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After 637 days of pain and heartache, Ireland's match-winner got his just rewards last night

Having contemplated quitting football not so long ago, Alan Judge enjoyed a moment to savour at the Aviva.

Ireland's Alan Judge celebrates scoring a late goal.
Ireland's Alan Judge celebrates scoring a late goal.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Alan Judge enjoys moment to savour after overcoming career-threatening injury

IN THE 2015-16 campaign, few Irish players if any were in better form for their clubs than Alan Judge.

Despite missing the end-of-season run-in, he finished joint-top of the Championship assists chart in addition to contributing 14 goals for Brentford.

He was one of three nominees for the Championship player of the season and looked to be in a decent position to make Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad.

Yet on 9 April that year, his world was turned upside down. A poor challenge from Ipswich’s Luke Hyam resulted in a broken leg. He would return to action 637 days later, on 6 January 2018, for an FA Cup tie against Notts County, coming off the bench for the final 20 minutes.

Since then, he has appeared 13 times for Brentford — all bar three of those games have been as a substitute and only one has seen him complete 90 minutes.

Therefore, it seems, his recovery remains a work in progress and next season will surely give a better idea as to how close he can come to rediscovering the form of old.

Last night, while not being definitive proof that the 29-year-old Dubliner is back to his best, at least bodes well for the future. Judge made an instant impact having been introduced as a substitute for the dying minutes, avoiding the wrath of an onrushing James McClean, who the former Blackburn player practically stole the ball off as he produced a clinical finish.

Martin O’Neill suggested last night that Judge was close to quitting football owing to his excruciating leg break, and the player himself has expressed similar sentiments in the past.

In December 2016, as Judge was in the process of his recovery, he told The42: “You’d sit there and there were times where I thought: ‘Am I going to come back from this?’ But the more the weeks go on, I know I can definitely come back from this.”

It’s hard to think of a player in recent memory who has celebrated a goal in a friendly more fervently than Judge did last night, but his reaction was no surprise — he knows, better than most, how fleeting and cruel life in football can be and how important it therefore is to savour the good times.

2. John O’Shea waves goodbye

John O'Shea with his wife Yvonne Manning, daughter Ruby and son Alfie Ireland's John O'Shea with his wife Yvonne, daughter Ruby and son Alfie. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was the end of the road for one of the most decorated Irish players of the Premier League era, as John O’Shea represented his country for the 118th and final time on Saturday evening.

Not many players can look back on a career where they earned over 100 caps for their country in addition to being part of a Champions League triumph and gaining five Premier League winners’ medals.

There have been more talented Irish players than O’Shea, but that only makes what he has achieved all the more admirable — the sheer work ethic and professionalism of the Waterford native is a lesson to all youngsters.

It was not the perfect ending, of course — O’Shea would certainly have much rather finished his international career on a high at the World Cup in Russia rather than in front of a half empty stadium in a relatively meaningless friendly.

Nevertheless, he at least got a good send off as he was replaced on 33 minutes by promising 24-year-old centre-back and the first Meath native to represent the Republic of Ireland, Darragh Lenihan, and overall, the 37-year-old veteran can be more than satisfied with his considerable contribution at senior international level for the last 17 years.

3. Declan Rice must now be in the frame for a regular starting spot

Declan Rice Ireland's Declan Rice pictured prior to the game last night. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In three caps for Ireland, Declan Rice has already won two man-of-the-match awards — against Turkey and the US last night.

At 19, many critics would expect him to look nervous and not be entirely comfortable with international football as of yet, but aside from the France game in which the entire Irish team was dire, the opposite has been the case.

The most impressive aspect of the West Ham youngster’s displays has been his composure on the ball — a quality that has been conspicuously absent from a number of Ireland’s performances in recent times (and indeed historically).

There was a crispness and level of ambition to his passing that was so refreshing to watch and which has rarely been seen demonstrated in an Irish central midfield since assistant boss Roy Keane’s retirement from international football in 2005.

There are, of course, a couple of caveats. Rice was playing against a relatively poor US team. Against France last Monday, he was as ordinary as any other player in an Irish jersey.

In addition, there are still aspects of his game he could improve. Particularly in the first half, Rice didn’t dominate the match enough. Too often, when an Irish defender had the ball, he didn’t demand it from them, and Ireland reverted to hopeful long balls instead.

These are elements of the game Rice still has plenty of time to learn about, and it will be interesting to see whether he plays regularly as a midfielder in the long term.

His season at club level would suggest West Ham see centre-back as the teenage star’s best position, even though he has played in midfield for them on occasion.

In contrast, defence is not an area where Ireland are especially short of options as it stands, so it looks increasingly likely that the London-born footballer will be utilised further forward for his country more often than not.

4. Let’s not get too excited, it was a pretty mediocre US team

Alan Judge scores a goal Ireland’s Alan Judge scores a goal. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

After Monday’s morale-sapping defeat by a patently superior French side, there was a degree of renewed optimism following Saturday night’s victory over the US.

Yet just as the Paris defeat was far from the end of the world, last night’s success against a side in marked transition ever since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and with an average age of 23 cannot be regarded as some sort of landmark triumph.

The USA’s starting XI featured three teenagers. And although players such as Tim Weah, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Miazga and Josh Sargent undoubtedly have considerable potential, they have yet to even establish themselves as regulars for their parent clubs.

Combined with those inexperienced youngsters, there were a couple of players such as Rubio Rubin, Tyler Adams, Jorge Villafaña and Wil Trapp who ply their trade in North America, where the standard of football is undoubtedly inferior to the top European leagues.

So while it was nice to see Ireland produce an improved performance and come away with a win, there will be plenty of far sterner tests to come.

5. Graham Burke makes history

It was a night to remember for Graham Burke.

The 24-year-old was clearly desperate to play.

He had missed Shamrock Rovers’ 5-2 loss to Dundalk on Friday in order to be prepared for Saturday night’s game.

And initially, it did not go as well as he might have hoped.

In the first half, Burke cut a peripheral figure as Ireland struggled to create chances.

The ex-Aston Villa youngster had the confidence to volunteer to take corners and free kicks, but nothing was really coming off as the hosts’ attack laboured.

In the second half though, Burke got the break he needed, finding himself in the right place at the right time to help Darragh Lenihan’s effort on its way into the net.

In cancelling out Bobby Wood’s opener, Burke became the first League of Ireland player to score for the Boys in Green since another Shamrock Rovers star, the late Ray Treacy, found the net a little over 40 years ago, as a John Giles-managed team defeated Turkey 4-2 in a friendly.

O’Neill afterwards was non-committal when asked whether Burke had done enough to convince him that he was worthy of a regular spot in the Ireland squad.

It seems likely that the Dubliner will, at the very least, have to keep up his impressive standard of performances at Shamrock Rovers if he is stay in the Irish manager’s thoughts, with players such as Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan expected to return for the next squad.

However, regardless of what happens next, Burke will surely be immensely proud of having scored a landmark goal for his country — a scenario that seemed highly unlikely a little over a year ago, when he was let go by League Two side Notts County.

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Paul Fennessy

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