Ireland rarely do things the easy way. Monday’s win in Cardiff was one of the most impressive away victories in the country’s history, probably the most impressive when you factor in that the game was win or bust. But it should never have come to that.
Before Monday’s game, the campaign had threatened to become a campaign of ‘what ifs’ following an abject 2017.
November’s win in Austria saw Ireland sitting pretty on top of Group D with 10 points from 12 and with back-to-back home games with Wales and Austria there was a real chance to gain a stranglehold on the group. Victory over the Welsh, who played with 10 men for 25 minutes, would have put the boys in green seven points clear of their Celtic rivals at the halfway stage of the group.
Instead they would limp to a 0-0 draw in Dublin that maintained the status quo. June’s clash with a depleted Austrian outfit offered the chance to regain momentum at the top of the group, but again they were held to a draw, producing one of the worst home performances of the O’Neill era in the process.
The insipid September draw in Georgia that followed put Ireland firmly on the backfoot and brought them to a must win home game with group leaders Serbia that they promptly lost, once again failing to exploit a man advantage for the best part of half an hour.
That defeat saw Ireland drop to third behind Wales and represented a dramatic fall from grace since beating Austria. What could have been a seven-point buffer following the home game in March was now a one point deficit.
Trailing Serbia by five points with just two games remaining meant that Ireland’s only realistic chance was the play offs if they could beat wales in Cardiff, however they would need favours elsewhere to ensure they would not be the worst second placed team.
Miraculously, Scotland did Ireland the favour they needed by beating Slovakia and then failing to beat Slovenia, meaning that a win in Wales would suffice for the play offs. Ironically, it is not the first time Scotland have done an Irish campaign favours either, their defeat to Georgia in 2015 was the difference between Ireland qualifying for Euro 2016 and not qualifying and their win in Bulgaria in 1987 saw Ireland qualify for their first ever international tournament.
With Monday’s game in Cardiff a must win for both sides, the game had the feel of a cup final and Ireland to their credit executed a game plan to perfection. They dug in in a difficult environment and struck at the opportune moment, a wonderful goal from James McClean that will go down in the annals of Irish football history and sparked wild celebrations among the travelling Irish contingent. Thankfully they were still celebrating come the full-time whistle.
However, the job is only half done and Ireland face the prospects of a play off for the 4th time in the last five campaigns. Their possible opposition (Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, and Denmark) is daunting but Irish fans will cross their fingers that they are drawn with either Switzerland or Denmark.
The Danes failed to qualify for Euro 2016, a tournament comprising of exactly half the teams in Europe so their credentials must be called in to question.
The Swiss, on the other hand, won nine of their ten games in qualifying but it was a visibly poor group featuring one good team in Portugal who were still on a come down following their European success last summer and Ireland would fancy their chances against a team they beat last year, albeit in a friendly.
Italy and Croatia represent far more daunting opponents and it would be a tough ask to overcome either in two legs. Having said that, Martin O’Neill is slowly building a portfolio of major scalps as Ireland manager and there is always a chance he will pull off another Germany or another Italy or another Austria. Wales can now be added to the list of higher ranked scalps and it was a win that saved Ireland’s campaign.
But they should never have been in need of that win. The what ifs have been shelved, for now. Hopefully, they will be shelved for good in a month’s time.
By Shane O’Brian