Euro 2024 Qualifier
Republic of Ireland 3-0 Gibraltar
Mikey Johnston changed Ireland’s fortunes as Stephen Kenny’s side beat Gibraltar 3-0 in tonight’s Euro 2024 qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
Stalemate at the break as a nervous-looking Ireland failed to make the breakthrough against the group’s lowest ranked side, however, the introduction of the Celtic winger had an immediate effect as he opened the scoring in the 53rd minute.
Teenage prospect Evan Ferguson then added another six minutes later, before Adam Idah added another in stoppage time, as the Boys in Green finally got their campaign up and running at the third time of asking.
An occasion to remember for Derry native James McClean; captain on the night, the veteran wide-man was presented with his 100th cap by President Michael D Higgins ahead of the game.
And it looked like Kenny’s men were ready to banish their blues immediately as it took just 26 seconds to get the first shot on goal, as Jason Knight got down the right, cut it back perfectly for Jamie McGrath, and while the powerful, controlled shot hit the target, Dayle Coleing was right behind it.
But then, little else from the opening 10 minutes as despite the dominance of possession, Ireland were unable to work the ball into goalscoring opportunities, instead relying on hopeful but ultimately futile deliveries into the box.
James McClean’s 16th-minute corner was asking to be finished as it curled inviting into the six-yard box from the right flank, yet Nathan Collins was unable to make contact, perhaps caught unawares with the ball evading everyone before it reached the back post.
A Dara O’Shea snap-shot followed a minute later, but again it was meat and drink for stopper Coleing.
In the 18th minute, Gavin Bazunu had to be alert to gather as the visitors made their first foray forward, courtesy of a free-kick from midfield; Louis Annesley helping the cross goalwards but the Ireland keeper was never troubled.
A quick counter-attack followed and Knight’s pace up the right was again utilised as he slapped a pacey ball across the face and while Obafemi had matched his charge up the pitch, he could not connect from close range.
Ferguson came to life in the 23rd minute as Ireland enjoyed a decent spell of possession camped inside the Gibraltar final third.
The ball was worked from right to left and when it found the teenage on the edge of the box. The young Brighton striker whipped a stinging shot goalwards, which certainly tested the keeper, who did well to get his body behind the effort.
And then somehow he managed to miss an open goal as he timed his run to the near post to perfection to meet McClean’s ball in from the left in the 30th minute.
The simplest of tasks to nod home from inside the six-yard box with the keeper off his line, but the ball just skimmed off his forehead and drifted well wide of the far post.
Frustration was yet to kick in, however, as the game started its approach towards the break, there would have been an element of anxiety to bring something into the dressing room ahead of the manager’s half-time talk.
McClean was next to miss the target with a misplaced header, while a 39th-minute corner caused trouble with John Egan arriving at the back post, but again Gibraltar were not troubled dealing with the danger.
A shot from distance would hit the target in the 41st minute; however, Josh Cullen’s effort took a deflection en route to goal and it took the pace off the ball.
It took 44 minutes for Ireland to really put together something that could be considered in the creative category, as for the first time, Knight opted to hit the feet of Obafemi instead of charging to the byline, and the striker found his fellow forward Ferguson, who put it on a plate for McGrath sitting just outside the box.
The former Dundalk man struck it sweetly with the outside of his left foot with power and a good element of swerve, however, Coleing was equal to the effort, once again, as he got a strong hand on the ball to help it over the bar.
Three minutes were added at the end, and with the stalemate still present, there was a chorus of booing at the break, albeit without breaking any record decibel levels.
Changes at the break to personnel and formation as Mikey Johnston replaced Nathan Collins as Ireland appeared to employ a flat back four in an attempt to get more bodies forward, with the new man in expected to bring a touch of flair to proceedings.
It took Johnston less than four minutes to make an impact, linking play well along the edge of the box before working a shot at goal, which was deflected for a corner.
Then a handball on the edge of the box in the 51st minute offered Ireland a real opportunity with Will Smallbone setting himself for a strike at goal from an ideal position in the centre of the D.
The curling effort was blocked by the wall, however, the spinning ball sat perfectly for the arriving Johnston who calmly slotted home to grab his first international goal.
Suddenly there was a confidence about Ireland’s play as the reliance on whipping hopeful balls into the box appeared to vanish, while it took Troy Parrott less than two minutes to have an impact after coming on for Obafemi who limped slowly off in the 58th minute.
The young Dubliner slotted into the attacking play seamlessly and one of his first contributions was to slide a perfect ball into the path of Ferguson, who beat the offside trap to gather inside the box.
The striker would ultimately turn back away from goal, however, the next phase saw the ball worked to the left and when it was sent back into the box, it sat up perfectly for the young Meath man.
Ferguson made no mistake on this occasion, and with eyes wide open, arrived into the box unchallenged to guide a firm downward header back across Coleing and into the back of the net.
Parrott would then work a shot on goal in the 66th minute following more fine play around the edge of the box as Ireland looked to put the game to bed, and while that was stopped, the keeper was busy twice more within a minute as he kept another Johnston effort and a curling Cullen shot out.
They say 2-0 is a dangerous lead and Ireland had a sharp intake of breath as McClean dallied on the ball out on the flank before turning back inside to play a ball that put O’Shea under immediate pressure.
The resulting shot was blocked for a corner, thanks to some alert defending, however, the resulting set-piece led to a great chance for Niels Hartman to help the ball on goal, which Bazunu did very well to deal with.
A timely reminder of the Latvia game in March where Ireland let a similar lead slip, which led to a very nervy finish, and it took a few minutes for the home side to gather their composure as the visitors sensed they could apply an element of pressure.
It was Johnston again who would bring back the focus to the Gibraltar goal as he cut in from the left in the 78th minute and whipped a stinging effort just beyond the far post.
McClean had the chance to seal the victory and add to his historic occasion as he found himself in the middle of the penalty area, before he made space to shoot from close range. It looked like the ball would fly into the roof of the net but somehow it was helped over from point-blank range.
McGrath’s near post header crashed off the bar from the resulting corner, and as the game move into the final 10 minutes, Ireland were back on top and seeking out that third goal.
Ferguson’s 82nd-minute header forced another fine save by the busy Gibraltar keeper, and it was his last contribution as Adam Idah was sent on for the final stretch.
The third goal would finally arrive in injury time as Idah connected perfectly with a McClean cross to guide the ball home with a fine header.
Three minutes of added time would elapse, three goals on the scoreboard and three points finally added alongside Ireland’s name in this very tough group, which really steps up a gear in September with games against France and the Netherlands.
Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; Dara O’Shea, John Egan, Nathan Collins (Mikey Johnston HT); Jason Knight (Jeff Hendrick 85), James McClean, Josh Cullen, Will Smallbone (Alan Browne 72), Jamie McGrath; Evan Ferguson (Adam Idah 84), Michael Obafemi (Troy Parrott 58)
Gibraltar: Dayle Coleing, Kian Ronan, Niels Hartman, Jayce Olivero, Roy Chipolina (capt) (Aymen Mouelhi 43); Louie Annesley, Ayoub El Hmidi, Bernardo Lopes; John Sergeant (Tjay De Barr HT), Nicholas Pozo (Ethan Jolley 68), Ethan Britto (Scott Ballantine 73)
Referee: Marian Alexandru Barbu (ROU)