James McClean fired the Republic of Ireland to a precious World Cup qualifying victory in Austria to spare himself a showdown with Roy Keane.
The 27-year-old West Brom winger scored the only goal at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna with a sweetly struck left-footed drive, and later revealed he had assistant manager Keane on his mind as he raced in on goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan.
McClean told Sky Sports after the 1-0 win: “If I had missed the target, Roy would have killed me. He hammers us in training that we must hit the target. I hit it sweetly and it flew through the keeper’s legs.
“It was without a doubt my biggest goal for Ireland.
“I’ve been around now for four or five years. Only now am I starting to lay down a place and make that my own. You play on merit and the performances you put in, so I want to keep pulling my weight.”
McClean played in Vienna after recovering from a back injury which threatened to rule him out, and his individual display earned him praise from manager Martin O’Neill, who handed him his chance in the Premier League as a youngster during their time together at Sunderland.
O’Neill said: “I gave him his full debut. James had played a reserve game just before that and I saw someone with great desire, and I think over the past couple of years he has improved and that is great for us.
“He loves playing for us, which is very, very important and he is as proud as anything now.
“If the game had been on Tuesday, he couldn’t have played and I think that speaks volumes for him. Knowing McClean, he would have tried to declare himself fit, but he wouldn’t have made it.
“But he has been excellent for us. He has really proven his worth and he is becoming a big player for us, which is great.”
Ireland, who had not beaten Austria since 1963, rode their luck during a difficult first half with Marcel Sabitzer hitting the bar six minutes before the break, but emerged with another three points to go with the seven they had collected from their first three games to ensure they remain firmly in the hunt for qualification from Group D.
O’Neill was characteristically refusing to take anything for granted afterwards, but could not hide his delight at how the last three months has panned out.
He said: “Austria will naturally be disappointed because they have dropped all three points here, they drew at home here with Wales and were beaten by Serbia.
“Something tells me that they still have a chance and while I believe – and have always believed – this group will be tight, I think teams will still take points from each other.
“I’m genuinely pleased that we have won the game, really pleased to have 10 points on the board from four matches. But there’s a million miles to go.”
Austria counterpart Marcel Koller was understandably disappointed at a result which leaves his team six points adrift of Ireland.
Koller said: “It is very difficult for us and they are big points for Ireland, who are well ahead of us now and will take a lot of self-confidence into the winter break.
“But there are still six games and 18 points to play for. I know it will be difficult, but we will do everything we can to be successful.
“We knew Ireland played a very defensive game and, after going in front, they became even more defensive. But if you do not score, then you do not win the game.”