Ireland finished with a flourish in the Aviva last night, as a much improved second-half performance meant first international goals for the Cork duo of Alan Browne and Kevin Long, along with one on his debut for striker James Collins, delivered a 3-1 win over a Bulgarian side whose only answer on the night came from the penalty spot.
As Mick McCarthy had flagged before kick-off, Aston Villa midfielder Conor Hourihane was deployed at left-back amid otherwise wholesale changes in personnel from the side which drew with Switzerland last Thursday.
Along with Bournemouth ’keeper Mark Travers and Charlton midfielder Josh Cullen making their debuts and John Egan being honoured with the captain’s armband on his fifth cap, there were also starts for Cyrus Christie, Kevin Long, Alan Browne, Ronan Curtis, Alan Judge, Callum O’Dowda and, upfront, Scott Hogan.
Ireland have now twice pulled the fat from the fire through late equalisers in Euro 2020 qualifying — away to Denmark and at home to Switzerland — evidence of a collective spirit and resiliencenot towhose importance can never be underestimated.
But if they are to take the full points from the game away to Georgia next month and put themselves in a strong position for the crunch assignment which follows in Geneva, then McCarthy’s men are going to have to find a way to impose themselves on the opposition in Tbilisi in the way that they did against the same opponents in Dublin, but which they struggled to replicate against the group’s top seeds.
Last night’s game, played in front of a half-empty Aviva and contested at the outset by what was effectively an Ireland B team and a re-jigged version of a Bulgarian side rooted to the bottom of their own qualifying group, was always going to be about as far from a dress rehearsal for the crunch tests to come as you could get — and that was even before Troy Parrot and the rest of Stephen Kenny’s U21s stole the night’s thunder with their magnificent come-from-behind victory in Sweden.
Still, for the Irish seniors called into action, no game in the green shirt can ever be considered anything less than an honour, as well as an opportunity and, certainly, all 10 of the outfield players who started couldn’t complain about lacking time on the ball to show what they could do, as the visitors mainly sat deep from the first whistle and invited the home side to try to break them down.
But though Ireland enjoyed an abundance of possession —with Hourihane and Christie afforded the space to receive the ball high up the pitch — the team were wasteful with it, their final ball repeatedly letting them down. The predictable result was that they almost entirely failed to trouble Bulgarian goalkeeper Hristo Ivanov, a very mature debutant at the age of 37, in what proved to be a decidedly flat and all-too-friendly first half.
The visitors, on their occasional forays forward in the first 45, had shown they were capable of causing a couple of nervy moments for the Irish defence and, soon after the restart, the Leeside centre-half pairing of John Egan and Kevin Long were called on to make back-to-back blocks to protect Travers.
But then, suddenly, in the 55th minute, another Corkman found himself celebrating at the other end of the pitch, Alan Browne scoring his first goal for his country with an unmissable tap-in after Ivanov could only parry Ronan Curtis’ drive and, reacting quickly and cleverly, Scott Hogan was able to put the rebound on a plate for the Preston midfielder.
But the boost to the Aviva atmosphere was quickly punctured as an unforced error by Christie put his defence under needless pressure, and when Egan fouled Goronov in the box, the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Up stepped substitute Ivelin Popov to do the needful and emphatically level the game at 1-1.
With James McClean on for Hourihane — who had been largely anonymous as an experimental left-back — and Josh Cullen an always industrious presence, there was a fresh injection of pace and purpose into the Irish attack.
Yet, when the lead arrived again in the 83rd minute, it came from a familiar source, as a defender rose to head home a set-piece.
This time it was a corner superbly delivered by Jack Byrne — who was thoroughly impressive after coming off the bench — with Kevin Long rising to convert at the far post for his first international goal.And then, just three minutes later, came something rather more unexpected, but no less welcome, as an Irish striker found the back of the net — and on his debut to boot.
Luton’s James Collins was the man taking his club form onto the international stage, stretching to connect with Enda Stevens’ cross and putting the seal on a 3-1 win.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Travers (O’Hara 75), Christie, Egan, Long, Hourihane (McClean 69), Cullen, Browne, Curtis (Hendrick 84), Judge (Byrne 59) O’Dowda (Stevens 75), Hogan (Collins 59)
BULGARIA: Ivanov, Goranov, Nedyalkov (Bozhikov 59), K Dimitrov (Iliev 80), Pashov, Slavchev, Mladenov (Despodov 68), Milanov (Popov 45), Malinov (Terziev 80), N Dimitrov (Wanderson 59), Kraev
Referee: Tobias Welz (Germany)