Martin O'Neill has really gone through the wringer at times during this campaign. After the two performances against Scotland, we were all ready to start a new chapter in Irish football. It wasn't going to be easy but it would have to be a case of out with the old and in with the new. It was unlikely Martin O'Neill would have a part to play in that.
The most serious charge that could be levelled at O'Neill during the course of the campaign was that he may not have even cared that much. The constant questions about Roy Keane and Jack Grealish threatened to turn the football into the sideshow and you could be forgiven for thinking if O'Neill was just seeing out his contract.
Fans and the media have an understandable tendency towards extremes of emotion (which is why what is to follow can probably be taken with a pinch of salt) but managers have to ensure they're more removed from that. O'Neill's refusal to engage in the hyperbole may just have been Ireland's saving grace. Sure, we have Valeri Kazaishvili to thank for his goal against Scotland, but O'Neill's level head and his often frustrating pragmatism cannot be understated.
We'll remember this campaign for the games against Germany. 180 minutes against the world champions with two goals scored and one conceded. It's the kind of thing that would have ensured sainthood for an Irish manager not so long ago but it was in the play-offs where O'Neill's tactical influence really came to the fore.
In two legs, Miralem Pjanic did next to nothing for Bosnia. Ireland's progress owes a lot to that simple fact and, call it Bosnian naivety if you will, but it played right into Martin O'Neill's gameplan. In Zenica, we effectively lined up with five central midfielders on the pitch. Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady may have had a bit of attacking licence but it was minimal.
We went there to frustrate and you only need to look at the body language of Pjanic to know that we succeeded. Whelan and McCarthy did what they tend to do but it was Jeff Hendrick's influence that was particularly telling. On the line-up graphic he was a winger, in reality he was anything but. He flitted inside, he covered Seamus Coleman and Bosnia's supply was cut off at source.
It was the same in the second leg. Hendrick may have done little on the ball but his discipline when it came to tracking runners was key. We choked the life out of both games and it may not have been pretty but it was incredibly effective.
The Robbie Brady question
If anyone had said at the start of qualifying that Robbie Brady would be Ireland's go-to left back they'd be laughed out of the room. An attack minded midfielder does not a solid full back make yet, in the space of a few games, O'Neill managed to sculpt the kind of performance that we saw from Brady on Monday.
After his shocker in Poland and his goalscoring turn in Zenica, we had thought/hoped that the left back experiment was finished with. Boy were we wrong. It's not to say that Brady has now found his position for life but when we needed someone to slot in there, O'Neill had no doubts about where to turn. And he was rewarded with the kind of performance that gets a man of the match award in a game where Jonny Walters scored twice to send us through to a major championships.
Hooking Hoolahan after 55 minutes
It was the decision that was brought up again and again and again. Where's Hoolahan? Why does he think Hoolahan can only play at home? You'd think there was an act of sabotage at times the way we talked about the Norwich man at the start of the campaign. O'Neill initially viewed him as an option and his form proved why he was more than that.
When that happened, he was given a start. It wasn't O'Neill admitting he was wrong and it certainly wasn't him appeasing fans. The nature of the man means you know O'Neill made the decision to join team Weso for the right reasons. But that's not to say he completely bought into the hype. Hoolahan was (rightly) a replaceable cog in the machine and the playoffs proved that perfectly.
In Zenica, he lasted 60 minutes before being replaced by James McClean. In Dublin, he lasted 55 minutes. Given that McClean switched off for Dzeko's goal, it's hard to fully commend O'Neill for the first decision but the second was indicative of the progress he's made with Ireland fans.
With the game still in the balance, hooking Hoolahan would once have seen anger spill down from the Aviva terraces. Instead, it was obvious that any influence Hoolahan had was waining. A lesser manager may have persisted because that's what he 'should' do.
No chance. Stick to his guns, get McClean on again and shore up the left hand side while giving us a new outlet.
He's pragmatic to a fault but O'Neill is the man that Ireland really needed over the past couple of months and it's only right that he's starting to get the credit he deserves.