Friday 19 January 2018

Green shoots but too soon to know if it's only a mirage

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

First nights bristle with hope and this one carried its operatic highs, beckoning forth a new chapter in Irish football.

The win was suitably commanding against compliant guests but, as a glimpse into the future, it was always damned to be something of a masquerade.

Steve Staunton's opening gambit, remember, brought triple toe loops too with a similar scoreline against Sweden only for the frosty grip of reality to soon follow.

Ireland will not play a competitive game under the new management until September of next year. By then, this first week will belong in the realm of antiquity.

So the build-up tingled with false energy. We questioned Martin O'Neill about systems and game-plans, the Derryman peering back at us as if we might as well have been chasing a tip for the 2.30 at Lingfield. What on earth was there to say?

The world could have tumbled off its axis by the time any of this truly matters.

That said, winning 3-0 gives the feint emotional impetus that O'Neill and Roy Keane will now covet on the flight to Poland before disbanding, essentially, for the length of winter.

All the gentle courtesies obscured a sense of just killing time then.

By Thursday, the media's infatuation with Roy had been practically exhausted. O'Neill is intuitive about these things, understanding the insatiable appetite for a headline.

VENGEFUL

So he tossed another vengeful eye over his shoulder at Paolo Di Canio.

He was in mid-sentence about his "charlatan" friend at the pre-game press conference when a visiting journalist gently sought his views on Latvia.

The question escaped O'Neill, his brain already whirling towards another spiky put-down of the man who succeeded him at The Stadium of Light.

"I'm not bothered, you can tell," he sighed with a self-conscious smile.

And for one horrible moment you feared he might just have written Marian Pahars' team-talk. Imagine. Irish manager "not bothered" by Latvia.

Mercifully, a subsequent question diffused any impression of disrespect towards opponents that, right up until kick-off last night, must have felt like some kind of inanimate back-drop.

The new assistant boss was a magnet for the TV cameras, every opportunity taken to close in on those dark assassin eyes.

At the commencement of Amhran na BhFiann, the stadium screen was filled with Roy.

It was as if his people feared that, without proper attention, the man might internally combust.

He was out of his seat, clenched, right fist pushed towards the night sky when Robbie Keane stabbed home the 21st minute opener.

But Roy resisted any temptation to do a Tardelli on it and monster his leader with a bear-hug.

The two men made smiling eye-contact, no more. Appropriate decorum for a friendly.

That was the tenor then.

Everything just noise and colour and palpable relief to be freed the cleaving rigidities of the past.

You could tell there was broad warmth for the new management and, more, a patience for players who seemed, if anything, to over-stretch in their eagerness to please.

The football was fine, without being appreciably different from anything Trap's tactical strait-jacket allowed. Wes Hoolahan's presence did lubricate things nicely in the final third. James McClean was bold and aggressive down the left.

But Ireland still played with big gaps between the lines that, against more polished opponents, might have meant trouble.

The promise to press high was adhered to and long stretches passed without a single claret shirt venturing into Irish territory.

Latvia, thus, might have been booked to specific order. They were tidy, but unchallenging.

Ranked 117 in the world and playing like men accustomed to encountering worry, not opportunity, in possession.

So Ireland almost blithely accumulated chances, Robbie working the Latvian goalkeeper for a second time; McClean twice firing wide after smart approach work; James McCarthy torpedoing a 30-yarder in the general direction of Sandymount.

O'Neill all but sprinted down the tunnel on hearing the half-time whistle.

He might have had much to say, or perhaps there'd just been a Di Canio sighting.

Either way, the manager made no changes for the second period. His script had yet to find a wrinkle.

And when Aiden McGeady's right foot delivered a 67th-minute second any sense of first-night apprehension lifted, the Latvians all but laid out on a slab for cleaning.

McGeady's goal triggered a giddy outbreak of the 'Poznan' on the South Terrace and, thereafter, the arithmetic threatened to slide out of control. Vanins became endlessly occupied in the Latvian goal and his manager's mood can't have been helped by the sight of Andy Reid, Shane Long and Jonathan Walters warming up on the touchline.

O'Neill was emptying his bench now, freed of all book-keeping inhibitions. Then Seamus Coleman set up Long for a 79th-minute third and the sounds of the night turned positively breathless.

By the end, Ireland were just peppering shots on Vanins with furious abandon, the goalkeeper's defiance now a lonely, one-man stand.

Roy lingered when it was over, momentarily waiting at the mouth of the tunnel for his players only to think better of it as the cameras began to crowd around.

Hand-shakes and back-slaps abounded all around then and, truth to tell, it felt a catharsis of sorts. Trap, to be fair, had had his moments too, but this was different.

"North men, South men, Comrades All" read a banner, images of Keane and O'Neill super-imposed across the message.

The night had been everything the two men asked of it.

But dream-team or mirage? We are a small eternity away from knowing.

Irish Independent

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