JAMES McCLEAN ended Wales’ World Cup hopes — and possibly the reign of manager Chris Coleman.
On a tense night in Cardiff, the West Brom midfielder struck just before the hour mark to give Martin O’Neill’s men the points.
It means the Republic of Ireland go through to next month’s play-offs with their hopes of reaching Russia still very much alive.
Yet for Wales, the wait for a first World Cup since 1958 will go on for another four years at least.
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ben Woodburn and Co can start looking at summer holiday brochures.
And it could be that popular boss Coleman will start looking for a new job after 5½ unforgettable years.
He always maintained this campaign would be his last — and now it is over. Failing to at least finish in the top two felt cruel.
The Dragons were unbeaten in the group stage going into this and had never been behind in their nine matches.
Yet their draws here at the Cardiff City Stadium — notably against Georgia and Serbia — meant they still needed the points.
And without key men Bale and Joe Allen — who was forced off with concussion on 37 minutes — it proved to be beyond them.
Sadly they were masters of their own downfall here as Wayne Hennessey and Ashley Williams put them in trouble for the winner.
Irish boss Martin O’Neill seemed to have set up to keep things tight early on and frustrate the home side. An early corner swung over from the right by Joe Ledley was met by Hal Robson-Kanu but he could not keep his header down.
Then Ramsey let fly from 25 yards and Darren Randolph had to tip over the top.
Home skipper Williams had to clear one off the boot of Daryl Murphy but otherwise Hennessey’s goal was rarely under threat.
Tom Lawrence — the hero in Georgia on Friday — got hold of one but it flew straight at Randolph.
INTERACTIVE STATS – CLICK on the categories to find out how the teams fared
A spine-tingling national anthem before the game showed how much this meant to both sets of players.
Yet the passion was not matched by the quality on show, with both teams looking overawed by the occasion. A rare foray from the Irish saw Shane Duffy flash an effort across goal but wide of the far post.
Coleman’s men suffered a real setback just after the half-hour when Allen was concussed.
His head took the impact in a sandwich between David Meyler and McClean.
The Stoke midfielder was key for his country in Bale’s absence but could not continue.
His replacement Jonny Williams swung over a cross which Ciaran Clark almost headed past his own keeper but instead it hit the side- netting.
The first half had been a huge anti-climax, yet as things stood at the break a draw was enough to see Wales into the play-offs.
A stalemate in Kiev, where Ukraine were hosting Croatia, meant the Dragons would squeeze through as one of the eight best runners-up.
Yet intriguingly, they were also a goal away from qualifying automatically as Serbia were also drawing with Georgia.
Bale — laid up with a calf injury but watching from a private box with his fiancee — must have been itching to get on.
His team were still creating the best chances with Robson-Kanu meeting a Jonny Williams cross and forcing an acrobatic save from Randolph.
From the resulting corner, Ben Davies was left unmarked but lacked composure and headed over.
Just before the hour mark came the sucker punch Wales feared — and sadly it was all of their own making.
Hennessey gave Ashley Williams something of a hospital pass and the defender — having such a torrid time with Everton — was closed down. Suddenly Jeff Hendrick was racing away down the right and his low cross was stepped over by Harry Arter.
It fell perfectly for McClean, whose first-time shot was as clean as you like and flashed past the Dragons keeper.
The 3,300 Irish fans behind that goal celebrated wildly as O’Neill’s gameplan seemed to have worked perfectly.
The night was getting worse for the Dragons as news came through Croatia had scored in Ukraine — meaning they now needed two.
Coleman knew it was slipping away and threw on young Ben Woodburn to try to rescue it.
The Liverpool youngster had saved them twice in last month’s qualifiers but this one looked even beyond him.
And when Ramsey floated a shot over the bar, then wasted a free-kick, it became clear it was not going to be their night.
And Coleman admitted admitted it could have been his last as Wales chief.
Cookie – whose contract is up next summer – said: “I’m gutted. The nation will be in mourning as again that elusive World Cup has passed us by.
“We just came up a bit short. I’m a great believer in being honest. I’m disappointed in myself, I’m gutted, devastated.”
“I’ll go back to my family and take a bit of time. When the dust settles we’ll see where we go.
“It will be six years at Christmas. There will be a conversation in due course. I can’t say right now about my future.”
Victory was enough to give the Irish second spot in Group D and a place in next month’s play-offs, where potential opponents include Italy, Portugal and Croatia.
But boss Martin O’Neill declared: “I don’t think anyone would want to play us.
“Do I fear teams in it? Absolutely — every one of them. I always fear them and then we go out and beat them.
“The performance of the players here was fantastic, we had to withstand a lot of pressure.
“I’ve never doubted the character of the players, their courage is never in doubt.
“James McClean has been magnificent, he’s a talisman for us.”
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