Irish ecstasy, Welsh agony
Coleman may quit after Mcclean’s winner puts Republic in play-offs
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