Roy Curtis: 'After 56 minutes, the shots on target stats read: 1-1. This was a movie without a highlight reel'
IT was supposed to be Ireland’s night for shooting fish in the Aviva barrel, but, with Mick McCarthy a portrait of agitation, green revolvers jammed, and pistols misfired.
And the home side, wayward and uninspired, came perilously close to shooting themselves in the foot.
Like their team bus that broke down on the way to the stadium, the home side spluttered and chugged and struggled for momentum and inspiration. This was a laboured, grinding, ugly, first gear crawl toward the safe haven of victory. That their destination was reached at all was down to a moment of outrageous fortune.
Gibraltar, Iberian makeweights whose role on nights like this is typically that of a pig on a spit, were undone only by a brutally cruel deflection and a Robbie Brady goal deep into injury time.
McCarthy has always worn his gritty Yorkshire pragmatism like a favourite item of clothing.
Hence his sober, hardheaded pre-match insistence that he would heartily celebrate a 1-0 victory – even with the winning goal bouncing off somebody's backside - over opponents drawn from a chunk of rock at the foot of the Iberian peninsula not much bigger than a suburban semi-d, one sandwiched between the sleeping superpowers of Brunei Darussalam and Timor-Leste at 195 in the world rankings.
That was pretty much how it unfolded (the opening goal ricocheting of a Gibraltarian chest rather than a posterior), although McCarthy’s sideline demeanour was hardly that of a man planning to pop the Bollinger corks until dawn.
In reality, this was the ultimate mismatch of resources and competence.
Supporters lament the absence of the old Jack Charlton era certainties, those milk and honey years when Irish teams were backboned by blue-chip assets, employees of the Manchester, Liverpool and London giants.
Even so, all things are relative.
Jack Sergeant, one of just three Gibraltarians competing in a foreign league, plays for West Didsbury and Chorlton in England’s North West Counties League Division One South.
So, there was little point in shadow-boxing around the reality that here was a war of separate worlds.
Yet after 56 minutes, the shots on target stats read: Ireland 1 Gibraltar 1.
For a nervy, disjointed, hugely frustrating half hour, Ireland encountered self-inflicted difficulty in advancing anywhere close to the coordinates of a stirring, high-ground performance.
Scott Hogan, perhaps over anxious to stamp his imprint, wondered offside on three occasions; Conor Hourihane scuffed a free from close to where he had launched the unstoppable Exocet that did for Georgia.
Even, Shane Duffy, the titan of Copenhagen, was infected by the malaise. One skied 30-yard shot offered greater peril to aircraft at 30,000 feet than the Gibraltar goal.
An increasingly agitated terrace yearned for a figure who might impose his will on the contest.
McCarthy, gesticulating wildly, supping manically on a water bottle as if it were an anaesthetic against the agony of the grimly unfolding under-performance, peppered the Dublin night with increasingly salty language.
And then his wish was granted: A scrappy, dishevelled goal that would win few marks for artistic merit; an ugly crumb that, to the Irish boss, was a satisfying as a feast.
David McGoldrick launched a shot that was devoid of conviction or direction. Only a wicked deflection, off the unfortunate Joseph Cipolina, delivered a killing change of trajectory.
McCarthy was unconcerned that UEFA deemed it an own goal, denying McGoldrick – like every striker in Ireland’s squad, still scoreless at this level – the significant confidence boost and bragging right of a first international strike.
If it was the cue for Ireland to kick on, it was one entirely missed by the team in green.
A win that left the Aviva frigid at least means McCarthy’s team have ten points from four matches.
But here was a movie without a highlight reel, one to bury without delay; the manager knows much better will be required in autumn when he returns to the director’s chair.