New generation of Republic players put it up to 'old enemy' England
A night that was preceded by thoughts of the past concluded with hope for the future. Let that be the legacy.
Politics dominated the build-up and, thankfully, the worst case scenarios failed to materialise as the preliminaries passed by without incident. There should be no obstacles to the Republic of Ireland playing England again, and that is good news.
But the real encouragement for the Irish came in the performances from players who should be central figures of the next generation. Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Shane Long were excellent, regular Premier League performers comfortable with the surroundings and vaunted opposition.
"For me, they were three of the best players on the pitch," said a happy Giovanni Trapattoni afterwards.
The Italian had spoken beforehand about using this experience to build confidence in a team that has been reshaped since Euro 2012 and in the context of the battering that morale received there, securing a positive result in front of 80,000 people in a lively atmosphere should stand to a modified group, even if they have serious work to do to make the next major tournament in Brazil.
They had to withstand strong pressure in the final minutes from an English team that promised a lot without end product; the natives are used to that.
Now, the Republic have to build on it and improve their goal difference situation by racking up a number against the Faroe Islands tomorrow week, although the lead-in, which includes Sunday's friendly with Georgia, will be a serious anti-climax after this.
"I must pay attention against the Faroes," said Trapattoni, "And now it's my duty to decide which players need a rest."
Certainly, they got a workout here. The early stages were as respectful as the treatment of the anthems. There was a spark, perhaps a little more zip than your average friendly, with the Irish section taking glee from misplaced English passes. However, it was Ireland's 13th-minute opener that exploded the game into life.
The green shirts enjoyed a good period of possession on the right flank, but England seemed content they were in control of the situation when Robbie Keane controlled a Jon Walters pass and sent the ball in the direction of Coleman, who looked up to see that Long was the sole Irishman in the box. With precision, the Everton man delivered the ball towards the Tipp lad, who soared above Glen Johnson with Gary Cahill watching and superbly glanced a header past the despairing dive of Joe Hart into the top corner.
Green smoke billowed from the Irish section in the frenzied celebrations and the cheers grew from the restart as Walters clattered Wayne Rooney.
The setback energised England, however, with Daniel Sturridge bright on his full debut. It was the invention of the Liverpool star that created their 22nd-minute equaliser, although familiarly clumsy Irish defending also assisted. After meandering down the left wing, Sturridge chipped into the danger zone where Sean St Ledger flapped as Glenn Whelan dozed, with Frank Lampard arriving with a trademark run to clip the ball under David Forde, an advance from the Chelsea man that the visitors would have viewed many times on club duty.
Roy Hodgson's men tried to move the ball from back to front quickly from the outset, but they gradually found more joy from a patient build-up involving the speed of Theo Walcott on the right side, with stand-in left-back Stephen Kelly enduring some hairy moments. The ability of certain English players to change the pace, Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular, was a constant menace to Trapattoni's charges, with Coleman the only Irishman capable of offering a similar service.
A stoppage for the injury that brought a premature end to Sturridge's evening slowed the tempo and, while England were on top in the period before the interval, their pressure was hardly relentless, and there was a shout for an Irish penalty in the final seconds when Michael Carrick and Phil Jagielka got their wires crossed as they defended a corner and Keane claimed he was dragged down by Rooney as he sought to sweep up the mess.
Unsurprisingly, the second half was peppered by disruptive substitutions, and England kicked it off with two changes by introducing Phil Jones for the disappointing Johnson and replacing Hart with Ben Foster. Ashley Cole, the captain for the night, was thwarted by a combination of St Ledger and Coleman as the centurion tried to deliver a goal before being promptly replaced by Leighton Baines within nine minutes of the restart.
Trapattoni waited longer to play his hand, a surefire sign of the importance he was placing on the outcome. Simon Cox was his first arrival, coming in for the tiring Keane with 25 minutes remaining, a minute after Forde's outstretched hand had denied Walcott. James McClean and Jeff Hendrick swiftly followed in place of Aiden McGeady and Whelan respectively, with plans to change the system shelved and straight swaps the order of the day. Wes Hoolahan would have to wait, again.
"This was a game for strong, physical players," Trapattoni said, a point he had already proved by sending in Conor Sammon as his final throw of the dice.
It was a younger side that finished the game, though, a point that Trapattoni drilled home afterwards. While McCarthy and Coleman were outstanding, the other youngsters have further to go. Hendrick, a promising player, showed some signs of inexperience, and McClean was also culpable.
But England are not the finished article either with their increasing dominance in possession checked by a shortage of assurance around the Irish box. Oxlade-Chamberlain should have grabbed a winner with seven minutes to go, benefiting from a fortunate ricochet to bear down on Forde. With options to square, he went for glory, and the Galwegian was big and brave, thus snuffing out the danger.
The same qualities then came to the fore as Walcott ghosted in behind McClean and unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a way past the 'keeper.
Ireland stood tall for the dying minutes to claim a draw, and receive the acclaim of their followers.
Belfast Telegraph Digital