Simon O’Keeffe at Aviva Stadium
Just when one seems ready to give up on this Ireland team, they do something that, from nowhere, gives that little hope that things can get better.
On the night that Ireland said goodbye to a legend in John O’Shea, his was not the only story in a clash, and a victory, bristling with strong narratives.
The Boys in Green looked lost in the first half against what was a largely-inexperienced USA outfit, full of energy but nowhere to channel it. Granted, it was a world away from the listless display against France on Monday night but that wasn’t really saying much.
They were bright in parts of the first half, of that there can be no doubt. Callum O’Dowda looked good on the ball on the rare occasions it came to him, James McClean found space for crosses (that largely went unanswered), while Declan Rice was busy adding to his growing reputation in Ireland colours.
However, as has been the case so often for this Ireland side recently, finding cohesion was near-impossible. USA, though they were penned back in the early stages, grew in confidence as the half wore on. The youthful side had entered into proceedings with caution but were getting a feel for the clash and, slowly but surely, felt that this might be there for the taking.
Therefore, it was no surprise when the visitors ended the half on top and a goal to the good. John O’Shea had left to a hero’s reception ten minutes earlier, and the Irish defence were all over the place as Bobby Wood ghosted into the box to poke home unmarked past Colin Doyle.
At that point, one genuinely feared for this Ireland team. No goals of any description in 2018 (Scott Brown’s testimonial aside), two listless defeats with worrying performances to back them up. To top it off, 1-0 down at half time against a USA side with an average age of 23. It didn’t look good.
The second half, thankfully, improved from an Irish point of view. Although it was only a friendly, it was patently obvious that there was more than pride on the line here, as the critics hurriedly sharpened their knives.
As the game ticked towards the hour mark, the ball was headed across the USA box in a rare productive attack from a set piece. Darragh Lenihan drove home towards the goal, and in diverting into the net, Graham Burke justified O’Neill’s faith in his inclusion in what was hist first start for his country.
From there, Ireland pushed forward a bit more, finally injecting a bit of composure and posing a bigger threat possibly than they had at any time over the past year. There was something on the line, and Ireland performance was starting to represent that feeling. Darragh Lenihan saw a headed goal chalked off for offside, Jon Walters was making more of a nuisance of himself on the right, while McClean was still working well on the left.
Competitive as it was, it still looked as though the game was petering out for a draw. Frustrating as it would have been, that still would have been progress of sorts for this time.
Alan Judge, however, had other ideas. The Brentford midfielder has endured a nightmare couple of years and in the dark days of injury, he feared for his career. Just seconds after being introduced as a substitute in the dying stages of the game, the ball fell to Judge in a glorious position. Presented with the chance to score the winner, he was not to be denied.
Showing composure belying a man that had just entered the fray, Judge slotted home to give Ireland a win that had looked at half time as though it was not going to come. The joy on his face said it all, the relief within him could be felt all around the Aviva.
On a night that John O’Shea said goodbye, Graham Burke and Alan Judge stole the show, while Declan Rice’s standing in this team continues to rise. Ireland will face much tougher tests, of course, and the level of performance and intensity will have to be upped significantly, but the Boys in Green finally have one or two things to smile about again.
Ireland: Colin Doyle, Shane Duffy, John O’Shea, Kevin Long, Seamus Coleman, James McClean, Jeff Hendrick, Declan Rice, Callum O’Dowda, Jon Walters, Graham Burke
Subs: Darragh Lenihan (O’Shea 34), Daryl Horgan (Burke 57), Enda Stevens (Duffy 76), Harry Arter (Hendrick 81) Alan Judge (O’Dowda 88)
USA: Bill Hamid, DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Tyler Adams, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Weston McKennie, Bobby Wood, Timothy Weah, Jorge Villafana, Wil Trapp, Rubio Rubin
Subs: Tim Parker (Carter-Vickers 60), Shaq Moore (Yedlin 69), Josh Sargent (Wood 69), Luca De La Torre (Rubin 76), Joe Corona (McKennie 80)