It was a weekend that for this reporter began in Bristol and after a famous win in Cardiff may now end up in Moscow.
When Ireland claimed that famous win in Vienna last November, it put the Boys in Green in the driving seat in Group D. Across the summer though momentum was lost and after claiming just a point from September’s game, the final group game threatened to maybe be a dead rubber – like a decade ago when Ireland last played a competitive game in the city under then caretaker manager Don Givens
The press schedule had Wales set for their pre-match press conference at 10am on Sunday morning. For the Irish media that meant a flight out on Saturday and while a handful of Irish journalists took a trip to see Padraig Amond’s Newport County side, I flew to Bristol and stayed in the city to check out some urbanart.
Newport v Yeovil. As you do. pic.twitter.com/jDgYpZLQHf— Neil O'Riordan (@noriordan) October 7, 2017
Bristol is where the famous street artist Banksy hails from. With the Banksy Bristol App loaded on my phone and Massive Attack playing on my earphones, I was able to see ten pieces by the artist, amongst a sea of street art in the English city.
Thankfully Wales had a rethink about their early press event on Sunday morning after traveling home from their win in Georgia late on Friday night on a five hour flight (plus a three hour time difference). They switched their press conference to 2pm, which was nice of them to give me a lie in in Bristol before getting the bus to Cardiff.
Chris Gunter spoke first ahead of his manager and he talked for over a quarter of an hour answering various questions. The Irish player put forward later in the day was Darren Randolph.
In the first half of the press conference the goalkeeper answered just one question with a short two sentence answer. All told across both parts of the press conference, he probably spoke only slightly more than the Moldovan manager on Friday night!
We asked Darren Randolph about the importance of a clean sheet to give a platform to winning the game which is a must for Ireland... https://t.co/lygnbpUhZI— Extratime.ie (@ExtratimeNews) October 8, 2017
FULL transcript of Moldova press conf !— Paul O'Hehir (@paulohehir) October 6, 2017
"We had quite a difficult group.
"He was not provoked, it just happened."
Later Chris Coleman spoke about his Irish father but was very clear where his allegences lay. “I’m a Welshman. You lot are in the way of us. I have to try and get past that.”
It was slightly bizarre to be listening to Martin O’Neill then in his press conference, while watching Scotland score away to Slovenia on a phone beside the laptop!
A Scottish win would take Ireland’s playoff prospects out of their own hands and so it meant for tense viewing watching that game in the press room after the press conference.
Thankfully Scotland did a Scotland, drawing 2-2, and it meant Ireland knew they now simply needed to win to secure a playoff (and were not relying on a specific result in Ukraine).
Nervous media room in Cardiff City Stadium watching end of Scotland game pic.twitter.com/2lkLnayHrQ— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) October 8, 2017
On match night extratime’s position in the press box was in front of the BBC Five Live Radio team which included Andy Townsend and John Hartson – the man with no underwear!
When the teams emerged for kick off, it was a sea of red and green in the stadium. The main pocket of Ireland fans were away to our right but there were random green jerseys throughout the stadium and a big section right in front of our position.
The Welsh sung a spine tingling a cappello rendition of Land of our Fathers but Amhrán na bhFiann was given a good belt too. After the Welsh lined up for their whacky team photo – four at the back and seven up front – the game was underway.
I got a photo of the great Welsh line up pic.twitter.com/ByMWv9yWJZ— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) October 9, 2017
In front of the press box there was a large section of Ireland fans, it meant at times with fans on their feet looking between heads to follow the play. Similar to the Limerick press box then, even if they aren’t normally wearing green wigs or tricolor Mohawk hats in Market’s Field.
In the opening half an hour Ireland had to weather a Welsh storm and it was real backs to the wall stuff. One Ciaran Clark clearance nearly went through his own net and another booted ball clear nearly landed in the press box it was hit with such gusto.
Irish fans had been relieved to hear earlier in the week that Gareth Bale would miss the match due to injury. While we wouldn’t wish an injury on a player, Ireland’s task was certainly made earlier when Joe Allen had to leave the field due to concussion.
Coleman speaking after the game said that “Joe Allen took a whack. We think it is concussion. I said before it would be physical but I've no complaints about the opposition.”
The second half started as the first with Wales on top. Randolph pulled off a super save from Hal Robson-Kanu when Ireland were really under the cosh. But just before the hour mark Ireland were in front.
Jeff Hendrick pressed the Welsh captain Ashley Williams, won the ball and kept it away from Ben Davies. He took it to the corner and his centre was delightfully dummied by Harry Arter to allow the ball to run onto the right boot of James McClean. BANG…GOAL.
James McClean would prove to be the dragon slayer.
The pocket of Irish fans directly in front of the press box went wild. It was hard to maintain a modicum of professionalism and not join right in.
After the goal, at the back Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark held the troops together as Wales laid siege to Randolph’s goal particularly in the last ten minutes. We had an insufferable seven minutes of injury time all told but Wales couldn’t break Ireland’s rear guard down.
Wales’ first competitive defeat at home in four years had cost them a chance at making their first World Cup for 60 years. After the Welsh rousing anthem ahead of kick off, it was the Boys and Girls in Green in the corner of the stadium that were singing after the final whistle, as the players and backroom team gathered down below them to acknowledge their support.
O’Neill spoke afterwards about what this group of players had achieved – putting themselves in a playoff when that seemed unlikely after last month’s results.
That courage has been so evident away from home. Having gone just on 30 years without a competitive victory against a team seeded higher than Ireland, the Boys in Green managed to do it twice in this one campaign with the 1-0 McClean inspired wins in Vienna and now Cardiff.
In the mix zone afterwards you could see what it meant for the Irish players who were in high spirits. Even though John O’Shea didn’t figure on the pitch, he still had a grin from ear to ear when he spoke to the press about the win. Darren Randolph must have spent 15 minutes talking to the various media – a big contrast to his pre-match conversations.
The early morning flight out of Cardiff on Tuesday looked like it had a few Irish fans who had pushed on through the night in celebration. There were a few free seats too, which had the hallmark of Irish fans who maybe didn’t make their bus or taxi to the airport!
We await the draw next Tuesday for the home and away play off. Ireland can’t play at home on Saturday 11 November due to the Ireland v South Africa rugby game. As for the away leg, well the scramble for flights, accommodation and the all important match tickets is now just less than a week away.
For those fans that are really confident about our playoff prospects, be aware that the window for the first phase of ticket sales for the World Cup in Russia closes on the 12 October at midday Moscow Time (see here).