Unlikely lads take lessons from Mexican experiment
Twelve months ago, Conor Hourihane was excited by promotion with Barnsley and a first crack at the Championship.
Daryl Horgan was at Dundalk, eyeing a third League of Ireland title and wondering if they could make a run in Europe.
Callum O'Dowda had just gained promotion from League Two and was giddy at the opportunity to train with Ireland ahead of Euro 2016.
A lot has happened in the intervening period. Big moves to new clubs at Championship level have boosted their profile and they have broken into the senior international squad.
They might well have seen that coming. But the trio could never have imagined that they would have teamed up in the centre of an Irish midfield in front of a stadium packed with Mexicans.
It was a thankless task. Horgan and O'Dowda are natural wingers. Hourihane belongs in the centre of the park, but he is used to being accompanied by seasoned operators in that role.
Martin O'Neill was anxious to try a 3-5-2 system against Mexico and it did suit the strengths of wing-backs James McClean and Cyrus Christie, who were both promising in a deceiving start.
Eventually, the gaps appeared in unsurprising places. The midfield was over-run and the three defenders, Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy and John Egan, were exposed and unsure of when to really step on and close space. Mexico owned the ball and, ultimately, it was all too easy.
Jesus Corona's opener came when an Irish corner was cleared to prompt a rapid counter. Then Raul Jimenez dinked in a penalty after Carlos Vela nipped into a hole between Egan and McClean to draw a foul from the latter.
Mexico's third came after the restart when Duffy was all at sea and O'Dowda's inadvertent deflection set the wheels in motion for Vela to convert a cross from close range.
Eventually, O'Neill switched things up, and Hourihane and the bright Horgan were sacrificed as the shape became something closer to a 4-5-1.
Eunan O'Kane and Wes Hoolahan helped in the area of ball retention and Stephen Gleeson grabbed a consolation as Mexican intensity levels dropped. It put a kinder look on the scoreline.
For the fresher faces, it was challenging but they were able to appreciate the bigger picture. Hourihane reflected on a 'whirlwind' six months since joining Aston Villa.
"I was in there with Callum and Horgan, we're all relatively new to international football," said the Corkman.
"There was a bit of dusting the cobwebs off but it's still been fantastic. I've never been on a trip like this with the national senior set-up so you have to take lessons for the future."
Horgan sang off a similar hymn sheet. "It's a difficult position," said the Preston man, "There were bits where you get on the ball and try to do things and you enjoy that; it was a bit of an experiment. The result dampens it a small bit but it's great to get a first international start. Hopefully it won't be the last one."
The personal landmarks were plentiful. Upon arrival in Dublin, Gleeson flew off to Portugal for his wedding with a first Irish goal a perfect start to his week. He said it was 'surreal' to do so at the location where he made his debut a decade ago. It took him almost all of that ten years to get back in.
Kevin Long and Alan Browne will be hoping they don't have to wait that long after maiden appearances as subs.
"It's an honour that will stay with me for a long time," said Browne. The details of the match will fade from the memory.
Ireland - Randolph, Keogh, Duffy, Egan (Long 64); Christie (Browne 73), Horgan (Gleeson 73), Hourihane (O'Kane 64), O'Dowda, McClean; McGoldrick, Murphy (Hoolahan 64).
Mexico - Cota; Salcedo (Layun 45), Reyes, Moreno (Alanis 45), Gallardo; Dos Santos (Pineda 58), Hernandez, Herrera (Peralta 45); Jiminez, Vela (Marquez 68), Corona (Aquino 58).
Ref - T Unkel (USA)