It was the kind of goal that players and supporters alike will see in their very best dreams for years to come. A low cross from the right, a dummy at the near post and a jackhammer of a strike from James McClean from 15 yards.

The Welsh will see this in their dreams too, though, and for entirely different reasons.

The throw out from goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey just before the hour asked too many questions of his captain Ashley Williams and when he lost out to Jeff Hendrick on the touchline, the platform was there for a moment comprising disaster and triumph in equal measure.

James McClean fired Republic of Ireland into a World Cup play-off spot after smashing home just before the hour

James McClean fired Republic of Ireland into a World Cup play-off spot after smashing home just before the hour

Meeting the ball on the half volley, McClean smashed a right-footed drive into the corner of Wayne Hennesey's goal

Meeting the ball on the half volley, McClean smashed a right-footed drive into the corner of Wayne Hennesey's goal

Meeting the ball on the half volley, McClean smashed a right-footed drive into the corner of Wayne Hennesey’s goal

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane leap in joy after McClean's superb strike for the visitors

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane leap in joy after McClean's superb strike for the visitors

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane leap in joy after McClean’s superb strike for the visitors

McLean celebrates by running to kiss his wife Erin after his goal as emotions run high in the Welsh capital

McLean celebrates by running to kiss his wife Erin after his goal as emotions run high in the Welsh capital

McLean celebrates by running to kiss his wife Erin after his goal as emotions run high in the Welsh capital

Gareth Bale, who missed the match through injury, appears emotional as he watches his side fall behind in the Welsh capital

Gareth Bale, who missed the match through injury, appears emotional as he watches his side fall behind in the Welsh capital

Gareth Bale, who missed the match through injury, appears emotional as he watches his side fall behind in the Welsh capital

Welsh captain Ashley Williams looks dejected after the visitors came to Cardiff and ended their hopes of a World Cup

Welsh captain Ashley Williams looks dejected after the visitors came to Cardiff and ended their hopes of a World Cup

Welsh captain Ashley Williams looks dejected after the visitors came to Cardiff and ended their hopes of a World Cup

MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND GROUP TABLE

WALES (4-2-3-1): Hennessey 5.5; Gunter 6, Chester 6, A Williams 6, Davies 6; King 6 (Woodburn 65′, 6), Allen 6 (J Williams 37′, 7); Ledley 6.5, Lawrence 6.5, Ramsey 5.5; Robson-Kanu 6.5 (Vokes 71′)

SUBS NOT USED: Taylor, Bradshaw, Maxwell, Brooks, Edwards, Ampadu, Lockyer, Ward, Hedges

MANAGER: Chris Coleman 6

BOOKINGS: Allen  

IRELAND (4-5-1): Randolph 7.5; Christie 6.5, Duffy 7, Clark 7, Ward 6.5; Arter 6.5 (Whelan 77′), Meyler 7, Hendrick 7.5, Brady 6.5, McClean 8; Murphy 6.5

SUBS NOT USED: Doyle, O’Shea, Keogh, McGeady, Hogan, O’Dowda, Hoolahan, Hourihane, Elliot, Maguire, Long 

MANAGER: Martin O’Neill 7.5 

BOOKINGS: Clark, Murphy, McClean, Randolph 

GOAL: McClean 57′ 

REFEREE: Damir Skomina (Slovenia) 5 

FULL RATINGS BY LAURIE WHITWELL 

There was, in truth, still much for Hendrick to do but the way that the Burnley player shrugged off the hulking Williams, kept the ball in and then delivered a cross of accuracy and power on the run was typical of Ireland’s efforts on a night of high drama in Cardiff.

When the ball arrived at the near post, Harry Arter’s dummy was born of supreme intelligence. It looked like a training ground move and if it was then McClean clearly knew what was coming.

With the red shirts of the Wales defence wrong-footed and out of position, the West Brom midfielder applied a first time finish of such confidence and sure technique with his flashing right foot that it’s debatable Hennessey even saw the ball as it flew past him low to his left.

So one World Cup dream is dead and another lives on.

Wales will not have the chance to grace Russia as they did France in the last European Championships. That is a shame and maybe the absence of Gareth Bale and the concussion suffered by Joe Allen in the first half simply provided too big an obstacle.  

Wales boss Chris Coleman looks on from the sideline as the crucial World Cup qualifier is about to get underway in Cardiff

Wales boss Chris Coleman looks on from the sideline as the crucial World Cup qualifier is about to get underway in Cardiff

Wales boss Chris Coleman looks on from the sideline as the crucial World Cup qualifier is about to get underway in Cardiff

Coleman's counterpart O'Neill, with assistant Keane, also take their place on the bench ahead of the Cardiff clash

Coleman's counterpart O'Neill, with assistant Keane, also take their place on the bench ahead of the Cardiff clash

Coleman’s counterpart O’Neill, with assistant Keane, also take their place on the bench ahead of the Cardiff clash

The opening exchanges are dogged, and left back Ben Davies goes down under the pressure of a tackle from Robbie Brady

The opening exchanges are dogged, and left back Ben Davies goes down under the pressure of a tackle from Robbie Brady

The opening exchanges are dogged, and left back Ben Davies goes down under the pressure of a tackle from Robbie Brady

Hal Robson-Kanu tries to create a chance by bursting through the Irish defence but Ciaran Clark keeps close tabs

Hal Robson-Kanu tries to create a chance by bursting through the Irish defence but Ciaran Clark keeps close tabs

Hal Robson-Kanu tries to create a chance by bursting through the Irish defence but Ciaran Clark keeps close tabs

Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey is brought down by Republic of Ireland captain David Meyler, who pleads his innocence

Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey is brought down by Republic of Ireland captain David Meyler, who pleads his innocence

Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey is brought down by Republic of Ireland captain David Meyler, who pleads his innocence

The hosts were without their talisman and star player, Bale, who watched on helplessly from the crowd in Cardiff

The hosts were without their talisman and star player, Bale, who watched on helplessly from the crowd in Cardiff

The hosts were without their talisman and star player, Bale, who watched on helplessly from the crowd in Cardiff

But credit Martin O’Neill’s Ireland for their pluck, resilience and organisation. They were second favourites when this game began and not much of what we saw in the first half changed that. But Ireland provided the one moment of real quality in an attritional game and nobody will want to face them in the play-offs now.

Ireland still have much to do to get to Russia next summer. For some unfathomable reason, the World Cup play-offs are seeded. One would think that one second-placed group finish after a year or so of football would pretty much equal another.

But that’s not the way it works so Ireland will now face a two-legged game against one of Portugal or Switzerland, Italy, Croatia or Denmark. Some opponents look more hazardous than others but this performance will have done wonders for Irish confidence.

This was Wales’ first competitive defeat since they went down to Portugal in the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and that says everything for the Republic’s achievement. If they prove as hard to break down as they did here then they will have a chance.  

After early Welsh pressure, Ashley Williams is forced to clear his lines after a dangerous ball is drilled into the box

After early Welsh pressure, Ashley Williams is forced to clear his lines after a dangerous ball is drilled into the box

After early Welsh pressure, Ashley Williams is forced to clear his lines after a dangerous ball is drilled into the box

Ireland's Cyrus Christie leaps to win a header against Andy King during a toughly contested first half from both teams

Ireland's Cyrus Christie leaps to win a header against Andy King during a toughly contested first half from both teams

Ireland’s Cyrus Christie leaps to win a header against Andy King during a toughly contested first half from both teams

Joe Ledley checks on Allen, who is attended to by the Wales medical stuff, after a landing on his head during an awkward fall

Joe Ledley checks on Allen, who is attended to by the Wales medical stuff, after a landing on his head during an awkward fall

Joe Ledley checks on Allen, who is attended to by the Wales medical stuff, after a landing on his head during an awkward fall

Coleman entrusts Jonny Williams with the responsibility of replacing Allen after 37 minutes had been played in Cardiff 

Coleman entrusts Jonny Williams with the responsibility of replacing Allen after 37 minutes had been played in Cardiff 

Coleman entrusts Jonny Williams with the responsibility of replacing Allen after 37 minutes had been played in Cardiff 

Darren Randolph catches the ball after a cross is whipped in as Wales try and mount an attack and take the lead

Darren Randolph catches the ball after a cross is whipped in as Wales try and mount an attack and take the lead

Darren Randolph catches the ball after a cross is whipped in as Wales try and mount an attack and take the lead

In some ways, both these teams can provide something of an example for England to follow. Both have finished their campaigns in Group D having squeezed almost as much as they can out of it. Can England say the same? Sadly not.

Wales and the Republic both work off the back of a paucity of resources and both have achieved much under their current managers over the last two or three years. O’Neill is the one to move forward and it could now be that Wales’ Chris Coleman decides to return to club football.

His team did what they could in front of a raucous and emotional crowd. The football was modest at best but there was nothing wrong with the atmosphere.

Early on Wales were the better team. Bale may have been missing but as the Welsh full-backs pushed on, Allen and Aaron Ramsey were given space to work and look for the passes that would open up the Ireland defence.

There were half chances but no more. Hal Robson-Kanu headed over while Ramsey was denied by goalkeeper Darren Randolph from distance.  

Seamus Coleman, who suffered a double leg break in the reverse fixture back in March, watches his side from the stands

Seamus Coleman, who suffered a double leg break in the reverse fixture back in March, watches his side from the stands

Seamus Coleman, who suffered a double leg break in the reverse fixture back in March, watches his side from the stands

Tom Lawrence, Wales's hero in Georgia, looks to take on Christie as the Welshman goes on one of his meandering runs

Tom Lawrence, Wales's hero in Georgia, looks to take on Christie as the Welshman goes on one of his meandering runs

Tom Lawrence, Wales’s hero in Georgia, looks to take on Christie as the Welshman goes on one of his meandering runs

Randolph pulls off a stunning save after Robson-Kanu beats his man to send a glancing header towards goal

Randolph pulls off a stunning save after Robson-Kanu beats his man to send a glancing header towards goal

Randolph pulls off a stunning save after Robson-Kanu beats his man to send a glancing header towards goal

The Welsh captain leaps to beat Murphy to the ball and win a powerful header for his side under pressure

The Welsh captain leaps to beat Murphy to the ball and win a powerful header for his side under pressure

The Welsh captain leaps to beat Murphy to the ball and win a powerful header for his side under pressure

But as Ireland finally found a way in to the game, Allen exited with concussion after finding himself the meat in an Irish sandwich comprising McClean and David Meyler. It felt significant at the time and it didn’t help the home team.

They began the second half strongly and Randolph leaped well to touch over another header from Robson-Kanu. Then left-back Ben Davies couldn’t keep his own header down from the corner that followed.

That was actually the best chance Wales had but soon the moment was swallowed up by what happened at the other end. It is hard to decide whose error was the greater, Hennessey’s or Williams’. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. All that mattered is what it meant.

Roared on by the crowd, Wales responded with gusto but what really took the wind from their sails was news of a goal by Croatia at Ukraine in Group I. That meant a draw would no longer be enough to secure Wales a play-off spot as one of the best runner-up so throughout six minutes of added time we watched the peculiar spectacle of a team hunting a goal that would serve only to eliminate both teams.

Battered by the storm, the Irish defence held out and the celebrations that followed were worth watching. If O’Neill’s team do make it to Russia, the chances are that half of the Republic will go with them.

But it was the West Brom star who broke the deadlock in Cardiff, smashing home to give his side the lead

But it was the West Brom star who broke the deadlock in Cardiff, smashing home to give his side the lead

But it was the West Brom star who broke the deadlock in Cardiff, smashing home to give his side the lead

 McClean sprints to the fans packed inside the Cardiff arena and slaps his badge before punching the air

 McClean sprints to the fans packed inside the Cardiff arena and slaps his badge before punching the air

 McClean sprints to the fans packed inside the Cardiff arena and slaps his badge before punching the air

Hennessey and Co look dejected as Ireland stars run to their adoring fans at the Cardiff City Stadium to celebrate wildly

Hennessey and Co look dejected as Ireland stars run to their adoring fans at the Cardiff City Stadium to celebrate wildly

Hennessey and Co look dejected as Ireland stars run to their adoring fans at the Cardiff City Stadium to celebrate wildly

McClean is swamped by his team-mates as the Irish contingent in the crown go wild after he puts his side 1-0 up

McClean is swamped by his team-mates as the Irish contingent in the crown go wild after he puts his side 1-0 up

McClean is swamped by his team-mates as the Irish contingent in the crown go wild after he puts his side 1-0 up

The strike was, ultimately, a telling blow as Wales just could not fight back as their World Cup ambitions ended in Cardiff

The strike was, ultimately, a telling blow as Wales just could not fight back as their World Cup ambitions ended in Cardiff

The strike was, ultimately, a telling blow as Wales just could not fight back as their World Cup ambitions ended in Cardiff

Ramsey pulls his shirt over his head as another World Cup dream falls by the wayside for a further four years

Ramsey pulls his shirt over his head as another World Cup dream falls by the wayside for a further four years

Ramsey pulls his shirt over his head as another World Cup dream falls by the wayside for a further four years

The Welsh players are inconsolable after a night which started so promisingly ends with their World Cup dreams shattered

The Welsh players are inconsolable after a night which started so promisingly ends with their World Cup dreams shattered

The Welsh players are inconsolable after a night which started so promisingly ends with their World Cup dreams shattered

O'Neill raises his hands to the travelling Irish faithful at the Cardiff City Stadium after a historic night comes to an end

O'Neill raises his hands to the travelling Irish faithful at the Cardiff City Stadium after a historic night comes to an end

O’Neill raises his hands to the travelling Irish faithful at the Cardiff City Stadium after a historic night comes to an end

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