Just over 22,000 was the figure for the game against Italy in Fulham on Saturday night — but that’s where any similarities between the two occasions began and ended.
Meaningless end of season friendly? The Cottage might be small but it positively crackled with big match atmosphere from well before kick-off. When the first team coach pulled up outside the ground, it sparked a manic reaction on the street, as hundreds of besotted expatriate fans of the Azzurri rushed to get as close to their heroes as they could.
However, their excitement was misplaced, a few good-humoured boos replacing the cheers as the appearance down the steps of a pasty-faced man in green confirmed that this was Ireland not Italy.
And it was the team not going to the World Cup which continued to confound expectations once the action got under way. Reflecting the urgency of the Italians’ preparations for Brazil and Ireland’s determination to be anything but warm-up fodder, the game began at a cracking pace and rarely let up until the final whistle. As nil-all friendlies go, this was about as good as it gets.
Having survived a spell of early Italian pressure which had kept David Forde on his toes, Ireland gradually worked their way into the game, with Anthony Pilkington — joyfully seizing the moment of a rare opportunity to start — the most eye-catching of a number impressive performers in the all-black.
Aiden McGeady too was clearly up for it, while Jeff Hendrick and David Meyler combined composure and work rate in a midfield where Wes Hoolahan also put in the hard yards to complement his familiar creative flourishes. And, as the clean sheet attested, Ireland were for the most part defensively strong too — perhaps too strong in the eyes of Italian manager Cesare Prandelli who, in the night’s only sour moment, saw the unfortunate Riccardo Montolivo ruled out of the World Cup with a broken leg after an Alex Pearce challenge that was robust and perhaps a tad clumsy but never malicious.
For Martin O’Neill, by contrast, the overriding disappointment was that his team yet again failed to convert a couple of clear-cut chances, the most notable coming in the first half when an unmarked Shane Long headed too close to the keeper from a perfectly clipped McGeady cross, and later in the second half when, again with the whole target beckoning, Stephen Quinn blasted against the bar after great work on the left flank by James McClean.
Ahead of England’s meeting with Italy in Manaus, the watching Roy Hodgson will have been encouraged by the way Ireland rattled the Azzurri, though his counterpart Prandelli — who used Saturday’s game as a chance to audition members for his World Cup cast — is entitled to take more than a little consolation from a thoroughly beguiling man of the match performance by Pirlo-in-waiting Marco Verratti of PSG.
A former Ireland assistant manager — one Marco Tardelli, who is still living in London — was also present to weigh up the lessons of this toughest of mock exams in his nation’s World Cup run-in. Speaking of Ireland assistant managers — as you surely knew we would — it was a measure of how pleasantly distracting the whole evening turned out to be, that a good 80 minutes had elapsed before the Green Army remembered there was a big Irish football story still brewing, a chant going up of ‘Keano, Keano’ that could be interpreted as part plea and part farewell.
But, in truth, it was lovely for a change to be absorbed in 90 minutes of action on the pitch rather than consumed by events off it, even if the inescapably bittersweet fact of the matter is that, whatever about Roy Keane’s immediate destination, where Italy are now going, Ireland will have to wait, at a minimum, four long years to follow.
ITALY: Salvatore Sirigu; Gabriel Paletta, Thiago Motta (Daniele de Rossi, 61’), Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia de Sciglo; Matteo Darmian (Ignazio Abate, 88’), Riccardo Montolivo (Alberto Aqualini 14’ (Marco Parolo 37’)), Marco Verratti, Claudio Marchisio; Giuseppe Rossi (Alessio Cerci, 70’) Ciro Immobile (Antonio Cassano 56’).
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: David Forde; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea (capt), Alex Pearce, Stephen Ward; Aiden McGeady, Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler (Paul Green, 85’), Wes Hoolahan (Stephen Quinn, 67’), Anthony Pilkington (James McClean 58’); Shane Long (Simon Cox, 73’).
Referee: Michael Oliver (England).
Some of the passing and movement displayed by Ireland’s middle five on Saturday was a joy to behold. Fast, precise and imaginative, they played with freedom and not only shocked Italy but some Irish observers who had become too accustomed to lethargic play in recent years. There is a fresh impetus with a couple of younger faces in David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick looking to establish themselves, giving Martin O’Neill more of a selection headache than many would have predicted. Let’s not forget James McCarthy’s best is to come also. There may not be any brand new faces knocking on the door but suddenly we have players with the potential to develop into something very good.
John O’Shea thought this was Ireland’s best performance in quite some time. He was right, meaning some of those not involved may be concerned about their standing in the squad. For long spells, Ireland and a newish-looking midfield, with an emerging duo in the centre, played a style of football not seen often enough in recent times. The fresher faces were key to that. James McClean came on for Anthony Pilkington but on the evidence on show in west London, the latter may now be ahead of him in the pecking order. Glenn Whelan has been immovable for competitive games but with both Hendrick and Meyler excelling, is he now peering over his shoulder too?