On a night commemorating revolutionary leaders of 100 years ago, the Republic of Ireland football team may have identified a leader of their own as Blackburn Rovers defender Shane Duffy was outstanding during Ireland’s 1-0 win over Switzerland at the Aviva Stadium on Friday night.
Much of the pre-match focus centred around commemorating the likes of Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, James Connolly and the many soldiers who lost their lives during the 1916 rising, and while those men fought for an independent Ireland free of British oppression, many of the current Irish side were fighting for their places in Martin O’Neill’s Irish side this summer.
Predictably, it was an Irish team that was largely inexperienced, as O’Neill looked to give those on the peripherals of his squad a chance to impress before he names his final Euro 2016 squad in May.
The likes of Stephen Quinn and David Meyler were given an opportunity in the centre of midfield while Irish fans got their first glimpse at the untested defensive partnership of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy in defence.
Admittedly, the latter are much more likely to be given a chance to reprise their partnership than the former, who were both substituted shortly after the hour mark, but nevertheless, there was an undoubted sense of irony that an Englishman had given Ireland the lead just minutes after the 1916 leaders were celebrated.
Some were celebrating the fact that the nation’s biggest pub was well and truly in business during Clark’s goal, while others failed to see the irony in jumping up and down waving 1916 scarves while the English born and bred defender gave Ireland the lead.
— Ronan Murphy (@swearimnotpaul) March 25, 2016
Clark’s place of birth may have mattered a hundred years ago but it certainly does not bear the same significance today, as some of Ireland’s most influential players are born outside of these shores.
It’s not a genuine problem among sports fans in Ireland and nor should it be, as modern international football is riddled with players who are representing countries that are different from those that they are born in.
So with that said, it’s quite fitting that Ireland’s best performers on the night were from two players that had previously represented Northern Ireland and England at underage level.
While both Clark and Duffy may have envisioned entirely different paths earlier in their professional careers, both players were undoubtedly in tune with one another and shared one common goal on Friday night, impress and give the manager something to think about.
The defensive duo combined brilliantly for Ireland’s first goal and maintained a steady understanding of each others games throughout the evening as Ireland extended their unbeaten streak at home to nine games.
While Clark may have given Ireland an early lead, it was Duffy who earned most of the plaudits after the game as the 24-year-old looked extremely comfortable in his first game in an Irish jersey in almost two years.
The hulking Blackburn defender immediately asserted himself as a force in the Irish defence as the Derry native was barking orders and instructions from the first minute until the last.
If Ireland captain John O’Shea wasn’t worried of his place in the team before, he should most certainly be now as Clark, Duffy and Richard Keogh have all put the Waterford native’s place in the side under serious threat.
Unfortunately for Ireland, the same level of competition can not be seen elsewhere across the park as several players failed to impress in what could be their last opportunity to play in the national team before the Euros in June.
First-choice midfielders James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan won’t be worried by what they saw from David Meyler and Stephen Quinn while Shane Long will almost be the default candidate to lead the Irish line after Kevin Doyle was removed after 20 minutes with a gruesome leg injury while Ipswich striker Daryl Murphy made it 20 consecutive games for Ireland without a goal.
Brentford midfielder Alan Judge did not have the intended impact he might have hoped for either, as the Bees playmaker struggled on the right before faring not too much better on the left. The Dubliner has been a revelation for Brentford this season, contributing 14 goals and nine assists from midfield, but was under-utilised on the wing as O’Neill refused to play him in his more natural role of attacking midfielder.
The former Blackburn Rovers utility applied plenty of pressure when not in possession and showed a willingness and determination to retrieve the ball after losing it, but unfortunately for Judge he never quite got the ball in the areas he would’ve liked.
Hopefully he’ll be given another opportunity in a more central, playmaking role against Slovakia on Tuesday but it appears unlikely at this stage as O’Neill seemed unopen to the possibility of moving the 27-year-old from the wing after the game.
The former Celtic boss said that he doesn’t see Judge playing too often in centre midfield for Brentford and that it hadn’t crossed his mind during the course of the game.
It may be something to consider given how inept Ireland were at creating chances in the second-half but it remains likely that O’Neill will continue to experiment with unproven players as Ireland are now less than three months out from the Euros.
It wasn’t the complete performance that O’Neill was looking for but it was at the very least another win at home, and more importantly another great performance from the Irish defence who will need to be at their very best if they are to stave off the challenge of Belgium, Italy and Sweden in the summer.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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