International friendly: Republic of Ireland v Latvia, Aviva Stadium, Wednesday, 7.45 – Live on RTÉ2
The prelude to France; Evan Ferguson properly begins an international career of unlimited potential and Matt Doherty captains his country for the very first time. That might clear the last remaining Aviva Stadium tickets, initially priced as low as €65 for a two-match bundle that includes a momentous meeting with the World Cup runners-up next Monday.
Ferguson wins a third cap, but his first time leading the line signals a new dawn for Irish football, as the 18-year-old has continually displayed the expertise, physical attributes and character traits necessary to become a world-class striker.
An example; Ferguson bagged two nimble goals as Brighton beat Grimsby Town 5-0 on Sunday, to set up an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Wembley next month. His post-match expression was priceless when was asked (twice) on camera if heading “off with your country now” was “good for you for the rest of the season to keep playing, rather than maybe having a break?”
“When you get called up for your country there is no better feeling,” Ferguson calmly explained. “There is no better feeling than representing Ireland, so I want to keep going.”
The teenager wants to keep scoring, he’s up to seven goals in less than 10 full games since New Year’s Eve, and Stephen Kenny is gratefully accepting this gift from the football gods.
“We are not shy about playing young players,” said Kenny. “When it gets to the games against France or important games, it’s about the impact a player can have and the level of performance, so the age then becomes irrelevant. It’s about who’s in form and who isn’t.”
Naming Doherty as skipper, after 33 caps since 2016, is another big statement by the Ireland manager. Starved of pitch time since Tottenham Hotspur offloaded him to Atlético Madrid on the January transfer deadline, Kenny repeatedly identifies the 31-year-old as a creative force when sides sit into a low block.
The Doherty call could mean both John Egan and Seámus Coleman will be held until Monday. Egan led Sheffield United into the FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday while Coleman, 34, played 84 minutes for Everton against Chelsea last Saturday.
Presuming that’s two in and two out of the starting line-up, the other nine will be fascinating to see as personnel will remain largely unchanged when Kylian Mbappé – and not Antoine Griezmann – captains France in Dublin.
Gavin Bazunu’s tough first Premier League season at basement side Southampton deserves recognition, as much for some breathtaking saves as the fact that Caoimhín Kelleher and Mark Travers cannot break into the Liverpool and Bournemouth teams.
As Doherty raids the right flank, Kenny has suggested Callum O’Dowda’s form at Cardiff City will claim left wing back with a potential centre-half trio of Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea and the fit-again Andrew Omobamidele.
Midfield will be anchored by Josh Cullen, who is having an outstanding campaign at Burnley, which leaves a myriad of attacking options that possibly includes debuts for Will Smallbone and Mikey Johnston.
It is worth comparing the two managers as Dainis Kazakevics, like Kenny, was promoted from the under-21s in September 2020. Kazakevics boasts a superior record of 10 wins, 11 draws and 10 defeats to the Dubliner’s 8-10-12.
“The Irish and Welsh teams are similar, yet slightly different,” said Kazakevics ahead of Tuesday’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Cardiff. “But that was the idea; to play against a British-style team, on their pitch and in climatic conditions.”
Brexit confusion has probably enhanced that old stereotype, but the visitors also bring a winning mentality, earned by topping a Nations League Group D group that included Moldova, Andorra and Liechtenstein.
“The most important thing is the game against France on Monday, that’s the most important part of the week,” stressed Kenny. “Every international game is important. I’m informed that throughout Europe, in terms of friendly matches, for a nation as small as ours, we fill stadiums for friendlies.
“The passionate Irish support is really important to us, they really connect with the team. We see the evolution of the squad, we see the team growing, we see that we are improving, and they are part of that journey as well I feel. Every game is significant and tomorrow is also.”
Perhaps a nothing-match against a nation ranked 133rd in the world provides value for the underused Collins, Omobamidele and Doherty but failure to dismantle a Latvia squad devoid of marquee names will be deemed unacceptable by the FAI, Kenny, his players and a loyal fan base.
“Latvia are not really a defensive team, they carry a threat,” he continued. “Looking at them, in some of their matches, they play with a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, but we can never tell, teams do pay us a lot of respect at times. When they come to the Aviva they play with a lower block than in some of the previous matches we’ve seen. We’ve just got to focus on our own performance and work on improving ourselves.”
The levels of improvement needed since Ireland’s last competitive game, a calamitous 3-2 win against Armenia six months ago, must be accelerated before the French arrive. But dress this friendly up anyway you please, it will always be remembered as Evan Ferguson’s first international start and everyone else’s first sight of the new Castore strip with its tilted shamrock crest.
IRELAND (possible): Bazunu; Doherty (capt), Omobamidele, Collins, O’Shea, O’Dowda; Cullen; Smallbone, Knight; Obafemi, Ferguson.