Browne, Long and Collins all net as Ireland see off Bulgaria
Mick McCarthy’s changed team struggled at times but improved towards the end
Republic of Ireland’s Alan Browne celebrates scoring his side’s first goal of the game during the friendly against Bulgaria in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ireland 3 Bulgaria 1
You could easily mark this one down as a painful reminder of what we were routinely subjected to in the days before somebody dreamt up the Nations League, to wit; a near empty stadium staging a manifestly meaningless game but Mick McCarthy will find a few positives in what ended up being a rather convincing win for a side built around his second string. A handful of players will also feel there were elements to their performances here that strengthen their cases for larger parts in the matches that really count.
It is hard to imagine much of it having a genuinely significant impact on McCarthy’s thinking whe it comes to Georgia then Geneva next month, however, and before the goals started going in it was hard not to wish there something much more substantial at stake.
The last time Bulgaria came all this way for a friendly, 15 years ago, Jon Macken got a game, his only one for Ireland. That, Andy Reid’s first goal and the fact that Roy Keane played, in spite of an injury supposedly, was about the height of it. Only time will tell if this is recalled as having been a more significant night.
Ireland’s goalscorers: Alan Browne, Kevin Long and James Collins, will have no trouble remembering it, of course. Browne has had endure more than his fair share of misfortune on the injury front this past year and if things had gone better for him since McCarthy took over then he might have been one those having to be rested here.
Consolation came in the 58th minute when Callum O’Dowda showed characteristic purpose to release Ronan Curtis whose shot was parried straight into the path of Scott Hogan by Hristo Ivanov. The striker might have attempted to squeeze it past the stranded goalkeeper from a couple of yards but instead, selflessly squared for the Preston player who had only to keep his composure in order to score.
Cyrus Christie’s error and then captain John Egan’s foul on Bozhidar Kraev helped the Bulargians get level again soon enough with Ivelin Popov fairly planting his penalty kick beyond Mark Travers and McCarthy reacted by shaking things up a bit. From there on in Ireland stepped things up, playing more positively and ultimately overwhelming what were poor enough opponents.
Jack Byrne and James Collins got on to bring the number of debutants to four after the starts handed to Travers and Josh Cullen (Kieran O’Hara would subsequently make it five), while James McClean’s introduction put an end to the Conor Hourihane at left back experiment which, while certainly not a disaster, was hardly a triumph either. The Corkman was not, as McCarthy had hoped he might be: “amazing”.
Byrne certainly looked himself despite the new surroundings as he tried his luck from more than 30 yards within a matter of minutes of coming on but the Dubliner really announced his arrival towards the end when, having taken over the set piece duties from Hourihane, he curled a corner into the path of Long who got the better of his marker in much the way David McGoldrick had last Thursday to head the ball home.
McCarthy added to the experience levels by putting on Enda Stevens and Jeff Hendrick and the Sheffield United left back had a firm hand in the game’s best goal a few minutes from time with Byrne picking him out perfectly on the left from where he crossed first time and Collins turned the ball in with an outstretched foot.
It may be a while before we know if there is to be a Macken in the group this time around but for the moment, most went away with reasons to be pleased with themselves.
Of the various Bulgarian debutants, Ivanov might do well to get many more caps. Before the game, the team’s coach, Krasimir Balakov, a highly rated contemporary in his playing days of the great Hristo Stoichkov in the side that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1994, had bemoaned the lack of young talent being brought through by the clubs back home. What prospects there are, he said afterwards, had been left with an under-21 side that is going well enough and so he handed a first cap to a 37-year-old who is not quite 5’10”.
That and the five defenders Bulgaria started the game with did not suggest any great spirit of adventure from a manager who had clearly come in the hope of avoiding a fourth straight defeat since taking the team over in May. They did threaten quite a few times on the break but ultimately, it would come as quite a relief when the home side started to exert some real measure of control over things late on.
That all said, the game was not by any means an unanswerable case for the competition specifically conjured up by Uefa to inject a little more life into nights life this. Like Ireland, Bulgaria are eyeing up the Nations League play-offs as a backdoor to next year’s European Championships. But unlike Ireland they are completely out of contention to get there through the more traditional group stage route with just two points from five games played so far. They might well, however, get there at the expense of a side that went genuinely close.
To judge by this, that really can’t be a good thing.
Ireland: Travers (Bournemouth); Christie (Fulham), Long (Burnley), Egan (Sheffield United), Hourihane (Aston Villa); Cullen (Charlton Athletic), Judge (Ipswich Town), Browne (Preston North End); O’Dowda (Bristol City), Hogan (Stoke City), Curtis (Portsmouth).
Subs: Byrne (Shamrock Rovers) for Judge and Collins (Luton Town) for Hogan (59 mins), McClean (Stoke City) for Hourihane (68 mins), O’Hara (Burton Albion) for Travers and Stevens for O’Dowda (76 mins), Hendrick (Burnley) for Curtis (84 mins).
Bulgaria: Ivanov; Pashov, K Dimitrov , Slavchev, Nedyalkov, Goranov; N Dimitrov, Milanov, Malinov, Mladenov; Kraev.
Subs: Popov for Milanov (half-time), Wanderson for N Dimitrov and Bozhikov for Nedyalkov (59 mins), Despodov for Mladenov, (68 mins), Panayotov for K Dimitrov and Terziev for Malinov (80 mins).
Referee: T Welz (Germany)