Followers of Irish sport are no strangers to Cardiff, but this final World Cup European Qualification Group match between the two national football teams promised to be a special occasion.
The Six Nations Rugby calendar brings thousands across the Irish Sea on a regular basis, while more come for club rugby matches and occasional friendlies. Wales versus Ireland photography opportunities happen along at fairly regular intervals. But in living memory there hadn’t been a football match like this one.
At stake in Cardiff last night was a place at the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia, or an extended chance to qualify through playoff matches. Both sides had to win the game. A draw would probably be of no consequence. Everything was on the line.
Low autumn sunshine was dipping on my approach to the ground a few hours before kick-off, and I fancied a stroll beforehand for the purposes of this post, Googlability, my own library and maybe a book.
Outside the ground and even in the stands ahead of kick-off I sensed an edginess amongst the Welsh fans. Faces were drawn with nerves and worry. There wasn’t the natural ebullience being enjoyed by the Irish, the underdogs who were loving being underdogs. The Welsh were not used to being favourites and it appeared uncomfortable. Despite the absence of talisman Gareth Bale, they had home advantage and the burden of expectation developed by a successful Euro 2016 and recent resurgence in this qualification campaign.
[Read the 2015 Composed piece, Bale’s Wales]
Perhaps there was also something uncomfortable about the nearness of their opponents from over the water. The players would all know and play with or against each other on a semi-regular basis. There would be plenty of familiarity. It was like having loud, larger than life neighbours over to probe and pick and judge your furnishings.
Even the much anticipated unconventional team photo belied a group that might be struggling for ideas. It was virtually identical to the arrangement before the previous match.
[Read the 2017 Composed piece, Final Whistle At White Hart Lane]
Wales had more of the possession early on, and throughout. They tried to play nice football but failed to create many chances against a defensively deep Irish side. Goals hadn’t freely flowed for Wales throughout the campaign and their progress had been hampered by a string of five low-scoring draws. You could suggest a couple of 1-0 wins which had got them into this position were largely down to speculative long range pot shots courtesy of Ben Woodburn against Austria and Tom Lawrence against Georgia. Brilliant strikes, but pot shots nonetheless. They rarely seemed to carve sides open and get round the back, as they belatedly had against Moldova, the weakest side of the group.
A first half injury to the instrumental Wales midfielder Joe Allen seemed brutal, cruel and arguably calculated. Allen was thudded in an unforgiving Irish sandwich of captain David Meyler and James McClean. Looking distinctly groggy thereafter, Allen was soon replaced by Jonny Williams.
Without the nimble invention of Allen or the mercurial dynamism of Bale, Wales appeared England-like in their staleness, steady possession, sideways passing and lack of penetration. Aaron Ramsey had a disappointing game, Tom Lawrence worked tirelessly but couldn’t quite muster the quality needed. Of the many lofted long balls, deliveries too often were skewed or flat or aimless. The hardened presence of James Collins on a night like this would have also been a bonus.
It was always going to be physical but the aerial battles seemed endless, with totemic Irish centre back Shane Duffy winning most of them. This night would go some way to banishing memories of a club game at this ground not long before, when he scored two own-goals before being sent off.
At half time I was undecided about where to photograph in the second half. Staying and shooting the Ireland attack wasn’t a bad call, especially as there were fewer photographers at that end alongside the touchline near the Irish fans. But as a photographer based in Cardiff and working across Wales, pictures of a Welsh win would have more long term value to me than pictures of an Irish win. I didn’t want to be left cursing the fact I didn’t have those pictures, so moved up the other end and worked tight to the goal in the hope of getting space away from other photographers.
[Read the 2016 piece: Euro 2016 from Cardiff]
Just before the hour mark, Wales captain Ashley Williams lost the ball to Jeff Hendrick and Joe Ledley failed to wrestle it back. The popular Welsh anthem of “Don’t Take Me Home” abruptly faded as Hendrick scuttled along the right touchline in pursuit of the ball, with space and time to pick a cross. In that moment there was palpable fear as a muted Welsh crowd scented the rare threat. Hendrick’s cross was dummied by Harry Arter, giving James McClean half a second more time to calmly arrow a sweet strike into the bottom right corner of the net. Wales goalkeeper Hennessey stayed rooted to the spot and the slack-jawed red majority suffered a stunning suckerpunch.
McClean galloped over to celebrate with the euphoric legions of fizzing green-clad supporters behind the opposite goal.
Now there was a real mountain to climb for Wales, but belief remained. “Don’t be afraid to have dreams,” the much publicised words of manager Chris Coleman, may have echoed in the heads of many. Half an hour remained. Plenty of time.
A spike in volume and belief came thanks to two headed chances. James Chester hit the side netting after a header from a corner, before Hal Robson-Kanu’s effort was well saved by Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph. There was a stirring sense a goal was coming, but that was as good as it got.
As the time ticked down, Ireland seemed even more comfortable in weathering the long balls and a tired Wales seemed to be losing potency. Still the tackles flew in and match-winner McClean was arguably fortunate not to pick up a second yellow card after a series of late fouls.
Five minutes of injury time was played before the referee blew the full time whistle.
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