James Collins celebrates his goal. James Crombie/INPHO

Fresh faces make the difference as Ireland eventually see off Bulgaria

Goals from Alan Browne, Kevin Long and James Collins gave McCarthy’s side a deserved win.

Republic of Ireland 3

Bulgaria 1

THE ROADS AROUND the Aviva tonight wore billboards telling us that Guinness, ahead of the Rugby World Cup, were now the Official Partners of Belief. 

Who knew the latest ground the FAI had ceded to rugby was the official licensing of abstract nouns? 

Still, if the FAI want to get on board and do something similar – they might have earned a bit tonight by putting ‘optimism’ out to tender, coupling this win with the U21s’ dazzling showing in Sweden. 

There were five debutants in all – Josh Cullen, Mark Travers, Jack Byrne, Kieran O’Hara, and James Collins – with a trio of first-time scorers: Collins wrapping things up after Kevin Long and Alan Browne had earlier scored.

Plus, this result keeps Ireland unbeaten under McCarthy and tonight they scored three times in a match for the first time since doing so against Uruguay in June, 2017. 

Not that many of these good vibes were on show during the first-half, as Ireland huffed and puffed in trying to break down Bulgaria’s five-man defence with all the deftness of a Boris Johnson riposte at a Westminster despatch box. 

Things improved in the second-half as Bulgaria grew weary and McCarthy emptied his bench. Alan Browne poked in Ireland’s opening goal before the hour-mark, and although their concentration wobbled and allowed Bulgaria an equalising penalty 10 minutes later, goals within a three-minute span by Long and Collins gave Ireland a deserved win. 

McCarthy made 10 changes from the draw with Switzerland, with Conor Hourihane the only player to keep his place if not his position – as was flagged ahead of kick-off, he was given an experimental dalliance with the left-back position. 

Bulgaria, fresh from a 4-0 battering at Wembley, set up to claw back some semblance of dignity by not losing. Hence they set up with a flat back five, another four players parallel ahead of them, and poor Bozhidar Kraev ploughing one of the loneliest furrows this ground has ever seen. 

jack-byrne Jack Byrne in action. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland shuffled about in front of them, and twice Ireland’s centre-halves thoughtlessly hoiked the ball over them and across the end line, to ambient groans. 

There was a muffled pall over a quarter-full Aviva during the first-half; the air dense with a lack of expectation. Ireland’s best chance was a flicked header from inside the box by Alan Judge, having been picked out by Callum O’Dowda. 

Toward the end of the half, Ronan Curtis, growing into the game having taken time to get to grips with its physicality, whipped a ball that narrowly evaded a stooping Hogan. 

Curtis was at the heart of Ireland’s goal four minutes before the hour. Alan Judge’s slightly loose pass in midfield was rescued by some fleet O’Dowda feet, who passed the ball to Curtis on his left. Curtis’ shot was spilled by goalkeeper Hristo Ivanov, with Scott Hogan pouncing and flicking the ball square for Alan Browne, whose first international goal will be the easiest he will ever score. 

Ireland clumsily lost their lead within 10 minutes. Cyrus Christie was robbed of the ball on the edge of his own area, and set off a chain of panic that ended with Egan hauling down Kraev. 

Substitute Ivelin Popov rifled the penalty past Travers. While Ireland had the lead McCarthy gave further debuts to Jack Byrne and James Collins; Shamrock Rovers’ Byrne getting one of the biggest cheers of the night.

Byrne was centrally involved in the goals that gave Ireland victory. First he whipped a corner to the back post for Kevin Long to head to an empty net, after Ivanov went AWOL. 

The corner owed much to Collins’ bustling perseverance in winning it, and three minutes later he doubled Ireland’s lead with one of the most flowing moves of the Mick II Era. 

Byrne pitched a gorgeous pass wide left that sat up like an iron into an Augusta Green for Enda Stevens, whose first-time cross was steered into the roof of the net by Collins. 

This was an opportunity for the fringe players to impress McCarthy, and while little could be gleaned about the Hourihane Experiment – he was untroubled defensively and made few forays forward – Josh Cullen’s industry earned him the Man of the Match award while O’Dowda, Browne, Byrne, and Collins may crowd McCarthy’s thoughts ahead of the critical double-header with Georgia and Switzerland next month. 

You might expect a certain Troy Parrott to be amid that clamour too.  

Republic of Ireland: Mark Travers (Kieran O’Hara, 74′); Cyrus Christie, John Egan (captain), Kevin Long, Conor Hourihane (James McClean 66′); Alan Browne, Josh Cullen, Alan Judge (Jack Byrne, 58′); Callum O’Dowda (Enda Stevens, 74′), Scott Hogan (James Collins (58′), Ronan Curtis (Jeff Hendrick, 83′)

Bulgaria: Hristo Ivanov; Ivan Goranov, Anton Nedyalkov (captain; Vasil Bozikhov, 58′), Kristan Dmitrov (Vasil Panayotov, 79′), Georgi Pashov; Simeon Slavchev, Daniel Mladenov (Kiril Despedov, 66′), Georgi Milanov (Ivelin Popov, HT), Kristyan Malinov (Georgi Terziev, 80′), Nikolay Dmitrov (Wanderson, 58′); Bozhidar Kraev 

Referee: Tobias Welz (Germany)

Attendance: 18,259

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