Evan and Hell: Ferguson leads the positives but he needs help around him

Ireland threw away a two goal lead to lowly Latvia before Chiedozie Ogbene netted the winner in the second half.
Evan and Hell: Ferguson leads the positives but he needs help around him

GOALSCORER: Evan Ferguson of Republic of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the international friendly match between Republic of Ireland and Latvia at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Michael P Ryan/Sportsfile

Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland team has been nothing if not consistent in its ability to follow one leap forward with a lurch back. It’s a side that seems to be stuck in a statis, unable to break the loop as the games and even the years slip by.

Wednesday night was of that same piece. Two-nil up against one of European football’s poor relations with 17 minutes gone, level before half-time and then all too happy to sign for the 3-2 win at the end of another evening of twisted emotions.

One of the more damaging habits Ireland have nurtured under Kenny is the concession of goals from outside the box and the two they added to that cannon on Wednesday night succeeded in killing the buzz generated by such an encouraging opening quarter.

France on Monday will be … interesting. So was this, in fairness.

They had come in their thousands to the Aviva hoping for a taste of Evan and Ferguson duly gave the home fans the goal they so fervently hoped would come. It was a tap-in, but the boy wonder showed plenty more to encourage the masses.

Nothing outrageous, just snapshots of his levels.

The Brighton & Hove Albion teenager has scored six goals in England in just over two months, starting with a strike against Premier League leaders Arsenal. He was always going to be able to do it in a friendly on a dirty night in Dublin.

He started alongside Michael Obafemi in a front two but played the deeper of the pair and his willingness to drift back led to a string of involvements that included his pass out wide right for Matt Doherty in the run-up to Callum O’Dowda’s opener.

It’s the smaller things too. Ferguson’s pace of pass is crisp, he is quick onto loose balls and he tracks back. There were two long-range shots that ballooned high and wide but this guy can and will score goals. How many will depend on more than just him.

Ireland’s surfeit of No.10s has been as much an issue for the Republic manager – and his predecessors - as the lack of a goalscoring No.9 so Will Smallbone’s impact in that opening 20 minutes may carry a significance that we can’t yet gauge.

Still only 23, the on-loan Stoke City player has impressed since joining for the season from Southampton and Kenny has painted a picture of a player who is a natural playmaker with a range of passing and a beast of an engine.

He lined out on the right-hand side of the three central midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation on Wednesday night and the ability and willingness to get beyond the defensive line on that side gave Ireland a thrust that they haven’t often possessed.

Five years older than Ferguson, it is far too early to say if the the former U21 will be one answer to the team’s creativity issues long-term but Mikey Johnston’s first cameo audition for an attacking brief on the left lit up the end game.

Twice the Glasgow native cut inside from his touchline to threaten the Latvian goal. His first run produced a shot that rebounded off a post to Chiedozie Ogbene for the winner. The second was a mazy flurry of feet that ended with a goalbound effort blocked.

And other than that? For all Kenny’s aspirations about aesthetic attacking football since taking on the job this is an Ireland team that continues to shuffle a variety of pieces in the hope that the collective will fit together.

Michael Obafemi brought some lovely touches and trickery to a performance that waxed and waned, Callum O’Dowda showed signs of what Kenny and other Irish managers have seen and Ogbene continues to find a way to make his mark.

For now though the bulk of the hopes and expectations going forward will sit squarely on the broad shoulders of an 18-year old whose peers are either sitting their Leaving Cert or, for the few to make it this far, building careers in the underage grades.

Kevin Zefi and Franco Umeh are two other Irish attackers generating ripples of excitement, not least since their respective moves to Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, but they are scoring goals for their club’s U19 and U18 sides respectively.

Both started in Ferrycarrig Park earlier on Wednesday when Tom Mohan’s U19s side went down to a damaging 2-1 loss to Slovakia in a Euro qualifier. Umeh is just three months younger than Ferguson, Zefi came along a few weeks later.

All of which highlights again just how far down the track Ferguson has come already. And how far he still has to go. Ireland badly need him to fire, but they need others to step up and strike some matches too.

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