BY CHRIS MCNULTY AT AVIVA STADIUM
MARTIN O’Neill had pressed all the right buttons since his appointment – and his Republic of Ireland team walked the walk to go with the talk on Friday night.
An accomplished 3-0 friendly win over Latvia in Dublin got the Derryman’s reign off to the most perfect of starts.
Robbie Keane, Aiden McGeady and Shane Long hit the goals as Ireland wiped the floor with their Eastern European counterparts.
There was a palpable buzz by the old canal on Friday, certainly greater than what would be around for what usually would be seen as a dead rubber friendly against Latvia.
There was plenty about which to be optimistic, even if it was against a country that has Tajikistan and Kenya for company at 117th in the FIFA rankings.
“I thought that we played well and, thankfully as a defender, we kept a clean sheet,” observed Seamus Coleman.
The Killybegs man gave another assured and, at times, exciting display in the number 2 shirt.
Coleman was the provider for Long’s goal, Ireland’s third. Jonathan Walters’ deft pass in the channel was perfect for the scampering and over-lapping Coleman to centre for Long to convert past Andris Vanins.
Coleman said: “That’s something as a full-back that I like to do – get forward as much as I can. I got forward at a good time, Jon (Walters) played me in and I put it across to Shane for the goal.
“I’m an attacking full-back and I like to get forward as much as I can. You have to pick and choose the right moments – and I did that well tonight.”
The players had just four days’ work with O’Neill and his new assistant manager, Roy Keane, but they have the look of an energised bunch under the regime.
The appointment of Keane has rocketed interest to make it a box office duo. Rarely has the appointment of an assistant manager garnered more headlines than that of his manager.
RTE and TV3 went to the trouble of televising Keane’s press conference last Wednesday.
It is twelve years this month since, during the World Cup play-off from which Ireland qualified for the 2002 finals, an Iranian journalist wondered of Mick McCarthy if his team was ‘the Republic of Ireland or the Republic of Roy Keane’.
The Iranian writer, perhaps, had a point.
The cameras were trained on Keane from the off on Friday night – and he seemed to be genuinely enjoying the role.
He leapt from his seat on the bench and gave a clenched-fist salute when his namesake, Robbie, netted the first goal. A beaming smile accompanied the same salute at the final whistle.
When Martin O’Neill arrived in for his press conference, we wondered, as we do, what Roy had made of it all.
“You will be surprised about Roy and I think you will be pleasantly surprised about him,” O’Neill told us.
“The players have really taken to him and he has been terrific, genuinely terrific around the place, really terrific.”
Coleman concurred with the assessment – and the Everton ace is clearly excited by the prospect of working under them.
He said: “It was very positive and everyone had a spring in the step, trying to impress the two of them.
“It worked well all week and this was an important game for us.
“It might seem like a long way to the Euros, but that’s what we’re aiming for. It’s short-term now, but that’s our goal.
“We’re starting to get the team together now.”
That the evening was kick-started by Robbie Keane was fitting.
Keane’s goal was that typical poacher’s one, instinctive and lethal from six yards out.
The captain’s future is the cause of debate across the country, but Keane prefers to let the figures do the talking.
Friday’s goal was his eighth in nine games for Ireland in 2013. It was his 62nd overall to put him alongside Didier Drogba and the Brazilian Ronaldo at fifteenth on the all-time list.
It seems absurd that a man who is within eight goals of the top ten on that page has his doubters, but c’est la vie.
Keane has evolved from the bouncing teenager brought in by Mick McCarthy into the leader of the pack.
Keane loves playing for Ireland and it is likely that he’ll be around for the next campaign.
It’s unlikely that Ireland will see another goalscorer of his ilk for some time. With another contract verbally agreed at LA Galaxy, he may have to bargain, but he has fought for the cause before.
The skipper had a spark as he spoke after scoring for the fifth permanent Irish manager of his career.
He said: “It’s been a great buzz for the last couple of weeks. Everybody is excited about the changes that have happened, and when you have got two big characters like Roy and Martin involved in the set-up – in any set-up – it’s going to create a massive buzz.
“We are lucky that they are here and we look forward to working with them. This was a stepping-stone in the right direction.
“Winning is a habit, so it’s important. If we had lost the game, everybody is down in the dumps again, so it’s important to give the whole country a lift and we did that.
“There’s no competitive game for 10 months, but I’m sure the manager in that 10 months will be looking at a lot of players and seeing what he feels is best for him and for the team.
“I’m sure he will be doing a lot of homework.”
The night was good all-round. With Greece defeating Romania in the first leg of their play-off, Ireland will – however miraculous it may seem – be second seeds when the draw for thee European qualifying groups are made in February.
“If you tell me that that’s good news for us, I’ll accept it,” said O’Neill.
“I’m obviously happy with that if that’s the case, but I think there will be a lot of teams in the third seeds who will be every bit as strong as we will be.
“But every bit of good news is fine.”
Latvia were obliging opponents here, though.
Ireland completed 91 per cent of their passes and managed 20 shots on goal. Keiren Westwood had just two shots sent his way all night.
McGeady and James McClean (the Three Man of the Match) were in good form on the flanks and James McCarthy gave another hint that he could be that hidden midfield gem we’ve been waiting for since a certain Corkman pulled the pin in 2005.
It won’t always be like this though – and Poland will present sterner questions in Poznan on Tuesday night.
“There will maybe be other nights where we’ll have to play second fiddle in possession,” O’Neill warned. “
The most important thing is that I wanted the players to go and play. We talked about pressing high up the field.
“The reason I was doing that is that I wanted to get the crowd on our side and I thought doing that would be better for players like Hoolahan (right).
“The first goal was very important for us but once we got that I thought we played a little too much in front of them without causing them problems.
“But when we started getting into them again, pressing and passing with a good tempo, we were terrific.”
O’Neill described himself as ‘exhilarated’ and while there are those who will issue cautionary notes, it was a solid end to a solid first week for the new management.
In a certain portion off us, though, there remains the memory of the tenure of Steve Staunton commencing with a three-nil win over no less a side than Sweden.
Coleman shrugged the shoulders.
It wasn’t a night for the negatives as the 37,100 (considerably more than was there for some qualifiers in the previous reign) drifted happily into the Ballsbridge night.
Coleman said: “We all had our own personal jobs to do and we did it. Three goals and a clean sheet – that was a good night.”
Posted: 11:04 pm November 17, 2013