Mick and Seamus had done their bit to temper the giddiness. Coach and captain had held up Ireland’s struggles against Gibraltar two months ago as reason for caution ahead of this latest European qualifier, but there was always the sense that the audience were nodding heads out of respect rather than agreement.
The Rock in March, with its plastic pitch and uncooperative winds, was a long way removed from the pristine turf and balmy breeze that accompanied last night’s repeat at Lansdowne Road. It was hard not to think big. Or bigger, at least.
If there were any echoes from the past to be heeded, then it was much more tempting to think back to the 7-0 mauling handed out to the plucky little outcrop of empire when the sides met in Dublin five years ago.
It made for an interesting and educational trip down memory lane, given Robbie Keane had a hat-trick bagged within 18 minutes that night and Wes Hoolahan was the provider for two of those efforts.
What Ireland wouldn’t give for a poacher and a play maker of their ilk now, as McCarthy goes about emulating that vintage by taking the Republic to another continental finals.
McCarthy’s tenure has started promisingly, with the restoration of belief and some manner of positivity in attack after the slow and painful regression that did for Martin O’Neill’s time in charge, but the lack of goals couldn’t be ignored.
This, then, was a rare opportunity to bare some teeth. A group minnow fuelled mostly by part-timers coming off a 3-0 defeat to Georgia and a draining journey all the way from Tbilisi just days before. Ireland knew this. So did the fans.
There was an energy to the Aviva Stadium last night that isn’t always there. An understanding that an Irish team with the wind in their sails could breeze past Gibraltar and hoist their flag from atop Group D for the summer to come.
Events off the pitch may have had something to do with that buzz. This was the first men’s senior international to be played on home soil since the dam broke on the inner workings of the FAI and JohnDelaney’s grip was loosened on the game in this country, but if that was a factor, then it was invisible to the naked eye.
The only discernible change to last night’s proceedings was the absence of a minute’s silence prior to kick-off for members of the football community who, like the much missed RTÉ reporter Pat McAuliffe, had passed away since the previous home engagement against Georgia.
Pat, along with seven others, was remembered in the programme notes, and the Cork broadcaster — who was in attendance at that Georgian game — was honoured by a reserved seat in the press box, where his credentials were displayed.
Ireland began at the sort of tempo that had so discommoded the eastern Europeans here, the addition of Scott Hogan and Callum Robinson to the line-up serving as a more reliable barometer as to McCarthy’s ambitions than his earlier public utterances.
However, a quick word here for Matt Doherty. The Wolves player has added just eight minutes to his Irish CV since the 56 he banked in that forgettable group opener away toGibraltar when he was used on the right of midfield.
McCarthy has more or less ruled out a repeat of that in the weeks since and it appears he won’t be for turning, given he used a 3-5-2 system here that appeared tailor-made for a man who plays as a wing-back in the Premier League.
It’s an odd state of affairs, but this wasn’t the evening to call McCarthy out on it, given that Callum Robinson, the man he chose on the right-hand side of his midfieldquintet, dovetailed so well down the right with Coleman.
Even then, the threat the home side posed was intermittent.
Ireland were somehow caught offside four timesinside the first 25 minutes against a side you’d hope to see digging trenches around the penalty spot. Amid all that were flashes of opportunity for Hogan, David McGoldrick and Shane Duffy.
In fairness to McCarthy, he did say that he would bite your hand off for a 1-0 win, with the goal coming off someone’s backside. Joseph Chipolina did his best to oblige when David McGoldrick’s strike eventually found the net via the defender’s lower back.
That left McGoldrick — like Hogan and Robinson and Sean Maguire — still searching for a first international goal and the side, as a collective, seeking the sort of fluency and tempo that could engineer those breakthroughs.
McGoldrick’s night summed it up, one shot off his shin being saved and another, from outside the box,rebounding off a post. All of which meant that Robbie Brady’s 90th-minute header was met with as much reliefas delight.
No wonder. This was the first time in 12 months and 10 matches that Ireland had managed to score morethan once in the course of a game.
A minor detail on the night, but a significant one in terms of the bigger picture.