He wasn’t man of the match: that was Will Smallbone. He wasn’t even the most exciting home debut – that was Mikey Johnston, whose performance off the bench should appear in the dictionary of football cliche alongside the phrase “electrifying cameo”. But after 17 minutes of his full Ireland debut, Evan Ferguson scored his first Ireland goal, and sent a lot of people home feeling excited about more nights like this to come.
Ferguson evidently likes to get his first goal out of the way early – he had also scored after 17 minutes of his substitute appearance against Arsenal back in January – but there is more to his game than goals. The very first time he got turned towards goal here tonight, he helped to set one up. His third-minute pass to the right corner invited the onrushing Matt Doherty to cross ... or maybe fake a cross and lay it back to Will Smallbone to cross from a more dangerous position. Callum O’Dowda arrived at the back post to head it in.
Before long the crowd was celebrating a goal by the man so many of them had come to see. It was another good Irish move, again flowing through the combination of Doherty and Smallbone on the right, with Doherty’s chipped cross to the back post knocked back across by Michael Obafemi to Ferguson, who reacted faster than the defenders and smacked it in with his left foot.
Ferguson might have been thinking this was pretty easy, but he soon experienced his first head-on collision with the hope-crushing juggernaut that is Ireland Football.
Belters are priced in whenever any side with a three-digit Fifa ranking plays against Ireland – Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Armenia have all scored against Ireland from way downtown, it doesn’t matter who Ireland have in goal – and on 33 minutes Roberts Uldrikis scored a 35-yard screamer straight out of Mexico 86. They used to explain the crazy long-range goals at that World Cup by talking about the thin air you get at altitude, but even the damp Dublin Bay air couldn’t slow down this bullet.
If that goal was “just one of those things” albeit “one of those things that happens to Ireland disturbingly often”, the second Latvia goal was just disturbing. Ferguson had to take his share of the blame – as he lost the first header from Latvia’s diagonal set-piece – but his team-mates generously stepped up to make sure he wouldn’t carry the burden alone. Collins didn’t get enough distance on the first clearing header, then Omobamidele was beaten to another header, before O’Dowda and Dara O’Shea contrived to send a joint header to Arturs Zjusins, whose hard shot took a slight deflection off Collins and bounced in off Kelleher, who still might have done better.
A strange thought occurred: just as well Ferguson was involved in that and gets to feel like he played his own small part in this classically Irish meltdown. We don’t want to feel like we’re embarrassed ourselves in front of him. You never know with these exceptional young players. Wayne Rooney gave an interview last year where he talked about how quickly he had adjusted after the initial thrill of breaking into the Everton team. “It’s mad how quick it changed. For me to go in with Duncan, Stubbsy, all of them who have I grew up watching, to then go and play with them, train with them every day and play with them, and then so quickly, I remember thinking: ‘These are crap!’”
Ferguson’s only other shots on the night were from distance, one with the left in the first half, one with the right in the second. On that second shot his follow-through caught a Latvian defender’s challenging boot and he went down in pain – oh no ... Fortunately there appeared to be no lasting damage, and Ferguson was not among those to be withdrawn ten minutes later, when Stephen Kenny intervened with a triple substitution.
One of those subs, Mikey Johnston, immediately went on a driving dribble into the box – exactly the kind of run Stephen Kenny had enthused about during the week – and his shot ricocheted off the post and to the feet of another sub, Chiedozie Ogbene, who scored with his first touch.
[ Ireland player ratings against Latvia ]
That’s how it finished: a relieved 3-2 after a commanding-seeming 2-0 had crumbled, the same pattern as the recent Armenia game. Ferguson’s night had ended on 73 minutes, replaced by Troy Parrott, who was the future once.
It reminded me of a day 25 years ago, standing on the North Terrace to see Robbie Keane make his home debut against Argentina, three months before his 18th birthday. I remember our astonishment of seeing a young Irish player with the skill and confidence to dribble at these world-famous Argentina defenders. Ireland lost 2-0 that day but everyone went home excited about seeing a lot more of Robbie Keane.
Keane’s final tally of 68 goals for Ireland was more than we would have dared to guess that day – the record then was still Frank Stapleton’s 20 in 71 caps. Keane remained, however, an individualist all his career – a finisher who played in bursts. You often got the impression he was as unpredictable to his own team-mates as he was to opposing defenders. A natural improviser who made it up as he went along, he was at his best when playing off someone like Niall Quinn or Dimitar Berbatov.
Or maybe Evan Ferguson. Unlike Keane, he is the kind of strong central player you can shape a whole team around. It’s not just that he can score, that he is physically strong and can stand up to defenders, that he is a strong runner who is willing to offer options. It’s the passing, the control, the combination play – everything clean, simple, fast, efficient. At 18, his reading of the game already stands out – and how lucky are we to spend our idle moments daydreaming about how much better he might get.