The pleasant weather during the walk across the city had switched to torrential rain and back again over the course of the afternoon but had settled into a fine summer's evening as the hours ticked by to kick off. With this being such a vital game, we had our full compliment of eight season ticket holders present and pretty much our whole ex pat away crew had come over with the Brummies and the rest of the UK dwellers all present as well as Gary and Lina from the Dam and the Quinn Towers all the way down from Newry. The Beggars was pretty packed with plenty of Austrian fans enjoying the craic and both sets of fans displaying the sort of misplaced optimism that never seems to get knocked out of football fans who should know better!
Having set my preferred team out in last week's Uruguay blog, I have to confess to being disappointed when news of the team came through. For all Martin O'Neill's talk of going at Austria from the start, this was a team picked and set up not to lose the game. While playing Kevin Long at centre half was a surprising call, persisting with Darren Randolph in goal, when many had been calling for Kieren Westwood, was less so. However, it was his midfield selection that signalled his intent with Glenn Whelan in the anchor role and no place for Wes Hooahan further up the pitch. I actually quite like Whelan and think that some of the criticism he has taken over the years, particularly from Eamon Dunphy has been unwarranted and has been scapegoating at its worst. However, it's my belief that Harry Arter can play in that deeper role and would offer more fluency going forward. Jeff Hendrick could then drop further back as he's clearly not a number 10 and that would create space for Hoolahan in that 10 role. I can understand why O'Neill might have concerns about playing less defensively against a Germany or other top level side, against the mid ranking teams we should be prepared to be less cautious and given how well we played with Hoolahan in the team for the reverse fixture in Vienna, it was a very conservative team selection to leave him out. There is also an argument that, at 35, Hoolahan may not have the legs for 90 minutes but I'd counter that by saying start him and give him 60 minutes or so to try and win the game rather than 30 at the end to save it. The fact that Austria were missing five of the players that played in the Vienna game due to suspension, injury, retirement and even a players wedding emphasised how negative a selection it was as the opposition were there for the taking.
We arrived at our usual spot as the anthems were being played and it was great to see Lansdowne Road full for the second qualifier in a row. The atmosphere in the Singing Section was good as ever with the brass band that had been present for the Wales game thankfully binned. The game itself started pretty cagily in contrast to the "going to war"analogies peddled by Roy Keane before the game as both sides started to feel each other out. Austria were playing more of the football but we were dealing with it comfortably enough, By the time we got halfway through the half, the game had degenerated into a very scrappy affair. Our first chance of note came on the 23 minute mark when Whelan, who actually had a reasonable game, played Stephen Ward in down the right wing. Ward's cut back was laid off perfectly by James McClean (who seemed to have swapped positions with Hendrick by now) for Jon Walters but, instead of just putting his laces through it, his attempt at a side footed finish went horribly wrong and the ball went high and wide.
That seemed to rouse Austria somewhat and a succession of corners on the half hour mark eventually led to the opening goal. It was a well worked corner in fairness but it really could have been defended better. David Alaba played the corner in low and hard and the fact that both Prodl and Dragovi dummied it seemed to cause a bit of confusion in our defence. By the time the ball reached Hinteregger, we'd been stretched and he made no mistake with a sweetly hit finish into the bottom left corner. Had we had a defender stationed on the near post he'd have been able to clear it off the line but without that there was no chance of Randolph or anyone else keeping it out. 1-0 Austria but would that prove to be a wake up call? The short answer was no as we reached half time without managing a shot on target the whole half. Things surely had to improve in the second half but in my opinion it was going to take a personnel and tactical change to do it.
Half time saw no changes but there did seem to be a better intensity to our play after the restart. A Duffy header went wide early on. Austria were still looking dangerous on the break but we were pushing them further and further back without creating anything clear cut. The change when it came didn't see Hoolahan come on as hoped with Daryl Murphy replacing Ward resulting in a shuffle to the formation as Robbie Brady moved to left back and we switched to a 4-4-2. It was a decent change to make as Walters had been a little isolated and the physical presence offered by Murphy was likely to cause problems for the Austrians.
We were clearly going even more route one but despite a number of free kicks and corners, we still hadn't created a huge amount but at least had a bit of a head of steam up. Hoolahan was finally introduced on 70 minutes but I was surprised that it was Arter, who is our best passer of the ball after Hoolahan, to make way. The crowd were now really getting behind the team now and there was a sense that something might be coming. Hoolahan nearly made an immediate impact by playing a fabulous cross that fizzed across the box but Murphy couldn't stretch enough to connect with it and an Austrian defender was able to steer it back to his keeper.
The final sub followed shortly with Aiden McGeady on for Whelan with thirteen minutes left as we went more attacking to try and salvage something from the game. We thought we'd done it on 80 minutes when Long got onto a Brady corner but, unlike us in the first half, Austria had a defender on the post who cleared it off the line. Four minutes later Randolph justified the decision to stick with him as he made a great save to deny Grillisich and keep the game alive. Things were very frantic now as time ticked by and myself and the rest of our crew were at the stage when we'd have taken your hand off for a draw given how little time was left. But none of us could have predicted just how frenetic things would get as the last three minutes of the 90 plus the four minutes stoppage time provided more incident and talking points than the previous 87!
The equaliser, when it finally came was route one at it's finest and, like Shane Long's Germany goal, any Jack Charlton side would have been proud of it. There didn't seem to be much danger when Brady launched a clearance high up the pitch with Walters having Prodl and Dragovic for company as he chased it. Prodl was looking a big leggy and left Dragovic to deal with the danger but Walters put him under serious pressure and cleverly used his strength to disrupt Dragovic's balance and ease him to one side. There was still plenty to do as the ball bounced a second time but Big Bad Jon never took his eye off it and arrowed a cracking volley into the far corner. Lift off in the stands and suddenly Austria looked very vulnerable and the team scented blood.
Lansdowne Road was still bouncing ninety seconds later and went into another stratosphere for ten seconds or so before the Spanish referee painted himself as the villain of the piece. McClean was running riot on the left by now and some more direct running had resulted in a corner which Brady swung in. Murphy managed to get his head to it but it looked like Linder had it covered in the Austrian goal. That didn't stop Grillisich deciding to take matters in his own hands and take responsibility for clearing it. However, all he succeeded in doing was slice his clearance high into the air and back towards the near post where Lainer was still stationed on the goal-line with Walters for company. It was clear that he didn't fancy clearing it as you could see him looking at what was coming in rather than solely focusing on the ball. What was coming in was Duffy who only had eyes for the ball. Whether Duffy should have gone for it is debatable as there was a fair chance the ball was dropping in anyway and Walters looked in a good position to get to it regardless. I'm loath to blame Duffy for going for it though but by leading with his arm, he gave the referee a chance to give the decision against him, You can generally tell if a foul has been committed by the reaction of the opposition and I think it's telling that none of the Austrians were complaining as they all expected the goal to be allowed despite Lainer ending up in the net as Duffy bundled ball and man home. Even Austrian defender Prodl admitted the goal should have stood after the game and had this been a Premier League game I've no doubt it would have been awarded.
Looking at it in real time, no one in the South Stand saw anything wrong and the ecstatic celebrations were going for a good ten seconds or so before the realisation that it had been disallowed dawned on people. Still, there wasn't much time for the disappointment to sink in. Ireland instantly regained possession and another ball over the top sent Walters through but just as he lined his shot up, Lainer came running across behind him meaning that Walters connected with him as he drew his leg back. This sent Walters tumbling and took all the pace off his shot which ended up sending the ball wide to McGeady instead of at the goal. Everyone including myself screamed for a penalty but the ref wasn't having it. McGeady tried to pick out a cross to the two men on the far post as Walters lay prone but he couldn't get beyond the defender with it. The ball then came back to Hoolahan who fluffed a shot and Austria hacked it clear. They were looking so ragged now that it felt like a second goal was inevitable but once the four minutes of stoppage time were signaled the Austrians settled somewhat and despite our best efforts we failed to create anything as clear cut as we had in the previous ten minutes and had to settle for the draw. The question is why we had to wait until so late in the game to start playing the sort of football needed to win games like this.
Goals and Highlights
The management and players were uniform in their criticism of the referee after the game and they have a point in some instances. On a number of occasions, the ref looked like awarding a free only to let play develop for a minute to see if an advantage would develop. That's all well and good but each time it became clear straight away that there was no advantage he simply let the play go rather than go back for the free. Disallowing the goal was harsh although he can point to how high Duffy had his arm as he jumped. For the penalty shout I think he probably got it right having seen the replay, There was also a clear back pass in stoppage time that their keeper picked up he missed as well though which could have given us a free in a great position.
More importantly, the management and team also need to take a look at themselves. Why do we react so badly to any situation where we're deemed favourites? Our mindset seems to be set to underdog mode meaning that we're at our best when we're up against it. This is well and good against the top teams and has served us well against Germany, Italy and even for sixty minutes against France. However, there are numerous games we can point to where a more positive mindset could have yielded better results. Scotland and Poland home and away in the last campaign and now Wales and Austria at home in this one, for example. The one game where we seemed to embrace the pressure to dominate at home in the last campaign was the play off against Bosnia.
Given that Hoolahan started all three games I've mentioned in the last campaign, it's not as simple as some would have you believe that his inclusion turns us into world beaters. However, I think it's clear that his presence does alter the way we play. Simply having someone who's prepared to look for the ball and be positive with it encourages the other players into playing more positively. While he himself wasn't brilliant when he finally came on on Sunday and Whelan actually did quite well on an individual level, it's the ripple effect they have on the rest of the team and on the opposition that's relevant here. As mentioned earlier, there's no reason why we can't play our best two passers of the ball in Hoolahan and Arter in the same team but it seems to a chance that Martin O'Neill isn't prepared to take.
The news that Serbia and Wales had drawn put a better complexion on things and softened the disappointment of the two dropped points with the table remaining as it was showing a four point gap separating Serbia and ourselves from Wales and Austria with one less game left. On the positive side, we proved yet again how difficult we are to beat and have another late goal to add to the list. After years of conceding late goals we're now the ones scoring them which is something in the credit column for the manager. Next up is Georgia away which is always a tough game but one I'm really looking forward to as my travels haven't taken me to that country as yet so it'll be a first for me. A win there would set us up perfectly for the home game the following week against Serbia but who'd bet against that match ending up as a draw? One thing we don't do is make things easy for ourselves!