herald

Monday 18 December 2017

marty's miracle raises the bar

Expectations soar after Gelsenkirchen

IT is still difficult to digest. An Ireland team with the look of Ragball Rovers about it for long stretches of the first half in Gelsenkirchen delivered a sucker-punch of truly epic proportions and our spirits soared.

Martin O'Neill has raised the bar for himself though. Weeks and months of explaining that his resources were thin enough and clear evidence in front of our eyes that he was telling the truth went up in smoke the moment John O'Shea left this mortal realm and went to a place he has not visited very often.

Too good. Down through the years, there have been few enough moments when the stars all came into line and a diaspora of prayers and novenas around the world were answered.

This time, the gods wore a green jersey and John O'Shea did something he doesn't do very often.

"Was that his third goal?" asked O'Neill in a small room away from the pretty tatty media area in what is supposed to be a Champions League venue.

Rubbish

By the way, you'll be glad to hear that German railway ticket machines, broadband and mobile phone signals are rubbish. Perhaps all the cash we gave to Angela and her banker friends carried pixiehead dust on it and they are now irrevocably infected with our feckless ways.

But back to O'Neill and his assessment of O'Shea's wonderful, striker's goal.

"That's pretty appalling for a centre-half, the number of time he comes up for a set-piece, that's pretty appalling. I must tell him that," he said and we all convulsed.

A manager is always funnier when he's done something great but it was very funny, to be fair.

"I saw one the goals that he did score, was it against Kazakhstan where I think Richard Dunne's got the header down? I could have put that one in.

"So, three goals from 100 matches, what do you think about it, you know?" And a smiles creased his face.

"He's had the captain's armband at the same time," he said, more serious now. "It was really delightful, it worked out brilliantly for him. What is that, five Irish players have with 100 caps for the Republic? Six? That's fantastic."

There is something growing here. The O'Neill-Roy Keane partnership is maturing quickly and the combination is formidable.

The sight of Keane's finger thumping in his cupped palm in a steady rhythm while he made point after point in a mini huddle of Irish players showed clearly his value.

Rarely have players listened to a No.2 with such rapt attention and some of great pictures from Irish photographers of the game captured it brilliantly.

But O'Neill is the pilot in this and while his strategy for this game attracted some heavy incoming fire from the RTé studio, most people will be happy to let him off after a result like this.

Could he have done better in his first three competitive games? Hardly. Could he have done worse? Definitely.

You can call it luck but it is surely not happenstance that points have been plundered from two difficult away venues with goals scored when Ireland should have been out on their feet and idling, as they did under both Brain Kerr and Giovanni Trapattoni.

If he has done nothing else, O'Neill has reversed a punishing trend which saw goals conceded at exactly the wrong moment in every other game.

It cost Brian Kerr qualification for Germany 2006 after just as good an away draw against France, and David Alaba left a raw wound in many hearts when he snatched late goals in two Brazil 2014 qualifiers for Austria.

Fitness

O'Neill is still worried about fitness, though. He explained that many of his decisions on Tuesday evening were formed by issues of physical fitness, including the timing of the substitutions which brought Gibson, Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan into the game.

He also had some interesting things to say about Robbie Keane, which could become very significant in the run-up to Celtic Park next month.

"I think that the way he players, in terms of fitness, that's still an element that we have to consider. I was talking to the players about that," said O'Neill.

"Players who don't play regularly in their club sides. Darron Gibson is definitely a very, very decent footballer. He had already played the other evening (against Gibraltar). I know it wasn't stretching him."

"Robbie is 34 and maybe can't keep going in the two games so we had all sorts of things coming in. We certainly wanted to make one change in the game relatively quickly, because while we were doing okay, we were doing fine.

"But I just wanted us to maybe try push forward a bit more and keep the ball a little bit. Easier said than done against the Germans but eventually I got all three on and that's why it was a great effort because Stephen Ward was injured and we played effectively the last eight, nine, 10 minutes with 10 men. I think that's really great credit to the team."

Indeed it was, and in that sentence he bought some grace for the same players, some of whom, let's say, have had better nights.

The right result will always cover a multitude.

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