When Liverpool were first linked with their new Uruguayan centre-forward, a three picture meme did the rounds. Picture one, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez posing together on the day they signed for Liverpool. Picture two, Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986), standing next to the ill-fated teleportation pod that was to accidentally fuse his DNA with the stray insect, creating the tragic hybrid Brundlefly. Picture three, Nuñez, who does indeed resemble a halfway house between Carroll and Suarez. Ha ha ha.
This was a joke based on Nuñez’s appearance rather than his playing style, but we can imagine Brundle’s pod could also combine footballing attributes. What I’m saying is, someone needs to do up a new Brundle meme with Virgil van Dijk, Kaka and Nathan Collins.
Pat Dolan has been banging the “Nathan Collins is the Irish Virgil” drum for some time. Maybe there were people who laughed. Delusional nonsense is a newspaper columnist’s bread and butter. There is even one not too far from here who suggested Ireland might feel more at home in Nations League C.
But not all columnists talk nonsense all the time. Sometimes a prophet is scorned in his own land. It is time to acknowledge and acclaim Dolan’s visionary insight and to wonder which other legendary footballers he is capable of channelling.
The group of players capable of scoring a goal like the one Collins scored here is not large but it includes some greats of the game. Franz Beckenbauer was reputed to do this kind of thing. Laurent Blanc did it more than once. Virgil van Dijk? Maybe one day.
In the 31st minute of this game Ireland seemed about to become the victim of yet another refereeing injustice. Jason Knight, running down the left, was barged over in what looked an obvious foul. As he screamed his frustration at the ref, Mykola Shaparenko knocked a ball forward into midfield for what looked like would be a dangerous counter-attack.
The Ukrainians hadn’t reckoned with Collins, who read the pass and cruised in front of Yarmolenko to take the ball in his stride.
Picking up speed, he powered through the gap between Oleksandr Zinchenko and Serhiy Sydorchuk, chopped the ball inside the wrong-footed Illia Zabarnyi, nudged the ball forward with his knee in a touch that looked deliberate (even Iniesta had to use his feet for that move), and swept it past the keeper with the outside of his foot like a peak Luis Suarez.
(As a footnote, Collins had started the whole attack off with the sort of calm defensive header under pressure to the feet of Cullen in midfield that is the regular trademark of, yes, Virgil van Dijk.)
There was something truly magnificent about the power and grace of Collins on that scoring run. When have Ireland ever scored a goal like this? Damien Duff scored one after a long dribble against Canada, but he didn’t beat as many opponents and the finish didn’t have quite the same aplomb. Liam Brady once tricked his way through the middle of the French defence, but he didn’t cover 40 yards. Mark Lawrenson was a defender who ran through the middle to score against Scotland after a quick free kick ... but now we’re getting silly.
There is nothing in the memory banks of Irish football to compare with this goal. Everyone in world football will have seen this goal by the end of today and if Collins is still playing for Burnley in the Championship next season, the big Premier League clubs are clearly insane.
Some other things happened in the match as well, many of them positive from an Irish point of view. It was an often vividly entertaining game, played in an energetic spirit you would not have expected from the last game of a gruelling season in mid-June.
Some of the competitiveness probably had to do with the laissez-faire approach of the Turkish referee, Ali Palabiyik. It does rather seem as though Nations League referees have been told to take a fairly relaxed view of physical play. “Look, we know a lot of coaches are whining about injuries but the fact is people love this stuff so, you know, if you feel like turning a blind eye ...”
Ruslan Malinovskyi was initially a beneficiary of this approach when he kicked Troy Parrott in the guts and the ref waved play on, but Malinovskyi himself soon departed when Josh Cullen’s elbow caught him just above the hip. Cullen was later the victim of a massive foul by Andriy Yarmolenko following a frenetic and rousing series of challenges in midfield.
Ireland’s three-man midfield continued in the same kind of form they showed against Scotland. Molumby’s sharpness in stealing the ball from Zinchenko allowed Ireland to create an early chance missed by Parrott when a goal looked on.
The disappointing note was the goal Ireland conceded just after half-time. Ukraine had targeted the space in between Ireland’s wing backs for direct passes and Caoimhin Kelleher had to make a first half save from Vitaliy Mykolenko when he ran into the space behind Alan Browne.
On 47 minutes, Ireland were surprised by a cross field ball, flicked on by Dobvyk, which set Yarmolenko through in the space between James McClean and the left of the three centre backs, Dara O’Shea. McClean seemed to have recovered the situation but Yarmolenko surprised him by turning right to cross with his (chocolate) right leg, and the ball ran across goal to Dobvyk arriving unmarked at the far post.
Ukraine dominated possession but Ireland frequently won the ball back to create promising situations on the counter; they needed more efficient passing to make those opportunities count.
At the final whistle, most of the Irish players were standing with their heads in their hands, plainly disappointed not to have won the game. But the reception they got when they went over to acknowledge the Irish fans told them they should also be proud.