Little over twelve months ago, Scotland appeared to inflict a fatal blow to Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualification hopes at Hampden Park. A 1-0 loss was disappointing but the manner of the performance left many Republic of Ireland supporters (including yours truly) wondering where the team was going. What a difference a year makes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on Republic of Ireland qualification to the big dance and highlights one player for particular praise.
Why did Republic of Ireland advance?
If you are a Scottish football fan, you will point to two key events during qualification. The unexpected Scottish loss to Georgia on a sultry Tbilisi night in September opened the door for the Republic of Ireland to launch a last gasp attempt at securing playoff football which still looked highly unlikely as it required Martin O’Neill’s men to get something from World Cup champions Germany. It looked mission impossible but a defiant defensive rearguard yielded a famous victory when substitute Shane Long pounced on a Darren Randolph punt down field to score. The result secured at least a playoff berth.
This was the hard part as the Republic of Ireland on reflection dismissed the challenge of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the minimum of fuss. A pivotal away goal from Robbie Brady in Zenica set the platform for tonight’s result. Yes, the penalty was contentious (if it was awarded to the visitors we would have being furious too) but it was the break that Republic of Ireland required. The penalty strike was emphatic from Jonathan Walters, the player of the campaign for Martin O’Neill. Bosnia and Herzegovina tried to get back into this contest but Ireland’s back four were imperious throughout. Ciaran Clark grew as an international player in the last four days, his leadership and organization of the back four was impeccable in these two playoff games. Clark is now the leader of the Republic of Ireland defense after tonight. The Aston Villa clubman was ably assisted by central defender partner Richard Keogh, a player who may not be the silkiest on the eye makes up for in determination, hunger and effort. He beat Dzeko in the aerial battle over the two legs and Bosnia’s key striker was subdued tonight so much so that he got cautioned for dissent. Mission accomplished.
The pleasing part of this performance tonight for the Republic of Ireland tonight was down the left side of the pitch. The creativity and threat posed by Hoolahan, Brady and Hendrick throughout was a joy to watch. Their quick one twos, player awareness created space down the flank and forcing Bosnia into last ditch defending. The first goal did come down the right flank but given the dominance that the Republic of Ireland enjoyed down the left flank, Bosnia did not have the players to support to cut out the ball which fell to the ever willing Murphy to cross into the box. The second goal was an instinctive strike from Walters at the back post following less than convincing Bosnian defending. It was game over. The visiting supporters knew it as well as they grew increasingly quiet thereafter.
No genuine negatives tonight. All players wearing green stood up to the pressure and Darren Randolph had precious little to do until eighty-six minutes when a goalmouth scramble forced the West Ham shot stopper to make a regulation save. In actual fact, the hosts should have being three nil up by then as Shane Long spurned a golden chance when faced with a 1-1 with Asmir Begovic.
Player of the Campaign
How good was Jonathan Walters during this campaign? His work rate and goals were pivotal in qualification. It was absolutely fitting that the Stoke player was to the fore of this success; his two goals were superbly taken and all going well will be a key team player for the side in France next summer. Robbie Brady may have received the man of the match award but even Robbie acknowledged who should have received the honor. Well done Jonathan. Walters for Taoiseach!
This is a campaign where the squad was stretched to the maximum. Suspensions and injuries to key players meant that Martin O’Neill had to place trust in the likes of Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh, Jeff Hendrick, Daryl Murphy, Darren Randolph. The players who came in produced in spades. The beginning of this tournament looked forlorn but now we have a group of players who are committed to the national team, put their all into the jersey and that is what the supporters expect. John O’Shea heir to the throne has being identified and the goalkeeping options have improved with the emergence of Randolph, Forde, Henderson and the return of Shay Given. Robbie Brady’s set piece execution caught the eye and the central midfield of McCarthy, Whelan grew as the campaign wore on as both players started to complement the other. Aidan McGeady’s winning goal in Tblisi during this qualification cannot be underestimated. All the squad produced and tonight is a satisfying night for the players. The fact that John O’Shea, Robbie Keane were bit parts for this playoff victory spoke volumes of how the squad has evolved and how each player has assumed responsibility for the national jersey. Feel good factor is back again with the national team.
Martin O’Neill must deserve the adulation tonight for this triumph. He has taken plenty of flak from the Irish media on team selections and the style of football in several games (Scotland away, Poland games). O’Neill never let the criticism deflect from the job at hand and with his backroom staff increased player confidence throughout this campaign. Roy Keane, Steve Guppy’s roles saw improvements in Republic of Ireland’s performances in midfield culminating in the performance of the left side tonight. The team were well organized throughout and were difficult to breakdown. Republic of Ireland still have improvement in terms of retaining ball possession but with more friendlies to be scheduled, the team will improve ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament next summer. Hopefully John Delaney has already secured the contract extension agreement from Martin O’Neill and backroom staff tonight. A great night for Ireland as both North and South take their place in the tournament next summer. What chances of the two teams being paired in the group phrase? A mouthwatering prospect but first time to secure a camper van for the adventure which is to follow. Allez Allez Irlande.