Ken Early: Ireland gaze into the abyss against Armenia but write a happy ending, of sorts

It didn’t feel like a winner was coming for Stephen Kenny’s side — it felt destined to be another embarrassment

I have to admit it. I missed the build-up to Armenia’s first goal as I was busy looking up the confirmed members of Nations League B for some point about the company Ireland would be keeping in the next edition of the competition. Instead of Riga, Torshavn, Skopje, we could think about nights in the likes of Athens, Vienna, London... not the best of the best, football-wise, but not bad at all...

Unfortunately the complacency was general. There seemed to be no danger at the beginning of the move that led to Armenia’s first goal. There certainly should not have been much danger, since the ball was in the hands of their keeper David Yurchenko. But then he rolled the ball straight up the middle where it was quickly transferred on to Vahan Bichakhchyan in the inside-right position. Before Ireland had time to figure out how Armenia had sliced through them so easily, Bichakhchyan’s awkward shot was saved by Gavin Bazunu on to the far post, but the rebound bounced to the edge of the area, where Artak Dashyan lashed it back inside Bazunu’s near post.

It was a sharp slap in the face for Ireland and indeed for a whole stadium that had been in a contented daze, chatting away, weighing whether one last visit to the bar would be worth it. But instead of waking Ireland up, it seemed to have a concussive and brain-scrambling effect.

Settle it, is what players are supposed to be thinking at moments like this. Put some passes together, like we have been doing all night. Let them know the goal means nothing, they are not really in this. Simple, calm passes - O’Shea, to Brady, infield to Hourihane, who turns and - no, not like that!


Hourihane turned and sent an underhit pass across the face of his own box where not one but two Armenians were waiting to pounce. Eduard Spertsyan was the man who darted on to the ball and though it looked like he still had a lot to do to score, in the end he didn’t have to do that much. His curling shot from the D squirmed under Bazunu and into the net. The young Irish keeper has been beaten several times from range in his Ireland career to date - Luxembourg, Azerbaijan, the 71st minute of this game - but this was the first one where it looked like he really should have stopped it.

It was a scarcely believable and humiliating turn of events, an earthquake that had its origins in the butterfly wing-flaps of about 20 minutes earlier.

In the 51st minute, Hourihane came on for Jayson Molumby because Molumby could and probably should have been sent off for a second yellow card in the 50th minute. Molumby was the replacement for the suspended Josh Cullen at the base of midfield and he had generally played well, spreading the ball around at a good tempo. The first half was not the toughest 45 minutes an Irish number 6 will ever have to play, but Molumby and the team in general had a steady performance which produced a 1-0 lead thanks to John Egan’s headed goal. Ireland have scored three from corners in their last four games: it turns out we don’t need Anthony Barry to figure out how to score set pieces for us.

Back to Molumby. One of his best attributes is his aggression, his eagerness to get to the ball first - and when that eagerness shades into impetuosity it is also his weakness, especially in such a responsible position. His first booking came in the 29th minute, for a tackle that arrived just too late and too high into the raised boot of his opponent rather than the ball. That the yellow was a touch harsh did not change the fact that he had to be careful now. Nothing stupid.

But when an opponent broke past him in the centre circle early in the second half he tugged him down in what was a clear tactical foul and should have been a second booking. The referee seemed to go to his pocket for the card but then settled for a final warning. Acknowledging the let-off, Kenny immediately subbed Molumby for Hourihane, presumably expecting the more experienced player would provide a cooler head.

In the next minute Michael Obafemi scored a Rivaldo goal, touching the ball beyond an opponent with his first touch, then with his second, hammering a beautifully-struck daisy-cutter into the bottom corner. It was the same sort of position from which he had scored that belter against Scotland but a completely different shot, and the confidence and skill with which he is playing is a joy to watch. But that moment felt like a shadow memory from another life as Armenia celebrated their equaliser.

It didn’t feel like a winner was coming in those final minutes. It felt destined to be another embarrassment, another albatross to hang around the neck of this team.

But then Dara O’Shea’s shot from a scramble following Brady’s corner was blocked and the Irish players and crowd roared for handball. The referee didn’t see it, but at this point Ireland had help from an old acquaintance.

The man in the VAR box, Matej Jug, had been the referee when Palhinha jumped on Aaron Connolly’s back in the box as the Irish striker prepared to shoot with Ireland leading 1-0 in Portugal. Jug showed he is a better referee when he has a replay to look at. He called the on-field referee Obrenovic over to look at the incident, and the penalty for handball was confirmed.

At this point everything went crazy. Two Armenians, Hovhannes Hambardzumyan and the goalscorer Dashyak, were sent off for dissent, Dashyak receiving both his yellows in a 10-second period. The Irish crowd hailed their new hero, the referee. It felt good that chaos was engulfing somebody else’s team for once. Robbie Brady coolly slotted the penalty and hotly celebrated in the corner.

A 3-2 win, a record seven Nations League points, and Nations League B status preserved. Maybe it’s the kind of thing you can only get excited about when you have gazed too deep into the eyes of Nations League C, but after the start they had to this campaign, Ireland can be grateful for how it’s ended.