Sporting Review of the Year
The agony and the ecstasy that goes with being a Republic of Ireland supporter was never more in evidence than in 2017, or rather a few short weeks spanning October and November, as Martin O’Neill’s men took the country to the brink of World Cup qualification only to have the ceiling fall in upon them.
A year that started with Ireland well placed in Group D took an immediate turn for the worse when Seamus Coleman had his leg broken against Wales in Dublin, and Chris Coleman’s 14-men held on to take a crucial point. A draw was not a major blow however.
Another ‘home’ point followed as Ireland drew 1-1 with Austria at the Aviva Stadium, with Ireland needing an 85th minute Jonathan Walters goal to salvage a draw. Shane Duffy thought he’d grabbed a late winner for the Irish, only for it to be ruled out.
More points dropped, and Ireland’s good work of 2016 was in danger of going to waste as they drew for a third game in a row, this time 1-1 in Georgia.
Duffy’s goal gave Ireland the perfect start, but the home side were level before half-time and O’Neill’s men couldn’t conjure a winner.
Wales, in the meantime, were sensing an opportunity and the door was firmly kicked wide open for Chris Coleman’s side when Ireland went down 1-0 at the Aviva Stadium to group leaders Serbia.
The result saw Serbia go four points clear at the top and Ireland drop to third, with just two games to go. It was now time to panic.
At the start of the year when Ireland welcomed Wales to Dublin, the very least O’Neill’s side was targeting was a play-off place, and now even that seemed to have slipped through their fingers.
First things first, get a result at home to Moldova, which Ireland duly did thanks to two goals from Daryl Murphy before the prospect of Wales, who would be missing the injured Gareth Bale.
To Cardiff and the stage was set – the magnificent Millennium Stadium – and on a night of little quality but much tension, James McClean’s 57th minute strike, after a defensive mix-up by Wales, was enough to send Ireland into raptures and into the World Cup play-off draw, and end Wales’ hopes of building on their impressive showing at Euro 2016.
There was a time when the very mention of ‘play-offs’ would send Ireland supporters ducking for cover, but three wins from their last four play-offs had changed all that.
Denmark was seen as tricky, but certainly not insurmountable. Stop Tottenham dangerman Christian Eriksen and Ireland would have a chance.
They did just that and a 0-0 draw at Telia Parken in Copenhagen in the first leg set things up nicely for the return game in Dublin. It may not have been pretty, but Ireland had done the job of giving themselves a chance.
Goals had been Ireland’s problem during qualifying, but O’Neill’s side couldn’t have asked for a better start as Duffy rose to head Robbie Brady’s ball past the advancing Kasper Schmeichel and into the Denmark net, and send the Aviva wild.
Murphy and McClean might even have added to the lead soon after. The flights and accommodation for Russia 2018 were being booked – Ireland were surely on their way.
Not so fast, as a night which should have been a party, turned into a nightmare orchestrated by Eriksen. Christie’s own goal and Eriksen’s stunning strike had the Danes 2-1 up at the break, and the Aviva was a bundle of nervousness. Was Ireland’s World Cup dream disappearing?
It most certainly was as Ireland imploded in the second half with Eriksen completing his hat-trick, as Denmark won 5-1. The Danes certainly make great party-poopers.
Only a few short weeks earlier, Ireland had been celebrating beating Wales to reach the play-offs amidst scenes of such euphoria, to be replaced in Dublin by scenes of utter devastation.
At least O’Neill’s side could have few arguments with the result. Spare a thought for Northern Ireland whose World Cup road also took them via the play-offs, only to go out to a controversial penalty, the only goal of their two-legged clash with Switzerland.
The conundrum for all now is who to support at next year’s World Cup in Russia.