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.