Football: McGrath cements his place in Irish hearts: Charlton's men quick to quell Latvian resistance

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Latvia. . . . . . . . 0

Republic of Ireland. .2

THE Republic of Ireland made it two down and one to go on their east European summer hike as they secured a comfortable victory here yesterday that restored them to a position as joint leaders of their World Cup qualifying group.

A point in the neighbouring Baltic state of Lithuania next week will put Jack Charlton's team on top and bring USA '94 more sharply into focus. Of course, no serious World Cup aspirants could envisage losing in Riga but, significantly, Ireland's two rivals for the qualifying places, Spain and Denmark, were both held 0-0 here.

Appropriately, Paul McGrath, who went AWOL before the journey to Albania a fortnight ago, supplied one of the goals and his inclusion ensured that the Irish looked far more compact defensively than in Tirana.

He struck two minutes before the end of a first half that had posed them few worries and which should have seen them build further on their country's 400th goal in all internationals, which was John Aldridge's distinguishing achievement after 14 minutes.

Of course, the standard of opposition does not stand comparison with Norway, but while England flounder in a sea of confusion and mediocrity, Ireland know instinctively what they have to do and carry out the instructions of their manager to the letter.

The system remains the same regardless of the opposition: this manager does not go in for changing players and messing with tactics. He has been loyal to Aldridge and the decision paid of handsomely in the Daugava Stadium. Roy Keane and Dennis Irwin contrived the kind of combination Alex Ferguson would like to harness for Manchester United next season and there was the Tranmere striker, who had bagged a hat- trick in the first game between the teams last September, when the cross came in.

McGrath always seemed to be the one tidying up on those rare occasions when a Latvian team still searching for their first win in the group posed a threat. His one contribution in an attacking sense was equally decisive as he applied the finishing touch to a move that involved all the Aston Villa members of the team.

Steve Staunton's free-kick went short to Ray Houghton, who found McGrath unmarked for a downward header. Oh that international football could be that simple every time]

The goal provoked a spontaneous outpouring of joy among the Irish management and substitutes, as much for the identity of the scorer as the impact it would have on this tie. Despite provoking Charlton's wrath with his disappearing act, the way McGrath has been welcomed back to the Irish family shows the esteem in which he is held. Charlton said of the central defender: 'He was voted the best player in England this season and you don't dump a player of that quality that easily.'

A minute before that, from a Staunton corner, Niall Quinn, who was doubtful before the start with a stomach problem, struck a post and Andy Townsend and Keane were similarly denied after the interval as they continued to carve apart their hosts at will.

LATVIA: Karavajevs (OFK Belgrade); Erglis (RAF Jelgava), Sevlakovs (Ilves Tampere), Ivanovs (RAF Jelgava), Gnedojs (Skonto Riga), Popkovs (Visby IF), Sarando (Olimpija Liepaja), Astafjevs (Skonto Riga), Bulders (Kiruna FF), Linards (Orebro), Babicevs (RAF Jelgava). Substitutes: Jelisejevs (Skonto Riga) for Babicevs, h/t; Gorjacilovs (Metallurg Zaporozhe) for Sarando, 55.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester United), Phelan (Manchester City), Townsend (Chelsea), McGrath (Aston Villa), Kernaghan (Middlesbrough), Houghton (Aston Villa), Keane (Nottingham Forest), Quinn (Manchester City), Aldridge (Tranmere Rovers), Staunton (Aston Villa). Substitutes: Cascarino (Chelsea) for Quinn, 73; Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday) for Aldridge, 81.

Referee: D Jol (Netherlands).