O'Neill gushing in praise of Rice as subs sparkle
Ireland 2 USA 1
Saturday was John O'Shea's farewell, yet it's fair to say that the Aviva Stadium encounter might be remembered for its relevance to the future.
In the minutes after O'Shea had said goodbye to the home crowd via an interview on the touchline, Declan Rice was down in the mixed zone reflecting on a man of the match performance on his home debut.
Until he plays a competitive game for Ireland in September, the youngster will have to deal with the paranoid line of thinking that he might still jump ship for England.
Indeed, Martin O'Neill was asked about it again and continues to answer diplomatically whereas his assistant Roy Keane adopted a suitably dismissive tone when it came to West Ham co-owner's David Gold's bizarre assertion that he wanted Manuel Pellegrini to turn Rice into an England player.
The 19-year-old veered closer to Keane's strategy in his assessment of the situation. "It's all a load of crap to be honest," he said.
Those words make for pleasant reading. Rice is around for the long haul, and the big loser from Saturday night could well be the Irish U21 side's qualification tilt for the European Championships.
Come the autumn, Rice will have to be first choice for Ireland at senior level. O'Neill seems to be thinking that way as, while he is generally quite reluctant to build up new faces, he makes an exception for Rice who he described as 'outstanding' and the best player on the pitch.
It would be foolish to get carried away with this result, as the USA were also fielding a youthful and experimental side. Their own press officer was at pains to announce that their side's average age was 23.
Still, after a grim first half - aside from the ovation for O'Shea's withdrawal - and the concession of another set piece goal to Bobby Wood, with James McClean blamed by team-mates, Ireland and O'Neill needed a response to avoid a stench lingering for the summer.
They got it and the a selection of feelgood stories were the real bonus.
There was a rare poacher's goal from Graham Burke to make him the first League of Ireland player to score for Ireland since Shamrock Rovers' Ray Treacy in 1978. We had a late winner from sub Alan Judge which meant the world to a player who has endured a horrible two years since his leg break.
Sub Darragh Lenihan was the driving force in Burke's one-yard effort and had another goal stolen from him by an offside decision. Not a bad start for Meath's first ever Ireland international.
Enda Stevens made his debut off the bench and was lively at left-back as Ireland switched from the starting 3-5-2 to something approaching a 4-2-3-1 for the latter stages. Daryl Horgan showed that he can provide a spark as an impact sub too.
But, to pardon the pun, you sense that O'Neill felt it all boiled down to Rice. Ireland did actually shade the possession stats and that perhaps tells a story of US limitations too and why this match didn't really have a competitive feel.
Still, the presence of Rice in midfield certainly helped Ireland to move the ball forward with a bit more purpose, especially in the second half, and it was his crisp pass to McClean that ultimately paved the way for Judge to clinch success at the death.
"When he was in possession tonight, you felt as if 'he's gonna deal with this.'" said O'Neill. "If he's surrounded by some players, he's actually going to come out with the ball. I think I can only remember twice him being dispossessed with a few men around him.
"His use of the ball was excellent, really excellent, epitomised by that pass he made (to McClean). He got it under control quite quickly and played lovely balls. Ten yard passes. 15 yard passes. 20 yard passes to people. I couldn't speak more highly of him.
"If you can deal with the ball, it gives you that extra second, half a second, three quarters of a second, to be able to see things. And he looks as if he can deal with that."
He's a player to be excited about, but he needs attacking talent that complement his skills and that remains a concern.
Burke's selection was always going to be well received but it certainly wasn't a token gesture. The word coming out from ex-players who have contacts in the camp is that the 24-year-old had shone in training and O'Neill said as much afterwards. Besides, with Shane Long out, Ireland didn't have a striker on the bench.
However, the Irish boss was a touch critical of Burke's actual contribution to the game itself. The Derryman said that he primarily went with 3-5-2 for this match because it would suit the Rovers player.
"I didn't want him isolated wide left or wide right," O'Neill said. "I didn't want him to feel as though we were outnumbered in the middle of the pitch and we were just chasing the game."
"It was quite quick tonight at times for him in the first half. Some of it was maybe a bit strange for him as I expected it to be; sometimes it passed him by."
Burke did admit that the pace of training was different to what he encounters on a daily basis at Rovers. "I'm chasing it and the tempo they play at, it's very fast" said the Dubliner.
But in the game itself, there were countless occasions when he roved away from strike partner Jon Walters to try and take possession and team-mates weren't able to quite read his run or pick him out. "That's my job, to get into space," he said. "The ball's not going to come to me all the time.
"There is going to be spells where I go through the game and don't get it, but I'll never stop getting in those pockets."
It's apparent that Burke will ultimately have to move over the water to be in contention for involvement in meaningful games in the autumn. But it's possible that his playing style just may not be suited to this team either, or he will need more caps to find his role.
He did well in the circumstances given it was his first full start; individuals with a higher profile have struggled in comparable Irish games before.
Come the autumn, it's debatable if the lessons from this game will guide O'Neill's thinking for the Nations League opener in Cardiff on September 6 aside from Rice's deployment in the centre of the park.
Jeff Hendrick's ideal role remains an unsolved dilemma, and the return of Robbie Brady will add another element into the equation. Callum O'Dowda was sprightly through the centre and brings pace to the team, but a Brady comeback might push him out wide.
Subs Judge and Horgan showed they are capable of getting into threatening positions, yet they have both played their best football with sides that keep possession effectively.
Ireland's ability to do that in games of substance might now rest on the shoulders of a 19-year-old with just three caps. The fact that Rice has been Ireland's best player in all of them is both a positive and a negative.