THREE INTERNATIONAL FRIENDLY
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0
By Daire Walsh
A first-half goal from Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson was the difference between the teams in this drab Three International Friendly at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, when the Republic of Ireland suffered their first-ever defeat to Iceland.
As is often the case in the current international climate, this game was seen as an ideal opportunity for Martin O’Neill to experiment with his starting line-up. From the 11 that were selected for last Friday’s scoreless encounter with Wales, only Jeff Hendrick and James McClean retained their places for the visit of Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side.
Cyrus Christie (who replaced Seamus Coleman following his season-ending injury four days ago) and Aiden McGeady were aiming to build on their cameo appearances against the Welsh, while Robbie Brady returned from his competitive suspension to captain the team at left-back.
Alongside the Burnley star and Christie in the back-four were Alex Pearce and debutant John Egan – a son of the late Kerry GAA legend of the same name. Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane was also making his international bow in a midfield quartet that included highly-rated Aberdeen winger Jonathan Hayes.
With striking options limited, McClean was deployed in a central attacking role, and he was joined in the front-line by Kevin Doyle – whose most recent outing in an Irish shirt was the 1-0 victory over Switzerland 12 months ago.
With 33 league starts under his belt since his summer move from Gillingham, Brentford’s Egan fully merited his elevation to the senior set-up on this occasion. He briefly left the field for treatment in the early stages, before eventually returning with a large head bandage.
He was eager to make an impression in the sparsely-populated Ballsbridge venue, but he played an unwanted role in Iceland’s breakthrough goal on the stroke of 20 minutes. He was booked for a foul on Icelandic striker Kjartan Henry Finnbogason, and the subsequent free-kick from 25 yards was superbly curled into the bottom right-hand corner by Bristol City’s Magnusson.
This was a wake-up call for Ireland – after a fairly lifeless opening from both sides – and even though they attempted to bring Brady and McGeady into the play as much as possible, the well-organised away defence ensured that chances remained limited for the Irish attack.
Doyle headed an enticing left-wing cross by McClean past the far post on 36 minutes, but Finnbogason had earlier dragged a shot off-target for the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists.
Ireland were seeking to increase their unbeaten run against Iceland to eight games, and in their most recent meeting back in September 1997 (a FIFA World Cup 1998 qualifying tie), they recovered from a one-goal deficit to ultimately secure a 4-2 win.
Current assistant manager Roy Keane claimed two goals in that outing, but although his fellow Cork native Hourihane was showing well in the middle-third, Ogmudur Kristinsson’s net remained unbreached at the midway stage.
The sides were unchanged when the action resumed, but in the opening moments of the second period, Ireland did their best to increase the overall tempo of their play. They had a number of fine deliveries from the flanks by Brady, Hayes and McClean, but the imposing Icelandic rearguard were alive to any threat that Ireland might pose in the air.
Skipper Aron Einar Gunnarsson (a regular fixture in the English Premiership and Championship with Cardiff City in recent years) fired over the Irish goal with a long-range volley in the 55th-minute, but in comparison to the ferocious physicality of the Welsh game, this was proving to be a relatively tame affair.
If Ireland were to conjure up an equaliser, they needed a spark from somewhere – and a quadruple substitution on 63 minutes drastically altered the outlook of the side. The central midfield pairing of Hourihane and Hendrick made way for Eunan O’Kane and Stephen Gleeson (who picked up two caps under Steve Staunton in 2007) respectively, but the biggest ovation of the night was for the introduction of former Dundalk duo Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan.
Both players have transferred to Preston North End since featuring for the Lilywhites in their FAI Cup defeat to Cork City at the Aviva last November, but they joined Hourihane and Egan – who Boyle replaced – as international first-timers in this game.
Heading towards the final-quarter, Ireland were trying to force Iceland on the back-foot, and Sverir Ingi Ingason was cautioned for a late challenge on the raiding McClean. Shane Long and Callum O’Dowda (a team-mate of Magnusson at Bristol) subsequently entered the fray with 17 minutes remaining, as Ireland negotiated a final onslaught on the Icelandic goal.
Their Scandinavian counterparts ran down the clock with some smart substitutions in the dying stages, however, and although Boyle got his head to a long throw deep into second-half stoppage-time, it was comfortably stopped by Hammarby netminder Kirstinsson.
Ireland will return to competitive play on June 11, when fourth-place Austria will visit the Aviva Stadium in Group D of the World Cup qualifiers.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Keiren Westwood; Cyrus Christie, John Egan (Andy Boyle 63), Alex Pearce, Robbie Brady; Aiden McGeady (Callum O’Dowda 73), Jeff Hendrick (Stephen Gleeson 63), Conor Hourihane (Eunan O’Kane 63), Jonathan Hayes (Daryl Horgan 63); James McClean (Shane Long 73), Kevin Doyle.
Subs not used: Colin Doyle, Darren Randolph, Richard Keogh, Stephen Ward, David Meyler.
ICELAND: Ogmudur Kristinsson; Birkner Mar Saevarsson (Vidar Ari Jonsson 85), Sverrir Ingi Ingason, Ragnar Sigurdsson (Holmar Eyjolfsson 52), Hordur Borgvin Magnusson; Rurik Gislason (Ari Freyr Skulason 88), Aron Einar Gunnarson, Olafur Ingi Skulason (Arnor Smarason 79), Aron Sigurdarson (Elias Mar Omarsson 65); Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Kjartan Henry Finnbogason.
Subs not used: Hannes Halldorsson, Ingvar Jonsson, Vidar Orn Kjartansson, Ottar Magnus Karlsson, Kari Arnason, Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson, Ari Freyr Skulason.
Referee: Jakob Kehlet (Denmark).