EARLIER this week Liam Lawrence moved down a division to make the move to Portsmouth but he shot up in the estimation of Irish fans everywhere yesterday with an international-class display in Yerevan.
Lawrence is typical of most of the newcomers blooded under Giovanni Trapattoni: a player who has long seen the back of his teenage years and one who has spent more time in England’s lower reaches than the Premier League.
He is a grafter, too, for that is requirement number one.
Where he differs is in his ability when in possession. Though no Stephen Reid, Lawrence was Ireland’s most dangerous player with the ball at his feet in Armenia and is now a crucial cog in the side less than 18 months after his debut.
“It’s an amazing result,” he said. “We’ve had to work hard at times tonight to grind the result out. It was hard work. It was hot and things didn’t go for us in the first-half but we dug in and got the result we needed.”
Most of Ireland’s older heads – men like Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea and Kevin Kilbane – put in solid shifts but it was Kevin Doyle who pushed Lawrence closest for the match crystal.
Doyle is no rookie either but he is of an earlier footballing generation to the team’s elder statesmen and it bodes well for Trapattoni that a new harvest of leaders is beginning to mature and take charge.
The Wexford man has yet to score for Wolves this season but he remains highly-rated by Mick McCarthy at Molineux and it isn’t hard to see why on evidence such as that offered by his 36th cap.
An assured touch on the ground was allied to a superb night’s work with his head. Time and again, Given and his defenders sent long balls in Doyle’s direction who was the fulcrum for most of his side’s attacks.
“It was just get it up as quickly as we can and get round and get the pieces and do our play from there,” said Lawrence.
“We had one disallowed from that but we did alright from it and then did much better in the second-half.”
The blossoming of Lawrence and Doyle is emblematic of how this Irish side has grown under Trapattoni’s nurturing eye and a 1-0 win in eastern Europe was no mean feat given the squad’s injury-interrupted preparation.
Some areas of concern remain though. The back four is a solid unit locked down even further by Given’s dependability but the centre of midfield continues to frustrate.
Glenn Whelan and Paul Green provided little more than a ghostly presence in yesterday’s group opener and the likes of the injured Keith Andrews and enigmatic Darron Gibson are all but carbon copies.
Much was made of Armenia’s new €6 million man, Henrik Mkhitaryan, leading up to this fixture but the real test will come for the Irish engine room when Andrey Arshavin calls round to Ballsbridge next month.
In fairness, it must be said that Trapattoni’s rigid 4-4-2 system, allied to the consistent use of Doyle’s aerial abilities yesterday, didn’t provide much of a platform for the middle pair to shine.
Both Whelan and Green have gone on record to say that they have had to curb their natural game, which involves far more penetrating play, whenever they have pulled on the national shirt.
Aiden McGeady can hardly fall back on that line of argument. Damien Duff’s injury allowed the new Spartak Moscow player yet another opportunity to win over the doubters.
Yet again, he failed.
McGeady was called ashore in the second half and replaced by Birmingham City’s Keith Fahey, yet another of Ireland’s late bloomers at 27, who scored the vital goal with 14 minutes to play.
“It was great to get on even, and even better to get the goal to get us the three points,” said Fahey afterwards. “We didn’t concede, the lads at the back did very well, so it is great to get the win.
“I was half thinking to take a gamble because we got a couple of half-chances off long balls and that’s what happened, one of the balls bounced for me. It took an age to get to me but I picked out a corner and it went in.”
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