Proud Ireland newcomers get taste of life at top table at Celtic Park
Celtic 2 Ireland XI 2
This was Scott Brown's big day at Celtic Park, but the special memories were shared around.
The Hoops skipper's testimonial ended up being a very significant afternoon for seven uncapped Irish players, even if the encounter does not count as the official start of their international careers.
The symbolic act of pulling on the shirt and standing for the anthem made this feel very real for the protagonists, even if what followed was a low-intensity score draw which even featured a cameo from 46-year-old Henrik Larsson. For Ireland's new players it wasn't so much about the football itself, but the journey to get here.
Shaun Williams, who started along with Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams, described it as the proudest day of his career.
He played for an hour before a raft of changes that facilitated the arrival of Shamrock Rovers' striker Graham Burke and new recruit from Preston Callum Robinson.
Peterborough's Conor O'Malley also came in, while Sheffield United's Enda Stevens was the last new face to be summoned
Burke, who had travelled on the 10am flight to Glasgow having got six hours' sleep following a scoreless draw for Shamrock Rovers in Sligo on Saturday night, loved every minute.
"I had to pinch myself when I got to Parkhead, to think that the night before I was playing in Sligo and I went on to play in front of 60,000," said 24-year-old Burke, a proud Dubliner who had travelled as a fan to Copenhagen in November for Ireland's World Cup play-off.
"It's mad to think that a lad from 'town' grows up dreaming of playing for Ireland and you go on and play," continued the Belvedere product.
"I know it was a testimonial and there is no cap but to achieve that is unbelievable. You don't get many from the north inner city playing for Ireland."
Robinson was a team-mate of Burke when they were both at Villa and Williams and Stevens were there too so there was a reunion feel to the gathering. "I've been around a big Irish connection at Villa and now at Preston too," Robinson smiled.
He played for England through the age groups and is still waiting for the paperwork for his formal switch to go through so he cannot play in the forthcoming games with France (next Monday) and the USA (June 2)
The 23-year-old knows some fans will be sceptical about his intentions, but he is determined to win them over and reflected on the emotion of this occasion for his family.
His grandmother, a Monaghan woman named Anne Deignan, passed away when his mother was nine.
"There will have been a few tears today," Robinson said. "I'm happy I declared."
Burke and Robinson were lively and both had half chances to win the game. The Rovers player is back to club business against St Patrick's Athletic tomorrow and it's unclear if he will be called in for Irish duty again in this window.
With several senior players due back in when the squad meet up in Dublin on Thursday, this was an audition for the fringe players albeit in what was essentially a slightly vigorous training game.
The first half was a little more structured, with Ireland in a 4-4-2 shape. Celtic essentially ended up fielding a second-string side with Charlie Mulgrew featuring as a guest. Brown did tog out again having led his side to the treble at Hampden Park on Saturday.
Larsson's arrival arguably prompted the day's loudest cheer. He finished up next to sub Moussa Dembele against a three-man Irish defence consisting of full-backs Coleman and Greg Cunningham on one side and Stevens - a left wing-back for his employers - in the centre. It's hardly surprising that errors were made.
"What we tried to do is not treat it like a testimonial, particularly for the younger players," said O'Neill. "Now I'm not saying that Shaun Williams is that young (The Millwall player is 31) but for those players coming in for the first time, to soak the atmosphere up was great."
Williams started off in a midfield two with Alan Browne and the latter was prominent in the first half as he opened the scoring with a left-footer in the fourth minute but was then caught out in the lead-up to a Leigh Griffiths leveller before the break.
James McClean was energetic throughout at a ground which means a lot to him - he was given a warm reception beforehand and when he went to take corners - and senior pros Coleman and Jon Walters were also keen for a run-out due to their curtailed campaigns.
Callum O'Dowda, who started on the right wing and finished at left wing-back, put Ireland in front before the hour mark with a shot that came back off the bar and rebounded off the head of Celtic's sub 'keeper Ross Doohan before crossing the line.
O'Neill then shuffled the pack and they were adjusting to the shape when Cunningham gave the ball away and Patrick Roberts found a way past O'Malley with the aid of a deflection.
The Peterborough keeper did make a brilliant save to deny Larsson a crowd-pleasing moment, but a draw probably suited all parties.
Burke was deployed behind Maguire and Robinson in a 3-5-2 and his enthusiasm was praised by O'Neill. "He certainly didn't want to waste the opportunity," said the Deryrman. "If he hadn't played last night, he may well have started."
The real feedback might be evident in the party that he brings to Paris, although he alluded to possibly tweaking his panel after that trip.
In other words, some of the less experienced players might be left behind for France and then brought back in for the USA game at the Aviva on Saturday week.
Williams is getting married before that match, however, so that might rule him out. O'Neill pointed out that Ireland were outnumbered in the middle so it was a tough ask at times.
There was a bit of unprompted praise for Blackburn's defensive duo Lenihan and Williams. "Lenihan has a great attitude," he asserted. "Derrick did really fine.
"It was a chance to see some players right beside me, rather than just watching them from afar. I've a couple of decisions to make about who to bring to France now."
Celtic - De Vries, J Hendry, Simunovic, Mulgrew, Miller; Browne, Kouassi; Johnston, Roberts, Sinclair; Griffiths. Subs Used: R Hendry, Doohan, Larsson, Ntcham, Dembele, Tierney, McGregor.
Ireland XI - Doyle (Bradford), Coleman (Everton), Egan (Brentford), Lenihan (Blackburn), D Williams (Blackburn); O'Dowda (Bristol City), S Williams (Millwall), Browne (Preston), McClean (West Brom); Walters (Burnley), Maguire (Preston).
Subs: O'Malley (Peterborough) for Doyle (59 mins), Doherty (Wolves) for Egan (59), Cunningham (Preston) for D Williams (59), Burke (Shamrock Rovers) for S Williams (59), Robinson (Preston) for Walters (59), Stevens (Sheffield United) for Lenihan (73).
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