Ireland capped a memorable campaign by leaving their most comprehensive victory to last.
On a night of tension and unbridled joy, it seemed appropriate that Ireland’s best player of the qualifying campaign, Jon Walters would score the goals to send the Boys in Green through to their third European Championship Finals.
After a strong and composed performance in the first leg Martin O’Neill made just one change in personnel and two positional changes. Robbie Brady was moved to left-back in place of Stephen Ward whilst Jonathan Walters returned to the Irish attack. Despite John O’Shea returning to fitness, Ciaran Clark retained his place in central defence alongside Richard Keogh. Shane Long also took his place on the bench after returning from the injury that forced his early withdrawal away to Poland.
Bosnia and Herzegovina made three changes to their team and reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation that had served them well for most of the qualifying campaign. The return of the Deportivo La Coruña midfielder Haris Medunjanin was intended to allow Miralem Pjanic more licence to get into the final third of the field and provide some creative nous.
The tension was evident before kick-off when a territorial dispute arose during the warm-up involving Robbie Keane and Stephane Gilli, one of the Bosnian coaching staff. Ireland’s record goal scorer was apparently unhappy that Bosnia’s goalkeepers were launching kick-outs into the Irish half of the field. Keane’s spiky response set the tone for the evening and was symptomatic of an Irish squad that would refuse to give an inch to their opponents. The edge was also in evidence immediately prior to kick-off when a minority of the away supporters interrupted the minute’s silence for the victims of the Paris tragedy. The Irish fans were clearly upset by the lack of respect shown.
Ireland set the tone with early intensity
Ireland started the game showing real intensity and pressing Bosnia in the right areas of the field. This energy almost paid off in the ninth minute when James McCarthy won the ball back in his own half leading to a Robbie Brady cross to the near post, which required Asmir Begovic to force the ball out for a corner. Bosnia looked nervous in the early exchanges and none more so than their 35-year old centre-half Emir Spahić who clattered into both Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. Spahić was lucky to escape with just a yellow card, despite the protests of the Irish players to the Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers.
In what seemed like a good omen, Kuipers had been in charge when Ireland last qualified for a major tournament against Estonia at the Aviva Stadium four years previously. Indeed, it was an intervention from the referee that provided the key moment in the first half when he awarded a penalty to the home side. The move began with Ireland attacking down the right-hand side through some intricate passing from McCarthy, Coleman and Hoolahan. The ball was played through to Daryl Murphy who turned well and crossed towards the edge of the six yard box where the ball glanced off the forearm of Ervin Zukanović. It was a harsh decision to award the penalty, but given that it was almost six years to the day since Thierry Henry’s infamous handball there was perhaps a certain symmetry about Ireland availing of some good fortune. The resulting penalty was dispatched with conviction by Jon Walters as he drilled the ball low into the left corner, sending his former Stoke teammate Begovic the wrong way.
Despite Ireland having secured a 24th minute lead it did little to change the dynamic of the tie as Bosnia still required an away goal. Ireland began to retreat as Bosnia took control of possession. However, the Irish defence was solid and despite Bosnia having almost 60% of the first half possession they offered little threat.
Defensive solidity and positivity in possession
Bosnia introduced Everton’s Muhamed Bešić as a half-time substitute and he was immediately prominent as the away side went in search of a goal that would take the play-off to extra-time. Ciaran Clark did well to head a dangerous cross out for a corner,before Senad Lulić missed a good chance from Edin Višća’s cross.
O’Neill’s response to the growing pressure was to introduce James McClean and Shane Long in place of Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy in the 55th minute. The pace of the two substitutes gave Ireland a fresh impetus and forced Bosnia to defend a little deeper, which was perhaps recognition from the away side that they would now be more susceptible to a long ball over the top. When Ireland did have possession it was notable how both Coleman and Brady got forward in support of the attack. Given the importance of the game it was a positive sight to see the two full-backs empowered with the freedom to get forward, particularly when one considers the innate conservatism that Irish fans became accustomed to during the previous managerial regime.
Walters the hero again
After 69 minutes, Ireland finally secured the cushion of a second goal. It followed another foul from Spahić who remarkably escaped a second yellow card when he landed his studs in Jon Walter’s midriff. Bosnia’s relief was short-lived as the resulting free-kick was whipped in by Robbie Brady before looping off the foot of Ognjen Vranješ and volleyed to the net by Walters. With twenty minutes to go Ireland were now firmly in control of the tie, and for an Irish crowd that have become used to disappointment and nervy finishes they couldn’t quite believe their luck.
Shane Long almost scored a third minutes later when he dispossessed that man Spahić who was quite clearly the weakest link in the Bosnia team. However, Long seemed to have too much time on his hands and eventually scuffed his shot. Ireland continued to look comfortable with Keogh and Clark putting in a rugged defensive performance and Darren Randolph brought an air of calmness to proceedings. As the clock hit the 90-minute mark Glenn Whelan was withdrawn for John O’Shea who took over the captain’s armband. However, there was one final scare in injury time as Vedad Ibišević volleyed the ball against the Irish crossbar. In the seconds that followed Edin Džeko received a yellow card for sarcastically clapping the referee. It summed up Džeko’s night for both he and his Roma teammate Pjanic were well and truly frustrated by the work rate and discipline of Ireland’s defensive unit.
The celebrations begin
The final whistle inevitably lead to Irish celebrations as Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane embraced and the stadium rocked in a way that was akin to some of the great nights in the old Lansdowne. The Irish squad embarked on a well-deserved lap of honour and clearly enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere on a special night.
Over the course of the two legs Ireland proved to be a more cohesive unit than Bosnia and Herzegovina and were deserving winners. Martin O’Neill deserves huge credit for getting his tactical approach absolutely right and neutralising the threat that was posed by Bosnia’s key attacking players. O’Neill has overseen an infusion of younger players that have brought energy and enthusiasm to the team. After waiting over 14 years for a competitive win against high-ranking opposition Ireland have now succeeded in achieving home wins against Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina within the space of six weeks. The momentum is building and this Irish squad will approach Euro 2016 with a real sense of belief.
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph, Seamus Coleman, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan (captain) (John O’Shea 90 mins), James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters, Wes Hoolahan (James McClean 55 mins), Daryl Murphy (Shane Long 55 mins).
Bosnia-Herzegovina: Asmir Begovic, Ognjen Vranjes, Emir Spahic, Sead Kolasinac, Ervin Zukanovic, Edin Visca, Miralem Pjanic, Edin Cocalic (Muhamed Besic half-time), Senad Lulic (VedadIbisevic 80 mins), Haris Medunjanin (Milan Duric 69), Edin Dzeko (captain).
Darren Randolph 8
Not many had heard of Darren Randolph before he was parachuted into the Germany game but his calm presence, organisational skills and ability to make clean contact with the ball (yes this has been a problem for our goalkeepers for aeons) have helped Ireland become a better unit. Darren has youth on his side and if he can break into the West Ham team then there won’t be anybody to wrestle the Ireland jersey from him.
Seamus Coleman 8
Seamus is so highly regarded for his forward dashes that it’s often forgotten that he’s a pretty good defender too. At times for Ireland he has looked a little shaky in that department but this was an excellent rearguard performance from the Donegal man. Not only was he assured but he continually evaded the clutches of the surrounding Bosnians when a lesser defender might have succumbed.
Ciaran Clark 8
His cap count may be in the low teens but Ciaran Clark is beginning to exert the presence of a veteran. Clark is always solid, inherently brave and has a knack for killing danger before it fully manifests itself. That and an inkling that he’ll soon be notching up goals at the other end, thanks to his propensity to go forward in set piece scenarios, makes him a likely starter for the foreseeable future.
Richard Keogh 8
Like Clark beside him Richard Keogh has been another huge success in the playoffs. Keogh is quick and can read the game well but it is his indefatigable spirit and intensity for the cause that most impresses. He probably has a job on his hands to replace John O’Shea at his swansong tournament but the future is his to lose.
Robbie Brady 8
Another game where Robbie Brady left his trademark crossing behind him apart from the inswinger that Jon Walters volleyed to the net. Thankfully most of everything else that he did worked and worked supremely as the Dubliner continues to show us why he and Jon Walters have become the most important players in the Ireland setup. Brady’s skill and speed are a big asset and his increasing dependability both on the wing and at left back make him indispensable.
Jon Walters 9
Didn’t get 10, only because nobody does. Walters has been Ireland’s best performer throughout this campaign and we only felt his true loss from the first leg of the playoff after witnessing what he did in the second. This was a masterful display of determination, skill and never say die attitude that is up there with his truly epic turn against Germany at the Aviva in October. Jon also scored the goals that meant Ireland just had too much than their much lauded opponents.
Glenn Whelan 7
A magnet for endless flack Whelan did what he always does for Ireland in offering good cover for the defence and a wrecking ball for prospective opposition forays into the Irish half. As ever he showed genuine grit with lots of headers, intercepts and a few forward passes to boot!
James McCarthy 7
If this campaign thought us anything it’s that a fully functioning James McCarthy is the heartbeat of the Irish team. You can tell as much as he ran the show versus Germany. On this occasion he was an ever present, breaking up the ball in midfield and trying to start things. It wasn’t a vintage performance by any means but McCarthy has time on his side and has the goods to become an Ireland great.
Jeff Hendrick 8
Along with Robbie Brady Jeff Hendrick has been one of the finds of this qualifying campaign and his workrate and end product have been a joy to watch. While he did not quite make as telling a contribution as in the Germany away game or Georgia at home Hendrick positively exuded youthful energy and a willingness to close down the opposition. This is the start of a very long Ireland career for the Dubliner.
Wes Hoolahan 6
After the highs of Germany Wes Hoolahan has come back down to earth somewhat over the two playoff legs. In Zenica he was anonymous and while he improved somewhat this time around it was a world away from what is expected of the Norwich playmaker. That said he toiled, ran the lines and played some nice balls, especially in the first half as Ireland continually carved up the Bosnians down the left flank.
Daryl Murphy 7
Again deployed on his own upfront Murphy battled gamely like Tommy Coyne used to do back in Big Jack’s time. While he never had the pace to outstrip the Bosnian defence Murphy kept the ball well until the reinforcements arrived. Robbie Brady’s generally woeful crossing probably denied the Waterford man any chance he had of nicking a goal but his presence alone unsettled the shaky opposition defenders.
Shane Long 6
There is no way Shane Long could have been fully match fit for this one but boy what a lift he gives everyone when he squares up to opposing defenders. As always he harried, won headers and were it not for running out of steam when one-on-one with Begovic could have added another goal in the mould of his German moment.
James McClean 5
There’s no doubt the presence of the Derry man lifts the crowd thanks to his wholehearted endeavour but this was a game where he did little to help the cause. In fact the opposite is probably the case as McClean picked up a yellow card and gave away about half a dozen fouls in the little time he was on the pitch. While he did one or two good things, including a burst down field following a kick to the face, this was not an appearance to remember.
John O’Shea 6
Sheasy has been one of the heroes of this campaign and his presence is always reassuring. Coming on as the game approached injury time meant that the Waterford man exercised little or no influence. But it was nice to know he was there on the pitch at the end given his heroic endeavours over the years.
- Match Report: Alan Hannify & Player Ratings: Kevin Dunphy