First night goes to plan for Ireland’s ‘surreal team’

Shane Long hands the match ball to his seven-year-old nephew Eamon Long after the game. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

It ain’t easy being marooned on a windswept rock off Europe’s western fringes.

Irrelevance and isolation are never far away but you get occasions like last night’s every so often when you do elbow your way into the wider consciousness.

So, fair play to Iceland last night.

That’s right, I-C-E-L-A-N-D.

First-ever play-off berth for a major tournament, Croatia in town and Reykjavik abuzz, by all accounts. A plucky 0-0 draw was their reward even if they ended hanging on towards the end with 10 men. Good luck to them.

Our Atlantic cousins are no world-beaters and they were pushed along this far by a favourable wind that included a navigable group and the stormy waters in other ports that saw three of their competitors lose managers overboard.

Still, it was hard to sit in the Aviva Stadium last night as Ireland and Latvia pushed the ball around with all the urgency of pensioners moving chess pieces and not feel somehow embarrassed at events a thousand miles or so to the north-west.

Back in Ballsbridge, the fare was less fraught.

The appointments of Derry’s and Cork’s finest sent the expected attendance figures soaring, though not to the extent projected, but then the warm-ups ended, Keano returned to the near anonymity of the bench and the football started.

The appetite for what followed was pretty limited. The thousands who turned up were like those film buffs who pay in to a movie just to watch the trailer for a blockbuster that won’t be released for months.

Ireland’s next thriller of note is another 10 months distant, of course, so last night was nothing more than a low key introduction to the men who will be the central characters when the Euro 2016 campaign finally arrives.

Maybe then we can escape the fascination with the mundane: the presence of O’Neill and Keane beside each other on the big screens and scarves and in the dugout where every twitch was noted by journalists strategically placed for that very purpose.

It is a fascination which must drive Keane to distraction, but he cut a relaxed figure last night as Ireland toyed with Latvia.

The younger of Ireland’s managerial ‘surreal team’ joked with other members of the coaching staff during the warm-up and he greeted Robbie Keane’s opener with the sort of grin that would be deemed boyish on someone less noted as a hard man.

O’Neill, by way of contrast, was the picture of studiousness. The cheers that greeted his appearance in the tunnel just prior to kick-off went unacknowledged, Keane’s goal earned an approving clap but ne’er the hint of a smile.

His demeanour was no different to his days on the sidelines with any of the seven clubs which had danced effectively if not always attractively to his beat and there were signs that his latest side was learning the notes.

He had spoken earlier in the week, for example, about how set-pieces provided the basic building blocks of the international game so Keane’s opening goal from Aiden McGeady’s corner ticked that particular box.

He had chatted too about the need to press higher up the pitch and for players to shoot, if not on sight, then on instinct, so McGeady’s second from distance after Glenn Whelan instigated a mistake from a defender will have curried favour.

Look, it was a start.

The wheel wasn’t reinvented here last night, there will be no ingenious tactical innovation lodged with the Patent Office on Monday and it will be fascinating to see how many of this first 11 start when the real business begins next September.

That doesn’t matter, not for now.

For about 15 minutes there last night, after McGeady’s 68th-minute strike, the Aviva rocked like the old Lansdowne Road. Fans turned their back on their boys in green, but only to do ‘the Poznan’.

Roy Keane had fumed when Ireland’s fans partied like that in the face of adversity in Poland last year but few cheered louder than him this time.

“Get in there,” he shouted after Shane Long tapped in Ireland’s third.

Three goals, one clean sheet and a happy Roy Keane.

That’ll do.

More on this topic

Time for Ireland to grow up, says O'BrienTime for Ireland to grow up, says O'Brien

Keane: McGeady needs to relaxKeane: McGeady needs to relax

O'Shea happy with O'Neill startO'Shea happy with O'Neill start

New Ireland era off to solid startNew Ireland era off to solid start


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