A bore fest rather than a score fest, Ireland once again made heavy weather of seeing off Gibraltar.
A Robbie Brady goal in almost the last act of the game, added to a first-half own goal, gave Mick McCarthy’s team the win and — looking far more impressive on paper than last night’s fare did on the pitch — a healthy haul of 10 points at the halfway mark of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
Let’s be honest, we’re never entirely comfortable when Ireland are billed as red-hot favourites.
On the one hand, the prospect of playing Gibraltar had us checking back through the records for our all-time greatest winning margin — 8-0 against Malta at Dalymount in 1983, thanks for asking.
And, on the other, the Irish football psyche is still scarred by memories of 0-0 away to Liechtenstein and 2-1 away to San Marino, not to mention the recent and much more relevant scare which the part-timers of Gibraltar gave Mick McCarthy’s team amid the howling cross-winds blowing across their plastic pitch in the shadow of the Rock.
An under-populated Aviva Stadium on a pleasingly sun-splashed evening should have provided a much more congenial setting for Ireland to demonstrate their superiority against the team currently ranked 195th out of 211 in world football, sharing their spot, for the record, with Timor-Leste.
But that’s not the way it panned out in a patience-sapping game during which Ireland huffed and puffed, but never really threatened to blow Gibraltar’s reinforced house down.
There were two changes from the side which drew in Copenhagen on Friday, Glenn Whelan and Robbie Brady making way as Callum Robinson and Scott Hogan came into the starting line-up meaning that, with David McGoldrick retaining his place, McCarthy had three of the four strikers in his squad on from the start.
And with none of them having hit the net for Ireland before kick-off, the hope was that Ireland’s 3-5-2 formation would enable the home side to find the route to goal rather more straightforward than was their route to the Aviva, after their bus broke down en route.
In fact, it was ‘goal machine’ Shane Duffy who threatened to open the scoring after just two minutes, turning Conor Hourihane’s clipped cross over Kyle Goldwin’s bar. A minute later, McGoldrick got in on the right side of the box but couldn’t keep his effort down either.
That set the tone for the mainly one-way traffic that followed, but while the home side dominated possession, they struggled to find a way through, around or even over the massed Gibraltar defence, the poor timing of his runs meaning Scott Hogan was ruled offside on three occasions in the first 20 minutes.
Some of Ireland’s most promising work was coming down the right-hand side where, frequently afforded a good deal of space, Callum Robinson and Seamus Coleman linked up well on a few occasions, but as the final ball repeatedly failed to match the promise of the build-up, the frustration in the stands became increasingly audible.
But then, in the 29th minute, disenchantment gave way to celebration — or maybe it was more like relief — as three deflections helped Ireland get an own-goal breakthrough. Callum Robinson began it with another incisive run in from the right and when the ball broke off two defenders to reach Seamus Coleman, the skipper intelligently picked out David McGoldrick, whose shot took a decisive deflection off Joseph Chipolina on its way to the net.
One the few players to inject some much-needed tempo into the Irish attacks, Robinson was soon catching the eye again, cutting inside and unleashing a left-footed shot that wasn’t far outside Goldwin’s far post, but as the whistle blew for half time, a single goal — and a fortuitous one at that — was all that a worryingly sloppy Ireland had to show for a distinctly underwhelming first half.
After the restart misplaced passes and over- and under-hit crosses were again a recurring feature as Ireland continued to struggle to make the most of their territorial dominance.
And, although the pressure on the Gibraltar goal was more or less relentless, the longer the game went on with an unchanged score, the more you could sense the crowd’s gnawing concern that it would take the concession of just one sucker punch to turn the night to ashes.
The better to keep those demons at bay, they derived great pleasure from heaping pressure on ’keeper Goldwin who responded by posting a series of kick-outs straight out of play.
To a warm Aviva welcome, Sean Maguire came on for Scott Hogan in the 65th minute, the ex-Cork City man soon feeling the effects of a friendly-fire collision with Shane Duffy as both tried to get on the end of a Conor Hourihane corner.
With Gibraltar visibly tiring, Ireland’s offensive fire was becoming more hostile, McGoldrick thumping one off the post in the 71st minute before McCarthy made another change, Robbie Brady coming on for Callum Robinson.
But still it looked like the insurance goal wouldn’t come, the Irish lacking the guile and invention to penetrate a side wholly intent, as was their right, on damage limitation. That was until the game had slipped into time added on. Hourihane’s ball out to McClean was superb and, for once, the cross was spot on, taking out defender and ’keeper alike so that Brady was able to convert with a diving head at the far post.
It was a welcome upbeat note on which to end a night which, the necessary three points aside, won’t linger long in the memory.
IRELAND: Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Stevens, Robinson (Brady 73), Hourihane, Hendrick, McClean, McGoldrick, Hogan (Maguire 65)
GIBRALTAR: Goldwin, Sergeant, J Chipolina, R Chipolina, Annesley, Olivero, De Barr, Andrew Hernandez (Jolley 76), Pons (Britto 63), Walker, Casciaro Bardon 9).
Referee: Radu Petrescu