When Brian Kerr was chosen as the Republic of Ireland's manager, there was much trepidation. His track record, although impressive, was, to be honest, in youth football. But it was from those often obscure, often undervalued, days that Damien Duff emerged. He has been Kerr's talisman ever since, and proved to be again last night.
A winning goal and an eye-catching performance in an altered role was enough to administer further balm to the self-inflicted wounds opened in Dublin last autumn, the last time the Irish had played at home, when they lost to Switzerland.
That match set in train events that led to Mick McCarthy's departure and Kerr's arrival. Milo Corcoran, the President of the Football Association of Ireland, yesterday chose to castigate those fans who had abused the team, and called McCarthy the country's most successful manager. Early days but Kerr, with three wins, one draw, and just one goal conceded, is already set on challenging that.
The backdrop led to a curious atmosphere last night. Friendlies are usually distracting and before kick-off attention wandered to Russia losing 1-0 to Georgia. It meant that the Irish now share the basement of their qualifying group for Euro 2004. However, it was also a cause for celebration, more so even than this win, as it tightened things up further in Group 10. With three home qualifiers to come, destiny for the Irish is in their own hands.
"It's a wonderful result for us, I'm absolutely delighted,' said Kerr, referring to the events in Tbilisi rather than those at Lansdowne Road. He was also happy with his own side's victory, of course. "It was a relief to win,' Kerr said of his first home game.
The win was impressive, even if the Norwegians, easily heading their own tough qualification group incidentally, were disappointing. Their tactics were summed up rather succinctly by Shay Given, the Irish goalkeeper, winning his 50th cap. "You have to be 6ft 4in to play for them, I think," he said.
Therefore Ireland tried to play around them with Duff reprising a position his manager and mentor first fashioned for him at Under-18 level – just behind the two main strikers. He was to be a fount of creativity. "I enjoyed my new role but it was very congested in their half," Duff said afterwards.
As with Kerr's tenure so far, the Irish got off to a comforting start. Two shots from distance by Robbie Keane were easily fielded before the Tottenham Hotspur striker broke, laid the ball back to Stephen Carr and a deep cross was thumped in by Duff in the 17th minute after his header had struck a defender.
It was the first goal the Irish had scored against Norway in six, often attritional, meetings and they almost added to that when Duff tricked himself into space and found Mark Kinsella, whose hooked volley was pushed away.
Kerr resisted making changes at half-time. He wanted to win. It was the indefatigable Keane, picking the ball up deep in midfield, who again found Carr. His cross was mis-hit by David Connolly only for the full-back to crash a shot against the crossbar. He was offside, however.
The main concern was, indeed, the Norwegians' threat from set pieces and, after John Carew's header went awry, Oyvind Leonhardsen was also wayward with a half-volley. Then a clear header by Brede Hangeland was palmed down by the substitute goalkeeper, Nicky Colgan. The Hibernian player, suddenly second choice after Dean Kiely's retirement, then reacted quickly to another corner to beat out Tore Andre Flo's shot but the impetus was still with those in green – as it has been ever since Kerr arrived.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-3-1-2): Given (Newcastle Utd); Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Breen (West Ham Utd), Dunne (Manchester City), Harte (Leeds Utd); Kilbane (Sunderland), Kinsella (Aston Villa), Holland (Ipswich Town); Duff (Blackburn Rovers); Connolly (Wimbledon), Keane (Tottenham Hotspur). Substitutes: Finnan (Fulham) for Harte, 60; Colgan (Hibernian) for Given, 60; Carsley (Everton) for Kinsella, 65; Healey (Celtic) for Duff, 73; Lee (Rotherham) for Connolly, 73; Quinn (Sheffield Wednesday) for Kilbane, 86; Crowe (Bohemians) for Keane, 90.
NORWAY (4-5-1): Olsen (Viking Stavager); Basma (Rosenborg Trondheim), R Johnsen (Aston Villa), Hangeland (Viking Stavanger), Bergdolmo (Ajax); Carew (Valencia), Svindal Larsen (Nuremberg), Leonhardsen (Aston Villa), Andersen (Wimbledon), Iversen (Tottenham Hotspur); Rushfeld (Austria Vienna). Substitutes: Holtan (Odd Grenland) for Olsen, h-t; Hansen (Arminia Bielefeld) for Johnsen, h-t; Flo (Sunderland) for Rushfeld, h-t; Aas (Odd Grenland) for Basma, 56. Rudi (Beerschot) for Iversen, 64; F Johnsen (Rosenborg Trondheim) for Andersen, 90.
Referee: M McCurry (Scotland).
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