchester United captain, Roy Keane has admitted having “huge respect for Liverpool” after the backlash to his withering assessment of their current team last week.

 While acting in his role as a pundit for ITV’s Champions League coverage following the club’s 3-0 win against Maribor, the controversial Ireland assistant boss had stated that “if they were playing in my back garden, I wouldn’t watch them. It’s a pretty big (garden), but let’s be honest they are going nowhere.”

 “It’s hard to figure out Liverpool at the moment, it’s hard to get excited about them. For me they are going nowhere fast and come the end of the season when the prizes are being handed out, Liverpool will be nowhere near.”

Needless to say, the reaction to those comments from Liverpool fans was overwhelmingly negative and Keane made an effort to put the record straight at Tuesday's post-training press conference in advance of Ireland’s World Cup play-off v. Denmark this weekend.

“It was a bit of tongue in cheek and I hope people would see it that way” stated Keane when asked about it. “I think anyone who’s ever spoken to me about football will know the huge respect I have for Liverpool. I grew up watching them in the 80’s winning leagues every year. I’m not here to defend every comment I’ve made in the last few years or months but people should lighten up a little".

Thursday, 12 October 2017

James of Thrones

If Cersei Lannister is looking to enlist some help for her final battle with the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen as HBO's Game of Thrones reaches its climax next year, then she could do worse than look to Ireland's Dragonslayer, James McClean. That said, it's probably unlikely he'd sign up considering that, as the now famous chant goes, “James McClean, he hates the fu#&in’ Queen!”.

So it turned out the worry I'd been feeling going into the last round of group games proved to be ultimately misplaced. For all the questions that can be asked about our generally agricultural style of play and our inability to make the most of any advantageous positions we find ourselves in, the one thing this team has in spades is courage and an ability to fight and see out do-or-die scenarios. We don't do it the easy way but when our backs are against the wall, this management and team deliver time and time again.

With Bristol a stones throw from Cardiff, we'd decided to make a weekend away out of it so, despite the weariness after a late night at the Moldova game the night before, myself and Louise dragged ourselves to the airport for an afternoon flight and an evening by the Avon.

By coincidence, regular away travelling companions, Gary Amsterdam and his better half, Lina, were also doing a stopover en route so we arranged to meet up with them to check out the local nightlife. I'd heard Bristol was a lovely city and the reports turned out to be right.  Gary and Lina had already hooked up with a few friends that Gary had met in Thailand a few years earlier so we wandered to a strip of pubs on Kings Street to meet them on Saturday evening. With the city being a bit of a Hipster haven, there were no shortage of craft beer establishments to sample before the four of us wandered off for some cracking Japanese food. 

Bristol also has a reputation for a thriving music scene with a lineage going back to The Wild Bunch who begat Massive Attack and Tricky, also the whole Trip Hop scene that Portishead were to the forefront of can really be traced back to it. After asking a local where some live music might be found, we were directed to a bar called The Old Duke where there was a really tight band called Mango Factory playing a style that covered everything from jazz to ska to funk and whatever you fancy yourself. Once they'd finished, the bar staff had the likes of Talking Heads, The Doors and other classics playing. There was a really good vibe in the pub as we chatted to a few locals so it was a shame when the shutter came down around 2am. That said, we had a long couple of days ahead of us so maybe it was no harm we called it a night at that point!

This Factory works!

The only downer on the evening was hearing that Cyprus had failed to do us a favour after predictably losing to Greece which meant that another group had gone beyond our reach in the race to avoid dropping out of the play-off reckoning. So it was going to have to be either Scotland to drop points on Sunday or
Ukraine and Croatia to draw on Monday for a win against Wales to be enough for us.   

Bristol Docks
Gary and Lina were getting an early bus to Cardiff but myself and Lou weren't travelling until 3 in the afternoon so we had a few hours to kill on Sunday.  Although the city no longer relies on it's port as it's main economic source, the whole area around the docks is still thriving with markets, street food and craft beer stalls with sound systems booming and even a bungee jump over the water on the go. 

Bristol Bungee!
There's also a beautiful Cathedral quarter which we took the time to explore. Famous mystery street artist Bansky (rumoured to be Massive Attack band member, 3D) is also a local with some of his early graffiti works now classed as masterpieces of modern art. So we were able to wander around in the unseasonable sunny weather looking out for what are now art installations and just take in the vibe till it was time to head to Cardiff. It was definitely a good call to do the stop-over in Bristol and  it's a city I'd like a bit more time to explore some day.

Banksy's Naked Man Hanging from Window
Our bus journey to Cardiff was handy enough at just over an hour and we literally just dropped our stuff at our Air BnB before heading into the city to see if Slovenia could do us a favour in their match against Scotland. Gary and Lina were already ensconced in a pub called The Old Arcade with another friend, Ollie, when we arrived just before kick-off and there was already a decent crowd of Irish fans in to cheer on the Slovenians.

The convoluted play-off system employed by UEFA this campaign had nearly made mathematicians out of us all by now and it was funny that after cheering Scotland to the rafters for beating Slovakia on Thursday, we were now dead set against them in this game. But our needs come first and as it happened we were cursing the Scots as they took a first half lead through Leigh Griffiths and held on comfortably till half-time.

More Irish we'd bumped into on previous trips over the years seemed to constantly be arriving in the pub and there was some roar when Slovenia equalised early in the second half. And an even louder one when they went 2-1 up meaning a win the next day would be enough for us unless Scotland scored twice. The nerves were sent jangling again when Robert Snodgrass leveled the match with two minutes to go but despite a late red card for the Slovenians, they held on for the draw to leave the Scots heartbroken. I do believe that tournaments are poorer from a fans perspective without the Scots (and the Welsh for that matter) but it was good to know exactly what we required before kick-off rather than having to worry about other results.

The fact that any worries about us winning but still missing out were allayed was a nice bonus as we moved from bar to bar to catch up with a few of the late arrivals such as Steve Amsterdam's crew and Andrew, a colleague of Louise's who'd been over in France. The scenes outside O'Neill's on Mary Street were more akin to a tournament crowd then a regular away game as our ranks were obviously swelled by a lot of people attracted by the short distance for this one.

Tops off for The Boys In Green??

It was all fairly good natured rowdiness but my days of getting into the thick of the on street singing are long behind me so we ducked into The Brewhouse across the road. There was a big YBIG crowd present in there so we ordered food and enjoyed some refreshments on the back terrace for a while before heading down to give the karaoke a workout in a bar called Walkabout where The Quinn Towers were holding court.

I'd started the evening drinking a Welsh stout from the local Brains brewery but, as it fell well short of the standards we'd produce in Ireland, had switched to a bitter called Smooth. Not a bad drop but it did have the unfortunate side effect of getting that Santana and Rob Thomas song of the same name stuck in my head for the next 48 hours. Not even giving Mustang Sally a go in Walkabout worked, nor did Rhinestone Cowboy or The Irish Rover for that matter but we had a good laugh trying before the bar shut with the unseemly haste that's the norm in the UK! Given that it was a Sunday night, there didn't seem to much in the way of late bars open and having had a fairly long day and with another in store, we decided to call it a night and recharge the batteries for game day.

Well, if it's going to be stuck in my head.....!

A Monday lie-in is always nice and it was around half 11 before we surfaced and found a fairly fancy cafe that our Air BnB host had recommended for breakfast. Having had a few photos of pints sent on various WhatsApp groups since we'd got up, it was difficult to resist the temptation to head straight to the pub but resist we did, for a couple of hours at least!

Having been to Cardiff a few times before, there was no great desire to do much sight seeing but we checked out the castle and the famous Animal Wall before strolling through the centre and finally heading to a bar called the Queen's Vaults where John, Ray and Pete, part of our Poland 2012 crew were lording it on the pool tables. Well, when I say lording, John was busy winning 3 games in a row where his opponent went in off on the black but you get the gist!

We'd had a heads up that there was a good YBIG crowd in a bar called The Prince of Wales so that was our next stop. As the Brummie contingent were only making their way down on the day, we'd told them to meet us there and Philly and Greg from our season ticket crowd arrived in as well so there was no shortage of craic. There was a good crowd of Welsh fans there as well with plenty of back and forth chants echoing across the pub building the atmosphere.

Game Day in Cardiff
After a few hours there, a few of us moved over the road to a very well placed Pie Minister restaurant for a pre match meal which provided a great view of the madness unfolding outside O'Neill's on Mary St. I was starting to feel a little tense now with the importance of the game really sinking in and with about an hour to kick-off was glad to have food in before heading to the ground. Another sign of old age creeping in as I've definitely left the "eatin' is cheatin'!"mantra behind these days!

Rather than walking, we jumped a couple of cabs to the Cardiff City Stadium which is about a mile and a half outside the centre. Although we got dropped a good distance from our end, we still got into our spot well before kick-off. Given that this is a fairly new stadium, I was expecting it to be a bit like those identikit stadia that have become very common in the UK over the last twenty years or so but it was actually pretty decent once we got inside. I can see why the Welsh have decided to play their home games there rather than at the far larger Principality Stadium. Better off atmosphere wise to have 33,000 in a full stadium than the same number or slightly more in a half empty 75,000 seater. The only issue was that places to hang flags were at a premium so the 69ers flag was banished to a corner that was pretty much blocked by our standing supporters.

I was back at our spot in plenty of time for the anthems and Amhrán na bhFiann was given a fairly stirring rendition considering our relatively small numbers. However, that paled into insignificance with what happened next.

Credit where it's due......

I've seen some impressive anthems in my time with France in Paris in 2005 standing out in particular. But the Welsh effort on last Monday night will take some beating. When the band started up Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of Our Fathers), I was expecting the Welsh to belt it out given their choral singing reputation. I wasn't expecting the music to be cut off after just one bar of the first verse to let the fans take over. Apparently, the Welsh team had requested it and their support didn't disappoint as they roared a spine tingling a capella rendition that you couldn't help but applaud. It was absolutely magnificent and lifted what had already been a brilliant atmosphere through the roof.

And so, onto the football. The team sent out by Martin O'Neill didn't surprise me. Shane Long's injury meant that Daryl Murphy was always going to start and as I suspected, Wes Hoolahan and Callum O'Dowda made way for the returning Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady with Harry Arter making up the extra body in a five-man midfield. The fact that Gareth Bale was injured for Wales was an obvious game changer and a huge positive for us.

Although I would have liked to see Wes start, it was clear what O'Neill's thinking was, keep it tight for as long as possible and then bring on some creativity when the game stretched later on. However, we seemed to be finding it pretty tough to keep it tight in the first quarter of the game as Wales dominated the early exchanges with Allen and Ramsey passing rings around us. But despite ceding all the possession, our defence was holding firm with any early corners easily dealt with and Darren Randolph tipping over an Aaron Ramsey pot shot that probably wasn't as comfortable a save as he made it look.

It was about 17 minutes in before we had a sniff of a chance with a free following an Allen challenge that saw the Welshman booked. Brady swung a good ball in that found its way to McClean who in turn hit a great ball across the box that got turned away for our first corner. Unfortunately, the corner came to nothing as Hendrick's resulting shot flew well over.

At least we were gaining a foothold in the game by now albeit by turning it into a bit of a scrap. A few corners were exchanged before a half chance for Hendrick around the 25 minute mark was cleared with Lawrence immediately countering for Wales but not doing enough to trouble Randolph. Our best chance arrived on 30 minutes when a Brady free eventually reached Shane Duffy who flashed a shot wide.

It's probably safe to say that the next big incident of the game has been one of the main talking points since and most likely changed the course of the game. I've seen online Welsh opinion since then that the McClean / Myler sandwich that Joe Allen found himself in was deliberate but having watched it back since, I don't see how anyone could say that with any certainty. Collisions like that happen regularly in football and there was no way that either player would know that Allen would end up having to go off with concussion. Without wanting to revisit old ground in any great detail, it pales into insignificance with Neil Taylor's over the top tackle that broke Seamus Coleman's leg in the first fixture in Dublin.

Was Allen key for the Welsh?
What can be said with certainty is that Allen leaving the fray seemed to knock the Welsh off their stride and they lost the control that they had in midfield for the first half hour which meant that the game petered out a little as we got close to half time. That said, the closest that the Welsh came to a goal came in that period as Ciaran Clark sliced a clearance that we were relieved to see go safely behind for a corner. From our perspective, a Brady shot from the right that was comfortably saved by Hennessey at his near post was the best we could muster and we entered the break all square. Considering that Wales had had double the possession we had in that 45, the feeling was that our dressing room would be the happier at the break.

First half action
After venturing onto the concourse at half time, we bumped into the Amsterdam lads so made our way back into the stand with them for a bit of company for the second half. The half itself started in a similar pattern with Ireland content to let Wales have possession but with Ramsey dropping deeper to where Allen had been dictating the first half, there wasn't the same zip to the Welsh possession. A corner that James Chester got on the end of caused a ripple of Welsh celebration in one part of the stadium but it was clear from our angle that it was the side netting that had billowed.

We weren't as comfortable a couple of minutes later as some good Welsh play ended up with Allen's replacement, Jonny Williams, swinging a great cross in from the right. Our hearts were in our mouths as Robson-Kanu got a thumping header onto it but Randolph dazzled us yet again with another super save to tip it over for a corner. Again, the corner was dealt with comfortably.

Despite the nerves and the fact we only had 10% of the crowd, the atmosphere in our end had been superb all game but the Welsh fans were responding with vigour whenever we got too loud.  So it wasn't a surprise when a noisy rendition of COYBIG around ten minutes into the half was drowned out by the Welsh launching into the Euro 2016 anthem they'd adopted on the march to the semi finals. The refrain of "Don't Take Me Home, Please Don't Take Me Home" was still booming out as a long Irish ball flicked on by McClean made its way past Murphy and though to Hennessey in the Welsh goal. There seemed little danger as he rolled the ball out to his centre half but I think if you'd given Hennessey and Ashley Williams the option to be at home rather than on the pitch twenty seconds later they'd have snapped your hand off!

Hennessey's throw wasn't great but Williams still looked to have plenty of time to clear his lines. Looking back at replays, Jeff Hendrick points at Williams before Hennessey released the ball as if willing him to throw it there. As soon as Williams dawdled, Hendrick was onto him in a flash to win the ball. Even then, it looked like Ben Davies should stop the attack but the Irish midfielder did superbly to wriggle free and keep the ball in as he knocked it down the touchline. From behind the goal, we were willing the ball not to go out of play as Hendrick got towards the goal line and our wishes were granted as he pulled it back across the area. Arter was advancing and executed a beautiful step-over rather than playing the ball to leave it for McClean who was steaming forward. And the bould James couldn't have hit it any sweeter as he put his right foot through the ball and hammered it into the net. Cue pandemonium!

Lift off!

The whole move had happened so quick that it seemed almost unreal, I was bouncing around in disbelief almost waiting for the ref to call play back for some reason as McClean tore towards the fans in celebration followed in close pursuit by his team mates. He's taken over from Jon Walters as the team talisman this campaign and it was brilliant to see him thumping his chest and pointing at his badge. There are many players who do that, particularly at club level but you just know with McClean that he means it. His pride in the jersey is immense as was the joy he unleashed in the away end. Now it was just a case of getting through the next 33 minutes!

Chris Coleman wasn't long in changing things with the Liverpool youngster, Ben Woodburn, coming on for Andy King but in reality little changed. Word had now come through that Croatia were winning in Ukraine so a draw wouldn't be enough for Wales to sneak into the play offs. We settled back into our holding pattern and while it was clear that we had no intention of trying to hold possession for any sustained period of time, it was up to Wales to break us down.

A further Wales change saw Sam Vokes introduced for Robson-Kanu which indicated to me that the Welsh were running out of ideas in a similar way that we had at home after Serbia went down to ten men. Vokes would increase their aerial ability but that was playing right into Duffy and Clark's hands as they kicked blocked and headed everything that came their way. I would have brought Hoolahan on to try and get us a bit more possession but that clearly wasn't the game plan. Instead, as Arter finally succumbed to cramp it was Glenn Whelan who joined the fray to help us see out the last 12 minutes.

While Wales had practically all of the possession in those last 12 minutes, their composure had deserted them at this stage and a Ramsey free fired wildly over the bar on 85 minutes was typical. Another corner a couple of minutes later was cleared by Duffy, who'd had a magnificent game and he was there again when the second ball came in. Being honest, we were using every trick in the book to waste time and Randolph was next to join Clark in the book for that offence. But the seconds were ticking down and Wales still looked no closer to scoring.

Five minutes stoppage time was broken up by a further defensive change which saw Murphy withdrawn for Kevin Long as we looked to see the game out with three centre halves and no strikers. Still Wales huffed and puffed and still Ireland held firm as the second ticked by. A Welsh free awarded on their right four minutes in caused more fingernails to be bitten to the quick and the roar that erupted from our end as Tom Lawrence promptly hoofed it straight into touch for an Ireland throw was nearly as loud as the one that had greeted the goal.

Despite putting the ball out immediately from our throw, the Welsh throw came to nothing and was again cleared up the pitch. With all the Welsh outfield players pushed forward this resulted in a foot race between Hennessey and Meyler with whoever came second certain to be booked. Unfortunately, given how well he's played the last two games and how well he's captained the side, it was Meyler who just missed out and the resultant booking rules him out of the first leg of the play offs.

The whistling from our end was incessant by now as the game moved into its 97th minute. The Wales free was launched long and wide down the right but a last cross by Gunter was blocked by Ward and the final whistle finally blew before anyone could gather the rebound. Game over for Wales as Ireland marched on to another play off!

Put your hands in the air!
The Irish end was a sea of green as the players came down to celebrate and this was one of those times where staying behind in an away ground wasn't a chore. All the songs got an airing with the "Don't Take Me Home" chant being sung back as the Wales ends emptied out being particularly sweet. A long walk back into the centre wasn't enough to dampen the atmosphere as we made our way back to the Queens Vaults to meet up with The Brummies. In fairness to the Welsh support, they were very magnanimous in defeat despite their disappointment and I had a good chat with a few both on the walk and in the pub over a pint afterwards.

Ole Ole!

The usual early closing time meant a search for a later bar and after bumping into Terry the Tash, The Quinn Towers plus the famous GerK from YBIG on the streets we eventually managed to find somewhere to finish the night and start wondering about potential play off opponents. An early 10.45 train to Birmingham for the flight home put manners on us to some degree though and after grabbing some food, we called it quits around 3 with plenty of Irish fans still wandering the streets in a happy daze.

Don't take us home!
So, we've reached the end of the group, if not the campaign, and although it's been a roller coaster with some very shaky moments, all credit has to be given to the management. To take seven points from nine on the road against our three main opponents is a phenomenal achievement and while Wales are not one of the traditional European superpowers, the fact that this was the first time we have beaten a top seeded team away is a notable feather in the cap.

The home form clearly remains a worry with a two point take from those reverse fixtures a poor return. We seem to struggle to to impose ourselves and m games where the onus is on us and we can take the initiative but, as mentioned earlier, the team seems at its best when their backs are against the wall which will hopefully serve us well in the play offs. While I try and see each game on its merits meaning that performances such as the game in Tbilisi are very disappointing, there is an argument that looking at the bigger picture is required when judging this regime. Under Martin O'Neill, we've beaten Germany, Bosnia, Italy, Austria and Wales in the last two years having struggled to beat teams ranked above us for years. The fact that the wins against Austria and Wales have come away from home also deserves respect given our last away win against a team seeded above us before then was Scotland in 1987.

The special nights have definitely outweighed the disappointing ones and let's hope that, with two legs against Italy, Croatia, Denmark or Switzerland to come, they're not over yet. As for James the Dragonslayer, maybe he should wander over to the Game of Thrones set the next time he's back home in Derry. Given what he's produced so far this campaign, who knows what magic might result!


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Not 'Ova Yet

Well, it’s a positive that we’re not out of it yet and we’re not travelling to Wales for a dead rubber. And although meeting the top seeds away in Cardiff is obviously a totally different proposition to playing the bottom seeds at home, if we show the application and verve that we showed in the first half at Lansdowne, we still have a chance.

Being back in education has meant a change to my pre-match routine this last year and with DCU being my current port of call, it was Glasnevin that I made my way to Lansdowne from rather than the old walk down the canal. With a quick stop home to drop my bag off en route, I decided to hop the train rather than wander across. The bulk of the passengers on the DART were fans and I wound up having a quick yap about the match with the bloke sitting across from me. He was bringing his 8 year old son to his first Ireland game which brought on a pang of nostalgia thinking about Da bringing me to my first game at a similar age. There’s been many miles travelled since then!

Once I got up to Grand Canal, it was only a short wander to the Beggars where Terry the Tash was already ensconced along with a few of the usual faces watching Wales’ away game against Georgia. Given the proximity of the Wales game, a few regulars were missing this one with Bren being the only one of the Brummies to make the trip and the Quinn Towers also sitting it out. Of our season ticket crew, Frankie the hands arrived just after me but with Eoghany Mc and Mark not making it, a couple of the lads from the college course had said they’d use their tickets. So for this game, our ranks were swelled by a Scot and an Indian which probably earned the Singing Section some diversity points!

While we were holding out a bit of hope that Georgia might do us a favour after they kept Wales scoreless at half-time, an early second half goal for the Welsh mean that our pre-game chat turned to  what team Martin O’Neill would send out. Robbie Brady and James McClean suspensions along with Jon Walters’ injury obviously forced O’Neill’s hand somewhat but it was good to see him be positive with the changes as Jeff Hendrick, Calum O’Dowda and Daryl Murphy were all likely to offer something going forward. The only question now was whether we’d line up in a straight 4-4-2 or if Shane Long would move out wide in a 4-5-1. I’ve been impressed with David Meyler when he’s had to come in and do a job in various positions in the past. He possibly hasn’t got as many caps as he should so it was just reward to see him given the armband for the night.

The importance of the game meant a near full house and a decent atmosphere around the ground pre-game despite the disappointing run of results which had seen us end up in the last chance saloon after being in a dominant positon in the group six short months ago.  There always seems to be a different buzz around Friday evening games and the Singing Section launched into its usual repertoire as soon as the game kicked off.

Starting games strongly hasn’t been a problem for Ireland this campaign with goals in the first five minutes away to Serbia, Moldova and Georgia already racked up. And once again the initial chants hadn’t even had a chance to subside before we hit the front! Having started on the front foot as hoped, a long Stephen Ward throw was flicked on by a combination of Shane Duffy and a Moldovan defender before Murphy did really well to wrap his foot around the defender and flick the ball home! One nil up and only two minutes in.

In the previous games where we’ve taken an early lead in the group, it’s generally been the team’s cue to retreat further and further back and invite pressure on. We saw it particularly in Belgrade and Tbilisi and even in Chisinau to an extent. However, any fears that we might do similar here were quickly allayed as we pinned the Moldovans back and mixed up some decent football with some long balls into the box that their defence seemed to have difficulty dealing with. O’Dowda had already seen a mishit shot roll wide before Shane Long really should have made it two on 15 minutes. Hoolahan had played a neat reverse pass to O’Dowda who surged into the area before squaring an inch perfect pass to Long. Unfortunately, in keeping with his recent form in front of goal, Long couldn’t apply the finish and saw his shot flash past the left hand post.

As it happened, we didn’t have to wait too long for the second and when it arrived, it was a beaut.  Hoolahan had picked the ball up on the right wing just inside his own half and looking up, spotted Ward tearing down the opposite flank. He then hit a perfect ball which Ward galloped onto before pinging a cross back from the dead ball line. Murphy was waiting and, as he peeled off his defender, cushioned a superb header back across goal and into the far corner! Two nil after 18 minutes and now it was surely all about pushing on and building as much confidence as possible before Monday.

114 was bouncing by now and five minutes later it was nearly three. This time Hendrick was the creator, picking up a loose Moldovan ball in midfield before driving forward and playing Long in. However, once again Long’s luck was out as the keeper saved his initial effort before a defender hooked the rebound from Long clear in front of the empty net.

Moldova had offered nothing going forward at this point but almost got back into it out of the blue on 27 minutes. There seemed little danger as Plătică picked up the ball at the edge of our area but he unleashed a thunderbolt that was destined for the top corner before Randolph managed to deflect it over at full stretch. A warning that even with a two goal cushion, one slip could open the door for the opposition and given how flaky this team has been on occasion in the second half of the campaign, I didn’t want to have to see how they’d respond to a concession.

O’Dowda was popping up all over the pitch and having a really impressive game in my view. He’d created a chance for himself just after the Randolph save and was linking well with Cyrus Christie on the right. Unfortunately Long’s woes in front of goal were continuing and you could nearly see the confidence drain from him as the game went on. I’m a big fan of his for his work rate and attitude and was desperate for him for get a goal before Monday but it just didn’t look like it was going to happen. None of the options he was taking seemed to come off but to be fair to him, at least he was still putting himself in there.

Ireland finished the half strongly with chances for Clark, Hendrick and Duffy all missing the target so everyone in the ground was pretty happy with the first 45 minutes.  The hope was that more of the same would follow after the break with Ireland attacking the South end where we were gathered.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. The good tempo that we had delivered in the first half didn’t seem to be there and, while we could have had a penalty on 54 minutes when Long appeared to be elbowed in the face by Racu, we seemed to fall into our old habit of sitting back and inviting pressure on. This resulted in the Moldovans gaining a bit of confidence and while we never looked in major danger, they were still able to force a series of corners around the hour mark.

Shortly after, Long should have made it three but again, his touch let him down when it seemed easier to score. Hoolahan had played in O’Dowda once again and when the Bristol City man’s shot was blocked it dropped perfectly for Long with the goal gaping. However, somehow he managed to put it wide. His reaction was telling as he roared in anger at himself and he really does look a player bereft of any sort of confidence right now. Whether O’Neill decides to persist with him for Monday is going to be a huge call.

By now, I’d have liked to have seen new squad additions, Seanie Maguire and Scott Hogan get some game time, particularly given Long’s issues in front of goal but despite the chants for Maguire from the crowd, the changes, when they came on 78 minutes were pretty standard O’Neill with Harry Arter and Aiden McGeady replacing Murphy and Hoolahan.

The game was petering out by now but McGeady, in fairness, looked lively enough when he came on. The final substitution arrived on 83 minutes and it was Maguire, the man that everyone had been looking for, who came on for his debut with Long finally being put out of his misery.

Seven minutes was never really going to be enough time to make a huge impression but Maguire showed some promising touches without creating anything clear cut. A final fracas between Arter and Gatcun was the last flashpoint of the game as the Moldovan, having already been booked, received a straight red for head-butting the Irish midfielder right on full time. With news by now filtering through that Austria had got a last minute winner against Serbia, top spot in the group had suddenly opened up again as well albeit that it’s dependent on the unlikely event of Georgia beating Serbia in Belgrade. Still, we’d done what was required and at least go into Monday’s game with a shout.

The performance itself, as with a lot of games in this regime was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. We saw a positive team selection and a start with great tempo for the first 45. A good mix of neat interplay from O’Dowda and Hoolahan in particular was displayed and some good long balls when needed to stretch the Moldovans and put their defence under pressure. The second half on the other hand was concerning. Instead of kicking on and putting a team who are winless and bottom of the group to the sword, we looked lethargic and invited pressure on ourselves. I felt that had the third goal gone in the floodgates would have opened but despite the missed chances from Long, I didn’t feel we did enough to force the issue in the second half. All the same, a win is a win and that was what we required.

All eyes now turn to Monday and I’ve just touched down in Bristol for the night before heading down to Cardiff tomorrow. The fact that it’s winner takes all should suit us. Under O’Neill, Ireland have been at our best when we’ve had nothing to lose. Our finish to the European Championships campaign when we had to beat Germany and then had to beat Bosnia were excellent. When we needed to win in France against Italy, we did it. There are no second chances now and there’s no excuse not to go for it from the off. While Wales undoubtedly have players such as Ramsey and Allen who are classier than what we put out, the loss of Bale is a great leveller.

A lot could depend on who makes way with Brady and McClean sure to come back in. Outside of Murphy, O’Dowda was probably our best player on Friday but is likely to miss out. With Hoolahan playing 80 minutes, I suspect that he may make way on Monday as well which may leave us shy on creativity. Brady, for all his ability and his big goals in recent years has been poor when played centrally for us since the Euros and will really need to step up if he’s given that role. 

At least we arrive here with it all to play for. It’s not ‘Ova yet!