I'd had a text from a friend confirming the team an hour before kick-off and my first thoughts were that this was as strong a team as we could field given the significant injury list we were suffering. It was good to see Harry Arter get his first competitive start and finally put to bed that ludicrous story, generated by Paul Merson and Jeff Stelling's lack of knowledge and jumped on by the permanently outraged bottom feeders that social media has given a public voice to, that Arter was considering switching allegiance to England. I doubt the majority of those abusing him were even aware of his caps at Under 17 and Under 19 level and Arter's decision to ignore the story rather than giving it credence by commenting on it was the correct one. Those journalists that did pick up on it, in the wake of the social media storm to the extent that Martin O'Neill was actually asked about it after the Georgia game last month, should give their heads a shake and realise that the echo chamber of twitter cannot be considered any sort of reliable source. Arter's ability rather than any worry about him jumping ship was why I was happy to see him start and with Wes Hoolahan also on the pitch, the team looked to have that bit of creativity that was missing from the Serbia game. The much improved Stephen Ward's absence meant that Robbie Brady was pushed to left back but at least his set-piece delivery was still available. The rest of the team pretty much picked itself, with the lack of available numbers up front meaning that Jon Walters was the only real option to play there meaning Jeff Hendrick would cover right midfield and the in-form James McClean would offer support from the left after being passed fit. And while I was delighted to see League of Ireland stalwart, Daryl Horgan, make the match day squad, I agreed with the manager's decision not to throw him straight in for his debut in such a vital game. With Austria struggling for form since their disastrous European Championships, this looked a team that was set up to have a go at them.
However, despite the positive set up, it must be said that there wasn't much positivity on display in the initial twenty minutes of the match which I saw live before being called in for the wedding meal! Austria certainly started on the front foot and we had to defend a series of corners and free kicks before creating our first opening around 15 minutes in with a McClean snapshot from a loose ball deflecting just wide. Still, that was the only real opening we'd created by the time I took my leave but watching the game back, it was from here that we started to play ourselves a bit more into things. In fairness, despite the initial Austrian pressure, we'd looked comfortable in defence and Randolph had dealt with anything that came his way. Our first corner had resulted in a bit of a scramble in their defence as Shane Duffy flung himself at the ball and the fact that we had dealt with their initial spell quite comfortably seemed to have impacted on their confidence levels which had remained low since the Euros.
The next moment of note was one that would end up having a significant impact on the game as Glen Whelan pulled up holding his thigh with no-one near him, resulting in David Myler coming in from the bench. The substitution didn't change things initially, as the half continued in a very stop/start manner with a lot of niggly fouls committed by both sides. There were occasional chances with one of those fouls resulting in a Brady free which Duffy headed wide and Coleman getting a superb block on an Arnautovic shot, but it was only in the last five minutes of the half that things really opened up and the deadlock should have been broken. First, Sabitzer was played in by Arnautovic and clipped a lovely chip over Randolph which came back off the angle of the far post and crossbar before Clark got a great block onto Janko's follow up. It was a big let-off for us and a few minutes later we really should have rubbed salt in the wound when some nice interplay between Hoolahan and Brady resulted in a Brady cross that Walters should have buried from six yards out. Unfortunately, he managed to get slightly under the ball and put the chance over, grazing the bar on it's way. A booking for Duffy, the first of the match, finished off the half and I've no doubt that O'Neill would have been happy going in all square.
Looking back at the second half, Austria again seemed to start on the front foot but we seemed to have figured them out to a degree, so rather than sitting as deep as we had early in the first half we looked to have pushed a bit further up in the opening couple of minutes. Hoolahan had been a little slack in possession on a number of occasions in the first half but was still trying to make things happen and had already tried to play Walters in with a lovely back heel just before his most influential moment of the game. Play had moved back down towards our end where Austria's Tottenham defender Wimmer was contesting possession with Meyler. Although Meyler's hand came across Wimmer in the tussle, the contact was completely minimal and was the sort of thing that happens dozens of time in any game. Inexplicably, Wimmer decided that there was enough in it to go down and then to compound that error, started moaning at the ref when Meyler took possession rather than making an attempt to win the ball back. Meyler didn't need a second invitation to play on and used the space to drive forward before picking Hoolahan out in the centre circle. Although I've since seen a lot of praise for all parts of the move, I think that the initial pass still left Hoolahan with a lot to do as it was actually just behind him and meant that he had to check his run. Paradoxically, this actually worked out for the best as the extra couple of seconds he needed to spin and gather the ball gave McClean the chance to charge a few yards further forward. Hoolahan spotted this and his pass was absolutely perfectly weighted so that McClean didn't have to break his stride to get the ball onto his feet. Walters made a great run into the box, dragging two of their defenders with him, which gave McClean a little bit of extra space and time to pick his spot and bury the ball home through the keeper's legs! 1-0 Ireland: just as I was getting my dessert! Word came in a minute later that we'd gone ahead so, needless to say, I had that weird feeling of delight that we were ahead coupled with being sickened that I hadn't even seen it on telly, let alone in the flesh!
McClean as a whistle!
A few of us nipped out at that stage to catch the next 15 minutes of the game before the speeches and I was up and celebrating a couple of minutes later as Walters headed home a Brady free, only for it to be correctly called offside. Still, as was the case against Moldova, it was positive that we had kept pushing on after scoring rather than sitting back, as has been our habit more often than not for countless campaigns. Austria's already brittle confidence had taken another nosedive since the goal and another couple of chances went begging for us not long after with McClean hitting the side netting and Clark having a header from a corner cleared off the line. At the other end, we seemed to be well able to keep the opposition at arms length with the only blip being a silly booking for Brady on 70 minutes for kicking the ball away which means he'll be suspended when the group resumes at home to Wales next March. Having also been booked in a tussle with Arter a few minutes earlier, Baumgartlinger was lucky to stay on the pitch following what was, arguably, a worse challenge on Hoolahan. Both managers were ringing the changes now but those changes were having little effect on the pattern of the game, although McGoldrick coming on for Hoolahan with thirteen minutes left indicated to me that we might start looking for a more direct outlet. That said, it wasn't as if we started to park the bus, McClean was still causing problems on the left until he was finally withdrawn with six minutes left to be replaced by McGeady. It had been a superb effort from McClean considering he needed an epidural earlier in the week to enable him to play. Naturally enough, the last few minutes we were concentrating more on defence and we did give up a couple of chances. Luckily, both fell to Janko, who'd been having a nightmare, and he really should have taken at least one of them. First, he managed to shake off the impressive Coleman to get a free far-post header which he put harmlessly wide. Then, deep into stoppage time and just when we seemed to have weathered the mini-storm, Hendrick was dispossessed deep in Austrian territory and they broke the length of the pitch through Arnautovich. He played in Alaba (who'd also had a nightmare) and his cross was mishit by Baumgartlinger straight to Janko about five yards out. It looked like all he'd have to do was volley it home but for some reason he ducked down to head it and put it a yard or so wide! All that was left was a final kick out from Randolph and the ref blew up for full-time. Our first away win against a higher ranked side for 29 years and our first against Austria since 1963! The fact that I missed it has me wondering if I was the Jonah all along! Needless to say, the various updates on Facebook and texts on WhatsApp groups from mates at the game brought on more than a few pangs of jealousy but there'll be other games. I just hope it's not another 29 years before another!
Way back Wien!
There's still a long way to go in the group and I predict plenty of twists and turns to come considering the fact that there's no traditional power in the group and there's not much between the top four seeds, as backed up with the Wales and Serbia draw. Even though Austria are in trouble, remember that we looked in a similar position halfway through the last campaign and were able to turn things around. Although there is no third place get-out-of-jail card for them to fall back on, the fact that there's no Germany or similar nailed on to top the group negates that to some degree. But for us to be sitting on top of the group with 10 points from 12, having only played once at home is beyond most expectations and puts us in a great position to kick on in the new year. The Euro '88 qualifiers remain the only time we've topped a qualifying group in our history. It was a 1-0 away win against Scotland that kicked that campaign into life and we've now emulated that result with this win. Hopefully we can go on and also emulate the final table without having to rely on a Gary Mackay to get us there!