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Old boss works magic in Irish revival

Republic of Ireland 1 Georgia 0

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Republic of Ireland players celebrate after Conor Hourihane’s goal during last night’s UEFA Euro 2020 Group D qualifying clash against Georgia at the Aviva Stadium

Republic of Ireland players celebrate after Conor Hourihane’s goal during last night’s UEFA Euro 2020 Group D qualifying clash against Georgia at the Aviva Stadium

SPORTSFILE

Conor Hourihane curls his EURO 2020 free kick to the Georgia net

Conor Hourihane curls his EURO 2020 free kick to the Georgia net

SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland players celebrate after Conor Hourihane’s goal during last night’s UEFA Euro 2020 Group D qualifying clash against Georgia at the Aviva Stadium

For now, at least, the grimace is gone and the smile is back on the face of the Republic of Ireland team.

And in the week that singer Scott Walker died, watching Ireland play, play well against, and beat Georgia in Dublin last night, the title of one of his hits came to mind: The Old Man's Back Again.

Mick McCarthy, now aged 60, and it was 17 years since he last stood at Lansdowne Road for Amhrán na bhFiann. Last night was a big test of him, if the Barnsley boy was a busted flush or could revive the fortunes of this team.

Bigger tests await but early evidence is good, and the fact that McCarthy could coax a top-class display out of Jeff Hendrick, a player who more than most seemed weighed down with the baggage of the late-era Martin O'Neill side bodes well.

Sideshow

The sideshow of a protest by Ireland fans, who delayed the game just before Conor Hourihane's first-half goal by throwing tennis balls on the pitch, shows that all ills have not been cured, and while fans will disagree on whether it was right to stage a protest during an important qualifier, Irish football's bosses and board surely took note of the volume of songs directed at John Delaney and the FAI.

Whatever about the weight of 100 tennis balls on the field, the play we saw there was impressive, Ireland looking unrecognisable from the side which went four games without a goal recently.

"Ireland are battering us in midfield" read a tweet from the official account of the Georgian FA late in the first half, a change of circumstances as so often in their past meetings, Georgia had dominated possession, and the midfield area, when they played the boys in green.

Ireland looked good against Georgia, for a change, now the task is to keep that smile in place.

Tension had hung around the Ireland side for most of the previous 16 months, precious little joy since the 5-1 loss at home to Denmark in the World Cup play-off. And while Saturday's 1-0 win away to Gibraltar was, as a football occasion, truly awful, the win did at least inject some adrenaline into a side which appeared to be on life support for those grim months when the Martin O'Neill era needed to be put out of its misery.

Yes, there is more work to be done. Once again, Ireland needed the assistance of 'keeper Darren Randolph to keep things the way they wanted them, the Wicklow native making a save to deny Polish-based striker Valerian Gvilia in first half injury-time while the post kept out a late strike from Jaba Kankava, so the night was not blemish-free.

But the sight of Switzerland throwing away a 3-0 lead to only draw at home (3-3) to Denmark last night shows this group could open up and will not be a Swiss stroll. But as McCarthy has said, eight 1-0 wins will be enough to secure qualification. He's 25 per cent of the way there.

Much of the pre-match talk was about Hendrick: his struggles to repeat the form he showed at Euro 2016 and the potential he has now, at the age of 27, to go from being peripheral to central.

And he did that last night, Hendrick at the heart of most of the good things.

In the tenth minute we had a real sign of intent from Hendrick, as his tough - but fair - tackle in the middle of the park won possession.

There was a composure about Ireland even from the early stages while Georgia lacked the confidence they'd previously shown in games against Ireland, two players from the away side booked in the first half.

And it was one of those Georgian fouls and bookings which teed up the Ireland goal, Guram Kashia cautioned by the Dutch referee for a foul on McGoldrick.

We did of course have that drama, the free kick delayed by the actions of the home supporters who threw tennis balls onto the field, their protest at the current regime of the FAI.

The timing of their action was significant, the 33rd minute in all likelihood selected as a protest at John Delaney's suggestion that Ireland be admitted to the 2010 World Cup finals as the 33rd team.

Once the tennis balls were cleared, all eyes fell on Hourihane and the Cork native, who had struggled with the adjustment to international football from the club game, didn't disappoint, striking home a superb set piece.

It was all going McCarthy's way but it was not all one-way traffic, a danger from Georgia in first half injury time with that Gvilia effort which Randolph saved.

Ireland didn't trouble 'keeper Giorgi Loria all that much after that, though McGoldrick was denied a penalty after a foul by Solomon Kvirkvelia on 65 minutes. Around the 70 minute mark, Georgia found some gumption and began to press but while it was nervy when Kankava stuck the post late on, Ireland had done enough to finally outwit as well as simply beat Georgia.


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