Ireland’s win over Austria on Saturday was the latest chapter in the team’s resurgence under Martin O’Neill.
It’s just over a year since Shane Long scored *that* goal against Germany, downing the world champions and sending the Irish public into raptures. While that was a momentous goal in the history of Irish football, Ireland’s upward curve since then has been quite remarkable.
A successful Euro 2016 campaign, which included a memorable victory over the mighty Italians, has been followed by an impressive start to World Cup 2018 qualification. After Saturday’s away win over Austria, Martin O’Neill’s side sit top of Group D after four games, leaving Irish fans dreaming of Russia.
THE O’NEILL FACTOR
Let’s not kid ourselves, Ireland under O’Neill aren’t exactly purveyors of free-flowing, attacking football, in fact the opposite is true. However, what the former Aston Villa boss brings to the table is the ability to get quite a lot out of very little. This is far from the best collection of players Ireland have had in recent decades, but O’Neill has managed to make a very limited group of players a sum far greater than their parts.
Indeed, Ireland’s style of play under O’Neill is not totally dissimilar to his predecessor’s, Giovanni Trapattoni. However, the level of spirit and commitment amongst the players under O’Neill is far greater than it was under the Italian. Robbie Brady’s tears in Lille after scoring the goal that beat Italy highlighted how much the players seem to value playing for the national team.
Indeed, O’Neill’s success with Ireland contrasts greatly with the doom and gloom currently enveloping Scottish football under Gordon Strachan. The level of player available for Scotland is not that much lower than for Ireland, but unlike O’Neill, Strachan is yet to find the formula that yields success on the pitch.
One of Ireland’s most improved players in recent months has been West Brom’s James McClean. The Derry-born winger epitomises the newfound sense of belief and commitment in this Irish side under Martin O’Neill. With three goals in Ireland’s opening four qualifiers, McClean is beginning to cement his place in the team.
Regardless of technical skill, McClean’s battling, never say die attitude is what endears him so greatly to the Irish fans. Whether it’s a European Championship quarter final against France, or a qualifier away to Moldova, McClean’s effort and work-rate never wavers, he is a player who revels playing in the green shirt.
CAN THEY QUALIFY?
There is, undoubtedly, a long way to go for this Irish side. It has been an excellent start to the qualifying campaign, but Martin O’Neill will be wary of the fact that both Wales and Austria, the two sides fancied to take the top spots in Group D, have yet to get out of second gear. If both of those teams can rediscover the form that led them to Euro 2016, then things could get a lot tougher for the Irish.
However, Irish fans can take confidence from the fact that of the six qualifiers remaining, four of them are at home. The Aviva Stadium can often be a quiet, lifeless venue when the smaller teams come to visit, but – as proved by the win over Germany last year – it can be as atmospheric as any stadium in Europe on the big occasions. Irish fans must make the effort to create such an atmosphere at all home games, regardless of the level of opposition, if this team is to stand a chance of reaching a first World Cup finals since 2002.