Thursday 21 March 2019

Decent exercise as O'Neill goes beyond fringe on Celtic return

Alan Browne shoots to score Ireland’s opening goal during Scott Brown’s testimonial match at Celtic Park yesterday
Alan Browne shoots to score Ireland’s opening goal during Scott Brown’s testimonial match at Celtic Park yesterday

When a player in the opposing side is close to his 47th birthday, it's hard to build something up as a case of giving youth its fling.

For Martin O'Neill, yesterday's testimonial at Parkhead against a weakened Celtic side, was a mixed bag, but not a wasted opportunity.

The result, a 2-2 draw with Alan Browne and Callum O'Dowda scoring the Irish goals, was not important.

For the vast majority of a Celtic Park crowd, close to a sell-out, Sunday was (a) about paying tribute to Scott Brown and (b) the Celtic players assembling all three trophies won this season in the same place at the same time.

Even when Martin O'Neill faced the press after the game, there were more questions about the 15th anniversary (today) of Celtic's memorable (though unsuccessful) night in Seville. Scottish football isn't kept up at night wondering about Conor O'Malley, a Peterborough United keeper born in Mayo.

But in giving a run-out to a pair of forwards, Callum Robinson and Graham Burke, O'Neill has, at least, expanded his search for someone who can score goals and is on the right side of 30. Burke and Robinson didn't score, didn't come that close even, but neither the ex-Aston Villa pair or keeper O'Malley froze on the big stage.

"I always think it's a decent enough exercise," O'Neill said after the game, a rare trip back to Parkhead for the former manager.

"I think it was a chance for me to see some players right beside me rather than just watching them from afar.

"I just said to the players beforehand, whether they get the full game, a half-match or 35 or 40 minutes, make every minute count," added O'Neill, pleased with the contribution of Burke and Robinson.

"They've good enthusiasm. They wanted to get on, naturally. Young Burke played on Saturday night (for Shamrock Rovers), flew over, met up with the lads in the dressing room here. That shows you he's enthusiastic about it and certainly didn't want to waste his opportunity. Had he not been played on Saturday night he may well have started."

There was always going to be a pedestrian feeling to this affair. Celtic were in action, less than 24 hours after they'd completed the treble with that Cup final win over Motherwell.

Those who exerted their energy in that game were effectively given the day off: of the starting XI in the final, only one (Brown) started in the testimonial, though the likes of Callum McGregor, Kieran Tierney and Olivier Ntcham came off the bench. The loudest cheer of the day came for that 46-year-old, Henrik Larsson back in Paradise, playing as a second half sub and still showing moves.

It was also hard to expect too much from Ireland. Of the Irish side involved yesterday, seven were getting their first taste of something approaching senior international football, though this was of course a testimonial involving an Ireland XI so no caps are awarded.

Shaun Williams, Conor O'Malley, Callum Robinson and Graham Burke were all in the senior squad for the first time, while Darragh Lenihan, Derrick Williams and Enda Stevens had all been in the squad.

Once the football started, was indeed pedestrian. There was an early sign if life from Ireland when Alan Browne put the Republic ahead after just three minutes, set up by Callum O'Dowda.

Leigh Griffiths pulled off a move which left Darragh Lenihan dazzled mid-way through the first half and while that didn't yield a goal, Griffiths did score just before half time, Alan Browne caught out in a defensive position and Griffiths had an easy finish.

Ireland took the lead again 12 minutes after the restart, O'Dowda's shot hitting the crossbar and then the back of keeper Dorus de Vries before it went over the line.

Celtic had one more goal in them, Patrick Roberts capitalising on an other mistake at the back, this time from Greg Cunningham, everyone happy with the draw.

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