Darren Randolph proves vital backstop to deny northern raiders
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper pulls off a number of quality saves to deny Northern Ireland
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph saves a shot from Northern Ireland’s Gavin Whyte during the friendly international at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Republic of Ireland 0 Northern Ireland 0
On the final whistle there was a short sustained burst of booing from those inside Lansdowne Road. It was not the first time this had happened on a night when attention was as much on the behaviour of the two sets of Irish fans as the match itself. James McClean had received most of the boos from the 2,000 travelling Northern Ireland fans, but by the end it was the home support delivering a harsh verdict on an uninspiring display by Martin O’Neill’s men.
In that sense, football had overtaken rivalry as the talking point of the evening, which is a good thing.
Whether that appeases Ireland fans disgruntled by the Republic’s overall purpose is debatable. This was a game dominated by two individuals and that the hosts’ was Darren Randolph says much about the pattern of the play.
It was sewn and re-sewn by the Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis who, as is frequently the case, was the best player on the pitch. At 33, Davis can no longer command a starting place at Southampton and maybe there was freshness in his legs and his appetite.
He never ceased. Playing in front of the back four in the Irish backstop position cornered by Glenn Whelan for the Republic for so many years, Davis offered a progressive contrast.
Whelan was given 35 minutes of the first half for his 85th and farewell cap – and then an individual ovation.
But as he watched from the bench, he saw Michael O’Neill’s evolving side show the greater style and determination to create. Davis was its fulcrum, but there were fine efforts by young Gavin Whyte, recently of Crusaders in the Irish League and now with Oxford United, and when he came on, Jordan Jones of Kilmarnock.
Whyte had brought the first vital save from Randolph in the 14th minute and Jones brought the best with 18 minutes to go.
Harassing in numbers – pressing high – Northern Ireland regularly flustered the home midfield. None, not even Robbie Brady, had time on the ball and at the right of a back three defence, Darragh Lenihan was given a difficult night.
The Blackburn player was left exposed for the North’s opening chance – Liam Boyce beating him to a Davis punt and setting up Stuart Dallas. The Leeds United midfielder’s pass freed Whyte in the box but Randolph was off his line sharply and diverted the ball wide with an outstretched leg.
Lenihan was also caught late on by the charging Jones. He just nipped in front of Lenihan as he tried to take control of a pass and bore down on Randolph. This looked the like the moment when Northern Ireland would get the goal their play merited but again Randolph spread himself.
Just three minutes earlier Randolph had needed to be brave to dive at the feet of Boyce when the Belfast man was stabbing in a shot and four minutes after Jones’s opportunity, Davis and another substitute, Paddy McNair, staged a 60-yard break that looked about to pay a goal dividend until the got to the edge of the home box.
That inability to finish will have frustrated Michael O’Neill hugely. But this is not new – Northern Ireland have hit the woodwork four times in their past two Nations League games, against Bosnia and Austria.
What Callum Robinson would have given for such opportunities. The Preston striker was presented with one half-chance on the hour from a low McClean drive, but it could hardly be called a gift.
That was the culmination of the Republic’s best period, straight after half-time, but they were not pinning the visitors back. Robinson soon gave way to Preston colleague Seán Maguire, who in turn gave way to injury 13 minutes after that.
Ireland’s most dangerous moments had been from Brady free-kicks. Shane Duffy got on the end of one midway through the first half, although the North’s goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell only had to tip over.
Ten minutes after that, from a similar spot on the North’s left, Brady whipped in another dead-ball and Lenihan got to it first. Unfortunately for him, he directed it at Peacock-Farrell.
Other than that, there was little invention. That will not surprise Martin O’Neill – he has spoken about quality and the lack of it often enough – but nor will it encourage those heading over to Denmark on Monday.
A glib assessment would be that with neither Irish team having scored in their previous two matches, goallessness was a foregone conclusion, and the gaps in the crowd said the prospect of the teams ranked 33rd and 34th by Fifa did not bewitch the general public.
But Michael O’Neill could leave feeling he has something to build upon. How Martin O’Neill feels is another matter. He knew beforehand that there is work to be done. He knew afterwards too. He knows, too, he has a decent goalkeeper.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: D Randolph; S Coleman, D Lenihan (C Christie, 84 mins), S Duffy, J Egan, J McClean (E Stevens, 66 mins); C O’Dowda (R Curtis, 46 mins), J Hendrick, G Whelan (C Hourihane, 36 mins), R Brady; C Robinson (S Maguire, 66 mins; S Hogan 79 mins). Booked: Lenihan, Hourihane.
NORTHERN IRELAND: B Peacock-Farrell; M Smith (J Ward, 74 mins), C Cathcart, J Evans, J Lewis; C Evans (P McNair, 65 mins), S Davis, G Saville; G Whyte (J Jones, 62 mins), L Boyce (K Lafferty, 71 mins), S Dallas. Booked: Saville.
Referee: Slavko Vincic (Slovenia).