It’s been a long time since it felt like this. As the 50,000 strong Aviva crowd belted out Olé Olé at full volume on Thursday night, with the world champions brought to their knees, a revived sense of hope surfaced – maybe Irish football isn’t the lost cause we were beginning to worry it was.
It was a victory every bit as stunning and gratifying as the one against Italy in Giant’s Stadium at the 1994 World Cup, or the battling victory at Lansdowne Road against the Netherlands in 2001.
In fact it was probably the most significant Irish win in a generation. A team packed of superstars such as Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller – players who were lifting the World Cup trophy in Brazil just fifteen months ago – were ultimately vanquished by a collection of lower Premier League and Championship players.
Context is an amazing thing. The storm clouds were gathering in June after two fairly stilted displays against Scotland had put Gordon Strachan’s side in the driving seat regarding the playoff spot in the group, with the assumption that Germany and Poland would pull away and claim the two automatic places.
That has not happened. The series of events since have been favourable to Ireland and now they are within a high-scoring draw in Warsaw on Sunday of qualifying for France next year in second place (or even first, should Germany defy all expectations and lose at home to Georgia).
That said, this result came from nowhere. Granted there were signs that this was possible in the previous match between these two teams, but this was a level beyond that. This was heroism of a scale not seen of an Irish team in years.
Wes Hoolahan, James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters, three of the better performers in a team full of great displays, went up against a defence and midfield that is arguably the best in the planet and didn’t give them in an inch. Martin O’Neill too, for the amount of criticism he has taken, got his tactics spot on.
Not forgetting Shane Long of course. His well-taken goal was the best possible response to being left out for Daryl Murphy from the start.
Germany arrived in Dublin this week fully expecting to return with the three points and that air of arrogance ultimately cost them. One would think they’d have learned not to underestimate this side after the 1-1 draw in Gelsenkirchen last year but their hubris was their downfall yet again.
Even once the match was over Joachim Löw was more preoccupied with belittling the Irish tactics than reflecting on what was a fantastic team performance, telling reporters:
“We knew Ireland would be defending with nine and sometimes 10 men…We avoided 99 of those long balls, but the 100th long ball was just one too many.”
What was he expecting exactly, for Ireland to bow down to them and let them win 6-1 again? Ireland are a very limited side who made the best of what they had on Thirsday and it worked. If Löw and his myriad of footballing luminaries can’t find a way through that then that’s their failing, not Ireland’s.
Two of the defenders in that Irish side play for Derby County, while the other two play for Sunderland and Burnley respectively. For Löw to complain about not being able to get past players of, with the greatest of respect to those involved, players of comparatively lower status reflects really poorly on his own managerial ability.
Jeff Hendrick hinted at the Irish mentality earlier on in the week when he said “I can’t be afraid of them. You fear them and give them too much respect, and they will walk all over you,”
That’s the right mindset to have – respect their achievements of course, but don’t be fearful of the eleven players in front of you on the night.
What is more important though is that this result has given the fans of this team – the people of this country – their sense of belief back.
The reaction and support to the Irish rugby team’s performances and progression in the World Cup has been phenomenal, and that’s the way Irish people used to feel about football too. Results like Thursday’s are the sort of occurrence that can help restore the country’s sense of excitement in the sport.
The feeling of hope and optimism that has been eroding away for well over a decade came rushing back to the fore in a thundering chorus of green noise. For the first time in a long time, this team and those fans felt like they were invincible.
From a position of gloom three matches ago, maximum points and no goals conceded means that not only are they guaranteed that playoff place, but they now have a decent chance of joining Northern Ireland in the European Championships next year.
They now fully believe they can go to Poland and get a result. When was the last time there was anything close to that level of confidence regarding the Irish setup?
The perceived ‘group of death’ has somehow swung in Ireland’s favour now, they can go into Sunday’s match at the National Stadium in Warsaw essentially with the pressure off – they have guaranteed the playoff place and although qualifying automatically would be ideal, there is far more expectation on Poland to win that match.
It took Scotland’s unexpected defeat in Tblisi to reopen the door for Ireland’s qualification hopes, but Thursday night well and truly blew the hinges off.