Darren Randolph saves Republic of Ireland from defeat against northern neigbours

Rival managers Martin O'Neill and Michael O'Neill shake hands after a goalless draw at the Aviva
From Brendan Crossan at the Aviva Stadium

International soccer friendly: Republic of Ireland 0 Northern Ireland 0

IN the end, the 31,241 crowd had to settle for a diplomatic scoreless draw between north and south in Dublin last night.

In their first friendly meeting in seven years, last night’s drab encounter between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland won’t survive the next purge on the Sky Plus box.

Apart from a couple of brilliant saves from home goalkeeper and man-of-the-match Darren Randolph, it was utterly mind-numbing stuff.

Two things happened in the Irish capital last night that were entirely predictable: both anthems were booed and every time James McClean gained possession he was derided by the visiting supporters over his decision not to wear a poppy last weekend.

In fairness, the Northern Ireland fans easily out-sang their hosts and chanted: ‘Shall we sing a song for you?’ throughout as well as making some vague Brexit reference by chanting: ‘You’re just a small town in Europe.’

Arguably their biggest cheer of the first half, though, was when McClean skied a volleyed chance high over the north’s crossbar. Nothing went right for the Derryman.

As the two sets of players made their way off the field, the 2,000 travelling fans sang for 20 minutes after the final whistle and left the Aviva Stadium singing: ‘There’s only one team in Ireland.’

For the majority of last night’s tie, the North were the better side. They passed the ball better than their hosts and carved out the best chances.

Gavin Whyte and Jordan Jones had the best chances either side of half-time but the two wide men couldn’t find a way past the imposing Randolph.

The fact Randolph was voted man-of-the-match told you everything you needed to know about the Republic’s performance. It lacked energy and cohesion. All too familiar over the past 12 months.

There was a fair bit of experimentation by the home side but even allowing for a few tactical issues they didn’t create anything of note. Last night was a breeze for Northern Ireland centre-backs Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.

It’s doubtful if either man broke sweat as they had little defending to do.

While Wayne Rooney made a one-night-only return to the international stage with England, the Republic gave 85-times capped veteran Glenn Whelan a send-off after 10 years of service to the senior side, which included two major finals appearances.

Robbie Brady made his eagerly awaited return after an 11-month absence through injury, while Darragh Lenihan of Blackburn earned his first start for Ireland.

Sheffield Wednesday’s John Egan was handed his fourth cap with Cyrus Christie, Kevin Long and Harry Arter held in reserve, perhaps with Monday’s trip to Denmark in mind.

And Republic boss Martin O’Neill was handed a boost prior to last night’s derby clash with confirmation that Dublin-born Michael Obafemi – eligible to play for Nigeria and England – has thrown his lot in with the Republic.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill was able to name nine of the side that started against Bosnia last month, with Paddy McNair relegated to the bench and Oliver Norwood excused from international duty due to his upcoming suspension against Nations League opponents Austria this weekend.

For most of the first half, Michael O’Neill’s side kept the ball better and were more structured as his namesake experimented, not too successfully, with a back three and wing-backs.

Egan and Lenihan looked uneasy either side of Shane Duffy, while McClean and Seamus Coleman didn’t look comfortable on either flank.

Gavin Whyte, who’s cutting a dash with Oxford United, looked lively from the start and had the best chance of the first half after 14 minutes.

A clever overhead kick from Liam Boyce put Stuart Dallas through down the left flank and Whyte met his low cross but Randolph made a smart save to keep it scoreless.

At the other end Callum Robinson showed some fine touches but too often was feeding off scraps and became isolated as the first half progressed.

Three minutes before the interval a poor pass from Lenihan caught the Republic short at the back. Steven Davis, who was full of running in the north’s midfield, slide the ball through to Dallas but his tame effort was easily collected by Randolph.

And on the stroke of half-time Michael Smith saw his rasping drive from 20 yards scream over Republic’s crossbar.

Things didn’t improve at all in the second half for the home side. Boyce almost poked the ball past Randolph who made a rare mistake.

Two minutes later, Lenihan was caught dallying by lively substitute Jordan Jones and with the goal at his mercy, his side-footed effort was superbly saved by Randolph.

Jeff Hendrick made little impression against Davis who ran the midfield.

Robbie Brady, naturally, looked off the pace and there was little to shout about in the Republic attack as Ronan Curtis, Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan were given time to impress.

But it was all too laboured and desperately off-the-cuff from Martin O’Neill’s men as they look ahead to Monday night’s trip to Aarhus.

The North were lucky not to get the win last night but at least they could make the confident claim afterwards that they were the better side by a fair distance.

And the boisterous visiting supporters could go back up the motorway feeling good about themselves and Michael O’Neill’s team.

As for Martin O’Neill’s side, last night was yet another bleak display that has sadly become the norm since last year’s play-off mauling by Denmark.

Republic of Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Lenihan (Christie 84), Duffy, Egan, McClean (Stevens 66), O’Dowda (Curtis 46), Hendrick, Whelan (Hourihane 36), Brady, Robinson (Maguire 66), Maguire (Hogan 79)

Subs Not Used: Doyle, Shaun Williams, Obafemi, Shane Long, Arter, Kelleher

Booked: Lenihan, Hourihane

Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell, Smith (Ward 74), Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Lewis, Corry Evans (McNair 65), Davis, Saville, Whyte (Jones 62), Boyce (Lafferty 71), Dallas.

Subs Not Used: McGovern, McLaughlin, McAuley, McGinn, Ferguson, Hughes, Magennis, Hazard

Booked: Saville

Ref: Slavko Vincic (Slovenia)

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