Kilbane joins leading lights of Ireland's new era

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The Independent Online

Every encounter for the Republic of Ireland, at present, is unearthing a nugget. Against Canada last autumn it was the emergence of Nottingham Forest's Andy Reid, against Brazil last month it was confirmation that Newcastle United's Andy O'Brien can make the grade - and in defeating the Czech Republic it was a collective belief that a new era is, finally, dawning.

Every encounter for the Republic of Ireland, at present, is unearthing a nugget. Against Canada last autumn it was the emergence of Nottingham Forest's Andy Reid, against Brazil last month it was confirmation that Newcastle United's Andy O'Brien can make the grade ­ and in defeating the Czech Republic it was a collective belief that a new era is, finally, dawning.

Even within that there were individual marks ­ beyond the effervescent brilliance of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. Kevin Kilbane showed he can be a hard-running central midfielder. Just ask Pavel Nedved. Seven minutes into Wednesday's match and the European Player of the Year was wrestled to the ground. He looked perplexed. But then again the Irish don't do friendlies.

For the manager, Brian Kerr, there is the knowledge that if he now so wishes he can accelerate the hitherto cautious rebuilding of the national team. Youth can be given its head. There are murmurs of discontent in the camp ­ older players apparently not so enchanted by the regime ­ but few will be mourned.

In his triumvirate of Keane, Reid and above all Duff, he has performers for the higher stage. In the debutant Liam Miller ­ bound for Manchester United ­ he has another who looks the part along with his soon-to-be club team-mate John O'Shea. The pair may eventually find themselves together in midfield.

In theory Kerr could comfortably field a first-choice team with just four players ­ Shay Given, Stephen Carr and Kilbane, all 27, and the 32-year-old Kenny Cunningham ­ much over 24. Little wonder Duff, just turned 25, has suddenly taken on the air of an elder statesman.

Unusually he felt comfortable in passing judgement on the 2-1 win against the still impressive Czechs, who arrived in Dublin with the longest unbeaten run in European football, 20 games, and a burgeoning, well-founded reputation as the world's sixth-ranked nation. "A great result," Duff said. "But then I think we're capable of beating anyone who comes to Lansdowne [Road] and we thoroughly deserved this win. I think it would have been a sin if they'd got the draw, we created a lot of chances all night and played really well ­ the best we've played in a fair while. Great to see Robbie get the winner, moving closer to the record." Now, with 19 goals, Keane is just two behind Niall Quinn on Ireland's all-time goalscorers' list.

"I think we're building something good here, I hope so anyway," Duff added. "It's a young squad, and there were a couple more debuts. It was great to see Liam Miller come in. I think he'll be a great player for Ireland and for Manchester United as well." Duff also pointed to Kilbane and Reid, with whom he switched wings on occasion.

Kerr has found the balance he has lacked with, curiously, three left-footed players in midfield. He highlighted Keane ­ "some of the stuff he did was just at a different level" ­ but he could easily have been referring to Duff or Reid. Ireland, so sterile towards the end of the European qualifiers, were potent throughout.

"We struggled a bit towards the end of the Euro 2004 campaign ­ I don't know why, maybe it was pressure," Duff admitted. "But now we can't wait for the World Cup qualifiers to start." Kerr is not so eager to play for points just yet and it irks him that the one defeat so far in his 13-match reign was the one that mattered ­ away to Switzerland. Ireland will have to overcome the same opponents if they are to make it to Germany in 2006 and, more dauntingly, France also lie in the same group.

Nevertheless he will be emboldened that the encouraging goalless draw against Brazil was not a mirage. Kerr, a circumspect man, knows problems persist ­ not least in who to partner Keane and, as ever, someone to provide midfield ballast. He will also fret that Irish expectations are again starting to soar.

Before the qualifiers Kerr has crammed in three more matches ­ away to Poland, home to Romania and away to the Netherlands ­ and wants two more, in London, probably against Jamaica and Nigeria. Then there is a summer tour to the United States. His work ethic is prodigious. But then again, as the Czechs found out, Ireland don't do friendlies.

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