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Irish evolve to bury play-off ghosts

In the press room, Giovanni Trapattoni was shedding tears. Out on the pitch, the Football Association of Ireland's chief executive John Delaney was conducting chants for the jubilant fans, punching the air and throwing his tie into the crowd. And, all around the Le Coq Arena, Irish eyes weren't just smiling, they were beaming.

If all of that seems a little unbecoming given that Ireland's play-off with Estonia isn't actually over yet, then it has to be considered that what looks to be an inevitable victory feels like the end-point of a very emotional journey for both the manager and his squad.

It's just two years, after all, since the pain of Paris when Ireland were denied a World Cup place by Thierry Henry's sleight of hand. And that result represented Ireland's fifth official play-off defeat - the worst record in eliminators in international history. Little wonder there was trepidation about Friday night.

Indeed, it's 10 years since Ireland's only successful play-off - the 2-1 aggregate defeat of Iran to reach the 2002 World Cup. But even the joy of that was soured by what eventually transpired in Asia as Roy Keane's strained relationship with Mick McCarthy reached tipping point and saw the side's driving force depart before the tournament even began.

Some sociologists argued that the country-splitting incident represented Ireland's "Princess Diana". Most football fans at least agreed that it altered the history and future of the national team. And yet, now that Ireland are on the verge of only their fifth international tournament in the country's history - and in a surprisingly serene manner on the pitch - controversy continues to reign off it.

Trapattoni's four-year tenure has actually given rise to the most fractious tactical debate in Ireland since Jack Charlton told a player of Liam Brady's class to just 'lump it forward'.

To one half of the football population, Trapattoni is playing an unnecessarily austere style - such as doggedly trying to protect 2-1 lead against Macedonia - during the most open era in international football. For the other half he is only doing what he must with a moderate group of players with no real history of success.

On Tuesday, though, that history is about to change, And, to give Trapattoni credit, he has answered some parts of that argument along the way to doing so. For a lot of the first half, Estonia looked much more elegant on the ball and controlled most of the midfield space.

But, in truth, they struggled to handle Ireland's base aggression in the tackle and it was that energy - allied to a bit of Aiden McGeady ingenuity, at last - which brought the key opening goal. Often criticised for being wasteful, the winger showed both efficiency and excellence in sending over a perfect cross for Keith Andrews to head home.

After that, Estonia were always going to be chasing the game and that was encapsulated when Andrei Stepanov was sent off for hauling down Robbie Keane; gifting Ireland an extra man as well as all of the initiative. While referee Viktor Kassei did seem to get the decision right, Estonian manager Tarmo Ruutli couldn't resist attributing some blame for the defeat to it, claiming: "Of course, [the decisions] played some role in that result. But the first two goals were our problems. Not the referee's problem."

Trapattoni himself, however, did admit that the incident shifted the dynamic of the game. "We have been helped by the situation. With 11 against 10, we had more opportunities to win,'' he said. ''After the first goal, I thought the opportunity to qualify was very near. "Against 10 men, we could use the ball better."

As important as it was, though, it's still worth considering Ireland's history with such incidents. On a series of previous occasions when Trapattoni's team have enjoyed such an advantage, rather than press home he has typically sought to protect what he had. And that has invited an awful lot of unnecessary doubt and danger that supported the arguments against his reign.

Against Estonia, though, Ireland emphatically and clinically went for the jugular. The game, and the tie, were put well out of reach. The difference, Trapattoni insisted, was down to that long, emotional evolution.

"I am happy because the team showed the work done in training. That is important. "We showed our personality,'' he said. "At the moment I am confident about the team. We were ready. Two years ago, we were not ready. Tonight, we were."

That growth seemed to be personified by a newly mature captain, Robbie Keane. For the second goal, the country's record goalscorer untypically showed a selfless ingenuity by inventively scooping the ball over for Jon Walters rather than shooting. And his patience was rewarded with a goal for himself minutes later as well as a late penalty.

In saying all of that, though, there were a few caveats to this otherwise convincing win. In truth, Ireland were fortunate to draw the worst, most vulnerable team in the play-offs. And they were more fortunate still when that Estonian team self-destructed after the first goal.

Because of that, some in Ireland were still bemoaning the nature of victory after the game and many fear the continued absence of control in the midfield will cause a lot of problems in Euro 2012.

But one aspect of it all is undeniable: Ireland are about to reach only their fifth international tournament ever. They'll have done it coming through a group with a Euro 2008 semi-finalist (Russia) and a 2010 World Cup last-16 side (Slovakia). At the end of that, they then eviscerated a team that themselves had come through a group with three World Cup qualifiers. Broken down, that's a commendable achievement, regardless of its style.

Miguel Delaney is a freelance football journalist and owner of Football Pantheon.

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