Shane Long (in green) scores for Ireland against Germany at the Aviva Stadium. DONALL FARMER/INPHO
By Peter McDermott
Super sub Shane Long’s 70th-minute goal against Germany on Thursday has edged the Republic of Ireland closer to participation in next year’s European Championships.
The famous 1-0 victory over the 2014 World Cup winners means that Martin O’Neill’s men will play a qualification round, at the very least. But victory or a high-scoring draw against Poland in Warsaw on Sunday would mean going through as the 2nd placed team (with Germany likely in 1st place after their game against Georgia).
It was a big night for bearers of that Ulster surname, for Northern Ireland, led by former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill, booked their place for France next year with a 3-1 win over Greece in Belfast.
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During the week, Martin O’Neill was citing the “great spirit” that prevailed in the Northern Ireland teams that he played in (from 1971-1984) as an example of how less powerful sides can get big results. And the Republic’s win over Germany is certainly on par with the North’s humbling of host nation Spain in the 1982 World Cup tournament.
The local media weren’t giving the Irish much of a chance of taking all three points ahead of the game. Certainly they got a heroic draw against Germany in 2014, but the champions had lately returned to the sort of form that had seen them humiliate hosts Brazil 7-1 in last year’s World Cup semifinal. And while the Republic have twice beaten world-champion German sides — in 1956 and 1994 – they had never done so in competition.
It had the feel of Championship vs. Champions League, more than one reporter commented beforehand – the former a reference to England’s 2nd tier league. Indeed, because of an injury and a suspension, Derby County’s Cyrus Christie and Richard Keogh joined in the lineup their Championship teammate Jeff Hendrick, who is more of a Republic regular. And Stephen Ward was also drafted in at the back, though he hasn’t played for Burnley since August. The other seven of the starting XI ply their trade in the Premiership — they were: Shay Given (Aston Villa), John O’Shea (Sunderland), James McCarthy (Everton), Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan (both Norwich), Jonathan Walters (Stoke) and Daryl Murphy (Ipswich).
Hoolahan, for one, showed he had the class to compete with German players that made grown men from Brazil cry, like Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, André Schürrle and Thomas Muller, as well as Mario Goetze, who broke Argentinian hearts in the World Cup final.
Germany were at their most dangerous in the opening 20 minutes, when Irish defenders were acclimating themselves to the visitors’ power and skill. Even then, they showed some of the spirit that O’Neill had called for — Ward and O’Shea, in particular, by making important interventions. Germany would continue to dominate possession and make chances, but Irish resistance was more assured and they always looked to have counterattack capability.
When the goal finally came, it was from combination play by two subs — Darren Randolph, West Ham’s 2nd choice goalkeeper, who was introduced after Shay Given was injured in the 35th minute, and Southampton’s Long. The huge roar went up when the striker came on for Murphy in the 65th minute, as he’s known for his late goal-scoring exploits for both club and country. But the former Tipperary minor hurler didn’t leave it that late: five minutes in, he latched on to a mighty kick out from Randolph, left some Germans in his wake and fired a screamer past the world-conquering goalie Manuel Neuer.
Irish hearts will be hoping for a similar result against Poland on Sunday. The sides have equal points, but placement will not be decided, at least initially, by goal difference. Instead, it depends on performances between the two sides. As they drew in Dublin, another 1-1 draw would then bring Poland’s superior goal difference into play. But if it’s 2-2 or more, the “away goals count double” rule will be applied, and Ireland qualify.
Meanwhile, Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland are celebrating a return to tournament football for the first time since the 1986 World Cup and are looking forward to their first ever European Championships finals.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved, this is certainly the highest point of my career, either as a player or a manager,” O’Neil said. “Now we can look forward to the tournament. We’re not just going to go to France and enjoy it — we’re going to go and try to make an impact.”