Ireland shot themselves in the foot on Tuesday night by letting Armenia come back into the game. Thankfully for Stephen Kenny, it wasn’t Robbie Brady’s left foot that suffered the damage.
Wing-back is certainly a different role to the last time we saw the Preston North End man starting in international football. His shift in jersey number from 10 to 28 reflects how he has dropped back from his more advanced role to that deeper-lying position.
The early indications from both the start of the season with Preston and a small sample size with Ireland are positive.
Brady’s stat line (per Opta) from Tuesday night makes for impressive reading: seven accurate crosses, six chances created, three accurate long balls, one assist and, of course, the winning goal from the penalty spot.
“I’m feeling all right, I’m not even too pleased with my overall performance,” said Brady, his modesty belying what was an impressive night personally despite the Armenian fightback.
“I did all right. At times we moved the ball well but I still think I could have been better and I don’t think it was my best game of the season so far.
“But I definitely have something to offer, I feel, and for some of my performances, I’ll have to keep them up if I want to stay involved and I know that.”
What he offers is that ability to pick open sides that sit back and frustrate Ireland. On a night when Ireland struggled for accuracy – 18 shots on goal, four on target – Brady alone created a third of their chances. His left-footed balls into the area from the new wing-back role, both aerially and along the deck, often looked the best route through Armenia’s low block.
Brady’s link-up play with Jason Knight was encouraging in how it opened up pockets of space down the left to ask questions of the Armenia defence. The off-the-ball movement of both was key, none more so than in the 14th minute, Knight’s run to the byline drawing two defenders with him and opening up a passing lane for Brady to brilliantly pick out Troy Parrott at the edge of the area.
Unfortunately for Brady’s Preston teammate, he couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet quick enough for a clean strike.
“He [Brady] offers you different things,” said Stephen Kenny when the player’s recall was announced a fortnight ago.
“He’s a very creative passer from that position, quality crossing and he just sees things so early and has played well in that position to date this season. I’ve been a few times to see Preston obviously and I’ve enjoyed his performances.”
Above all else, Brady’s goal and assist highlighted his dead-ball prowess. John Egan’s late shimmy to peel off his defender allowed him to cash in on a pin-point Brady corner to open the scoring on Tuesday, but he had another chance at a set-piece from the same source just moments earlier.
“Going up for that one [corner], I thought ‘if Robbie sticks it where we’ve been practising, then I’ve got a chance,’” explained Egan. “Luckily it hit the back of the net.”
In the second half, Dara O’Shea and Nathan Collins arguably should have added further goals from Brady set-pieces. Unsurprisingly, a Brady corner is what started the scramble that led to Artak Dashyan’s handball and the winning penalty.
Despite Alan Browne initially going to retrieve the ball, Brady’s left boot was always going to be trusted to slot home the winner.
“I felt all right in the moment and luckily enough, it went in,” said Brady. “We got the win in the end and it would have been a shame to come out of that with a draw or a defeat after dominating most of the game. I’m delighted to get back into a green jersey and I think it probably got the better of me for a couple of seconds.
“We are scoring goals, which is the toughest thing to do at this level. [We need to make] a couple of minor tweaks to make sure silly goals don’t go in like that again.”
Tuesday doesn’t necessarily cap Brady’s return to regular football after a turbulent, injury-filled 18 months. Six games for Preston and two for Ireland is not exactly a big sample size, but any sort of fixture run at this stage has to feel especially rewarding all things considered.
“I had a nightmare with a couple of pre-seasons, but this season I worked hard before even pre-season came around, I was working through the summer so I felt fit, I felt strong and I knew if I got a full pre-season under my belt that I’d hit the ground running and I got the hard yards into my legs.
“As soon as you get the sniff for coming back and playing for Ireland, that’s what you want to do more than anything else and that will never change.
“So if I’m needed, I’ll be here.”