A WIN was welcome but a win with a clean sheet was even more warmly received, and Ireland defender Stephen Kelly reckons that last night's 3-0 defeat of Algeria in Dublin is a sign that lessons have been learned by the men at the back.
For all the talk about Ireland's defensive style under Giovanni Trapattoni and the Italian way of being very stingy at the back, there has been little evidence of that in the stats in recent times -- before last night's outclassing of Algeria in the RDS, Ireland had kept a clean sheet in just two of the previous 15 games, and at one stage had gone eight games without even one of those shut-outs, as our American cousins like to call a clean sheet.
Algeria offered little threat to Keiren Westwood's goal, bar a well-placed header by Adlene Guedioura seven minutes from time, and sub keeper Joe Murphy -- who was very glad to get a game, his first in seven years so he can finally end talk of being a one-cap wonder -- was hardly troubled by the Algerians in his five minutes of action.
So it wasn't as if Ireland's defence was being tested by wave after wave of attack, but the men at the back did their jobs tidily and efficiently, Sean St Ledger sending out a marker early on with a good, clean tackle to deny Greek-based forward Rafik Djebbour on the half-hour mark and then Darren O'Dea filling in competently as a sub for the injured John O'Shea with only 36 minutes gone.
So while it's very welcome to see Ireland score three goals in a game for the first time under Trapattoni, and also witness Ireland win by a margin other than one goal, also for the first time under the Italian, it's the fact that the boys at the back did their jobs and did it for a full 90 minutes which is most encouraging, according to Stephen Kelly, who looked very accomplished at right back last night.
"It was great to keep a clean sheet against a decent side who are going to the World Cup. Of course the Algerians are still heading to the World Cup and we're not, last night's win won't change anything, but it was a nice boost to our morale to keep a clean sheet against them," Kelly said.
"We did well up front, the lads took their goals well and it was nice to score three, but the clean sheet means a lot to us. I think we made them work hard to try and get anywhere near the goal and we did it well.
"Maybe it's a bit surprising that a team going to the World Cup finals didn't cause us more problems than they did, but I think we deserve credit for that.
"We kept our shape well, we stayed narrow and didn't let them in behind us, we restricted the amount of time they had on the ball and when they did have the ball we pressurised them high up the pitch, we made it very tough for them and we'll draw a lot of confidence from that. I'm sure they will be disappointed with how they played but we should get the credit for the way we played, they way we defended and made that happen.
"And that will do a lot for our confidence levels. We had two good wins now and hopefully we can get another good result from the next friendly, Argentina in August, before the qualifiers start, but it's a good boost to morale."
It was a new-look back four, with Greg Cunningham earning his first cap at left back and then O'Dea coming on as a first-half sub for O'Shea for what was only the Celtic man's second cap. Of course the defensive big guns like Richard Dunne and Kevin Kilbane will come back into the frame for the qualifiers, but Kelly reckons that Ireland's defensive team did themselves no harm last night
"Greg got his debut and he looked very good," says Kelly. "It was a nice, solid performance from the back four, it was a bit harder for us as John had to go off injured early on in the game and we still had a lot to do in the game by then, we were only 1-0 up and could have been caught out, but Darren came in and did well.
"I think the back four worked well as a unit, there was a lot of talking and encouraging going on and we proved we can play a bit," added Kelly.
The Fulham man has now played 18 times for his country and is preparing for his third qualifying campaign but has yet to nail down a slot in the team, and he hopes this week's work in the RDS will assist him in doing so.
"My aim before these two games was to do that, show the manager that I can play for the start and do well," Kelly said.
"I was confident after the Brazil game in March, I had done well in a big game against a very good side and I was keen to build on that. Hopefully I have put myself into the manager's thoughts and staked a claim for a place in the side long-term."