This was decreed beforehand as a must-win match for the Republic of Ireland, so the final whistle here in Dublin was greeted with a sense of Irish loss, even though the home side had played their part in a sometimes feisty draw.
Scotland were much the happier. At the end, their manager, Gordon Strachan, was on the pitch directing players towards travelling fans applauding as if they had just witnessed a Scotland victory. Having been one down on 38 minutes to a Jon Walters goal that was clearly offside, that was how it must have felt for the Scottish supporters to see their team equalise one minute into the second half via Shaun Maloney.
Maloney, given his debut at Celtic by Martin O’Neill, then bought by the Ireland manager when he was in charge of Aston Villa, has scored twice in the Euro qualifying games between these sides, and those goals have brought four points. Ultimately that might mean the difference between qualification or not.
Strachan said that after such a “high-intensity” 90 minutes – “to get that intensity in June is ridiculous” – he had not even looked at the state of the group. Nor, he said, had he reviewed the Irish goal and its legitimacy. That was a measure of his contentedness. The result maintained Scotland’s two-point advantage over the Republic. Next for the Scots in September is Georgia away followed by Germany at home. Georgia lost in Poland.
Strachan saluted all the players, but it was Maloney for whom he reserved special praise. Noting that Maloney had intercepted a dangerous later header from the Irish substitute James McClean, Strachan called him “the most conscientious player I have ever met”.
O’Neill was subdued. “I thought we were dominant in the first half and deserved to be in front,” he said. “Then we absolutely fall asleep for their goal. Scotland got a big lift from that and had their best spell, about 10 minutes. After that, I thought we were going to win it.” In terms of the group, he said: “Naturally the advantage is to Scotland; the status quo remains, they must be delighted.”
There was no reference to the must-win talk of the build-up, and O’Neill instead looked to the next two games in September – Gibraltar away and Georgia at home – as a way to reboot the Irish campaign.
Maloney and the half-time substitute Ikechi Anya were central to a much-improved Scottish performance in the second half. In the first, they had been nigh-on anonymous, with much questioning of Strachan’s decision to start with Matt Ritchie rather than Anya.
O’Neill, however, provided an even greater surprise by starting Daryl Murphy up front. Murphy has had a prolific season with Ipswich Town in the Championship, but he is 32 and this was his first competitive start at international level – a level at which he has still not scored.
In fairness to Murphy, it was his header which rebounded off the Scotland keeper, David Marshall, to enable Walters to score. Against that, three minutes after Maloney’s equaliser, Murphy was played in by the dynamic Wes Hoolahan but again hit Marshall’s legs with a shot. This time the rebound did not fall kindly. That turned out to be the best Irish opportunity of a winner. A game that had begun at a clip, then settled into midfield attrition, now came alive, and for half-an-hour it resembled a British cup-tie.
Before the kick-off, the stadium recognised Robbie Keane’s loss of two cousins in an industrial accident. His presence on the bench – fitness was a factor as well as family tragedy – gave O’Neill a decision to make on his replacement. Most thought Southampton’s Shane Long was the obvious choice, but O’Neill went for Murphy. Walters was alongside but it was Hoolahan, roving in behind, who created most.
Not until the 38th minute did either keeper have a significant save to make. When it came, from a Murphy header, Marshall tipped the ball over, but the subsequent Robbie Brady corner was met by Murphy, escaping his marker, Charlie Mulgrew. Marshall was hit by the powerful close-range flick and Walters pounced. Ritchie and other Scots complained at the obvious offside, but the goal stood.
There was thus some justice in Maloney’s equaliser as, after an exchange with Steven Naismith, he bent the ball into the far corner. It hit John O’Shea on the way in as goalkeeper Shay Given stood flat-footed and helpless. This was a good day for Scotland.
Republic of Ireland (4-3-1-2): Given; Coleman, O’Shea, Wilson, Brady; Hendrick, Whelan (McClean, 68), McCarthy; Hoolahan (Keane, 73); Walters, Murphy (Long, 80).
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Marshall; Hutton, Martin, Mulgrew, Forsyth; Brown (McArthur, 85), Morrison; Ritchie (Anya, h-t), Maloney, Naismith (Berra, 90), Fletcher.
Referee Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).
Man of the match Hoolahan (Ireland).
Match rating 6/10.Reuse content