AT the start last night, the talk was all about those who chose to stay away, from James McCarthy and Marc Wilson to the boycotting Northern Ireland fans to the many thousands of locals who found they had better things to be doing on a sunny evening in early summer than coming to the Aviva Stadium.
But the die-hards haven’t gone away, you know.
After a week of historic bridge-building, the local supporters managed to roll back time by roundly booing the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’ — the first time the anthem was ever heard in the Republic before a north-south football match — and then treating the small but noisy band of travelling supporters at the Havelock Square end to a rendition or two of ‘There’s only one team in Ireland’ and, a newer one, ‘Do you want to play for us?’.
Unfortunately for them, Nigel Worthington’s young side had no answer to that, as Robbie Keane led the charge with two goals for the Republic in a 5-0 humiliation of their nearest neighbours which ranks as the biggest win yet under Giovanni Trapattoni.
It might be an understatement to observe that the Carling Nations Cup has failed to capture the public imagination — the attendance was a paltry 15,092, but try arguing about the pointlessness of friendlies with the likes of Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Paul McShane, Stephen Ward, Seamus Coleman, Simon Cox, Damien Delaney, Stephen Hunt and Keith Andrews, for all of whom, if for varying reasons, last night’s game had a significance which they surely hope will extend beyond the 90 minutes.
That much was evident in the performance of Andrews alone, a man who was here there and everywhere from the off, almost desperately determined to make up for lost time. And, after the events of the last 48 hours, the Blackburn man also knows that, with the latest twist in the James McCarthy saga, one more potential obstacle to reclaiming his central midfield berth for Ireland has been removed for now.
In the 15th minute, he even came close to breaking the deadlock last night, curling a superb right-footed effort which crashed back off the far post with Northern Ireland ‘keeper Alan Blayney rooted to the spot.
Ten minutes later, Blayney did manage to get involved in the action but only to make a present of a low Keith Treacy cross to Stephen Ward of Wolves who, making his long-awaited debut as a late replacement for the AWOL Wilson, gleefully mopped up the spillage.
On 37 it was 47 — that is to say 47 goals, and counting, for Robbie Keane who, shedding the rustiness which had seen him spurn a couple of early half-chances, was gifted a suicidal back pass by Lee Hodson and then showed all his old composure by chipping Blayney to put the Republic two-up..
The home side were already coasting, the passes zipping about, the crowd purring and the north chasing shadows. Indeed, so befuddled were the visitors that they finished the first half with Craig Cathcart putting through his own goal as, at the end of another fine passing move, Seamus Coleman proved typically incisive in getting another dangerous ball into the box.
And, in the second half, things would only go from bad to worse, with an extra bit of ignominy thrown in, for the North. In the 52nd minute, a push in the back denied Robbie Keane a clear goal-scoring opportunity and Adam Thompson paid for his clumsiness with a red card. Up stepped the captain to the penalty spot to extend his all-time record-breaking tally to 48.
With the opposition now four behind and down to 10 men, it seemed the only outstanding issue was whether Keane would get to the half-century on the night, but he didn’t get the chance as, much to his visible dismay — which a huge ovation seemingly did little to ease — he was replaced just past the hour mark by Andy Keogh.
Shay Given came off after a quiet night’s work in the 71st minute and seven minutes later, at the other end, Simon Cox made it a debut to remember for himself as, after drifting across the face of he box, he picked out the bottom corner of the net with an unerring shot to make it five for the Republic.
With the clock running down, Stephen Hunt’s skill from the dead ball was denied only by the woodwork but the home support were well satisfied with five and the away fans just happy that the final whistle came bang on cue to put them out of their misery.
It was the biggest win of Trapattoni’s reign but, not for the first time this morning, the discussion will still be about the ones that got away.
Subs for Republic of Ireland: Lawrence for Coleman 54, Keogh for Keane 62, Hunt for Foley 69,Forde for Given 71.
Northern Ireland: Norwood for McQuoid 45, Coates for Gorman 54, Boyce for Feeney 71, McGinn for Carson 71, Garrett for Davis 75.
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