Evan Ferguson’s start the main takeaway from Latvian test ahead of French lesson

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny will use clash with Baltic visitors to get vital game-time into players’ legs

Teenage sensation Evan Ferguson starts against Latvia in Dublin tonight ahead of next Monday's opening Euro 2024 qualifier against beaten World Cup finalists France. Photo: Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Twelve months ago, a lowly-ranked national team from the Baltic states came to Dublin for a friendly, frustrated the life out of the Irish side and crowd with only an injury-time goal from a substitute earning Stephen Kenny’s side an ill-deserved 1-0 win.

Just five of that Ireland starting XI against Lithuania went on to start the next qualifier as a couple of under-achievers played their way out of contention and out of the team.

Tonight’s game at home to Latvia – ranked just one place above Lithuania in terms of European nations in the world rankings – is less of an audition for the Irish players, with Evan Ferguson guaranteed to start as his warm-up act for a similar starting role against France on Monday.

The sub-plots are in place, and it will steel the Irish challenge against France for the likes of Matt Doherty, Andrew Omobamidele, Nathan Collins and Troy Parrott to get the game-time which has eluded them of late.

But this is all about one man – a teenager still – and his proper introduction to the Dublin crowd, Ferguson’s first start the most eagerly awaited full debut on home soil since Robbie Keane took on Argentina 25 years ago.

This is a chance for Irish players who are ring-rusty at club level to get some minutes into their legs, stretch their lungs and steel themselves for the French test to come.

It would be almost impossible for one of the players to come from left field – like the uncapped Mikey Johnston and Will Smallbone, or one-cap-wonder Mark Sykes – to do so well against the eighth-worst team in Europe that they are deemed good enough to start against a French side rated third in the world.

“The most important thing is the game against France on Monday, that’s the most important part of the week,” Stephen Kenny said.

“Whoever plays, it is going to be incredibly important for all of them to try and produce and play well, and try and win a game for your country.

"Some players are coming into the team and we are looking for them to make an impact to increase the selection dilemmas for Monday, which is what we want, and increase the squad options for players who can make a serious contribution.”

But it’s a case of all eyes on Ferguson.

“We are not shy about playing young players, we haven’t been shy about that," said Kenny.

"When it gets to the games against France, which are important games, it’s about the impact a player can have and the level of performance.

"The age then becomes irrelevant. It’s about who’s in form and who isn’t,” added Kenny, confirming what the crowd wanted to hear, that Ferguson will start up front, with options for his sidekick including Parrott and Michael Obafemi.

All bar 200 of the near-capacity crowd in Lansdowne Road tonight – 48,000 tickets were sold in a package which included the more attractive France fixture next Monday – will be supporting the home side, those away fans mainly Latvians living in Ireland.

Despite their lowly ranking, there’s a feeling that theirs is a side on the up, and the Nations League has been of huge benefit to teams like Latvia.

After a dismal spell – they had the crushing experience of nine successive defeats in 2019 – they have come back well, and 2022 was one of their best years ever with five straight wins and one standout player in Italian-based forward Raimonds Krollis (Spezia).

Opening up Latvia is different to fending off that awesome French attack.

“Teams do pay us a lot of respect at times. When they come to the Aviva, they play with a lower block than in some of the previous matches we’ve seen," he said.

"They (Latvia) are not that defensive a team, and they carry a threat themselves. We’ve just got to focus on our own performance and work on improving ourselves,” noted Kenny.

He was encouraged to see Adam Idah report for duty – at the player’s own insistence – despite a foot injury which his club, Norwich City, said would rule him out for a number of weeks. Kenny insists there’s no issue with the powers that be at Carrow Road over Idah’s presence here.

"He has great determination, and that’s been passed down through all the great Irish players, through to our captain Séamus Coleman and the senior players, the James McCleans and Matt (Doherty), down to the younger players," he said.

"The importance of playing for Ireland, it’s hugely important, a huge priority in their lives, and we are delighted to have Adam. We will see how he goes and whether he’s fit enough to play (against France), which we expect he should be,” said Kenny.

Kenny referenced that determination to shrug off injury and report for national duty as one of the reasons why Doherty is captain tonight.

“He’s had to bide his time over the years, come up the hard way. His own personal journey has not been straightforward, he’s had to fight hard and adapt, consistently adapt to go up the various levels,” said Kenny.

“When we were out in Spain 18 months ago and had to go and play Hungary, a bit light squad-wise, there was an issue with Matt injury-wise.

"He was the only senior right-back available. Even though it was a friendly, he passed himself fit and was determined to play, regardless. He played 90 minutes and we drew. He put the team before himself.

"We didn’t want to take a risk. A lot of players would have not played, but he was determined to play."