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A proud night for the son of a Kerry GAA legend and more Ireland-Iceland talking points

John Egan was one of four Ireland debutants last night, with Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Conor Hourihane also making their international bows.

John Egan made his senior Ireland debut last night.
John Egan made his senior Ireland debut last night.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. A proud night for John Egan 

MARTIN O’NEILL AND John Egan go back a long way.

The pair first encountered one another when both were at Sunderland — O’Neill as manager and Egan as a promising youth team player.

When the Cork-born defender was just 19, O’Neill gave him a squad number and played him in the club’s pre-season tour of South Korea ahead of the 2012-13 Premier League campaign.

When Egan broke his leg in two places during a loan spell at Bradford, the Derry native was one of the first people to visit him in hospital.

In addition, one of O’Neill’s last acts as Sunderland manager before getting sacked was to hand Egan a contract extension.

“If heart and desire are anything to go on, John will cakewalk his career,” O’Neill said almost four years ago to the day. “I gave him a squad number in the first-team at the start of last season, almost as much for attitude as anything else. He’s got a fantastic attitude to do really well.”

Unfortunately for Egan, O’Neill’s successor at Sunderland, Gus Poyet, failed to take as much of a shine to him and it wasn’t long before the Cork native was shown the exit door at the Stadium of Light.

Yet whereas so many young Irish footballers never get over failing to make the grade with a Premier League side, Egan had the resolve to recover from this setback.

In his first full season with Gillingham, he played in all but one of their matches and was named the club’s Player of the Year. Last season, he continued to excel, earning in a place PFA League One team of the season.

After joining Brentford in the summer, he has already established himself as a key figure and fan favourite at the club, recently signing a contract extension to boot with the Bees, who are currently 14th in the Championship.

Last night saw him link back up with old friends Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, both of whom he played with and against in his younger days. Egan and Hendrick were both part of the Irish U19 team that reached the semi-finals of the 2011 UEFA European U19 Championship. The trio, along with Cyrus Christie and Daryl Horgan, were part of a strong contingent of 1992-born Irish players to feature last night. The quintet’s progression through the ranks provides hope that the future of Irish football will not be as gloomy as many have predicted.

Indeed, Egan has rarely been one for negativity. Asked about his international prospects in an interview with The42 last year, the-then Gillingham player sounded confident.

I’ve had a good season — I’m happy with my form,” he said. “I believe in my ability to go on and do it at a higher level and so hopefully, I can break into the Ireland team.

“But I need to get myself to that stage and that platform first, and if I’m producing the goods on the pitch, stuff like that will follow. So I’ll have to keep my head down and keep doing well on the pitch.”

Last night, he finally fulfilled a lifelong dream, though his senior international bow was not perfect. Within two minutes, Egan had drawn blood after a nasty elbow from striker Kjartan Henry Finnbogason, but this incident wasn’t going to spoil a momentous night.

The 24-year-old also will have been disappointed at conceding a needless free-kick from which Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson curled home the game’s only goal, but otherwise looked solid in what O’Neill — once again a key figure amid a seminal occasion in Egan’s career – described afterwards as a “fine” performance.

The son of the late John Egan Senior — a Kerry GAA legend and winner of six All-Ireland medals and nine Munster titles, and who captained the side that narrowly lost out to Offaly in the famous 1982 five-in-a-row final, the young centre-back was in reflective mood after playing the first 64 minutes against Iceland.

He would have been proud, tonight’s a night you’d miss him a bit more because you would have loved to see him here,” he said of his father. “The rest of my family were here and I think they enjoyed it.”

2. Ireland’s attacking deficiencies a cause for concern

Kevin Doyle dejected Kevin Doyle suffered from a lack of service in attack. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s been a mixed week for Ireland and Martin O’Neill. Last Friday, they earned what could turn out to be a crucial World Cup qualifying point against Wales, but all that was overshadowed by the broken leg which captain Seamus Coleman suffered.

Similarly last night, there were positives in the fact that O’Neill had a chance to give fringe members of the squad some invaluable experience at international level, with a few — most notably Daryl Horgan — showing flashes of promise, while the former Dundalk player’s fellow Ireland debutants Conor Hourihane, John Egan and Andy Boyle also acquitted themselves relatively well.

Yet overall, it was a poor enough performance from the Irish side against a similarly understrength Iceland outfit. Yes, it was only a friendly, but there were familiar problems for the side.

In 180 minutes during their two games this week, the Boys in Green managed a paltry total of two shots on target. On both occasions, they didn’t ever really look capable of scoring, despite all their admirable endeavour and impressive defensive organisation.

It is consequently the backline that remains this Irish side’s key asset. Some of the Europe’s most highly rated sides — Italy, Germany, Wales, Austria and Bosnia — have all failed to score in games against Martin O’Neill’s men. Only once — the decidedly below-par Belgium match at Euro 2016 — have they conceded more than two goals in a single competitive match.

The team have been less successful down the other end of the field, however. In their World Cup qualifying group, Ireland have managed just seven goals in five games — only Georgia and Moldova have a worse record. It was a similar story in their Euro 2016 qualifying group, with only Georgia and Gibraltar managing less goals.

Moreover, if you exclude matches against Gibraltar, the 3-1 victory over Moldova last October was the first time a Martin O’Neill-managed Irish side had scored more than two goals in a competitive fixture.

Another issue of late has been the conspicuous absence of a certain individual. At the FAI awards the other week, it was noticeable that of Ireland’s three goal-of-the-year nominees, one was scored by Hoolahan while the other two were set up by the Norwich man.

The ex-Shelbourne player may give the ball away more often than others in the side, as was patently evident in the aforementioned Moldova game where he also had a major hand in two of the goals, but what separates the 34-year-old from most of his teammates is his commitment to taking risks in possession. His tendency to concede possession on occasion is more noticeable because he is always trying to do something clever. All too often last night, Ireland’s players took the safe option of a sideways pass or a punt up the middle. These conservative decisions won’t attract groans from the crowd in the same way as an unsuccessful dribble or inaccurate through ball will, but in matches where the Dubliner attempts such audacious feats, invariably at least a couple do come off.

And just as vital as Hoolahan’s assists is his tendency to make those around him play better. Having one player who desperately wants the ball all the time can bring others out of their shell. But without the Dubliner, who will be 36 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, Ireland for the most part lacked the confidence to play through midfield against both Wales and Iceland.

Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane, last night, seldom demanded a pass, even in the fairly laidback circumstances of a friendly. As a consequence, the ball continually sailed over their head as attack after toothless attack petered out in dispiriting fashion, with Kevin Doyle and subsequently Shane Long not getting much joy out of a resolute Icelandic backline.

Elsewhere in the team, despite his admirable work ethic and explosive pace, James McClean never really looked totally comfortable as a makeshift second striker, and it seems unlikely that O’Neill will persist with this experiment in the long-term.

Man-of-the-match Robbie Brady, meanwhile, was arguably Ireland’s brightest player going forward, and the Ireland boss suggested in his post-match press conference that he would ideally have liked to play the Burnley star in a more advanced role. Unfortunately though, the 65-year-old coach was hamstrung by a lack of alternatives at left-back, with first-choice Stephen Ward presumably tired after playing the full 90 minutes against Wales the other night.

O’Neill also conceded afterwards that Ireland’s attacking ineptitude was an issue.

First of all, first half, we didn’t do well at all,” the Ireland boss admitted. “The second half, I thought we had loads of possession. But you’re right — creating some clear-cut chances is something we have to try to do better.”

3. Inconsistent Aiden McGeady continues to frustrate

Aiden McGeady Aiden McGeady has impressed for Preston recently but struggled to make an impact for Ireland last night. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Aiden McGeady has done remarkably well in recent weeks, as recognition in the form of his recent Championship player-of-the-month award underlines.

On Tuesday, however, the winger had a bad day at the office.

Last June, after a pre-Euro 2016 friendly with Belarus, Roy Keane infamously said of McGeady: “He can do a lot better but maybe that’s the story of Aiden’s career.”

Those words could have applied last night as well. Every time the 30-year-old got the ball, there was a sense of hope and expectation audible among the 37,000 people who attended the Aviva Stadium, and only in that sense was it reminiscent of past days in Dublin when another talented winger, Damien Duff, regularly tormented defenders.

McGeady was not short of tricks, as usual, and he clearly had the beating of his marker, but every time the former Celtic star found space, the final ball in was poor.

When Preston teammate Daryl Horgan came on, the difference compared to McGeady was noticeable. Instead of tame, lofted crosses that were easily cleared or dealt with by the goalkeeper, Horgan drilled balls in that created a genuine sense of panic in the visitors’ defence, even if they didn’t always pick out a green shirt.

McGeady deserves to be cut some slack on account his excellent form at Championship level, but while the stakes were reasonably low, last night still felt like a missed opportunity for the talented winger to prove that he still has a major role to play in this Irish team.

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Paul Fennessy

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