It was a game constrained by its importance, a spectacle nullified by two cautious teams too scared to lose to try hard enough to win. It was drifting towards disappointment, until two club team-mates almost came to blows. It lit the fuse. Blood would be split, tears would be shed and bones would be broken.
Beneath the mutual respect these two Celtic nations have for each other there has always been sporting animosity and even friends can fall out when tribal passions are realigned under national flags.
After a drab opening 45 minutes, in which neither goalkeeper had to make a save and neither side managed a shot on target, it was a physical confrontation between two Stoke players near the halfway line that exposed how much was at stake.
A coming together, a tussle for the ball in no-man’s land near the halfway line. Joe Allen was lighter on his feet, his skills sharper, his touch more delicate. He flicked a foot out, took the ball away from his midfield partner at Stoke, a brother in arms.
Glenn Whelan, red-faced, sweating, combative, turned and stood his ground. No, he did more than that. As Allen tried to wriggle around him, he thrust an arm back, an elbow caught Allen in his throat. He fell to the floor.
When Whelan offered a hand in apology, it was knocked away, heads came together, expletives were exchanged. It was probably a good thing the half-time whistle was blown, because Allen, small and slight as he may be, had been engulfed by the red mist. Retribution and retaliation were on his mind as he was pushed away by team-mates towards the tunnel.
In the second half, Wales began like a team feeling aggrieved, but their emotions were too raw. Frustrated, bruised and battered, Gareth Bale could have broken John O’Shea’s leg with a late, knee-high lunge. He should have been sent off. Seconds later, another terrible attempt to win the ball, this time from Neil Taylor on Seamus Coleman and bones did appear to have been broken.
Ireland’s manager, Martin O’Neill, had his head in his hands immediately. He may have heard the crack, he may merely have seen how much pain his captain was in. Taylor was shown a red card and apologised to the Irish bench as he walked down the tunnel. Coleman was given oxygen and left on a stretcher.
It was that sort of evening. Ireland designed a game plan to drag Chris Coleman’s side into this sort of fight. When assistant manager Roy Keane claimed the only way to stop Wales’ star man Gareth Bale is to hit him… fairly the visitors knew what was coming.
Ireland hunted and they harassed. They pounced on every Welshman as soon as the ball arrived at his feet. It was relentless, it was exhausting, but it worked.
Within a few minutes of kick off, Chris Gunter had been left in a heap on the touchline, moments later the golden boy Bale had been left in a similar position by a sliding tackle from James McClean.
On both occasions there was no foul, but a mark had been left. Before the interval, Ashley Williams was also put down by Shane Long. Each time the challenge was fair, but it hurt. Ireland were following Keane’s instructions perfectly.
Wales were poor, Bale was ruffled. The contest became bogged down in a midfield skirmish. The were marginally the better team, or at least they looked more attractive on the ball, but none of their creative players could do anything with it.
Ireland have accepted they will not beat teams through skill, but they can through sweat, unity and physical power.
They dragged Wales into the game they wanted to play and the visitors were clinging on in the second half with ten men, even if Bale, who was also extremely fortunate to not to be shown a second yellow card when his boot connected with McClean’s chest, almost won it late on with a driving run and shot that flew inches wide.
Ireland, though, deserved this. They are team that has learned to mask their limitations and in doing so have highlighted Wales's. There was little to separate them on paper before the game and so it proved on the pitch.
READ MORE ABOUT:
- Joe Allen
- Chris Coleman
- Ireland Football Team
- Russia World Cup 2018
- Gareth Bale
- Wales Football Team
- Show more