Irish search for cutting edge continues - Five things we learned from Aviva stalemate
Sunshine broke through the dark clouds of 1995 as England returned to Dublin for the first time in 20 years. Here are five things we learned from the scoreless draw.
1. The Lansdowne riots can be consigned to history
The traumatic, spiteful shadow of 1995, when the yob imprint was singed into the Lansdowne Road turf as if by branding iron, was finally erased here.
Twenty years after being at the laser point of so much animosity, the remodelled arena dressed itself for carnival as the Three Lions made a docile return to Dublin.
Memories are long in these parts and the approach roads around Ballsbridge had a Good Friday feel with most watering holes keeping the shutters down; a high-profile security presence meant Garda yellow was almost as visible as Irish green or English white.
But any enduring toxins from that poisonous night failed to infiltrate the Aviva.
The atmosphere, assisted by a thunderous pre-match reception for a frail but visibly emotional Jack Charlton, was devoid of menace; both national anthems were respected (though a couple of impromptu follow-ups from the 3,000 English fans were inevitably drowned in an ocean of outraged whistles).
Raheem Sterling’s every touch was jeered, but the suspicion is that here was local Liverpool supporters venting their frustration at what they perceive as the young Anfield winger’s treacherous agitation for a transfer.
After an undignified build-up fuelled by revelations of FAI acceptance of Fifa hush money, here was a welcome 90 minute antidote.
2. Ireland’s left wing coalition could swing the Euro 2016 balance of power
Robbie Brady and Aidan McGeady shaped like an alliance that just might unhinge Scotland next Saturday
Brady – after some uncharacteristically wayward deliveries against Poland – delivered a maestro’s clinic with the dead-ball; time and time again his left-foot announced itself as a weapon of scorching beauty; his whipped free-kicks convulsed England.
His cling-film wrapping up of Sterling saw the Englishman switch wings at half-time and then – to the delight of the home support – replaced after 65 minutes. He also policed Aidan Townsend and Theo Walcott with some assurance.
McGeady also switched from left to right for the second half, but in that first 45 he splintered the English defence, his quick feet tormenting Phil Jones. At times he was a stripe of speed, a slender ribbon of green perplexing the English rearguard. The Aviva repeatedly chanted its boisterous approval.
If the Everton winger’s final ball and tracking back are not always on the credit side of the ledger, here they were blue chip assets.
An afterthought at Goodison Park in recent times, anonymous and relentlessly barracked in his native Glasgow, this would be a timely week for McGeady’s happy feet to dance again on the European stage.
3. Ireland’s search for a cutting edge continues
Martin O’Neill must feel like a frustrated panhandler who just cannot locate a nugget of gold.
Goals, or at least the lack of them, remain a stubborn roadblock on the road to France.
In Ireland’s last three qualifiers, they have scored twice; throw in this week’s two blanks against Northern Ireland and Scotland and a truly depressing statistic looms: In that quintet of fixtures, Ireland have averaged a goal every three hours and 45 minutes.
Yesterday O’Neill sent Daryl Murphy (27 goals in 45 games for Ipswich) and David McGoldrick into the killing zone. Neither returned with a scalp.
Murphy was a strong and willing outlet, but when first Jeff Hendrick and then Brady loaded the gun, the 32-year-old Waterford man twice failed to hit the bull’s-eye.
Shane Long – the only Irish player to feature for a top seven club in recently completed Premier League season and the most likely starter against Scotland on Saturday – was introduced but the drought continued.
With victory essential next Saturday, O’Neill urgently requires a divining road. Will he once again turn to record goal scorer Robbie Keane?
4. Could Harry Arter fill Jack Grealish’s boots?
Increasingly it seems as if Grealish is inclined to rush into England’s embrace.
Arter emerged as a pivotal figure in Bournemouth’s inconceivable rise to Premier League status; handed his international stripes here, the 25-year-old was quick to showcase the attacking midfield talents which yielded eight championship goals.
It would be wrong to say that the London-born player seized the occasion; there is little chance he tattooed his name onto next week’s starting XI.
But there were promising glimpse – notably in one galloping surge and shot that blazed narrowly wide of Joe Hart’s goal– that he will be an incisive addition to a midfield unit where Glenn Whelan's and James McCarthy’s goal return has been minimal.
5. Martin O’Neill’s side made an impressive case for the defence
England had some serious attacking talent on show here: Rooney, Sterling, Wilshere, Townsend; yet the Irish defensive unit comfortably muzzled the bulldog.
Yes it was a friendly, but England upped the tempo in the second half, without ever looking like honeycombing the Irish rearguard with holes.
Ireland’s 4-4-2 was impressively solid, stood up to a serious English examination, and will almost certainly be the preferred formation next week.
Psychologically the clean sheet amounts to a sizeable upgrade in morale.