Ir­ish ec­stasy, Welsh agony

Cole­man may quit af­ter Mcclean’s win­ner puts Repub­lic in play-offs

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Jeremy Wil­son DEPUTY FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT at the Cardiff City Sta­dium

It was just as the Wales fans had loudly evoked the spirit of Euro 2016 with a boom­ing verse of ‘please don’t take me home’ that James Mcclean scored the goal that crushed hopes of an­other big party next sum­mer.

The Repub­lic of Ire­land will in­stead go into the World Cup play­offs next month af­ter a tac­ti­cal mas­ter­class from Mar­tin O’neill first con­tained a bar­rage of early Welsh pres­sure and then saw his team pounce clin­i­cally to seize their chance. Ire­land clearly lack cre­ative qual­ity just now but, with O’neill at the helm, their or­gan­i­sa­tion and sheer char­ac­ter will en­sure that they are a con­sid­er­able ob­sta­cle for any play-off op­po­nent.

Re­mark­ably, Mcclean’s 57thminute win­ner here was the only time that Wales had been be­hind in any qual­i­fi­ca­tion match of this en­tire cam­paign but it was still suf­fi­cient to en­sure that their ag­o­nis­ing 60-year wait to play in a World Cup fi­nals goes on. It could also mean that man­ager Chris Cole­man’s ten­ure will end. Cole­man had pre­vi­ously said that he would stand down at the end of the cam­paign but he hinted last night at a U-turn that would see him lead Wales into Euro 2020.

“I can’t an­swer right now about my fu­ture,” he said. “I have a dress­ing room of dev­as­tated play­ers; the whole na­tion will be mourn­ing. There’s a chance I can go on and a chance I won’t. My con­tract is un­til the sum­mer. I’ll go back to my fam­ily and take a bit of time.”

In the dress­ing-room, Cole­man had per­son­ally thanked the play­ers and told them that they had again “made the na­tion proud”. He added: “I am priv­i­leged to work with th­ese play­ers. I told them to stick their chest out. When you look at the age of the squad, they will be even bet­ter af­ter tonight. You learn from de­feats. We will be stronger.” The use of the word ‘we’ may just have been a slip but felt po­ten­tially telling.

It was not re­ally this unimag­i­na­tive per­for­mance that had been the main prob­lem. A se­ries of draws from win­ning po­si­tions ear­lier in the cam­paign, when Gareth Bale was fully fit, be­came a missed chance to build on the mo­men­tum of Euro 2016 and as­sert them­selves in a dif­fi­cult but winnable group. It will surely also be dif­fi­cult for Cole­man to walk away amid such fer­vour for the Welsh team. The last tan­noy in­struc­tion to the fans had been to sing the na­tional an­them “like they had never done be­fore” and, with the mu­sic de­lib­er­ately cut off early, they duly obliged. There were es­ti­mated to be 10,000 Ir­ish sup­port­ers in Cardiff and, while only 3,000 of them could get tick­ets, the noise from each and ev­ery cor­ner of the ground was im­mense. There was, though, still some­thing un­usu­ally stir­ring about the last few verses of Land Of My Fa­thers as just the voices of 30,000 sup­port­ers echoed through the night air. In­ter­na­tional foot­ball cer­tainly still mat­ters when there is some­thing tan­gi­ble at stake.

The match quickly set­tled into a dis­tinct pat­tern. O’neill’s team were will­ing to cede pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory to frus­trate a flurry of early Welsh pres­sure that they had clearly an­tic­i­pated. Chris Gunter, the Wales player of the year for 2017, soon forced a cor­ner and Hal Rob­son-kanu did meet Joe Led­ley’s cross but di­rected his header high and wide. Cole­man had pre­dicted that the match would again be phys­i­cal but, with Wales so dom­i­nant in pos­ses­sion, first real sign of the “typ­i­cally Bri­tish match” that he an­tic­i­pated was not un­til af­ter al­most 20 min­utes when Joe Allen was cau­tioned for a late chal­lenge on David Meyler. Allen’s head then soon be­came hor­ri­bly sand­wiched be­tween Meyler’s hip and McClean’s body as they com­peted for a bounc­ing ball. Allen was con­cussed and the Wales med­i­cal staff showed good judg­ment with so much at stake in rec­om­mend­ing his im­me­di­ate sub­sti­tu­tion.

“If they have tar­geted him – they have done a good job but there are no com­plaints from me,” said Cole­man, who still ac­knowl­edged that Wales had lost much of their rhythm with­out Allen.

A goal­less half-time score­line left Wales with a quandary in how they ap­proached the se­cond half. They were in the play-offs as things stood but still at the mercy of other matches and, while a win could mean au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion, de­feat would equal cer­tain elim­i­na­tion. Ire­land had the sim­pler task of need­ing only vic­tory but they were still pa­tient and con­tent to ab­sorb a fur­ther se­ries of con­trolled Welsh at­tacks, most no­tably when Rob­son-kanu forced Ran­dolph into an ac­ro­batic save. It was a piv­otal mo­ment as, sec­onds later, Wayne Hen­nessey and Ash­ley Wil­liams con­spired to cheaply lose pos­ses­sion in­side their own half. Jeff Hen­drick pounced and de­liv­ered a cross that was su­perbly dum­mied by Harry Arter and al­lowed to run into the path of Mcclean.

The en­tire sta­dium fell mo­men­tar­ily silent as the out­stand­ing chance of the match loomed but Mcclean was more than equal to the mo­ment and fin­ished with em­phatic pre­ci­sion. Cole­man re­acted by re­plac­ing Rob­son-kanu with Vokes but how he needed the in­jured Bale on the pitch. There was also then fur­ther bad news when it emerged that Croa­tia had taken the lead against the Ukraine and so even a draw would be in­suf­fi­cient. Ire­land dropped ever deeper in the fi­nal min­utes but, with Bale look­ing on help­lessly and Shane Duffy colos­sal, their de­fence re­mained im­preg­nable.

Match win­ner: James Mcclean scores the Repub­lic’s de­ci­sive goal last night

Hero in agony: Gareth Bale can hardly watch as his Wales team-mates go out

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