By contrast, two soft goals shipped meant it was not an evening for the defenders — especially the luckless Paul McShane — to celebrate, while for goalkeeper Rob Elliot, it was an occasion of sheer misery as, with Shay Given watching from the commentary box, he left the field on a stretcher with what appears to be a serious knee injury.
Appropriately enough, given the time that was in it, it was a case all changed, changed utterly for Ireland for last night’s game, with the notable exception of Long who, given Martin O’Neill’s striker drought, was always odds-on to start a second match in the space of a couple of days.
But, otherwise, the manager left no position untouched, the selection of Rob Elliot, Cyrus Christie, Paul McShane, John O’Shea, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Eunan O’Kane, Wes Hoolahan, and James McClean combining to make for no less than 10 changes from the starting line-up against Switzerland last Friday.
For the likes of McShane, Christie and O’Kane in particular, this was a game with potential significance beyond the 90 minutes as all three would have been regarded as possibles rather than probables for the final European Championship squad of 23.
But while Christie and O’Kane acquitted themselves well, it was a night to forget for McShane, especially after Shane Duffy had made such a good impression against the Swiss.
In the solution to his striking problem which he had hinted at on Monday, O’Neill began by deploying McClean in a forward role alongside Long, with Wes Hoolahan at the tip of a midfield diamond, anchored by Glenn Whelan, behind them.
And Hoolahan, finding space, showing for the ball and looking to create at every opportunity, was immediately at the heart of Ireland’s better play in the early stages, as the home side enjoyed far more possession of the ball than they had when their midfield two of David Meyler and Stephen Quinn were repeatedly outnumbered and overrun by the Swiss.
And even when Slovakia threatened, Long and McClean showed real pace and purpose on the counter-attack, the latter’s low drive drawing the first save of the game from Matus Kozack.
However, all that promising work came undone in the 14th minute when Eric Sabo left McShane for dead high up the pitch on the right-hand side and, with the depleted Irish defence back-pedalling, he was able to run on and square for Miroslav Stoch to finish sublimely past Elliot for the first goal Ireland had conceded at home in five games.
And it turned out to be an even more serious setback for the Newcastle goalkeeper, who twisted his knee in attempting to make the save and had to be stretchered off, Darren Randolph coming on as his replacement.
But it took only eight and 11 minutes more for Randolph’s opposite number to pay the penalty — on the double. And in both cases, Shane Long’s trademark burst of acceleration was the primary cause.
If there was more than a touch of the unjust for Kozacik about the first one — he seemed to get a good touch on the ball as he brought Long tumbling down — there was no such ambiguity about the second, the Southampton striker this time tempting Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel into the reckless challenge which had the Norwegian referee pointing to the spot for the second time in three minutes.
Long himself having duly converted the first, McClean stepped up for the second and, despite Kozacik getting a strong left hand to the ball, the ‘keeper couldn’t prevent Ireland from going 2-1 ahead.
In truth, it was no more than the home side deserved for most of a first half in which they dominated the ball, passed with some purpose and, with McClean leading the charge, repeatedly took the game to Slovakia, Cyrus Christie even getting the opportunity to raid with purpose up the right win.
But, not for the first time from a position of strength, Ireland were hit with a sucker punch right on the break, as McShane added to his own and the team’s misfortune when, under pressure from Robert Vittek at the near post, he deflected a Peter Pekarik cross into his own net.
With Robbie Brady on for the second half in a central role — Shane Long having been withdrawn with a knock to his knee — Ireland resumed with plenty of attacking enterprise. Not all their creativity paid off as quite a few passes went astray and, on occasion, even invited a dangerous Slovakian counter-attack, but it was still refreshing to see the home side eschew the long ball option in favour of a more progressive approach, with Hoolahan, as ever, at the heart of it all as he revelled in the space unwisely afforded him by Slovakia.
Anthony Pilkington, of whom Irish supporters get to see all too little, gave a tantalising glimpse of what we’ve been missing when he came on for Eunan O’Kane in the 65th minute and, soon after, it was the turn of Aiden McGeady to do much the same with some quicksilver moves, as the Sheffield Wednesday man was given another chance by Martin O’Neill to make up lost ground in the green shirt.
The changes on both sides, as is often the case, robbed the game of its entertaining first half momentum and, with Slovakia seeming happy enough to settle for the draw, it was Ireland, with late substitute Jonny Hayes a buzzing presence on the left wing, who ended the game doing the most to try to fashion a winning goal, the irrepressible McClean busting a lung right to the end.
Two games down, two to go, but in terms of gate-crashing that Euros squad, really just the one — the meeting with the Netherlands here on May 27, the last game before Martin O’Neill names the 23 who will travel to France.
The additional fixture, against Belarus in Cork, will be all about determining who makes the starting 11 against Sweden in the Stade de France.
Elliot (Randolph 16), Christie, McShane, O’Shea (Pearce 46), Ward (Hayes 79), O’Kane (Pilkington 66), Whelan, McCarthy, Hoolahan (McGeady 73), Long (Brady 46),McClean.
Kozacik,Pekarik,Skrtel,Salata,Svento (Tesak 88), Gregus (Hrosovsky 74),Sabo (Mak 64),Hamsik,Stoch (Duda 64), Sestak (Weiss 64),Vittek (Nemec 69). Subs Not Used: Mucha,Durica,Hubocan,Duris,Dubravka.
Ola Hobber Nilsen (Nordstrand).