At the end, Chiedozie Ogbene went down on one knee in the centre-circle and for a moment you weren't sure whether he had been poleaxed by exhaustion or if he was thanking a higher power.
If it was the former, it was entirely deserved. If it was the latter, then you’d hope the higher power had the class to say, “No Chiedozie, thank YOU.”
The reconnection of the Irish football public to its team has been one of the base level successes of the Stephen Kenny era. You only had to sit here among the 48,808 crowd to get it. Mistakes that were groaned over before are allowed for now. There is a general warmth towards the team that was obvious even when they twice went behind here.
Yet they have their favourites too. Every Shane Duffy header is roared, every John Egan interception gets its due. Seamus Coleman’s struggles in the twilight of his time in green are worried over and wished away. But the enthusiasm for Ogbene stands above them all.
He’s a funny sort of player, the Rotherham winger. He often takes a while to get into Ireland games, as though he spends the first 20 minutes not quite believing he belongs at this level. His positioning isn’t always helpful to under-pressure midfielders looking for an out ball and Belgium were able to play around him and get out quite easily in the period after the opening goal here.
But when he gets into it, he’s irresistible. When the game breaks up and Ireland upset the rhythm of the opposition, Ogbene is so often the energy source, fizzing around the place like a firework that’s been let off by accident indoors. He’s the one who gets the toe in, who draws the foul, who forces the throw-in high up the pitch. And the crowd love him for it.
He has to play a different role with his club at wing-back. We don't see him as that. We see him as a forward player"
It was badly needed here, especially after Ireland went behind so early on. They had started reasonably well, rattling into the visitors and winning the close contact stuff. An early crunch from Jason Knight was whistled back for a harsh free, a couple of similar efforts from Egan pleased the crowd no end. Matt Doherty was slightly more subtle about it in easing his way into Thorgan Hazard’s personal space, turning ominous Belgian possession into an Irish throw-in.
These were small wins though. The hardest thing remains the hardest thing. When Michy Batshuayi cruised inside Coleman on 12 minutes to whip in the opening goal with Belgium’s first attack, it was a fairly emphatic demonstration of the distance between these two sides’ station in life.
It isn’t that Ireland don’t have players who can cut inside the full-back and curl one past the goalkeeper at the far post. Plenty of them can, have and will again - Callum Robinson gave it a damn good try in the second half, in fact.
But what Stephen Kenny can’t currently call upon is anyone who could do it with such an effortless flourish. Come the World Cup, Batshuayi is probably Belgium’s third-choice centre-forward. The sheer vulgar affluence of it is a world away from Ireland’s level.
What Kenny does have is a squad that is likeably unfussed by the idea of chasing down a lead. Belgium played around them for a while after that but without threatening Caoimhin Kelleher’s goal. The game entered a bit of stalemate, before Ireland started really pressing high up the pitch.
“John Egan changed a lot,” said Kenny afterwards. “His press was so aggressive from centre back that it was critical. He was very, very influential in that period when we needed someone to be. Both in terms of spectacular challenges and then also carrying the ball out and being able to use it well.
“We were quite aggressive in terms of being able to get in front of their man and we committed to a high press. Our press was relentless. It requires a huge amount of energy and you can’t carry one player, even slightly. We were willing to do that. We didn’t want to just be in a low block. It’s a slow death. We’re not having that. We wanted to try to affect the game.”
Ogbene’s equaliser was a touch of class but the build-up was all about effort and intensity and refusal to yield. Robinson was involved three times, putting Doherty away down the right, skittering across the edge of the D in the next phase and finishing it off with a searching cross from the left. Duffy drew all the attention in the middle and Ogbene found the space and time to flick the ball up for himself and apply the overhead finish.
“I knew he would be a real threat for us and that he had great attributes,” said Kenny of Ogbene. “But this is a spectacular start to his international career. To score three goals, two in qualifiers and one against the world’s number one team. He has to play a different role with his club at wing-back. We don’t see him as that. We see him as a forward player.
“Apart from his goals, he gives us so much. We ask the players to elevate their performances above their club level. We need that if we’re going to play against the Belgiums, Portugals and all these teams. We need them to play above the level they’re at with their clubs.”
The second equaliser was a delight. Ireland had been pressing high all the way through the second half, with Egan, Coleman and Doherty all making sharp interceptions around the middle as Belgium tried to play out. It was Doherty who nipped in here, just outside the centre-circle, playing the ball wide for Ogbene to chase.
Everything about what came next told you why Ogbene is such a crowd favourite. The ball was overhit but Ogbene was jet-heeled in keeping it from going out for a throw. The game was on the line but all his first-quarter skittishness disappeared and he slowed the game down to settle himself for the cross. He did exactly what a top level player should, picking out Alan Browne with a drilled cross that invited a resounding finish.
Job done. Two minutes later, Ogbene was announced as man of the match. It was the least surprising aspect of the evening.