Green shoots of progress as McCarthy’s Ireland see off Georgia


It’s been a strange and anxious transitional period for the Republic of Ireland since they shipped a home lead to Denmark in the second leg of a World Cup qualifying play off game in late 2017, disintegrating to a 5-1 defeat.

Manager Martin O’Neill departed under pressure from fans over the style of football, after a turgid friendly draw with Northern Ireland. Mick McCarthy, back for a second stint at the helm, was appointed, despite having been sacked by Ipswich Town. Town fans were discontent with, of all things, his style of football.

Declan Rice, potentially a star midfield asset, controversially defected to England despite McCarthy’s promises to “build a team around him,” and almost immediately made the team for Ireland’s most bitter rivals.

Ireland, meanwhile, laboured to a 1-0 away win against European minnows Gibraltar in their opening 2020 qualifying game. The same week, the national association’s unpopular CEO was shunted out, only to be given a different job elsewhere in the organisation. With Georgia in town, John Delaney’s continued involvement at the FAI looked likely to prompt protests in the stands. Frankly, it was long past time for some decent football.

And so came Georgia, a team a stronger Ireland outfit would expect to beat comfortably, but this is a struggling side, one that can look like a misfit collection lacking cutting edge, plucked largely from the second tier of English football. One of their star assets, Wolves vibrant winger Matt Doherty, was oddly and conspicuously absent from the starting eleven. It’s at this particular stage of a major tournament qualifying campaign, though, that teams have a right to hope and dream.

Amid a scrappy start, Ireland showed some badly needed purpose. Some bite from Conor Hourihane allowed David McGoldrick to win a corner, and Robbie Brady pinged a shot just wide. James McClean showed his usual frantic hustle, and Seamus Coleman’s sharp break down the right hand side threatened to undo a pressured Georgian defence.

Hourihane – very much the playmaker in the early stages – broke free after a fairly clear foul by Hendrick was somehow overlooked in the middle of the park, and forced a save from Giorgi Loria in the away goal. McGoldrick fired another just wide. After ten minutes, Ireland were looking good, with the Eastern Europeans pinned in full-on defensive formation.

In fact, Georgia briefly looked a bit desperate against the Irish intensity. With first Hourihane and then McClean drawing fouls around the edge of the box, Georgia captain Jaba Kankava’s name was taken for the latter, from which Brady fired over.

From there, things started to fade a touch. Georgia had their first notable attack, winning a corner from which Glenn Whelan was forced to chest the ball off the home goal line. Giorgi Kvilitaia on the right wing looked a threat, and while the Georgians weren’t grabbing much possession, they were clearly technically adept and had a good eye for a pass once the ball’s away from their hoof-happy defensive line.

There was some controversy on 32 minutes when McGoldrick turned last man Guram Kashia, who promptly brought him down, but got only a yellow for his trouble.

Soon afterwards, the inevitable protest at CEO John Delaney came, as fans started firing tennis balls onto the pitch. Around fifty of them covered the Ireland defensive end in yellow blobs as Conor Hourihane was given plenty of time to think as he stood over the free kick. When the whistle blew, the Aston Villa midfielder promptly whipped the ball firmly into the bottom left hand corner to give Ireland a deserved lead, netting his first goal for the national team.

The remainder of the first half was played out in Ireland’s attacking third, aside from a great chance for the visitors that Randolph was forced to palm away from Gvilia at close range. While Ireland’s opponents were a fairly insipid, defensive outfit, this was a marked improvement overall, and the men in green should really have led by more.

The second half saw a flaky start from both teams up until Hendrick had a couple of moments, first slotting home from a fraction of a yard offside after some fine cross-field Irish attacking play, and then conceding the ball in a strong position running at the last defender.

McGoldrick fired wildly over and wide on the break, but Georgia’s increased attacking intent was also clear, something that had given Ireland more space going forward, with Hourihane, McGoldrick and Hendrick pulling the strings.

On a rare foray forward, Kiteishvili fired just over for Georgia, with Enda Stevens failing to connect from the corner of the six yard box from the other end. McGoldrick, whose tireless chasing was quickly endearing him up top, got on the end of a long ball from Coleman to overhit past ‘keeper Loria, and then skim wide from a tight angle.

While Ireland were on top, there was a growing nervousness around the bedpan-shaped Aviva Stadium after 70 minutes, however, especially as Georgia enjoyed their best spell of possession in the entire contest.

McCarthy, to his credit, found an energetic solution in Millwall man Aiden O’Brien, played down right midfield as a foil to energiser bunny McGoldrick. McGoldrick eventually departed to a rapturous reception, replaced by the popular Wolves winger Doherty.

Georgia nearly pulled off the late twist: captain Kankava smashed against the outside of the post from thirty yards, though Randolph in the Ireland goal, a rarely troubled figure, appeared to have it covered. The nerves were palpable in the closing minutes, but Ireland held on.

The early stages of McCarthy’s revolution aren’t spellbinding just yet, then, but they are assured and show a modicum of attacking flair. That’s a marked progression: Ireland looked a composed side that just lacks a little cutting edge. Europe’s elite won’t be quaking in their boots, but after a winter of discontent, nights like this are badly needed. Ireland might just threaten to edge out of Group D and grace the Euros again.


IRELAND: Randolph (gk), Coleman (c), Stevens, Duffy, Keogh, Whelan, Brady (O’Brien, ‘73), McClean, Hendrick, Hourihane, McGoldrick (Doherty ‘81).

Goal: Hourihane ‘35.

GEORGIA: Loria (gk), Kakabadze (Okriashvili ‘85), Khocholava (Kharabadze, ‘65) , Kashia, Kverkvelia, Kvekveskiri, Kankava (c), Kiteishvili, Kvilitala, Arveladze (Qazaishvili, ‘72), Gvilia.


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