From a shocking start to the campaign and then a start to a game which shocked a higher-ranked nation.
The range of emotions experienced by the Republic of Ireland camp in the space of a few days, from the low of losses to Armenia and Ukraine, to a thumping of Scotland, is typical of the rollercoaster that is the Irish national team. Nothing sums that up more than one night in 2017, when Martin O’Neill’s side scored very early, in the sixth minute, to take the lead in a World Cup play-off at home to Denmark and – so it seemed – take a big step on the road to Russia 2018.
We all know what happened next, a lead that lasted less than half an hour as Christian Eriksen inspired the away side, scored two goals in three minutes and Ireland collapsed.
Saturday against Scotland was only the second time since that Danish disaster five years ago that a Republic of Ireland player scored in the first half of a competitive game at home: a long list of enemies (Denmark, Wales, Denmark again, Wales again, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Portugal and Ukraine) all managing to reach the sanctuary of half-time in Dublin without conceding (Ireland did lead 1-0 at home to Gibraltar in 2019 but that was an own goal, while there was a first-half goal from Conor Hourihane at home to Georgia).
As kids, every member of this Republic of Ireland squad would have played a game of football on the green or the street, when matters were settled as various mammies called them in for dinner, with a “next goal the winner”. With Ireland at home, it’s been a case of first goal wins it and Ireland just never scored that opening goal, didn’t get in front or on the front foot, a problem in scoring goals that held the team back in general but especially at home: in the last three home matches of O’Neill’s reign, and the first four under Kenny, the team didn’t score once, a terrible indictment of a team.
The lack of intensity, the lack of speed on the ball was nothing new but it was still just as mystifying. Chiedozie Ogbene said after the loss in Yerevan that the team just needed to be quicker in possession.
“In the first half, the game speed was quicker, in the second half we were quite slow on the ball and that’s why it became more difficult for us,” he said, hoping that would be rectified in the next game at home to Ukraine.
It wasn’t, as there were more chances for Ireland but no goals. “There were some good moments in the game, good periods we had. But in those moments we have to capitalise and get the first goal because as you’ve seen the last two games, the first goal is vital,” a downbeat Jason Knight said after the loss to Ukraine.
Coming into the Scotland game, Kenny promised “freshness and fresh impetus in our forward line” and that’s what happened. There was a bite to an attack which had been nothing more than bitty in the two games before that (three, if the injury-time winner at home to Lithuania is included).
“The early goal eases the nerves a bit and gives you that confidence to go and really try to play,” was the view of Alan Browne (below), who scored the first goal against the Scots.
“But even in the previous two, I think we actually did play, it’s just we couldn’t find the back of the net. So I think that’s all the previous two results have been missing, that all-important first goal, because I think if we do get it, they have to open up and we can hit them on the counter. Thankfully, we got that and the rest of the performance speaks for itself.
“It doesn’t make up for the previous two results because we really let ourselves down. There were good opportunities for us, I think we were playing well going into this and couldn’t get that first goal.”
It was only Browne’s second competitive international goal but was such a vital one. “I just tried to sniff around in the box and thankfully it fell nicely to me. It found its way to the back of the net. I didn’t know too much about it, but we managed to create some openings for us from there. In the previous two games, we just lacked that first goal.
“We played well at times but we’ve been punished because we haven’t taken our chances. Once we got the first goal, it just calmed the nerves a bit and we really dominated the game from thereon in,” he said.
It begs the question, why have Kenny’s team been slow starters? One answer is that this is no new development but a pattern, a sickness that set in years ago and was hard to shift. The late fightback to secure points at home to Serbia and Azerbaijan, the late, late show from Troy Parrott to win it at home to Lithuania, the goal from Browne to earn a draw at home to Belgium, they were all laudable. But they were all instances of scrapping away to claw back something, not start off strong to build the foundation that wins can be built on.
If this team is to succeed, the late, late shows will have to be replaced with a desire, a demand, to get on the front foot, get in front and not lose the advantage.