Republic of Ireland 4 Qatar 0
It’s 6-2 now, Joe. Callum Robinson just plundered five goals in two outings for the Republic of Ireland and every one of them a collector’s item.
Robinson and Jack Grealish came up together. Long before they went into the Aston Villa academy, they were back garden pals in Birmingham. One got pulled into the English system, the other Ireland’s underage ranks before swapping paths in a story that has been told and will continue to be retold so long as Grealish soars into the stratosphere and Robinson tortures Joe Duffy for that crass joke on Liveline about the 26-year-old having more bouts of Covid than goals for his country.
Robinson arrived into this international window, openly unvaccinated for whatever reason, with 18 caps and one goal. He returns to West Bromwich Albion – where he was already having an electric season that promises an instant return to the Premier League – with 20 caps and six strikes in the green shirt (or ‘St Patrick’s blue’ for one night only as a nod to the Republic’s 1921 team).
Much like his early goal in Baku on Saturday, Robinson broke these jaded Qataris in the fourth minute with a vicious shot from outside the box that took a deflection off Bassam Al-Rawi before hitting the top corner. Conor Hourihane can claim a subtle but important assist.
The pursuit of a hat-trick – part II – was operational when Robinson slotted a penalty low to the left corner after Jamie McGrath drew a clever foul from Karim Boudiaf.
That moment sent everyone inside the Aviva into a dream-like state. It was a reality that seemed so far beyond our comprehension until very recently, as 25,749 Irish supporters, many of whom had journeyed up Lansdowne Road for the first time in their young lives, went ballistic.
The old guard have not known this feeling for the bones of a decade; pure joy that you can reach out and touch, as an Irish team backed up a quality win with another. That it was Stephen Kenny’s first in Dublin as the gaffer was written all over his face.
It helped that Robinson delivered his brace inside 13 minutes and that both were into the old South Terrace, where the nomads of Stuttgart and Genoa still reside.
The Chelsea-style system brought into the Ireland camp by their first-team coach Anthony Barry, and readily embraced by Kenny and his players, had a fluid look to it. Robinson moved into the lone striker role, so manfully filled by Adam Idah last month, with Chiedozie Ogbene having another night of firsts. This time the Cork-raised winger became the first Nigerian-born footballer to start for Ireland.
Coming in off the right side, Ogbene regularly took up residence at centre forward as Robinson dropped deep and caused mayhem between the lines.
On one such foray Robinson curled a ball towards the six-yard box where Ogbene pounded a header off the crossbar. It seemed like the pair had been interchanging for years at club level or even further back, like Grealish and Robinson connecting as eight-year-olds.
A perfectly timed intervention in Ireland’s box by Andrew Omobamidele doused the flames of a Qatar counterattack as Irish players went for a rest with 59 per cent possession and firm control of proceedings.
The din of the crowd at half-time was truly heartwarming. Whenever the play slowed, you could hear happy chat about the progressive football on view. Not a peep about chief executives, past or present, or the new FAI board. Just football people agreeing with each other about Kenny’s young team.
The sustained applause when Nathan Collins replaced Duffy for his debut and Troy Parrott relieved Robinson was for the veterans but the arrival of 20- and 19-year-olds felt symbolic.
On Monday the manager was asked if selecting players from the third tier of English football or propping up the Premiership in Scotland was a wise approach. The question was about Ogbene and McGrath who are now, undisputedly, international calibre professionals.
Before kick-off the Qataris, like other Irish opponents of late, Hungary and Azerbaijan, refused to take the knee in protest against racism. Different culture, different instructions from upon high, but interesting all the same. Like the Hungarians and Azeri, the visiting players clapped in support but dared not go against the wishes of their patron Sheikh Jassim.
But this occasion quickly became a celebration of Irish soccer, with Jeff Hendrick rewarding Robinson’s exquisite diagonal run to punch home the hat-trick on 52 minutes.
Anyone for a Shane Duffy special? Coming right up, said Hourihane, with an outswinging corner that the Derry giant planted past a hapless Meshaal Barsham, to make it 4-0 with plenty of road still to run.
“There is only one Stephen Kenny” flowing into “Olé, Olé” were chants not many would have believed possible a few weeks back, when even his staunchest supporters were struggling to defend an atrocious record. Three wins from 18 reads a little healthier. Or how about a four-match unbeaten run?
The critics of Kenny, as much as the loyalists, had backed themselves into a corner of ‘sack the League of Ireland man’ as much as the believers pleaded for patience. Everyone can hit the reset button ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s visit on November 11th when the crowd and noise will double in size.
What’s certain is that challenge will be enormous as Portugal seek automatic qualification for Qatar 2022 ahead of Serbia.
Hendrick, who was superb here, will not have as much space to breathe, never mind create. But the beauty of this squad now is they know it will take something special from one of the best players on the planet to beat them. Just like the fiercest Irish teams that have come before, there is surging belief that they can turn Lansdowne Road into a fortress once again.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Kelleher (Liverpool); Omobamidele (Norwich City), Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion, capt), Egan (Sheffield United); Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Hendrick (Newcastle United), Hourihane (Sheffield United), Stevens (Sheffield United); McGrath (St Mirren), Ogbene (Rotherham United); Robinson (West Bromwich Albion).
Subs: Christie (Fulham) for Doherty (h/t), Knight (Derby County) for Ogbene (68), N Collins (Burnley) for Duffy, Parrott (MK Dons) for Robinson (both 76), J Collins (Cardiff City) for McGrath, Arter (Charlton Athletic) for Hourihane (both 87).
QATAR: Barsham (All Sadd); Alrawi (Al Duhail), Salman (Al Sadd), A Hassan (Al Sadd); Miguel (Al Sadd), Alhaydos (Al Sadd, capt), Boudiaf (Al Duhail), Hatim (Al Rayyan), Elamin (Al Gharafa); Afif (Al Saad), Ali (Al Duhail).
Subs: Madibo for Hatim, Alaaedin for Ali (both 73).
Referee: Keith Kennedy (Northern Ireland).