Never before in Irish football history has it happened that the team has qualified for the next round of a major tournament with a game to spare – until now. Ireland travelled to Bilbao safe in the knowledge that the four points already in the bank, and the tournament’s convoluted but generous qualification system, meant that the Boys in Green would have at least one more outing to look forward to regardless of what happened against Spain, themselves also home and dry with six points.
With this comfortable situation came a niggling but palpable sense of dread. This is not who we are. We come into final games desperate for points, expecting heartbreaking yet valiant defeats, but nonetheless hoping for a snatched victory. And with England’s comfortable 3-0 over Czech Rep last night came an extra dimension of weirdness: hold on to second place for a mouth-watering encounter with our frenemies across the Irish Sea in the second round.
Mick McCarthy’s pre-match press conference was an exhausting and frustrating one for the Barnsley-born Irish legend. Again and again he attempted to turn every question about England and split loyalties and Declan Rice and Jack Charlton and Lansdowne Road into a discussion of Spain and the match at hand. “Fuck’s sake, lads!” he eventually yelled at the gathered hacks. “Would you stop talking about fuckin’ England and focus on this match?”
With the way the Irish started against Spain, it was easy to imagine him yelling the same thing, and much worse, in the dressing room at half-time. The Boys in Green were clearly unfocused – and with the Spanish seemingly intent on sending a strong message to the rest of Europe, there was a real danger of Ireland’s goal difference taking some serious damage. If Ireland took a hell of a beating, the Norwegians could easily sneak into second spot with a win over Poland.
McCarthy had favoured continuity over rotation, and fielded broadly the same side as had featured against Poland and Norway, with the suspended James McClean making way for Callum Robinson. Spain, on the other hand, made several changes, but the Spanish second string came out with a clear hunger to make a point. Santi Cazorla, one of Spanish football’s most-loved figures, was greeted warmly by the San Mamés crowd, and his through ball from deep after just five minutes left Shane Duffy on his bottom in his attempts to cut it out. Iago Aspas was left with a simple tap-in after his first touch took him around the stranded Darren Randolph.
It was 2-0 after twenty minutes as Sergio Ramos – undroppable as he chases Ahmed Hassan’s record as the most capped international player ever – rose above Duffy to nod home a corner. Duffy was having a torrid evening, and McCarthy will be worried at how vulnerable Ireland looked at set-pieces. He would have expected Spanish dominance in midfield and on the ground, but in the air Irish heads should rise highest.
The third came just before half-time and was the pick of the bunch. Santi Cazorla’s mobility was never his greatest asset, but a stationary ball has always been his best friend. There was a sense of inevitability as he stepped up to take a free-kick a few metres outside the box. Randolph gamely organised his wall as well as he could, but he could have had them standing on boxes and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Cazorla pinged it into the top corner, the ball thunking downwards satisfyingly off the underside of the bar. The stationary Randolph looked momentarily inclined to applaud the sheer unstoppable brilliance of the shot, before gathering himself enough to look disgruntled.
McCarthy made smart and necessary changes at the break, introducing some hungry youngsters for some of the more complacent senior performers. Off came Hendrick, on came promising youngster Jayson Molumby after an impressive season for Millwall forced his surprise inclusion in the squad. Off too came Enda Stevens for Ryan Manning, and the QPR full-back was immediately involved in Ireland’s first foray into the attacking third, skinning Jonny and swinging in a dangerous cross that David McGoldrick could only head over. Signs of life, and just in time: Norway were beating Poland and one more goal for either Spain or Norway would send Ireland into third place and all the distracting talk of England would have been for nothing.
The Spanish were clearly content with their day’s work, and the game quickly became reminiscent of Ireland’s last competitive meeting with Spain: a 4-0 battering in Gdansk in Euro 2012 that could have been much more had the Spanish been bothered. Whether Ireland’s two banks of four were better organised in the second half, or Spain’s second team simply lost interest remains unclear, but the game effectively ended as a contest after 65 minutes when the impressive and energetic Molumby surged forward from deep and unleashed a daisycutter from way out that forced Kepa into his first dive of the evening. He couldn’t keep it out, and Molumby, yet to score a goal in his club career, had a goal on his competitive international debut. The entire Irish team swamped the overjoyed youngster, his face a picture of delight that was more than a little incongruous considering the battering his team was taking.
With Ireland’s meeting with England in Copenhagen next Monday now confirmed, Mick McCarthy will have no choice but to engage in the inevitable media circus. He’ll know that another performance like this will mean a swift end to Irish participation in UEFO 2020.