When someone mentions the RDS, my mind immediately wanders to a sport that rarely enters my thoughts. The mercurial world of show-jumping. After all, the initials RDS stand for Royal Dublin Showgrounds. Where better to see the legendary Eddie Macken steer an immaculately groomed mare around a litany of fences and various water hazards in the quickest possible time? More recently, it has been home to the ever-expanding rugby bandwagon Leinster for their Magner’s League and European Cup matches. Last week, Ireland’s footballers arrived at the Ballsbridge venue, in the shadow of their future home and gave manager Giovanni Trapattoni plenty to ponder over the summer months.
Consecutive victories in the two friendlies against Paraguay and Algeria have given the team a much needed boost ahead of the September qualifiers for the European Championships in 2012. With November’s heartbreak in Paris still fresh in the mind, more so with the World Cup on the horizon, Ireland had almost forgotten what it must be like to toast a victory. Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat of Paraguay was their first win since September, while the comfortable 3-0 dismantling of Algeria was the first time since beating San Marino 5-0 in late 2006 that Ireland had won by more than one goal.
Apart from the results, it seems there were numerous positives to be taken from these experiments. First of all, there were four debutants over the few days, with varying degrees of success. Paul Green was arguably the pick of the four, scoring and managing to get 90 minutes under his belt against Algeria. The Derby midfielder always looks for a pass, which is an interesting change from the Whelan-Andrews axis. Quite often, the midfield is so far from the front-line that a forward pass is not always on, but Green has composure about him that Trapattoni will have noted.
Teenager Greg Cunningham had a mixed evening on his bow for Ireland. He looked understandably nervous in the first half, with the constant roaming of Algeria’s Karim Ziani meaning for much of the time, Cunningham did not have a direct opponent. One skewed clearance was claimed by Kieran Westwood and the youngster looked relived. However, a much improved second half display means the Galway native could be in the frame for September’s games. Much will depend on his club situation, with a loan move from parent club Manchester City likely, though Roberto Mancini refused to release him in January. Watch this space.
Perhaps the most anticipated debut of all was that Dubliner Keith Fahey, with
his 67th minute introduction against Paraguay bringing perhaps the loudest cheer of the night. Coming off the back of an impressive season at Birmingham, Fahey deserved his chance. His arrival was met with unfortunate circumstances. From around the 70 minute mark, friendly internationals stall when a barrage of substitutions completely disrupts the flow of the game. What little intensity was in either game evaporated with all the changes and it was difficult to judge how the former St. Patricks Athletic man fared. One intelligent burst into Paraguayan territory was ignored by Shane Long, but it was glimpse of what Fahey could bring to the side.
Last, and very much least in the context of the debutants, was Celtic’s Cillian Sheridan. His half hour cameo on Tuesday for the ‘injured’ Robbie Keane was disappointing, with very little involvement for the Cavan lad. While Paraguay were controlling the majority of possession, any ball played in Sheridan’s direction invariably ended back with the South Americans. Friday’s was little better and the 21-year-old will find himself down behind Caleb Folan and Leon Best in the niche within the squad for an old-fashioned target-man.
Another pleasing aspect was the clinical fashion in which Ireland dispatched their goals. Kevin Doyle bundled in a scrappy opener against Paraguay, but Liam Lawrence’s was a superbly constructed goal. Doyle’s clever lay to the Stoke winger was a delightful piece of improvisation, a sign of player growing in confidence and becoming more aware of what is going on around him. Green drew first blood against Algeria with a brave header, with Lawrence’s clever set-piece catching the North Africans asleep. The second was a lovely finish by Robbie Keane, helped ably by some hapless goalkeeping by Faouzi Caouchi. . After the succession of missed chances against France, it was good to see Ireland so ruthless in front of goal, but also frustrating that they were not so precise when it really mattered.
Defensively, Ireland were very comfortable. While Paraguay winger Rodolfo Gamarra was causing some confusion on the left, he was dealt with ably by Steven Kelly. Goalscorer Barrios gave Paul McShane a few headaches, with the Hull defender’s all too frequent rash decisions in evidence for Lucas Barrios’ consolation strike. Sean St. Ledger stood up well to the physical test provided by Algerian Rafik Djebbour, and Westwood proved himself to be an able deputy for the stricken Shay Given.
The Coventry goalkeeper is certainly confident in himself, but he has a good
presence in the penalty area and his handling and kicking was flawless in the two games. Darren O’Dea’s mature display was another pleasant surprise. Quite shocking it was only his second cap, given his Champions League experience, but the Dubliner will surely have forced himself into Trap’s autumn plans. An honourable mention must go to Kelly, whose distribution was hugely improved and was solid in his right-back role over the 180 minutes.
The venue was the ideal capacity for the games, with reasonable crowds of 16,722 and 16,800 respectively. Avoided was the farce of the Serbia friendly of two years, with a fluctuating crowd in Croke Park throughout the match, the majority of whom missed Andy Keogh’s late equaliser. People around me that night left because it was too cold, €60 well spent. There were no such fair-weather supporters this time around, though many in the North Stand left at half-time during both encounters.
The choice of opposition was an interesting one. It is unclear who approached who with the idea of these games, but I’m sure Algeria and Paraguay will be satisfied with the work-out, if not the results. Both sides used experimental line-ups, with the Desert Foxes handing out no less than six international debuts. Ireland had the opportunity to play against formations that are uncommon in European football. Paraguay’s 3-4-3 had the Irish perplexed in the opening exchanges, but they stuck to the task at hand and got to grips with it after an uneasy first few minutes. Algeria’s 4-3-1-2 was another unique opposition line-up, but they rarely threatened, save for Adlene Guedioura’s late header off the crossbar.
All in all, Irish eyes were smiling after two positive results and two reasonable displays. There is much more to be learned from these types of games than the glamour friendlies against the Brazils and Argentinas of this world. Anyway, the real business is almost upon us. The Dublin Horse Show is just 61 days away. I, for one, cannot wait.