IT’S A NEW twist on an old theme: Ireland’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.
Far from turning into the end of season non-event which many feared it would after the mass defection of star names, Ireland’s trip to the United States got off to a stirring start in Giants Stadium on Wednesday night with a 1-1 draw with Ecuador, a game Steve Staunton’s young ‘uns were unlucky not to win after coming from behind and then creating the bulk of the goal chances.
The improbable merits of being forced to field a makeshift and hugely inexperienced side were clear in the verve, tenacity and relentless energy levels which the visitors brought to a game that possessed far more competitive bite than your average summer friendly, and which kept a crowd of just over 20,000 (in the 80,000 capacity arena) thoroughly entertained.
Of course, while this one clearly won’t go down in history as a classic, it could yet be remembered as a match which helped to shape Ireland’s future.
Afterwards, Cork City’s Joe Gamble revealed that, at the hotel before leaving for the ground, the squad had been shown a 20 minute video of Irish footballing highlights, climaxing with that famous Ray Houghton goal in the World Cup thirteen years ago. For so many young players, some of whom Gamble admitted were “quite nervous” before kick-off, the message was clear: be inspired. And, playing for the shirt as well as their futures as Irish internationals, they duly responded.
By the end of the game, Ireland had fielded a remarkable 11 new caps, and while there had been some extremely suspect moments defensively — not least when Alex Bruce and Alan Bennett got their wires crossed, allowing Christian Benitez to break free and beat Colin Doyle — the overall performance was impressively high.
“Very, very pleasing,” was Staunton’s verdict. “There were some excellent individual performances and I thought overall a very good team performance. We started a bit shaky at the back but that’s understandable, the lads had only got together for a few days. But in the second-half I thought they coped much better and we had enough chances to win the game. It goes to show, it doesn’t matter who comes into the squad, they get on with it and give it their all.”
The Irish display was also notable for a splendid Kevin Doyle goal, his third in four games for Ireland, the Reading striker supplying a diving header to finish off a sweeping five-man move just before the break. As good a goal as has been scored under Staunton’s management?
“I thought the move was very good — great ball in by Daryl Murphy and Doyler did what good strikers should do, get across the front man, and then a very good header. And it just showed the character of the side, coming back from one-nil down.”
Doyle, superb throughout, was withdrawn on the hour mark but only as a precaution.
“Doyler was coming off anyway because of the (recent) hamstring injury,” Staunton explained. “The pitch was sapping and there was no point taking a chance with him. They are friendlies after all and we do want to win them but I don’t want to see Kevin going off for three or four weeks with another hamstring injury during the summer. So we took him off with the Bolivia game in mind. Kevin needs to get a lot of football in at this level. It’ll only be his ninth cap on Saturday.
Staunton is understandably pleased with his growing options up front.
“Kevin and Robbie were our only two strikers last year. And now Daryl Murphy’s come on the scene and I thought he was excellent as well. We know what Doyler can do — he’s scored three in eight. He’s always a threat and, looking at him in training, he’s getting better all the time.”
At the other end of the pitch, there were some initially worrying moments, in the face of a swift and strong Ecuadorian strikeforce, for the novel and deeply inexperienced central defensive pairing of Ipswich Town’s Alex Bruce and Reading’s Alan Bennett, the latter a man who hasn’t played senior football since moving from Cork City nearly six months ago.
“He’s been doing very well in the Reading reserves,” Staunton pointed out. “Himself and Alex took probably the best part of the first half to get in sync but I thought in the second half, they were very good. You try and guide them. I felt we were too deep and that was causing us a problem. They got a better line after the break.”
Behind them, the towering Colin Doyle acquitted himself well on his debut between the posts. The Corkman comfortably thwarted one attempt to lob him and, the goal apart, enjoyed a reasonably stress-free night as Ireland dominated the balance of play.
“That’s what makes good goalkeepers,” Staunton observed. “When they’re called upon, they’re there to do what they do best. And the size of him — I thought your man was a bit cheeky to try and lob a six-foot-six fellow but there you go.”
While Staunton was happy to spread the praise around, the consensus view from the press box was that, behind Kevin Doyle, Darren Potter was next in line for the Man Of The Match gong. In the first half in particular, the Wolves midfielder’s composure and distribution were key to Ireland’s most creative attacking play and, in the second 45, the Liverpudlian and Kevin Kilbane worked hard in front of a hitherto vulnerable defence which clearly could have done with Lee Carsley to provide added protection in midfield.
And so to Boston for tomorrow’s game against Bolivia, with Kevin Kilbane requiring an assessment on a knock to the ankle, but confident that he’ll be fit to play.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Doyle (Birmingham); Kelly (Birmingham), Bruce (Ipswich), Bennett (Reading), O’Halloran (Aston Villa), Keogh (Wolves), Potter (Wolves), Kilbane, (Wigan), Hunt (Reading), Doyle (Reading), Murphy (Sunderland).
Subs: Long, Reading (Doyle, 60); O’Cearuill, Arsenal (O’Halloran, 73); Gamble, Cork City (Keogh, 69); Stokes, Sunderland (Hunt, 69); Gleeson, Wolves (Kilbane, 79); Lapira, Notre Dame (Murphy, 85).