Martin O’Neill spoke recently about his high regard for Bob Dylan. The old Bob Dylan that is, not the new one.
The same might be said of how Irish football has recently viewed Martin O’Neill, drawing a distinction between the national manager whose greatest hits include sensational wins over Germany, Italy, and Austria and the manager whose more recent chart flops include crushing defeats to Denmark and Wales.
But last night in Wroclaw, O’Neill was able to find what the bard would call some shelter from the storm and a little bit more besides, as a new-look and youthful Ireland, at times turning on the style, delivered the morale boost of a 1-1 away draw with Poland, the highlight of which was a debut goal in his debut game for Aiden O’Brien.
The pity is that Ireland couldn’t hold on to their lead, the Polish equaliser coming with just three minutes of normal time remaining.
That took a bit of the gloss off the evening for the visitors but it would have been altogether rough justice for Ireland if increased Polish pressure in time added on had completely turned the game on its head. But 1-1 it ended and, given the problematic build-up to this match for Martin O’Neill, that was no bad return at all.
The four named strikers in Ireland’s depleted squad could only claim a total of three caps — and just the one goal — between them before kick-off. But even allowing for such limited options, there was still an almost shockingly novel and inexperienced look to O’Neill’s starting line-up, with the seasoned David Meyler a surprise omission, as was Matt Doherty, the Wolves man now playing in the Premier League but still awaiting a first start under the Irish boss.
Both, however, would see action in the second half, just after Ireland had taken the lead.
The Premier League defensive double act of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark was also rested, with Richard Keogh, John Egan, and Kevin Long the designated three at the back, while there were first starts for Enda Stevens and Shaun Williams and a debut for Aiden O’Brien.
For Poland, Robert Lewandowski was consigned to the bench on the occasion of what would have been his 100th cap as the Poles, too, reshuffled the troops.
But it was Ireland’s young guns who made an encouragingly bright start during which, with Shaun Williams impressive in the middle of the park and his Millwall teammate Aiden O’Brien working hard and showing some good touches upfront, the green shirts betrayed no inhibition about getting the ball down and stringing the passes together.
Easier to do in a friendly, of course, but still refreshing to see.
It’s also a game of risk and reward, however, with one misplaced pass or run into traffic inviting a turnover of possession that can quickly transform forward-going momentum into a panicky back-pedalling. And, on occasion, it was only some admirable last-ditch defending by the Irish rearguard, well marshalled by Richard Keogh, which kept the Poles at bay as the hosts upped their game approaching half-time.
But it was the Irish who wasted no time in regaining control of proceedings at the resumption of play. Five minutes after the restart, an excellent, determined run by Callum O’Dowda, followed by an exchange of passes with Cyrus Christie, ended with the lively Bristol City man letting go a shot from outside the box which was comfortably held by Wojciech Szczesny.
And then, almost immediately, only a brilliantly timed block by skipper Kamil Glik prevented Christie from capping a penetrating run of his own with a shot on target.
The reprieve for Poland was short-lived as more fine Irish play, involving Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick, ended with O’Dowda’s cross superbly headed home by O’Brien, a memorable debut goal for the debut boy. It was no more than the Irish deserved for their bold, expansive football.
Under Jerzy Brzeczek, Poland seemed in recent times to have put the dark days of summer firmly behind them, the team impressing in a 1-1 draw away to Italy in their inaugural Nations League game. The Poles had woefully underachieved at the World Cup in Russia, losing 2-1 to Senegal and 3-0 to Colombia, with their sole victory — a 1-0 win against Japan in their final group game — not enough to prevent them finishing bottom of the table and heading home early.
Adding to their misery was Lewandowski’s failure to register a single goal but, as ever in football, it was the gaffer, Adam Nawalka, who paid the price with his job.
Lewandowsi remains an icon in his native land but didn’t get to add to his tally of 55 goals and 99 caps in Wroclaw. Indeed, there was little for the locals to celebrate until almost right at the death. Instead, it was the small wedge of Irish supporters in a crowd of just over 25,000 who were singing into the warm night air, as O’Neill’s team, effectively ending the game with a five-man defensive wall and every green shirt behind the ball, looked to repel the Poles and retain their advantage.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, substitute Mateusz Klich of Leeds breaking the visitors’ resistance in the 87h minute after a couple of slick one-twos had finally opened up what had otherwise been a stubborn and disciplined Irish defence.
Szczesny, Kedziora, Glik (Bednarek 61), Kaminski, Reca (Pieitrzak 72), Blaszczykowski (Frankowski 81), Krychowiak (Szymanski 72), Linetty, Kurzawa, Milik, Piatek (Klich 61)
Randolph, Christie (Doherty 54), Keogh, Egan, Long, Stevens, O’Dowda (Judge 90), Hendrick (Meyler 54), Williams (Hourihane 72), O’Brien (Horgan 81), Robinson (Burke 63)
Boris Marhefka (Slovakia)