It was one of those curious nights when events on the sidelines were always going to be more telling than those on the pitch, but Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane can at least take plenty of encouragement from a statement first win in charge of the Republic of Ireland. The new regime got off to a fine start with a commanding win over Latvia.
The most striking aspect of this appointment, beyond the presence of a man with the profile of Keane and a manager with the CV of O’Neill, is the sense of enthusiasm and excitement around the country’s football again. The end of the Giovanni Trapattoni era was marked by a sense of deflation and almost a disconnect with much of the public.
As if deliberately to perpetuate that sense of kicking on, O’Neill also picked one of the players that the Italian was most criticised for persistently overlooking. Wes Hoolahan started behind Robbie Keane, adding a touch more modernity to the Irish attack, and also an extra early fizz.
Kick-off was greeted by an expectant roar that would not usually be heard for a friendly against the side ranked the ninth-worst in Europe. The team followed with a few exciting early rushes at goal.
On the line, O’Neill was his usual expressive self, which contrasted nicely with Keane’s unmoving “Arsenal glare”.
Not even the former Manchester United midfielder could disguise his delight on 22 minutes, however, as Ireland celebrated the new regime’s first goal. In that regard, some things do not change. It was the evergreen Robbie Keane who hit the last goal of the Trapattoni era, and the No 10 who claimed the first of this one, making it a remarkable 62 in total for the LA Galaxy striker. It also displayed the opportunism typical of so many of those goals, as Keane turned in from close range after James McClean flicked on Aiden McGeady’s corner.
O’Neill arrived out a minute or two late after half-time, not that Keane offered a second glance at that. He would have been pleased with the manner in which Ireland persisted with their more intense attacking play. After 67 minutes, McGeady cut in from the right to fire a fine effort into the bottom corner of the net. Again, the management team were jumping out of their seats with joy.
The team themselves were flowing with a much greater freedom towards the end, and this was never more evident than for the thrilling third goal. McClean surged forward and fed the overlapping Seamus Coleman, who himself slid the ball across goal for substitute Shane Long to strike.
By that point, O’Neill and Keane were laughing alongside each other. The hope for Ireland is that it stays way. This was a fine first impression.
Republic of Ireland (4-4-1-1): Westwood; Coleman, O’Shea, Wilson, Ward; McGeady (Reid, 73), McCarthy (Doyle, 81), Whelan (Green, 81), McClean (Stokes, 81); Hoolahan (Long, 73); Keane (Walters, 73).
Latvia (5-3-2): Vanins; Gabovs, Bulvitis, Gorkss, Maksimenko, Rode; Laizans (Sinelnikovs, 72), Rugins (Fertovs, 26), Lazdins; Sebala (Turkovs, 62), Verpakovskis (Visnakovs, h-t).
Referee A Ekberg (Sweden).