Walt a feeling! Big Jon celebrates his second goal with Richard Keogh not far behind. Donall Farmer/INPHO
History Boys

We're off to France! Jon Walters double books Ireland's place at Euro 2016

Ireland have qualified for Euro 2016. Who’s taking the horse to France?

Ireland 2

Bosnia-Herzegovina 0

(Ireland win 3-1 on aggregate)

— Niall Kelly reports from the Aviva Stadium

A NATION HELD its breath again — and Jon Walters delivered, not once but twice.

Ireland are going to the European Championships in France next summer. The dream that seemed like wishful thinking just a few months ago is now a reality.

The image of the big Stoke City striker, his arms flung wide in ecstasy after drilling a penalty past Asmir Begovic, will rightly go down as one of the iconic ones in Irish football history.

His first goal settled the nerves and convinced Ireland that not only was victory within their grasp, it was theirs to lose. His second, a level-headed finish from a Robbie Brady free on 70 minutes, rubber-stamped the passports.

To 1988 and 2012, we can now add 2016. A new generation of Joxers, their stories only half-written in Poland and Ukraine, will have a chance to finish what they started four years ago.

Walters made his mark where it mattered the most, on the scoreboard, but this was a night littered with Irish heroes. Ciaran Clark was a defensive rock while Richard Keogh, going toe-to-toe with Edin Dzeko, was every bit as reliable alongside him.

Brady played with an authority far beyond his 23 years, and after a few false starts from set pieces, finally found the killer ball to break Bosnia’s stubborn challenge.

The sold-out Aviva Stadium crowd arrived needing no reminder of Ireland’s chequered play-off past. So near but yet so far, so many times.

But the new stadium is quickly becoming a fortress to resemble the old haunt on Lansdowne Road. The atmosphere was dialled all the way up to 11 on another unforgettable night to add to the list.

Cyrus Christie, Aiden McGeady, Dick Redmond, David Forde, Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan celebrate Cyrus Christie, Aiden McGeady, Dick Redmond, David Forde, Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan celebrate. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Martin O’Neill has not lost a competitive game here as manager and, with the buzz of that historic night against Germany still ringing, the usual pessimism gave way to something resembling cautious optimism.

Friday night’s first leg proved that Bosnia were nothing to be feared and with Walters coming in for Stephen Ward as the only change, the starting XI reflected that.

O’Neill knew that sitting to protect the hard-earned away goal was a fool’s errand and Ireland took the game to their visitors, though the start was littered with mistakes on both sides.

It was a disciplined Irish performance, and while the chances may have been few and far between, the same held true for Mehmad Bazdarevic’s side.

The breakthrough came on 24 minutes, sprung from a moment of genuine creativity. From Seamus Coleman’s short throw-in, Wes Hoolahan flicked the ball back inside to Daryl Murphy who drove his way towards the Bosnian goal.

Ervin Zukanovic tried to twist his body into position as Murphy crossed, and although the ball struck the defender’s flailing arm and lost all of its zip, it’s hard to argue that it was deliberate.

Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers — the man who refereed the second leg against Estonia four years ago, and who might well be adopted as Ireland’s playoff mascot — barely hesitated before pointing to the spot. Bosnia protested as well they might and as the Aviva Stadium became a jittery mess, Walters remained the coolest man in the house.

He waited for Begovic to blink, the goalkeeper inching to his left, before drilling the ball into the opposite corner.

Martin O'Neill embraces Roy Keane at the final whistle Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane embrace at the final whistle. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Bosnia arrived knowing that they needed at least one goal to have any chance of progressing, and they immediately set about their task with much more diligence. Within 60 seconds, Dzeko — who looked like he might indeed be carrying a knock — wriggled free of James McCarthy before crashing a shot into the side-netting. Randolph, who was never seriously troubled in that first half, had the danger covered.

Dzeko was involved again in the 34th minute to exploit a rare moment of confusion among the Irish back four. Neither Brady nor Clark challenged him in the air, allowing him to cushion a header to Hans Medunjanin, but the midfielder’s snapshot was always high and rising.

Miralem Pjanic, Roma’s lethal playmaker, dropped deeper and deeper in an attempt to influence proceedings and he nearly unlocked the Irish defence with a threaded through ball.

As in the first leg, Ireland’s left side was the most fruitful avenue for Bosnia’s attacks. Ognjen Vranjes and Edin Visca launched siege after siege but twice in quick succession, the rock-solid Clark intervened to clear before Randolph snuffed out another dangerous moment.

Shane Long and his daughter Teigan celebrate John O'Shea puts up a high five for Shane Long's daughter Teigan. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland did have a chance to double their advantage before the break thanks to some brilliant link play by Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick but Begovic did well to snatch the ball off Murphy’s head.

It was a brief respite from a period of Bosnian dominance which continued into the second half, and not long after the restart, Clark was perfectly positioned once again to flick Medunjanin’s whipped free over the bar to safety.

With Bosnia taking an ominous stranglehold, Martin O’Neill acted decisively to make changes. James McClean came on to replace Hoolahan, a mirror image of the change that paid dividends in Zenica on Friday night, while Shane Long — playing his first football in more than a month — relieved Murphy at the head of the line.

Pjanic nearly found Bosnia’s equaliser with a clever training-ground routine on the hour, but there were too many bodies blocking his path to goal.

And on 70 minutes, Brady finally found his mark. His whipped delivery from the left had the Bosnian defence on the back foot and Vranjes could only get enough of a touch to loop the ball up into the air.

Watching it drop, Walters steadied himself at the back post and rattled a shot so precise that it kissed the inside of the woodwork before nestling in the back of Begovic’s net.

Jonathan Walters scores his second goal Walters fires Ireland into the Euros. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Bosnia’s siege never lifted but Randolph and his defenders always did enough to quell the danger, and the crossbar saved them from Vedad Ibisevic’s volley.

Here’s a sentence you can read and read and read between now and next summer: Ireland are going to France.

IRELAND: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Clark, Brady, Whelan (c, O’Shea 90), McCarthy, Hendrick, Hoolahan (McClean 55), Walters, Murphy (Long 55).

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Begovic, Vranjes, Zukanovic, Spahic, Kolasinac, Medunjanin (Djuric 69), Cocalic (Besic HT), Visca, Lulic (Ibisevic 80), Pjanic, Dzeko.

Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

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