James McClean struck for the third time in two World Cup qualifiers to keep the Republic of Ireland firmly on track for Russia with a first victory over Austria since 1963.
McClean’s 48th-minute strike settled a hard-fought game in which Ireland were forced on to the back foot for long periods, but hit their hosts ruthlessly on the break to silence the locals at the Ernst Happel Stadium.
The win leaves the Republic with 10 points of a possible 12 from their opening four qualifiers and firmly in the Group D mix ahead of their showdown with Wales in Dublin in March next year, a game which key man Robbie Brady will miss through suspension.
Victory in Vienna brought down the curtain on a successful 2016 for manager Martin O’Neill and his players, and they will re-assemble next year confident that they are continuing to grow as a team, albeit one which still requires further polishing.
The forecast 20cm of snow overnight in Vienna thankfully failed to materialised and O’Neill’s injury problems abated with McClean able to start after recovering from a back problem, while there was a competitive debut for fellow midfielder Harry Arter, putting to bed once and for all rumours that he could opt for England instead.
There were returns from concussion and suspension respectively for Brady and Jeff Hendrick, but with Shane Long and Daryl Murphy both injured, a shortage of strikers meant a start up front, rather than the usual auxiliary midfield role, for Jonathan Walters.
In the event, Walters was to see rather too little of the ball where it mattered during an opening 45 minutes dominated by the home side, who knew anything but victory could prove hugely damaging to their qualification hopes.
With Skipper Julian Baumgartlinger and dangerman David Alaba conducting from deep, it was they who played the more fluent football, leaving Ireland to feed off scraps.
For all their greater share of the possession, however, Austria were unable to create clear-cut chances until a flurry of activity just before the break.
Striker Marc Janko might have troubled keeper Darren Randolph more than he did with a fifth-minute shot and a header 10 minutes later, and he blazed high and wide after latching on to a weak Shane Duffy clearance with 26 minutes gone.
The Republic too created a series of half-chances with McClean seeing a 13th-minute effort deflected just over the angle of bar and post and Walters glancing a 31st-minute header just wide after Duffy had tumbled inside the penalty as he tried to meet an Arter corner with Russian referee Sergei Karasev unmoved.
However, both sides were grateful for the intervention of the woodwork as the half drew to a close with Marcel Sabitzer unfortunate to see his delicate 39th-minute chip over the advancing Randolph come back off the bar and Walters clipping the top of the bar at the other end from Brady’s inviting cross.
Ireland returned knowing they would have to create more of a threat if they were to avoid a 45-minute onslaught, and it was they who broke the deadlock with less than three minutes on the clock.
Austria had resumed where they had left off, but were caught after losing possession deep in enemy territory and Wes Hoolahan exploited the space they had left behind to the full with a slide-rule pass which sent McClean racing towards goal.
The West Brom winger, who scored twice in Moldova last month, still had plenty to do, but his left-foot shot across keeper Ramazan Ozcan was unerring to send the 3,200 travelling supporters among a crowd of 48,500 into raptures.
Ireland thought they had extended their lead three minutes later when Walters headed Brady’s free-kick past Ozcan, but he did so from an offside position.
But recent contests between the two sides have been tight and this was to prove little different as Randolph produced an outstanding flying save to deny substitute Louis Schaub from distance before Alaba squandered a free-kick from a promising position.
However, the Bayern Munich man served warning that the game was far from over with 25 minutes remaining when he sent a dipping long-range effort onto the roof of Randolph’s net with the keeper back-pedalling anxiously.
Having conceded late Alaba goals in each of their past two matches against the same opposition, there was relief when Randolph safely fielded defender Aleksandar Dragovic’s deflected 90th-minute strike.
Janko should have levelled deep into injury-time, but headed criminally wide from Baumgartlinger’s drive across the box as Ireland survived.