"The most Irish performance you can imagine"
Good grief, it’s not often Martin O’Neill’s men play attractive football. In fact, the vast majority of Ireland’s attempts at playing any kind of football against Wales were an insult to the Beautiful Game, but try telling any Irish person watching on Monday night that it was not the most glorious ninety minutes you’ll see all year.
It was a blast to watch and it’s no exaggeration to say that those Irish players left the Cardiff City Stadium as heroes after James McClean’s sweet right-footed strike put Ireland into the playoffs at the expense of their hosts for a place at next summer’s World Cup. Russia will be better off with the Boys in Green along for the ride.
I watched the match in a Dublin city centre pub; relatively busy for a wet Monday night. Not too surprising I suppose considering it was win or bust for O’Neill’s team and boy, it looked like it would be the latter during the opening twenty minutes. Wales, spurred on by a spine-tingling rendition of the national anthem from their raucous supporters, flew out of the traps and overwhelmed an Irish side which made three changes from the one that beat Moldova on Friday night.
Out went Wes Hoolahan and Callum O’Dowda. In came McClean and Robbie Brady, as expected. While Harry Arter replaced the injured Shane Long. Gone were any thoughts of creativity and in came the collective national rise in heart rate, as the expressions of those watching in the pub represented the entire country. Ireland struggled to hold onto the ball or put any pattern of play together. There was nothing for it other than pints and cursing – this was going to be a long night.
At times it was torture to watch, but the welcome whistle of halftime arrived and it was all square. For all their possession, Wales created little and surely we would do something at some stage. We always do. Sure, we often underperform and underwhelm, like in the respective home and away draws against Austria and Georgia; but rarely do we go out with a whimper in the really big games.
Well, step forward the Derry boy McClean, whose emphatic finish was what iconic Irish goals are made of. Jeff Hendrick’s superb wing play – as he evaded Welsh challenges while simultaneously keeping the ball in play – grabbed the attention of the pub. The Burnley midfielder’s cross had everyone’s interest piqued, while Arter’s delightful dummy brought McClean into shot and, completely unmarked, the wild winger suddenly had the whole country in the palm of his hand. One second later, every patron in the pub was on their feet in sheer elation – a snippet of the nation’s joy at that very moment.
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) October 9, 2017
This humble October weeknight had just been selected for a special moment in Irish football history – the latest version of Jason McAteer versus Holland or a contemporary update of Shane Long against Germany.
This is why it’s so great watching Ireland in the pub.
Spanish supporters, for instance, must enjoy seeing their silky players dismantle talented teams with consummate ease while they consume classy victory sips each time Spain score another sumptuous goal. But Irish fans are often led astray by their players. We’re suckers for punishment and it’s all worthwhile for moments like McClean’s goal. Forget about the alcohol; this is what truly brings people together, even if only for a second. After all, the game was far from done.
It is on occasions like these that the Republic of Ireland become great. One-nil up away from home in a game we had to win, previously maligned players like Ciaran Clark and man-of-the-match Shane Duffy performed heroically while captain David Meyler was imperious in the middle of the park.
As the minutes ebbed away, anybody who was in that pub looking for a quiet drink had their plans scuppered. By now, every single person was invested in what the TV screens were showing. Those who requested a crash course into the consequence of the result were quickly brought up to speed by their neighbour.
After an eternity, injury-time arrived and protagonist McClean briefly caused nationwide expletives from all demographics and classes after giving away a needless foul in a characteristically aggressive but wholly unwelcome tackle. For what seemed like the one-hundredth time on the night, Ireland cleared their lines and, shortly afterwards, the sound of that beautiful final whistle filled the Cardiff air and was transported right into this public house. For the next thirty seconds, everybody present (staff included) united in celebration.
It is a moment worth savouring because time waits for nobody. There was the Budget to be analysed the next day and every football supporter in the country would soon go back to following their own club team, be they at home or abroad.
Who knows how we will fare in the playoffs or what starting XI will be named? As we wait to discover the identity of our opponent over those two legs in November, let’s cherish yet another great night for Irish sport because ultimately, that is what it is all about.
It’s rarely pretty but it’s always exciting with the Boys in Green. It was indeed the most Irish performance you can imagine.