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Friday 20 September 2019

Hard to glean lessons from this

McCarthy's first friendly in his second stint a reminder that their value can't be overstated

Alan Browne celebrates scoring for Ireland in the 3-1 win over Bulgaria
Alan Browne celebrates scoring for Ireland in the 3-1 win over Bulgaria

The intensity was a world away from the meaningful match with Switzerland last Thursday, but a strong finish sent the Irish fans home happy.

Mick McCarthy's first friendly in his second stint in charge offered a reminder that their value should not be overstated.

It will be hard to apply lessons from this match to the away days in Georgia and Switzerland next month.

Still, McCarthy managed to hand new caps to five squad members and subs Jack Byrne and James Collins both made significant contributions to turn a meandering draw into a comfortable victory.

Just 18,259 spectactors were present to watch Byrne's late cameo advertise the belief that the 23-year-old can win many more caps if he continues the revival in his career.

He instigated a brilliant team move that allowed Collins to put the icing on the cake.

Josh Cullen scooped the man-of-the-match award for an impressive 90-minute debut that advertised the longer term potential of the West Ham player - who is currently on loan at Charlton.

It was the second half that really got the crowd going.

This game was a bit of a comedown from the exhilarating victory for the Irish U21 side that finished up in the minutes before kick-off, with modern technology ensuring that the crowd were fully briefed on a stunning success for Stephen Kenny's side in Sweden.

They might have liked to see some of those rising stars here and, in a strange way, Mick McCarthy has actually done his successor a favour by allowing the competitive game to take precedence.

As a consequence, it has further built the anticipation levels around what's coming down the tracks, and left the Irish second string that played here in a slightly unusual position.

If they can't play their way into the side under the current regime, then they might find it a bit harder in the next one, although that doesn't necessarily apply to the likes of Callum O'Dowda and John Egan as they steadily move towards their peak years.

Alan Browne and Cullen are only just starting their journey too, with the latter making his senior debut. He was tidy throughout in a deep lying role. Young goalkeeper Mark Travers was the other newcomer in the starting XI.

The first half was forgettable, with Bulgaria making nine changes from the side that got hammered in England on Sunday and giving a debut to a 37-year-old goalkeeper.

Their glory days of 1994 are a distant memory. It's only a decade since they were second seeds in Giovanni Trapattoni's first qualifying group, but they are bereft of star quality now and their results have plummeted accordingly.

Indeed, their travelling squad included two thirty something Brazilians - Wanderson and Marcelinho that have converted to Bulgaria after a long stint with their domestic champions Ludogorets.

They were benched here, and sat out a low tempo first half where Ireland were allowed to enjoy long periods on the ball.

McCarthy's decision to experiment with Conor Hourihane at left back was a pre-match talking point, but it was impossible to draw any firm conclusions because of the opposition. He didn't look entirely comfortable before being withdrawn during the second half.

Ronan Curtis came in for James McClean, and his direct style suggests they have more in common than their football education, coming through the ranks at Derry City.

He did test Hristo Ivanov with a cross that almost deceived the diminutive stopper.

And that was a battle that would have relevance to the Irish breakthrough after the interval.

Bulgaria had actually resumed smartly and threatened on a number of occasions before Ireland went ahead.

Curtis was the instigator, cutting inside on his right foot before unleashing a shot that was too hot to handle for the hesitant Ivanov with Scott Hogan following up by teeing up Alan Browne for the tap-in.

That was the prompt for McCarthy to mix things up and hand out two more new caps with Shamrock Rovers' Byrne coming in for Alan Judge and Luton's Collins sprung in for Hogan.

For Byrne, it was a sweet moment considering his career was at a crossroads when he came home from Kilmarnock last winter.

By coming on first, the 23-year-old became Ireland's 500th senior international. He had time and space to show his comfort on the ball in this arena.

But it was a mistake from the returning Cyrus Christie that let Bulgaria back in with his poor touch giving the away side the chance to fashion an opportunity with the lively Bozhidar Kraev fouled by Egan in the box. Skipper Ivelin Popov, a sub, smashed away the resultant spot kick.

Kieran O'Hara replaced Travers and there was a danger that the evening would fall flat but Irish players weren't prepared to run down the clock. A period of pressure forced a corner and dead-ball expert Byrne sent in an inviting delivery that was dispatched by the head of Kevin Long for his first Irish goal.

And the best was saved until last as Bulgaria ran out of steam and Byrne masterminded a move that culminated with his clipped pass for overlapping sub Enda Stevens and a first-time cross that was finished by the hard working Collins.

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