From Macdara Ferris in Cardiff City Stadium
James McClean was the hero once again for the Republic of Ireland as his goal earned the Boys in Green a famous away victory In Cardiff and passage into a play-off for the Russia 2018 World Cup. His 57th minute goal was enough to earn Ireland all three points and a place in the play-offs next month at the expense of Wales.
Ireland came into the game in Cardiff with a clear task – win or bust - and it was a win that they got with Martin O’Neill’s men doing the business in Cardiff on Monday night and as they propelled themselves into the playoffs and a shot at their first World Cup in 16 years.
One of the big decisions for Martin O’Neill regarding his starting XI was taken out of his hands with Shane Long’s withdrawal earlier in the day. With Long gone, O’Neill switched to a 4-5-1 bringing James McClean and Robbie Brady back into the team after suspension. It meant no place for Callum O’Dowda or Wes Hoolahan who had both performed so well in last Friday’s win over Moldova.
Wales tore into Ireland from the off inspired no doubt by the anthems ahead of kick off with the home supporters singing Land of our Fathers without the accompaniment of a booming PA. Chris Coleman had made just one change to his team with Hal Robson-Kanu leading the line in place of Sam Vokes.
Coleman’s team dominated the midfield and the possession – 66% by half-time – with Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen at the centre of the home team’s best play. However, when they lost Allen eight minutes from half-time to what could have been concussion, Wales lost momentum. Ireland began to get more on the ball, finally retaining possession and getting into the opposition’s half for longer spells.
Chris Gunter was Wales’ most threatening player as he got forward pinning Stephen Ward back. Gunter’s whipped right foot crosses were effectively dealt with by Ireland but at the expense of a succession of corners.
Joe Ledley put them in on top of Darren Randolph but the ‘keeper dealt with everything that came his way – his best save came from a Ramsay shot within the opening ten minutes that he got his finger tips to send over his crossbar. When Ramsay took one of the Welsh corners midway through the half, Ward did really well to head the ball behind as the ball dropped towards the far post.
Ireland did create some chances of their own. Jeff Hendrick was too weak with his effort with the Welsh goal at the mercy while Shane Duffy drilled a low shot just by Wayne Hennessey’s right hand post when the defender got forward for an Ireland free kick.
The closest Wales came to scoring in the first half came off an Ireland shin seven minutes from the break. Another Gunter cross saw Ciaran Clark stick a boot out with the ball just going by Randolph’s near post.
It didn’t get much easier for the Boys in Green at the start of the second half. Again Randolph rescued Ireland pushing over a powerful Robson-Kanu header off a Jonathan Williams cross.
And yet somehow Ireland conjured up the opening goal on 57 minutes but with a massive helping hand from Wales and Hendrick. It was James McClean who got the goal with a super drilled shot at the back post.
It came from awful play at the back from Wales. Hennessey rolled the ball out to Ashley Williams. Hendrick closed him down so quickly, won the ball and drove at the corner flag. His centre was beautifully dummied by Arter with McClean on hand to get his fourth of the campaign with a rasping right boot effort.
This was a time not for Ireland to sit back with so much time left on the clock and they kept going. A McClean long ball to Murphy saw him race towards goal but the Welsh captain Williams made up somewhat for his error with a superbly timed block of Murphy’s shot.
Wales were desperate for an equaliser knowing a defeat would end their qualification chances. If Ireland fans were getting greedy about a possible Georgia goal in Belgrade that would see Ireland top the group, the Serbs went 1-0 up with a quarter of an hour remaining in both games.
The Boys in Green looked to slow the game down and see the win out. Glenn Whelan came on and both Ciaran Clark and Darren Randolph went in the book for delaying Ireland free kicks.
Wales laid siege to the Ireland goal and got not just the additional five minutes that went up on the board but another 90 seconds to try and breach the Ireland defence. However they couldn’t find a way passed the packed ranks of the Ireland defenders and midfielders tucking back in front of penalty area.
The final whistle was greeted with cheers, tears and no doubt a few beers to come from the Ireland fans who managed to have a ticket for this famous Ireland win. The dream of a trip to Russia 2018 lives on and attention now turns to who Ireland will face in the play-off.
Wales: Wayne Hennessey; Chris Gunter, James Chester, Ashley Williams ©, Ben Davies; Andy King (Ben Woodburn 65), Joe Allen (Jonathan Williams 37), Joe Ledley, Tom Lawrence, Aaron Ramsey; Hal Robson-Kanu (Sam Vokes 71).
Subs Not Used: Danny Ward, Chris Maxwell, Neil Taylor, Tom Lockyer, David Edwards, Ethan Ampadu, Ryan Hedges, David Brooks, Tom Bradsaw.
Booked: Joe Allen (16).
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Cyrus Chrstie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward; David Meyler, Harry Arter (Glenn Whelan 77); James McClean, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady; Daryl Murphy (Kevin Long 90+1).
Subs Not Used: Colin Doyle, Rob Elliot, John O’Shea, Richard Keogh, Callum O’Dowda, Conor Hourihane, Aiden McGeady, Wes Hoolahan, Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire.
Booked: Harry Arter (72), Ciaran Clark (79), Darren Randolph (89)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).
Attendance: 33,000 (estimate)
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: James McClean (Republic of Ireland)