Belfast Telegraph

Justice done as Republic of Ireland join the Euro party

By Vincent Hogan

The noise soared up out of the silver bowl, climbing skyward as rich in irony as exultation.

"We're all part of Jackie's Army," it ran, a throwback chant to days when we had a team accustomed to big stages and the clinging presumption of their people.

Martin O'Neill doesn't have call on that calibre of footballer now but, on this riotous night by the Dodder, they did make a statement about how simple virtues like courage and integrity can carry a group far.

And there was something beautifully emblematic in Jonathan Walters delivering the goals that carried them to next summer's festival in France.

As a footballer, he is unpretentious as a dump-truck. But Walters plays the game with such fury and wisdom and uncontainable resolve, he would be precious in any dressing room. He is a reminder that, for all its dangerous vanities, professional football still houses authentic men.

Because Walters and the Republic were terrific here.

True, they don't makes things easy on us or themselves, mining improbable escape from a group in which just two from a possible 12 points were taken from the games against Poland and Scotland. Essentially, survival was secured from those two dramatic games with Germany. Who would have thought it?

A team that only gets itself up for the world champions?

To begin with last night, tension enveloped everything like a damp fog. The difficulty is there can be no right or wrong way to play these games. Without the cushion of a lead, there is no clarity. The comfort of an away goal becomes a dangerous thing because trying to defend it over 90 minutes would be tantamount to idiocy.

So you've got to play, you've got to commit to passing the ball, to activating concern in your opponent. What is the alternative? Re-enacting Custer at Little Bighorn?

There was, then, an uneven, slightly spooked cadence to the evening. Worry ran like a vitamin deficiency through both teams, passing a little hurried, defending often slapdash, everything played out to the banshee soundtrack of audience inclined to shriek.

The Republic looked by far the more coherent in those early flurries. There was the air of something brewing then and it duly arrived with Walters's perfect 22nd-minute penalty after what looked quite a harsh hand-ball decision against Bosnian left-back, Zukanovic.

Of course, the peculiar thing here was that the goal did not alter anything too profound. Bosnia's minimum imperative had always been the scoring of a goal. That hadn't changed.

Trouble was, their discipline looked to be unravelling. Spahic and Lulic were already in Mr Kuipers's book, panic beginning to write itself into the collective nervous system.

Dzeko was the classy exception. He has the elegance of a great marsh-bird, languid for long spells, yet capable of swooping with sudden and murderous velocity.

Still, the Republic were desperate to get them in the chokehold of a two-goal deficit.

Their ability to squeeze the Bosnian space, to force a hurried pass, to work errors from their opponents had the stadium positively thrumming with the thrill of a home team playing with such thrilling intensity.

But there was the stirring of real life in our opponents now, like the clank of water in a central heating pipe. All of the positive energy had been the Republic's, but this tie was still on a knife-edge. A single goal lead just kept nerves fragile as tissue paper.

Mercifully, that second arrived and - truth to tell - it carried a whiff of justice. Spahic probably should have seen red for a 69th-minute boot into Walters's midriff, but Robbie Brady's sublime free-kick found the Stoke man who beat Begovic magnificently at his near post.

Ibisevic did rattle Darren Randolph's crossbar in injury-time but, by then, the party was clearing its lungs. At Mr Kuipers' final whistle, O'Neill and Roy Keane met in a long embrace, the Corkman visibly emotional at what had been achieved.

It has been awkward at times, but they got there. An honest group now heading to the sun.

Belfast Telegraph