Mcclean comes of age in Cardiff caul­dron Things we learned

Irish Examiner - Sport - - SOCCER -

The re­sult was all that mat­tered Ir­re­spec­tive of the qual­ity of foot­ball on dis­play, the re­sult was all that mat­tered from last night’s Cardiff show­down. Ire­land over­came a dread­ful first half, weath­ered the storm as Wales dom­i­nated pos­ses­sion, and calmly played their way into con­tention.

Dar­ren Ran­dolph, Shane Duffy, and Ciaran Clark proved a for­mi­da­ble de­fen­sive trio on an evening when the hosts threw ev­ery­thing at their op­po­nents in the fi­nal quar­ter. A bet­ter team might have made Ire­land pay for their lack of cre­ativ­ity but credit Jeff Hen­drick for keep­ing alive an ap­par­ent lost cause and cross­ing for James Mcclean to wal­lop in a mar­vel­lous strike. An elec­tric at­mos­phere helped de­liver a com­pe­tent rather than spec­tac­u­lar Ir­ish per­for­mance, but Martin O’neill won’t care one iota as his squad be­gin prepa­ra­tions for a World Cup play­off.

Mcclean un­der­lines his worth James Mcclean has been one of Martin O’neill’s most loyal ser­vants since the North­ern Ir­ish­man be­came his in­ter­na­tional man­ager. Two cru­cial goals in the 3-1 vic­tory away to Moldova were fol­lowed by the win­ner in a 1-0 vic­tory in Vi­enna, un­der­lin­ing Mcclean’s im­por­tance to his team.

In Cardiff, the West Bromwich Al­bion winger de­liv­ered when it mat­tered most, fir­ing the ball be­yond Wayne Hen­nessey to send the Re­pub­lic of Ire­land into a World Cup play-off.

The 28-year-old’s ma­tu­rity over the past 12 months owes much to O’neill’s man-man­age­ment.

Lack of goals still an is­sue

It’s clear from the Re­pub­lic of Ire­land’s qual­i­fi­ca­tion record that their goals against col­umn was as favourable as any in Group D. Yet an in­abil­ity to reg­u­larly find the net could have cost Martin O’neill’s side a play-off berth un­til Mcclean popped up with a crack­ing strike. An over-re­liance on set pieces, Shane Long’s wretched run of form, plus Jonathan Walters’ in­jury woes meant Ire­land lacked a clin­i­cal fin­isher and would have paid the ul­ti­mate price but for Mcclean’s in­ter­ven­tion. Longterm, O’neill des­per­ately needs to un­earth an­other Rob­bie Keane. Thank­fully, there is no short­age of hope­fuls, in­clud­ing Sean Maguire and Scott Ho­gan who have re­cently emerged onto the in­ter­na­tional scene, des­per­ate to make an im­pact at the high­est level.

To­gether is still stronger

Chris Cole­man de­serves im­mense credit for main­tain­ing the feel-good fac­tor around Welsh foot­ball and build­ing on their Euro 2016 de­spite fall­ing short in at­tempt­ing to reach the World Cup play-offs. Look­ing back, five con­sec­u­tive draws scup­pered Wales’ chances of a first fi­nals ap­pear­ance since 1958 de­spite Cole­man once again get­ting the best out of Hal Rob­son-kanu, Joe Led­ley, and James Ch­ester as well as in­tro­duc­ing Ben Wood­burn and Tom Lawrence.

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that Wales moved within touch­ing dis­tance of a trip to Rus­sia de­spite los­ing their tal­is­man Gareth Bale for their fi­nal two group out­ings. The Drag­ons may be down but their fu­ture re­mains bright.

- Ger Mccarthy

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