Republic of Ireland 1 Belarus 2: It might have been 2-1 to Belarus on the scoreboard at full time but, of course, the really big result of the night still hung in the balance after the final whistle had blown at Turner’s Cross, as the 11th hour approached and, with it, the revelation of the Irish squad which will represent the country at the European Championship finals in France.
But as warm-up acts go, this first appearance at the Cross for a senior Irish team since Jack Charlton’s men played a Munster selection at the same venue on the eve of Euro ’88, was not lacking in its own headline ingredients – though, unfortunately, not many were to be found in a distinctly underwhelming Irish performance until Martin O’Neill sent for some of his bigger guns late on in the game.
A full house of 7,200 at Turner’s Cross provided the crackling backdrop and, among the big attendance was that most high profile of League of Ireland fans, President Michael D.Higgins, taking his place in the stands alongside representatives from the Ireland’s Euros opponents Sweden and Belgium.
The weather also played ball, the sun still shining strongly at kick-off after another day of continental temperatures in Cork, so that it was a case of shades in the Shed End.
For the team he put out against Belarus, it was a case of all-change for Martin O’Neill as he made the full sweep of 11 alterations to the side which started against the Netherlands last Friday. So in came Shay Given, Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh (skipper for the night), Aiden McGeady, Jeff Hendrick, Stephen Ward, James McClean, Darron Gibson, the homecoming David Meyler, the goal-searching Daryl Murphy and, in a test of his fitness after ankle problems, centre-half Ciaran Clark.
The fans were partying like it was 1989 from well before kick-off, the ‘oles’ reaching a crescendo as the two teams, and Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, strolled onto sun-splashed the pitch.
And there was at least the promise of appropriate sparkle to Ireland’s early play too as, after some accomplished possession had pegged Belarus deep into their own half, Ciaran Clark came close to making a telling near-post connection to a great ball fired in from the right by Stephen Ward who was enjoying plenty of freedom up the left-flank.
But Belarus not only held firm, they broke out to open the scoring in the 20th minute when, after possession was lost by Meyler, the ball was fed to Mikhail Hardziechuk who left Given helpless with a sublime strike into the top corner from outside the box.
As Ireland struggled to regain their early rhythm, Daryl Murphy showed his rustiness with a heavy touch when McGeady set him up for what looked a promising run on goal. And when McGeady then found himself crowded out on the edge of the area, there was a sigh of frustration from a crowd which, had little to cheer about up to the half-time break apart from some darting runs by Cyrus Christie and the usual lung-bursting effort by James McClean.
Just 22 seconds after the restart, there was a gilt-edged chance for Murphy to break his international duck when McGeady’s deflected cross found him free in the box but, the Ipswich man couldn’t keep his header under the bar.
As Ireland now upped the pressure, Belarus ‘keeper Siarhei Chernik made a fine double-save in the 58th minute, first keeping out Clark’s header from a McGeady corner and then Hendrick’s follow-up attempt from a tight angle.
But just when it looked as if the home side might get back on level terms, Belarus scored again with their first attack of the second-half, Cyrus Christie first caught out of position and then sold a dummy by Maksim Valadzko, whose shot found the inside of the post off the heel of Richard Keogh.
Martin O’Neill had seen enough at that point and finally gave the crowd a reason to roar by sending on Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan for the disappointing duo of Murphy and Gibson. And the manager and the support got an almost instant reward as, in the 72nd minute Long cleverly set up Stephen Ward for a thumping drive to the corner of the net to reduce the deficit to one.
Suddenly, there was a real urgency and purpose to the Irish team, aided by the fresh legs and willing running of newcomer Callum O’Dowda, but the home side had left it too late to undo the damage, and the final whistle confirmed Belarus as Euros farewell party-poopers as they brought Ireland’s unbeaten run of five games to an end.
Just one final thought:
wouldn’t it be nice if many of those who packed Turner’s Cross last night opted to return to the next big game at the venue - Cork City’s top of the table clash with Dundalk on Friday night.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:
Given (Forde 68),Christie, Keogh, Clark,Ward, McGeady (O’Dowda 75), Gibson (Hoolahan 67), Meyler (O’Kane 74), Hendrick, Murphy (Long 67),McClean (McGoldrick 78).
Subs Not Used:
Coleman, O’Shea, Whelan, Duffy, Brady, Walters, Quinn, Westwood.
Chernik,Palyakow,Martynovich,Sivakov,Valadzko,Kislyak, Korzun,Stasevich (Nekhaychik 90),Hleb (Krivets 90), Gordeichuk (Politevich 75),Yanush.
Dejan Jakimovksi (Macedonia).
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