Latvia were the supporting cast as a jubilant Aviva ushered in a new era of Irish football; O'Neill and Keane will have liked what they saw but much tougher tests are to come
By Ronan Murphy
Martin O'Neill could not have hoped for a better start as Republic of Ireland manager. His side dominated from start to finish with slick passing moves built from the back. Goalkeeper Keiren Westwood had little to do and there was not even a trademark long ball that had been commonplace under Giovanni Trapattoni. A new era for Irish international football has begun, but a 3-0 friendly win over Latvia will matter little in the history books.
Steve Staunton's first game in charge of the Boys in Green was a 3-0 win over tougher opposition, with Robbie Keane getting his name on the scoresheet in that match too. Zlatan Ibrahimovic even started for Sweden that night, forcing Shay Given into action early on. Staunton's beginning was heralded as a new dawn, but every Irish fan knows how that turned out.
Staunton's successor Giovanni Trapattoni did an excellent job rebuilding the Irish team, and five years on, Martin O'Neill has a similar task after the disappointing fourth place finish in the World Cup qualifiers. Although it was only Latvia, the Irish players were confident throughout, passing the ball well, and looking like they were enjoying their football - something James McCarthy highlighted after the game.
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The build-up for Shane Long's goal late on was something rarely seen during Trapattoni's tenure, as the players kept the ball down to look for weaknesses in the opposition defence. O'Neill often favoured a battering ram forward as a club manager with Leicester City, Aston Villa, Celtic and Sunderland, but there was no sign of route one at the Aviva Stadium on Friday evening as the Boys in Green kept the play on the ground with simple, but effective passing play.
Much of the build up to the game focused on the man O'Neill has chosen as his second-in-command, former Ireland international Roy Keane. The midfielder is synoymous with some of Ireland's greatest qualifying victories, and he admitted that he believes this current crop of players can repeat those feats.
However, under Brian Kerr, Staunton, and Trapattoni, Ireland failed to take many scalps. "The record hasn't been great over the last few years," Keane said. "From my own experience any time I played for Ireland, and obviously we had some good results. We always felt we had a chance to wn every match we went into, it doesn't always happen of course because you come up against top teams.
"Ireland have played some top teams over the past few years. The Germanys of this world are outstanding. When you look at the likes of Sweden and Austria, I feel like Ireland should always be getting better results. I know Martin will have the same mindset as me that you have to go into every game no matter who you are playing, believing you can get the right result."While Latvia weren't much of a test for the Boys in Green, the match will serve as an excellent confidence booster to the players. They now know they're capable of playing attractive and effective football - something which is crucial to beating the better sides as well as the cannon fodder.
The Poland friendly on Tuesday will provide a sterner test for O'Neill's charges. Like Ireland, the Poles are licking their wounds after a disappointing qualifying campaign. However, Poland are exactly the type of team Keane refers to when he talks about getting better results. They took points off England in qualifying, and held Montenegro to two draws, and will be battling for automatic qualification for the expanded 2016 European Championships.
There are still nine months to go until Ireland play a competitive game under O'Neill, but if the Football Association of Ireland can line up some worthwhile friendlies against strong opposition, then O'Neill's new approach will reap the rewards by the time Euro 2016 qualifying comes around. Latvia was a nice warm-up, but it's time for the real work to start now.