New era begins with facile win for Ireland as Greek win ensures second seed status
Some things don’t change.
After a week of upbeat revolution in Irish football, Robbie Keane offered a reminder of timeless values by scoring the opening goal of the Martin O’Neill era at the Aviva Stadium.
It was Keane’s 62nd international goal, bringing him level with Brazil’s Ronaldo. Aiden McGeady and substitute Shane Long’s second-half goals ensured victory and it was possible to believe that Irish football may really be entering a new era.
The game was a 90-minute rebuttal of the idea that Ireland can’t play football. They were helped by a Latvia side that couldn’t conceal the reality that they hadn’t won away from home in more than two years.
In many ways that didn’t matter because the game was about making a statement about the future of the team under O’Neill and Roy Keane.
If the week had been full of wonder and the most extraordinary scrutiny of a management team-especially an assistant manager-the new leaders in Irish football took a low-key approach to their first game, discreetly making their way to the dug-out without any introduction.
All week there have been many small acts of intelligence that demonstrated that Keane and especially O’Neill have a critical detachment from the fuss going on around them.
Neither man was likely to milk the applause of the crowd or take a lap of honour before a friendly but their determination to keep the focus on the players was, in a small way, revealing.
Some had wondered if kick-off would see the end of the feel-good factor but the players performed from kick-off with a relentless energy that showed O’Neill had some reason to put his faith in them.
Wes Hoolahan was playing behind Robbie Keane and the Norwich City player was central in every sense, linking play and bringing the wide men into the game.
But it was a team performance. Ireland moved the ball with pace as Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy played a more expansive game in midfield and Ireland played out from the back and took some inventive set-pieces.
O’Neill had suggested he would be mainly working on set-pieces in training but there was more to Ireland than that even if the set-piece delivery from McGeady in particular was excellent.
Early on, McCarthy had volleyed a McGeady free-kick which wasn’t properly cleared straight at goal only for the ball to hit John O’Shea.
Keane then had mis-kicked after a clever free-kick involving McGeady and Hoolahan before the opening goal in the 22nd minute.
Robbie Keane scored in Steve Staunton’s first match, a reminder that good starts can often go nowhere, but this management team can be more confidently described as world-class.
Keane’s goalscoring credentials are of that standard and he swept the ball into the net from five yards after a McGeady corner was directed to him by a James McClean header.
On the bench, O’Neill reacted calmly while Roy Keane punched the air.
Robbie Keane could have scored his 63rd international goal shortly afterwards when he was presented with the ball forty yards from goal but his attempt to curl it past Andris Vanins didn’t fool the goalkeeper who pushed it away.
Ireland’s remained energetic in the second half, delivery on the manager’s promise that they would press and win the ball high up the field.
The assistant manager smiled wryly when McClean, voted man-of-the-match, smashed over when he should have hit the target as O’Neill allowed the first eleven to play together for seventy minutes.
Just as he prepared some substitutions, McGeady picked up a misplaced Latvian pass and drove a low shot from 35 yards which beat Vanins at his near post.
McGeady, Keane and Hoolahan were replaced by Andy Reid, Jonathan Walters and Shane Long and two of the subs were involved in the third goal as Walters fed Seamus Coleman on the right and his cross found Long who finished with purpose.
Another substitute Anthony Stokes drew a good save from Vanins as all the Irish players tried to impress.
The crowd celebrated the result and the performance but when O’Neill and Keane reached the dressing-room and heard that Greece had beaten Romania, ensuring Ireland will be second seeds in the European Championship qualifiers, they found another reason to be hopeful.