Will Smallbone (left) gets away from Dominik Szoboszlai. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Will Smallbone shines with a performance of purpose that gets dramatic reward

The Southampton midfielder delivered an excellent assist and how he takes to Premier League next season will be crucial for development.

JOHN O’SHEA ISN’T the only one still under the spotlight.

This was also another audition for Will Smallbone in a senior Republic of Ireland jersey.

On the night of his eighth cap he produced his second assist – the first came on his debut against Latvia in March 2023 – and enough substance in midfield to indicate he will be a regular for whoever the permanent manager is by the time England come to Dublin on 7 September for the opening Nations League game.

The nature of the injury-time winner from Troy Parrott and the sense of sheer joy as Ireland fans danced and bounced their way out of Aviva Stadium after this dramatic 2-1 win means O’Shea is now most certainly in contention for the job.

When Adam Idah powered home a close-range header from Smallbone’s precise cross O’Shea watched from the touchline with his arms folded.

They remained that way for a couple of seconds longer than you might expect, perhaps savouring the moment or simply wondering if it could really have been that simple to break the deadlock against a side that arrived unbeaten in their last 14 games.

That record did not stretch to 15 after Parrott’s winner, and the celebration was far more exuberant as O’Shea was mobbed by the coaching staff on the bench and also got a celebratory slap in the face from captain Seamus Coleman.

The win owes much to man-of-the-match Smallbone.

He provided the injection of pace and purpose that was required in a slow move building on the right side for the opening goal.

Matt Doherty took possession from a Smallbone layoff and there seemed little danger until the 23-year-old decided to carry on his run down the channel rather than simply holding his position square on.

Marton Dardai reacted late to the surge and by the time he attempted to close Smallbone down the ball was delivered beautifully into the six yard box, over the head of Willi Orban, where Idah made no mistake to net his fourth senior international goal.

If you are looking for moments to build on and show how players can affect games in the final third this was a clinical one from Smallbone.

The Premier League awaits next season after promotion via the playoff final with boyhood club Southampton and his development at that level – having got a brief taste of it a few years ago before a cruel ACL injury – will be significant for how Ireland can also compete.

His defensive instincts operating beside Josh Cullen in midfield seemed sound, supporting high when Ireland chose to push on towards the Hungarian defence and also getting into shape further back to ensure the distances and space in the middle of the pitch were not easily exposed.

Hungary’s leveller four minutes after Ireland took the lead was deflating as O’Shea sought to make it to the break with a slender advantage.

Just before the teams did head down the tunnel there was another moment for Smallbone that caught the eye and was an indication of his willingness to take responsibility at a time when it would have been easier to pass it off.

Robbie Brady had the ball by the halfway line on the left side and Idah, as he had done all evening before his substitution on 71 minutes for Michael Obafemi, was a willing runner into the channel if needed.

Smallbone, though, made a 10-yard sprint to offer a square pass into the middle so Ireland could retain possession. He was under pressure from Adam Lang and Dominik Szoboszlai but felt content to receive the ball with the duo closing him down.

adam-idah-celebrates-after-scoring-his-sides-first-goal-with-william-smallbone Adam Idah celebrates his goal with Will Smallbone. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

He used quick feet to shift the ball away from the Liverpool midfielder and then had the acceleration to get away before drawing a foul which led to a free kick in a dangerous area.

Brady delivered the set-piece and Idah couldn’t get a strong enough connection but that basic piece of midfield play from Smallbone is something Ireland know better than most right now can’t be taken for granted.

After the break he was again the pick of the men in the middle for O’Shea. He was drifting aross the park to offer an outlet, giving and receiving passes to keep play ticking, and also mopped up breaking balls in the centre to show he was still switched on to the task at hand.

O’Shea made no bones about the fact that it was to conjure up a victory by any means necessary, which is why he chose to go with experience from the start.

Shane Duffy’s inclusion in the middle of a three-man central defensive unit with Dara O’Shea and Seamus Coleman meant that by 7pm, 45 minutes before kick-off, the name of Jake O’Brien began to trend on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

We had a new scorned prince for those with forlorn hopes of exciting rejuvenation under an interim manager.

A scan of the comments hinted at a strong concentration in the Munster region.

Perhaps the algorithm had churned out the thoughts of those feeling overlooked and underappreciated in Cork.

A dangerous constituency to turn against you. Surely they would have enjoyed that moment at the end, though.

The Youghal native has enjoyed a fine breakthrough season at Lyon in Ligue 1 but, like Celtic’s league and cup winning defender Liam Scales, he had to make do with a place on the bench.

Both were introduced at half time and will no doubt get further experience against Portugal in the final friendly of the season on Tuesday.

A handful more subs were made by both sides before then end and it was telling that O’Shea stuck with Smallbone till the end with Cullen making way for the final 10 minutes.

When the game was won and the players went on a lap of appreciation, O’Shea and Smallbone were arm in arm enjoying the victory.

It was a nice sight and might not be the last we see of it.

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