It wasn’t meant to go down like this. Ireland don’t show up in big games, it’s always about the moral victories. Earlier defeats in the campaign against Scotland, poor performances against the likes of Georgia and Poland were fine examples. But tonight, as he did against the Poles in March, Shane Long popped up to write his name into Irish footballing folklore.
Every possible permutation had been explored in the run up to tonight. The more realistic among us (including myself) would’ve been hopeful for a Polish win away in Glasgow, to secure Ireland’s playoff spot. The hopefuls would’ve been looking at an Irish draw, to heap the pressure on our neighbors. But you would’ve been both foolish and brave to predict what would eventually unfold.
With a lot of pressure on Martin O’Neill’s shoulders ahead of this weekend, his decision to start Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward as full backs, as well as having Daryl Murphy up front on his own were being questioned by a lot in the Aviva Stadium. Christie had only played twice for his country before, Ward and Murphy unable to continue their form from last season (particularly the latter). Compare this to the Germans, who had seven of their starting eleven in the World Cup final in Rio last year on the field tonight. But on a fresh night in South Dublin, O’Neill’s bravery paid off as the Boys in Green stunned the World Champions, who fell to only their second defeat in their last 49 competitive matches.
For a long time, it was going to the script. Wave after wave of German attacks were being repelled, and there was a sense of the Germans scoring, it was just a matter of time before they did. Jerome Boateng’s free header from 10 yards should’ve given them the lead, and it took heroic levels of tackling from the centre back pairing of John O’Shea and Richie Keogh to keep it scoreless as the clock ticked towards half time. Mesut Özil did get the ball past Shay Given, only to see the goal chalked off for offside. Minutes later, Given’s game was over, twisting his knee while taking a kick out, and having to be replaced by Darren Randolph. News from Scotland was bad for Irish ears, they were level with Poland, a result which at the time would’ve suited O’Neill.
But after that, you got the feeling this was going to be Ireland’s night.
The half time whistle brought a break from the onslaught, but the home side came back out re-invigorated. Wes Hoolahan and James McCarthy began to foray further forward. The crowd started to get behind the team, the famous Landsdowne Roar finally reappearing after so long out. Sub Andre Schurrle had two chances to quieten it down, but spurned both, Scotland had gone ahead against the Poles at this stage, and it was looking bleak.
But with 19 minutes to go, Long was sprung off the bench and within 5 minutes of that, he had struck. Randolph pumped a long ball forward, in truth it should’ve been dealt with easily by the German defence. But they hesitated, leaving the ball bounce, and Long was onto it like a flash. The ex-Cork City player raced clear, controlled with his knee, and slammed the ball past the despairing dive of Manuel Neuer, sending the Aviva crowd into raptures. The finish was clinical, giving the 6ft 4” keeper no chance.
The pressure intensified even more then. Randolph produced a superb save to keep out a drive from Boateng, and was alert to any threat that came over his defence. Germany were looking to pass it through, at one stage keeping possession in the Ireland half for over two minutes. But Christie in particular stepped up to the plate, reading nearly every ball. The one slip saw the ball fall to Thomas Muller on the edge of the box. Muller’s scored 8 goals in 8 appearances for Bayern Munich this season. He rarely misses those kind of chances. But after that, you got the feeling this was going to be Ireland’s night.
Ireland held the ascendancy. They knew that the result was sufficient, so all 11 players were brought back to defend for the final five minutes, with Long happy to chase any long ball over the top. 4 minutes of added time made the sell out crowd whistle. But sure enough, the Spanish referee brought the match to a close, Ireland were guaranteed of a playoff at least. The goals of Houghton in 94 , McAteer vs the Dutch in 01, Keane in 2002, will now be joined by Shane Long’s of 2015.
Amazingly, Ireland can still qualify automatically. A win in Warsaw on Sunday evening, or a high scoring draw, will see us leapfrog Poland into 2nd place, punching our ticket to France without the need for another game. But the pressure is off, the job is done, and the buzz of tonight will not go away for a long long time.