Last Friday’s game in Glasgow will naturally live far longer in the memory than last night’s match in Dublin but for some of the Irish players involved at the Aviva, as well as the vast majority in healthy crowd of just over 33,000, there were moments in this 4-1 win which they will be only too happy to replay in their minds over the long winter nights until international service is resumed again in March
There was a fine debut by David McGoldrick, his clever double-assist on the night suggesting that, in his search for fresh options for that elusive No. 10 role, Martin O’Neill certainly has a new contender.
There were a couple of outstanding goals, notably the curtain raiser from Anthony Pilkington and the showstopper that was Robbie Brady’s stunning late free kick.
And there was also much to admire in the confident debut by Cyrus Christie as an experimental Ireland side, after misfiring for long spells, finally hit their stride with the addition of some more experienced heads.
It all added up to a final scoreline that, while harsh on an American performance which had kept the home side pegged back for long periods in the first half, at least provided O’Neill and his players with the perfect end to 2014.
There being no better illustration of the novelty of O’Neill’s selection than the fact that, with his massive haul of 126 caps going into the game, veteran ‘keeper Shay Given was a full 50 clear of the combined total of appearances of the rest of the starting 11.
In keeping with his intention of giving Ireland’s young or more marginalised stars a chance to earn their stripes against Jurgen Klinsmann’s own reshuffled USA, the manager handed newbies McGoldrick and Christie their Irish debuts alongside rare starts for the likes of Alex Pearce, Anthony Pilkington, Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy while Cork’s own David Meyler had the honour of captaining his country on what would be his 13th appearance.
With Celtic’s Stokes playing off the left flank, McGoldrick and Murphy were given the opportunity upfront to transfer their strikingly productive relationship at Ipswich to the international stage while, in a defence which had Alex Pearce and Ciaran Clark at is heart, Brady slotted in as a left-back with a licence to attack.
In light of how Scotland’s goal materialised last Friday, it was a tad worrying to see how two short-corner routines had Ireland under pressure early on, Given back-pedalling to clear the danger second time around.
But with just seven minutes gone, a glorious Irish move had the Aviva positively purring, as McGoldrick showed off his playmaking ability with a perfectly weighted through ball which Pilkington neatly dinked over oncoming American ‘keeper Bill Hamid to give the home side an early lead.
By contrast, the mood of a section of the crowd was far from celebratory five minutes later as stewards moved in to quell a protest behind Given’s goal during which supporters tried but failed to raise a banner criticising the FAI’s handling of Ireland’s ticket allocation for Glasgow. The sentiments of the aggrieved supporters were still made perfectly clear, however, in the less than complimentary chants directed at FAI boss John Delaney.
Meanwhile, having flattered to deceive with the loveliness of their goal, Ireland were struggling to build on their lead and wobbling dangerously at the back, with Alex Pearce doing particularly well under pressure at the far post to head a threatening cross out for a corner as the US repeatedly forced the issue.
Then, in the 21st minute, and from yet another corner, Borussia Munchengladback’s Fabian Johnson was just a lick of paint away from getting the equaliser, his low drive from outside the area beating Given’s dive but deflecting wide off the butt of the upright.
US keeper Hamid did extremely well to deny Murphy what would have been an Irish goal against the run of play just coming up to the half-hour but, just as it looked as if the home side were regaining a foothold in the game, the Americans struck back. It stemmed initially from Meyler losing possession but, even with the Irish defence caught napping again, there was still plenty of work for the visitors to do before Rosenborg’s Mix Diskerud was able to stab home a lovely cushioned header by Chris Wondowlowski.
And it could have gotten worse before the break, Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, smashing an effort off the crossbar as the Irish defence was once again opened up by the American’s lively movement and fluent passing.
On the resumption of play, a confident Christie hinted at better things with a mazy run from deep before feeding Stokes on the left hand side, but the Celtic man was unable to get cross into the box.
And, soon enough, the Americans were back on the front foot, Given obliged to make an unorthodox save with his legs to keep out a long ranger from skipper Altidore.
With Christie continuing to push forward, Pilkington always lively and Murphy coming close to converting at the far post, there were still encouraging signs for Ireland but, once again, it was the inventiveness of McGoldrick which made all the difference, his clever reverse pass inside the box taking out two US defenders and putting in Robbie Brady to give O’Neill’s men back the lead in the 55th minute.
Five minutes later, Aiden McGeady came on to a much friendlier reception than he’d experienced in Glasgow, replacing Stokes and, minutes later, James McClean came on for Pilkington.
But even as the Irish were enjoying their best spell, there was still the alarming sight of US substitute Billy Wood being allowed to chase a routine long ball right through the heart of the Irish defence, only to then see his side-footed finish slip the wrong side of Given’s post.
David McGoldrick went off to a warm ovation with 13 minutes remaining, accompanied by club-mate Murphy, with Shane Long and Jeff Hendrick entering the fray as the game belatedly developed a thrilling end to end momentum, Given saving superbly one minute and then, in the very next act, after a magnificent surging run from in off the flank, Long was denied one of the great solo Irish goals as his curling effort rebounded off the post.
But the reprieve for the visitors was short-lived, McClean’s deflected shot giving him his fourth goal for his country before, with four minutes remaining, Robbie Brady put the icing on the cake with a curving free kick into the top corner that was simply a thing of beauty.
Subs for Ireland: Aiden McGeady for Anthony Stokes (59) James McClean for Anthony Pilkington (64) Shane Long for David McGoldrick (76) Jeff Hendrick for Daryl Murphy (76) Rob Elliot for Shay Given (84).
Subs for USA: Bobby Wood for Chris Wondolowski (45) Greg Garza for Alfredo Morales (64) Rubio Rubin for Mix Diskerud (76) Jordan Morris for Timmy Chandler(76) Tim Ream for Kyle Beckerman (86).