While almost all of the pre-match focus zeroed in on the three men Martin O’Neill would be deploying in his retooled and reshaped rearguard, there wasn’t nearly as much thought given to who would line up in front of them.
As it was, intrigue flickered around the MetLife Stadium when the Ireland team was announced an hour before kick-off against Mexico on Thursday night. Ireland’s midfield trio of Daryl Horgan, Conor Hourihane and Callum O’Dowda boasted a grand total of six caps between them.
It was arguably even more experimental than anything O’Neill was trying at the back.
As it turned out, the results were similarly in the mixed-to-very disappointing bracket. As the only one of the three used to operating centrally on a regular basis, it made sense that Hourihane took the middle spot of the three. And while he foraged well at times, Horgan and O’Dowda, like so many Irish performers in the opening hour, looked unsure of where they should be and when.
“It was an experiment in a friendly game with some new players so why not try something like that?” said Hourihane afterwards, the Corkman winning his second cap after a stellar campaign for Barnsley and Aston Villa in the Championship. “Mexico are a good side. It was always going to be a tough night but this camp, all the lads have been working hard so it’s nice to get a few more caps for a few more lads. We’ll go back to Dublin now and we’ll know what we need to work on for the coming games.”
With Mexican pair Jonathan Dos Santos and Hector Herrera taking command in the middle, Hourihane and company struggled to offer the back three the requisite protection. Mexico were blooding some players also but they’re not ranked as the 16th best side in the world for nothing. Thursday night proved as much.
“I was obviously in there with Callum and Horgan, we’re all relatively new to international football so you have to take some learning experiences from games like that and look to improve in the future,” added Hourihane, who hopes to feature against Uruguay tomorrow.
The MetLife Stadium may have only been half full on Thursday night with 42,017 inside the cavernous bowl.
But the overwhelmingly Mexican crowd made their presence felt. Having been plying his trade in the third tier of English football a little over a year ago, Hourihane was intent on savouring the Stateside sojourn.
“It’s been fantastic, a trip to remember for myself,” said the 26-year-old Bandon native. “I’ve never been on a trip like this with the national senior set-up so it’s been a great few days, a good experience.
“It’s been a whirlwind year from League One up to international senior level, it’s been fantastic. I’ve worked hard for it but the hard work still needs to continue and hopefully I’ll get more caps.”
Horgan’s own journey has been even more unlikely — a League of Ireland winger to an international midfielder in about six months.
The former Dundalk man has thrived since swapping Oriel Park for Deepdale and Preston North End. Lining up for the national anthems from the start was another new experience in a whirlwind spell for the 24-year-old.
“The result dampens it a small bit but it was great to get a first international start. Hopefully, it won’t be the last one,” said Horgan, pleasantly surprised to be deployed in the middle but all too aware that this had been a tough night at the office for many adapting to new surrounds.
“Yeah, it’s something that if the manager sees me there then it’s something I need to improve on. I’ll have to look back at it. But there were bits where you get the ball and you try to get on it and do things. You look to provide a bit of momentum, to be lively. That was mainly it. For spells it went okay but it was a tough, tough game.”
Listen to a preview of the Champions League final with European football writer Paul Little of the Daily Star and backpagefootball.com, Spanish-based football writer Dermot Corrigan and Italian football journalist Emanuele Giulianelli. Presented by Peter McNamara and Larry Ryan of the Irish Examiner.
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