A funny thing happened on the way back from Glasgow.
It is two years to the day since the lowest point of the Martin O’Neill era in charge of the Republic of Ireland. After the thrill of claiming a point away to World champions Germany a month earlier, the optimism surrouning a solid start to their Euro 2016 qualification campaign was obliterated by a 1-0 defeat in Scotland.
It wasn’t necessarily the result itself that ruined the mood, but the nature of the performance. At the very least, Ireland considered themselves on a par with Scotland so to be swept aside so easily and without much of a fight, it hurt. That group was going to be too tight to be giving away points like that and Scotland were now in control of the playoff spot.
However, be it through luck or design, that display in the wind and rain of Scotland was the turning point for O’Neill and this Irish side. The draw against the same opposition at the Aviva the following June, when a win was there for the taking, should have killed off Ireland’s hopes of making the cut for France. And yet it did no such thing.
In truth, Gordon Strachan’s side unexpectedly losing in Georgia (which in turn seems to have caused a catastrophic meltdown in the Scotland squad) helped matters but to focus on that would be to disparage this Ireland’s side’s achievements.
Indeed, there can be an argument made that fortune has played a role in much of O’Neill’s success (Italy playing them when qualification was already assured etc.) but to go too far down that road simply wouldn’t be fair.
An easy win in Gibraltar was followed up with a hard-fought win at home to Georgia, before completing one of the greatest and most remarkable results in Irish football history with a 1-0 against Germany. And that was just the beginning of Irish international football’s resurrection.
The knives that were out for O’Neill after the defeat in Glasgow have long since been blunted. Time and again this team has faced adversity and come out on top. To qualify for Euro 2016 in the first place, to reach the knockout stages by beating Italy, the fantastic account of themselves they gave against hosts France – the pride has long been restored to the Irish national team, and now O’Neill and Roy Keane are building on it.
Even when the performances have not quite been up to scratch – and in the three matches before Austria last weekend, they arguably hadn’t been – the results are still coming. If any Irish fan was offered ten dodgy performances with a spot in Russia at the end of it they would gladly take it and book their flights to Moscow with a clear conscience and the usual optimism.
The result in Vienna, however, showed a side of Ireland that had not been seen in years. All too often they have gone ahead only to become cagey and protect the lead immediately – even against Georgia in Dublin recently a second goal was there for the taking but they were reluctant to pull the trigger.
It was one of the reasons why the Irish fans, delighted as they were, could never fully relax in the lead. The chronic fatalism that comes with being an Ireland fan, the sense that they’ve been here before and seen what happens many times, means that a heartbreaking 1-1 is around the corner (and, in all honesty, Marc Janko should have made that a reality in stoppage time).
And yet, whether it was on O’Neill’s instruction or if Austria simply fell apart, Ireland went for it. They looked to create more chances and kept up the intensity when the temptation to sit back and allow Austria on to them, as is normally the case, would have been prominent.
Harry Arter already looks like being an important asset to the Irish midfield, and the re-inclusion of Wes Hoolahan to the starting lineup for the last two games surely represents a greater desire from O’Neill to keep the ball more.
There is a belief about this team now that hasn’t been felt since the days of Jack Charlton and the 2002 campaign under Mick McCarthy. The giant-killings, conspicuous in their absence over the last fifteen or so years, have suddenly started happening again. With the scalp of Austria they’ve even beaten a good team away from home – even the two bosses named above couldn’t quite manage that.
Importantly for Ireland, the momentum is now behind them, far more so than anyone else in that group (none of whom won on Saturday). That can change quickly, as O’Neill has himself warned and used Scotland in the last campaign as a strong example, but it can’t be denied that things are looking good right now.
And if it took a morale-destroying defeat in Glasgow to instigate it, then so be it.