Republic of Ireland 3 Latvia 2
(O’Dowda, Ferguson, Ogbene; Uldriķis, Zjuzins)
A few weeks ago Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny talked up Mikey Johnston so much that an investigation was needed into how and why the Scottish born winger declared for the country of his Derry grandfather.
Nobody expected Aiden McGeady 2.0. Not right away.
Loaned out by Celtic, to Portuguese side Vitória Guimarães, Johnston was not playing much football. Cursed by injuries after breaking through in Scotland as a teenager, Kenny bet a hefty amount of chips on the 23-year-old’s electric pace being turbo-charged by a new career path in green.
Kenny can collect in the morning and safely turn his attention to France versus The Netherlands on Friday night, ahead of Didier Deschamps’ men coming to Dublin on Monday.
Johnston delivered, roaming off the left wing to create Chiedozie Ogbene’s winner.
[ Ireland player ratings against Latvia ]
It need not have come to this. Will Smallbone picked off the man of the match and Evan Ferguson scored his first goal before the usual malaise took hold.
Leading 2-0 after 16 minutes, it was conceivable that the same Ireland team and shape would reappear against France in five days at a soldout Aviva. Josh Cullen and Gavin Bazunu would probably replace Alan Browne and Caoimhín Kelleher but until this latest mini-collapse, Ireland were motoring into 2023.
By half-time confidence was rattled again.
The 3-5-2 shape would be an overly adventurous way of welcoming the French anyway, but it was working on this misty, windswept night as Smallbone and Jayson Molumby thrived as two attacking number eights.
O’Dowda’s goal arrived the first time Ireland attacked with any urgency. Molumby was losing possession when he prodded a pass into Ferguson who controlled and sprayed the ball wide for Matt Doherty. Captaining his country for the first time, in the absence of Séamus Coleman and John Egan, Doherty cut back to the lively Smallbone but the Stoke City midfielder’s cross should have been snuffed out before O’Dowda got goal side of Roberts Savaļnieks to finish with a downward header.
Ferguson was quietly growing into the game. The broad-chested teenager won a corner by forcing Kristers Tobers into a slide tackle before dropping deep on 13 minutes, cleverly swapping roles with Michael Obafemi, to let fly from outside the box. It caught the breeze, sailing into a non-existent north stand.
The first goal of his fledgling international career came three minutes later when Smallbone fed Doherty and another dangerous delivery was touched by goalkeeper Paveis Steinbors only for Obafemi to keep play alive so Ferguson could tap home.
The celebration was muted, a wink for Smallbone, a hug from Nathan Collins, the only bigger man on the pitch. Not a hint of a lad who should be studying for the Leaving Cert.
With or without Evan Ferguson, this Ireland side has a habit of switching off when 2-0 up. Kenny’s team also tends to concede belters from outside the box at home as Latvia join Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Armenia, compliments of a beautiful hit by Roberts Uldrikis giving Kelleher no chance.
Doherty’s impressive performance was sullied by sloppily losing possession, which directly created the opportunity for the six-foot-four-inch centre forward.
The 2-1 scoreline failed to increase the tempo as murmurings from the soaked 41,000 crowd became the sound of the night. The FAI are doing plenty right at the moment but only the 81-year-old Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins has managed to embrace the St Patrick’s Day parade, a Grand Slam rugby match against England and this Latvia friendly, in an impressive four-day spin.
Disaster struck in first-half injury-time when a speculative Latvia free-kick and some suspect defending presented Arturs Zjuzins with another long range effort. The shot deflected off Collins, which partially helps explain Kelleher allowing the ball ricochet off his gloves and into the net.
The fault lies in Ireland losing two contestable headers in their box before O’Dowda’s half clearance, having collided with Dara O’Shea, gave Zjuzins the chance to swing a leg.
Two-all at half-time, the Aviva emptied. Some returned, many did not bother.
Not 10 minutes into the second half and Ferguson was in trouble after Janis Ikaunieks put the boot in after another speculative shot. The Fabinho hack, when playing for Brighton against Liverpool, proved the 18 year old is made of sturdy stuff.
When Ferguson made way for Troy Parrott, the previous Irish wunderkind, on 72 minutes much of the anxiety had abated. The manager can take most of the credit.
Kenny has been repeatedly criticised for reacting too slow in a crisis. Not here. On 63 minutes he came out of conclave with Keith Andrews and swung the axe, removing Doherty, Andrew Omobamidele and Obafemi.
It proved a masterstroke; within 60 seconds Johnston did precisely what Kenny said he could, sprinting off the left to hit the post with a crisp right foot shot that Vlad Sorokins only managed to clear into Ogbene’s path.
Two subs, creating the winning goal, instantly warmed a crowd largely made up of children as Ogbene’s fourth strike from 14 caps under Kenny keeps a shaky show on the road.
France and Kylian Mbappé next, what could possibly go wrong?
Ireland: Kelleher (Liverpool); Doherty (Atlético Madrid), O’Shea (West Brom), Collins (Wolves), Omobamidele (Norwich City), O’Dowda (Cardiff City); Browne (Preston NE), Molumby (West Brom), Smallbone (Stoke City); Ferguson (Brighton), Obafemi (Burnley).
Subs: Ogbene (Rotherham United) for Doherty, Johnston (Vitória Guimarães) for Obafemi, Egan (Sheffield United) for Omobamidele (all 63), Parrott (Preston NE) for Ferguson (73), McClean (Wigan Athletic) for O’Dowda (77), Hendrick (Reading) for Smallbone (82)
Latvia: Šteinbors; Sorokins, Balodis, Černomordijs, Savaļnieks; Ikaunieks, Tobers, Zjuzins, Cigaņiks; Gutkovskis, Uldriķis.
Subs: Oss for Balodis (half-time), Saveljevs for Zjuzins, Varslavans for Cigaņiks (both 71), Ikaunieks for Uldriķis (82)
Referee: Andrei Chivulete (Romania).