Richard Dunne rekindled memories of the legendary Paul McGrath as the Republic of Ireland kept their World Cup dreams alive on Saturday.
The Manchester City defender turned in a superb individual performance in Sofia to lay the foundation for a 1-1 draw which keeps the Republic in the hunt for a top-two Group 8 finish.
Not only did Dunne marshal his defence to keep out a Bulgaria side including Dimitar Berbatov, Stiliyan Petrov and Valeri Bojinov, but he also headed in the opener on 24 minutes.
But once the Bulgarians had levelled when midfielder Dimitar Telkiyski took full advantage of Kevin Kilbane's slip five minutes later, the Irish were forced to hang on for dear life.
Dunne, who had a pain-killing injection in his knee before the game, revelled in his mission as he shepherded Preston's Sean St Ledger through his competitive debut to draw high praise from his team-mates. Captain Robbie Keane said: "Richard has played a lot of superb games, but it was certainly one of his great games, scoring the goal and the whole thing of being injured as well. To get through it, it was reminiscent of Paul McGrath."
Clubmate Shay Given said: "He was fantastic. I've been playing with him now since the end of January at Manchester City. I know he came in for a bit of stick at the start of the season, but since I have been at City, he has been fantastic... He was different class and deservedly man of the match."
Dunne played down his role in a draw which leaves Ireland a point adrift of leaders Italy, but crucially five ahead of Bulgaria with both sides having played one game fewer than Giovanni Trapattoni's men.
Ireland head for Cyprus in September, where it is likely they will need to win to stand a realistic chance of overhauling the Italians to claim automatic qualification. "We know we have to go to Cyprus now and probably get the three points rather than the draw. But if we go there and win that, we know we have got a great chance going into the last two games," said Dunne.
Bulgaria: Ivankov, Milanov, Stoyanov, Tomasic, Kishishev, Angelov, S Petrov, Telkiyski (Dimitrov, 81), Berbatov, M Petrov (Georgiev, 61), Bojinov (Makriev, 59). Substitutes not used: Mihailov, Todorov, Topuzakov, Domovchiyski.
Republic of Ireland: Given (Man City), O'Shea (Man Utd) (Kelly (Birmingham), 82), St Ledger (Preston), Dunne (Man City), Kilbane (Hull), Duff (Newcastle), Whelan (Stoke), Andrews (Blackburn), Hunt (Reading) (McGeady (Celtic), 71), Keane (Tottenham) (Best (Coventry), 74), Folan (Hull). Substitutes not used: Henderson (Preston), Miller (QPR), Keogh (Wolves), Nolan (Preston).
Referee: C Bo Larsen (Denmark)
*World champions Italy crushed Northern Ireland 3-0 in a friendly on Saturday thanks to fine maiden international goals by Giuseppe Rossi, Pasquale Foggia and Sergio Pellissier. The visitors' goalkeeper Jonathan Tuffey saved a Giampaolo Pazzini penalty, the only positive on a tough night for Nigel Worthington's men.
Republic of Ireland's remaining games: Sat 5 Sep Cyprus (a), Sat 10 Oct Italy (h), Wed 14 Oct Montenegro (h)Reuse content