Friday 23 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Jet-heeled Long too hot for fearful Slovakia to shackle

James McClean and Martin Skrtel go head-to-head during last night's friendly between Ireland and Slovakia (SPORTSFILE)
James McClean and Martin Skrtel go head-to-head during last night's friendly between Ireland and Slovakia (SPORTSFILE)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was a moment the script found different energy, when conjecture and audition gave way to a formal changing of the guard.

The stadium TV picked up Robbie Keane and family seated in a box and, instantly, a familiar chant of "Keano, Keano, Keano" rolled up towards a clear Dublin sky. This game was 25 minutes old but, somehow, it felt as if the chant bore a tone of gentle courtesy here.

Ireland's greatest goalscorer had just watched Shane Long produce three minutes of quite electric destruction that, on some level, maybe represented more than all of the other back stories surely crowding Martin O'Neill's mind. Leading through a 14th-minute Miroslav Stoch goal, Slovakia now looked startled to find themselves behind.

For Long's jet-heels had turned humdrum defensive situations in the 21st and 23rd minutes into moments of hara-kiri for the visitors, two penalties resulting, the first of which the Tipperary man himself converted. Seldom has the union of pace and moxy wreaked such havoc upon a group of seasoned professionals.

Martin Skrtel, hapless fall-guy for the second, was making his 78th appearance for Slovakia. He looked like a man who wished fervently he had postponed it.

Long's impact was extraordinary and seemed to represent the statement of a man now absolutely at one with his talent and, maybe more pertinently, one imbued with the confidence to be a big international player. Keane's record for his country will, most probably, never be equalled. But Long is today's man.

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He didn't resume for the second-half, having accumulated a couple of niggles that O'Neill quite wisely decided did not require any further stress testing on the Lansdowne grass. And, with him, went much of Slovakia's unease.

They'd equalised on the stroke of half-time, Paul McShane turning the ball into his own net under pressure from Robbert Vittek, and thereafter the game leaked much of its thunder, settling back into a duplicate of so many that we have seen before.

Hindsight doesn't denote much personality to these contests. If anything, it reduces them to a sort of blancmange in the mind. And that's part of the problem watching them unravel, you know deep down that, come June, it will require some kind of intellectual feat simply to recycle any specifics from these March friendlies.

True, for a man like Eunan O'Kane and, maybe, McShane last night might just have felt like a clammy job interview freighted with all manner of personal flux and worry. But their anxieties weren't ours. So much of the game passed by with all the tumult of fingers drumming on a table.

And the preliminaries hadn't quite the pomp nor solemnity of Good Friday's either. A lone piper did commemorate the fallen of 1916, though it could have been worth asking if some recognition might not have been appropriate for the multiples killed by suicide bomb at a football game in Iraq last Saturday. Is an Iraqi life less precious than a European one?

No matter, the game itself soon found an independent pulse, Marek Hamsik threatening to score a third-minute goal that would have graced the top of a wedding cake only for a last-ditch Irish boot to intercept the danger.

Stoch's 14th-minute breakthrough seemed to hit the place like a cloud of chloroform and, so, we settled back for something about as emotionally engaging as a press hand-out.

This stuff isn't theatre or opera and Ireland's good days have never been measured in soaring innovation or elegance of expression. The games that stay with us invariably carry an air of defiant siege. Think of Germany in Dublin last October and the presumed portents for a defence comprising Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh, John O'Shea and Stephen Ward squeezing up tight on those ballet dancers Mueller, Ozil, Reus and Gotze?

What happened was a repudiation of logic. But without the salt of competitiveness, Irish games struggle to engage an audience. They are simply impossible to romanticise, given this is a team that doesn't, ordinarily, paint pictures. It just exerts a stubborn will.

Which, of course, makes it no less admirable than any of football's works of beauty.

Trouble is, recent possession stats have people fretting. Former manager Brian Kerr is among those who believes that, against better teams in stifling heat, Ireland could suffer for their profligate use of the ball. It might, many fear, leave them running marathons in a microwave.

To that end, the restoration of senior officers Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy to central midfield surely demanded an improved control of tempo. Slovakia are no Barcelona after all and, on this night, Ireland did move better.

Wes Hoolahan had a terrific night between the lines, James McClean (who converted the other penalty) was never less than industrious and, of the new faces, O'Kane certainly did himself no harm in his late run for a boarding card to Versailles.

But it was Long's running off the shoulder that reclaimed the game and, ultimately, his energy that sent a crystal clear message resounding through the cold March air.

One that said, yes Keano has been wonderful, but Shane Long is now ready to take up his sword.

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