A night when black was white and white was black. Ireland put in as crisp and cogent an hour of play as the Martin O’Neill era has seen but needed two penalties inside a couple of minutes to get on the scoreboard.
Slovakia came to Dublin full of thump and temper and left with the sort of draw more usually associated with their hosts. Football is a roulette spinner’s business when it wants to be.
On a night when none of the Euro 2016 Group E hopefuls could muster a win between them, O’Neill had to be happy with how the past week played out. A 2-2 draw with another middle-tier European side is nothing to sniff at, especially given the snappy way Ireland knocked the ball about at times here. That they leaked a couple of careless goals along the way was entirely unlike them but maybe in keeping with the upside-down nature of the evening.
The main blight on the evening was a desperate-looking injury to goalkeeper Rob Elliot, who seemed to twist his knee in diving for the first Slovakia goal. O'Neill brought grave reports on it into the post-match press conference with him and all but confirmed that the Newcastle goalkeeper's season was over.
“He’s not great,” O’Neill said. “He’s got a serious knee injury. It’s a serious disappointment and it’s put a huge dampener on the evening. I just spoke to the doctor and he’s not happy with it. It might be too early for me to be making assumptions but I know the doctor thinks it isn’t great.
“It’s really cruel at this time in his career that he’s gone and done that. He’s been waiting some time for a run of games at club level. He came here and he knew he’d play one of the games and it’s really serious now. It’s a big blow to him and a big blow to us.”
With Wes Hoolahan at the centre of everything, Ireland's football hummed with vigour and style. Hoolahan was in full street-kid mode here, passing and moving, laying off short, tidy balls that invariably demanded a return. Ones that couldn't but be one-twos.
Around him, the other players almost looked like they didn't want to disappoint him. From Shane Long to James McClean to James McCarthy, it was a riot of give-and-go for most of the first half, with Robbie Brady getting in on the fun when he came off the bench for the second. If that's what O'Neill intends bringing to the Euros, at least we won't die wondering.
“I thought the first half was very good,” said O’Neill. “The second half was naturally disrupted by substitutions and the momentum got lost for both teams. But in that first half, although the goals we conceded were disappointing, I thought we were positive. We played good football. We tried to get the two full backs in advance positions.
“I thought James McClean started very strongly. Like everyone else, he lost a bit of momentum in the second half. But I thought he and Shane caused problems. When you have the two of them there with Wes in behind, with the two full backs getting forward, that’s something to be happy with.”
End product-wise, you’d have to say the results were mixed. Both goals Ireland scored came from penalties, both goals they conceded came from mistakes. Outside of the spot kicks nailed by Long and McClean, Ireland wove a fair few patterns without creating many chances.
For all that, Slovakia scored first, Miroslav Stoch curling a shot home after a break by Erik Sabo that started with Paul McShane misjudging a header in midfield. If they didn't deserve to be behind, neither did they deserve the penalty that brought them level.
For all their fine play, it took a bad pass by Eunan O'Kane and a bad decision by referee Ola Hobber Nilsen to offer a route back into the game. Long's touch took him away from goal and Slovakian goalkeeper Matus Kozacik beat him to the ball, only for Nilsen to decide it was the other way around. Long's penalty wasn't even that hectic but Kozacik dived the other way so the net danced.
When Long was brought down by Martin Skrtel a minute later, Nilsen pointed to the spot again, although there was no doubt in this one. McClean stood up to bang it home and Ireland were in front.
For the equaliser, McShane was more out of luck than out of step. Stephen Ward got a bit discombobulated by a one-two between Sabo and Peter Pekarik and when the ball to the near post missed Vittek, the deflection off McShane's chest could only had one place to go. Whole-hearted as ever, McShane was just having a good old-fashioned shocker. If the night was about squeezing into the 23-man squad for the summer, he might have been better off getting injured in the warm-up.
“I have to get pretty close to it now,” said O’Neill when asked about his squad for France. “Players have matches to negotiate at club level now. I understand that players have to fight for what they have to fight for with their clubs. But I have a fair idea of the squad now.”
Time is ticking.