Ireland’s World Cup qualification has not ended just yet with a playoff still to navigate, but their group turned out to be something of a rollercoaster.
Three wins from their first four games – and a 2-2 draw in Serbia – led to dreams of reaching Russia automatically, but a poor run of form that saw them fail to win any of their next four matches led to the scrap to finish as runners-up that Irish fans have come to expect from the Boys in Green in a qualification campaign.
Two wins from the last two, including this week’s memorable win in Cardiff, sealed that second place and ahead of next week’s playoff draw, we look at five men who can look back at that campaign with a large amount of satisfaction.
Shane Duffy. The Brighton man ended Euro 2016 under a cloud having been sent off in the 2-1 defeat to hosts France, and might have feared for his place in Martin O’Neill’s starting lineup. In truth, he need not have worried, as it has become patently obvious in this campaign that the manager sees Duffy and Ciaran Clark as his first-choice centre-back pairing.
His threat from set pieces manifested itself throughout, including with the opener in Georgia, and he has grown into his role at the back to the point where his colossal display against Wales earlier this week will live long in the memory.
James McClean. A more peripheral figure last summer, it’s easy to forget that McClean didn’t start Ireland’s opening two games at Euro 2016. The West Brom winger has not only fought his way back into O’Neill’s plans, but has become one of the side’s most important players.
The 28-year-old scored four times in qualifying (and once in a friendly against Uruguay), but it is the nature of these goals that stands out – the winners in Vienna and Cardiff, and two against Moldova hen the team badly needed it. A tireless worker on the pitch whose love for the green shirt is obvious.
Daryl Murphy. At the beginning of the campaign, Murphy’s lack of goals were starting to become a big problem; the former Waterford striker’s work ethic was clear but the end product was lacking. So it was a huge relief to all concerned when he headed in his first Ireland goal in the first match away to Serbia, rescuing a point in the process.
The 34-year-old added two more goals in the victory against Moldova in the penultimate game in the group, and while he is still not be the prolific striker Ireland are crying out for, the three goals in the campaign haveat least caused many to re-evaluate his role in the squad.
David Meyler. The squad’s Mr. Versatile, Meyler has now surely proven his worth as a starter in this team. From replacing Glenn Whelan in Vienna and giving a fantastic performance, to coming in for James McCarthy just before kick-off against Wales at the Aviva, to being handed the captain’s armband against Moldova and Wales, the Hull City man has been dependable whenever called upon by O’Neill.
The latest round of fixtures look to have seen Meyler usurp Whelan’s place in the side, and McCarthy won’t find it easy to get back in either.
Martin O’Neill. The manager, whose own stock has fluctuated with his team’s. Everything looked rosy after four games, when Ireland were sitting pretty with ten points from a possible twelve. The next four games, however, were horrible and the timing of the announcement that O’Neill had agreed a new deal, just before last week’s double-header, surprised many.
While the performances are still slightly concerning, it’s hard to argue with the results. Ireland have made the playoffs, and in that regard, O’Neill has done exactly what was asked of him.
In this weeks episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast we reflect on Ireland’s fantastic result in Wales, discuss the future of Irish football with Joe Gamble and analyse the latest League of Ireland Premier Division action.