After the Republic of Ireland grabbed a terrific 1-1 draw in Bosnia on Friday night, The Irish Herald’s back-page lede boldly stated that the country now stood “on the brink of the most unlikely qualification for a major finals ever.”
Even with an away goal and an outstanding defense to lean on, Ireland was tense and barely willing to believe in the buildup to Monday night’s playoff second leg in Dublin with a trip to France and Euro 2016 on the line.
But the Irish needn’t have worried. They were rarely troubled in a superb 2-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Aviva Stadium. Jonathan Walters hit a double, that defense played with equal parts commitment and composure, and the night ended – or just began, depending on your vantage point – with the team kit man bounding through the locker room dressed as Superman.
Let’s be clear: Ireland had no business qualifying for these European Championships.
In June, after a 1-1 home draw with Scotland, they were practically dead and buried. It made sense, too. They’ve rarely had great players, but this group might be Ireland’s least talented team of the century.
Even when something clicked and the Republic knocked off Germany just over a month ago to reach the playoff, the odds were still very much against Ireland qualifying for their second straight finals – a first in the nation’s history.
To beat Bosnia, Martin O’Neill’s team overcame suspensions and injuries galore. John O’Shea’s only minutes were during stoppage time with qualification already secured. Shane Long was hobbled, Shay Given missed out entirely through injury, and neither Robbie Keane nor Aidan McGeady made it off the bench.
Walters, who missed the first leg suspended, plies his trade for Stoke. Darren Randolph is a backup goalkeeper for West Ham. Richard Keogh, who didn’t put a foot wrong in central defense in either of the two games, plays for Derby. So does starting midfielder Jeff Hendrick.
On Monday night, none of that mattered.
O’Neill, who is known for his terseness with the media before games, was unusually genial before this one. He knew what was coming. Bosnia, meanwhile, appeared overcome by the moment while the home team came out with its hair on fire.
They were very lucky to get the early penalty that Walters dispatched, but not even Bosnian star Edin Dzeko – who blasted his team for its timidity after the match – would say Ireland didn’t fully deserve to go through.
For Ireland, this was a reclamation project of the highest order. A generation of players was exiting, and the team had only qualified for one major tournament – Euro 2012, in which the team was outscored 9-1 – since a magical run at the 2002 World Cup.
O’Neill was appointed alongside Roy Keane almost two years ago to the day to freshen up a setup that had grown alarmingly stale in the last days of Italian Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign.
Up until this fall, that hadn’t quite happened. Ireland’s campaign sputtered with underperforming players and an inability to finish games resulting in more suffering for a country that has suffered plenty recently.
Not now, though.
O’Neill needed this. The plucky, endearing little Irishman’s reputation had floundered since his stint at Aston Villa – but this triumph will go miles to revive O’Neill’s reputation as a coach who gets the very most out of his players. His tactical inventiveness was on fully display as well.
Keane needed it too. Out of football management entirely for two years after a failed spell as Ipswich boss, O’Neill took a chance on him in 2013 by bringing him back into the national team setup that bitterly split opinion at home.
This win over Bosnia was something of an Irish magnum opus. At times, they defended too deep, absorbed too much pressure, and, of course, they got both their goals on set pieces, but it was evident from the start that Ireland had bought in. Totally and completely.
They were never afraid of the moment. Bosnia never came close to matching their force of spirit.
And it wasn’t just that Ireland closed their eyes, reared back, and played hard. They played smart, too. They managed the game, took their chances, and played cleanly enough to drain Bosnia of real hope well before the final whistle sounded.
When Ireland wins, that’s why. It’s because they play together and play with heart. O’Neill and Keane have tapped into something that had been missing since Thierry Henry’s handball so cruelly knocked this team out of the running to make it to South Africa in 2010.
So Ireland is off to – ironically enough – France. O’Neill, who danced around in his inimitable track-top over-team-polo look and pulled his assistant Keane into the celebrations, will lead them – with a new contract extension and all his eccentricities in tow.
Of course, Ireland wouldn’t be headed to the finals if not Michel Platini’s decision to expand the Euros from 16 to 24 teams – one of the only good deeds the Frenchman has done for football as a UEFA administrator and FIFA power broker.
That move didn’t just pave the way for Ireland, but it helped Wales and Northern Ireland into the big show too. Along with England’s qualification, this marks the first time that four countries from the British Isles will appear together at a major championship.
Northern Ireland and Wales took care of business early, but it’s hard not to admire what Ireland just pulled off. What we saw was a team of meagerly talented players come together in pursuit of something bigger than themselves and lift a country. That’s what this sport does at its best.
Hopefully the Irish get some sleep in the coming days. They’ve got a big summer just around the corner.
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