The FAI like to play up the time spent by some of its senior players in the domestic league but the rite of passage for most Republic of Ireland internationals still involves a one-way ticket across the Irish Sea before they possess the right to vote or drink.

When Martin O’Neill’s starting XI was revealed at tea-time yesterday there were only two men making their senior debuts for their country and both had left family and friends behind in Cork for a new life at Sunderland long before their teenage years counted out.

John Egan and Conor Hourihane’s careers may have begun at a Premier League club but their descent down the ladder and climb back up again — as far as the Championship, for now — demonstrate again the graft and persistence that young Irish players need to make it on such a gruelling beat.

Not to mention the reality that most are having to earn their spurs now in the lower reaches. 

Egan’s trek from Bishopstown to the point where he stood behind the red carpet waiting to shake hands with Michael D Higgins has been nothing short of Himalayan: Seven clubs, four of them for loan spells, a broken leg and another leg break in two places.

Egan had sport embedded in his DNA: His father John, who passed away aged just 59 in 2012, achieved legendary status with Kerry while his mother Mary won a League of Ireland medal with Cork Rangers. But even seven years ago he knew that “belief” was the key to making it.

That said, debuts like last night must be hairy enough affairs.

Mistakes may not cost any qualifying points but first impressions at international level can last a lifetime, even for someone like Egan whom Martin O’Neill knew from their Sunderland days and who once hailed the youngster’s “fantastic” attitude.

In a way, it’s an unenviable task coming in on a night like this. With so many senior pros off duty, and a scratch XI put together, it isn’t unlike asking the new deck hands to sail the ship while the skipper and most of the crew are on shore leave.

Rocky patches are all but inevitable and Egan and Hourihane hit theirs within a minute of each other.

The Brentford defender gave away a free-kick for a pull of Kjartan Henry Finnbogason’s jersey on the edge of the area — and earned a yellow card for it, too. 

Then Hourihane, along with Jeff Hendrick, should probably have done better in the wall for Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson’s opening goal.

Minor details, major consequences.

Phil Brown, the man who signed him on loan for Southend United in 2012, described Egan at the time as “a no-nonsense type of defender but, at the same time, he can get the ball down and play out from the back”. 

He had plenty of opportunity to show both attributes last night.

Hourihane had to make do with scraps by comparison. Adored by fans at Barnsley, the Bandon man has grown into his brief with Aston Villa in recent weeks where his manager Steve Bruce has described him as a midfielder who can score goals and make things happen.

Last night was more about getting his feet under another new desk.

In an ideal world, everyone would do a Robbie Brady and score a goal and set up another two on your first big day out with your country but football doesn’t work like that.

Even Daryl Horgan, who made a strong impression after his introduction just past the hour, didn’t quite manage that wow moment.

Like Egan and Hourihane, and his fellow traveller on the Dundalk to Preston route Andy Boyle, Horgan knows what it is to take the back roads to the big stage. Last night was one to savour. 

If only for a moment. Frame the shirt, await the cap and keep on truckin’.


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