Mikey Johnston helps Republic of Ireland to much-needed win over Gibraltar
Substitute Mikey Johnston belatedly ignited the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign to spare manager Stephen Kenny further punishment at the hands of Gibraltar.
The Celtic winger, who spent last season on loan with Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes, scored his first senior international goal within seven minutes of his half-time introduction with his team-mates having left the pitch to a less than rapturous reception after being kept at bay by the side ranked 201st in the world.
Evan Ferguson helped himself to his second Ireland goal seven minutes later and substitute Adam Idah his first in stoppage time to cement at 3-0 victory on a night when anything other than a comfortable victory would have heaped further pressure on Kenny, who had found himself in the firing line once again in the wake of Friday night’s 2-1 Group B defeat in Greece.
A fifth win in 24 competitive matches, particularly given the nature of the opposition, is unlikely to silence his critics and qualification still looks distinctly unlikely unless they can beat either France or the Netherlands – or perhaps both – in September.
However, Johnston’s second-half cameo finally injected the pace and devilment his side had lacked before the break to bring a little light relief.
Kenny made five changes to the side which turned in such a laboured display in defeat in Greece, one of them enforced by Matt Doherty’s red card in Athens with James McClean, winning his 100th cap, Dara O’Shea, Jamie McGrath, Jason Knight and Michael Obafemi replacing the former Atletico Madrid full-back, Darragh Lenihan, Callum O’Dowda, Jayson Molumby and Idah.
His side might have been ahead within seconds of kick-off when Knight, starting at right wing-back, crossed for McGrath to shoot first time and keeper Dayle Coleing needed two attempts to gather the ball, and defender Kian Ronan sliced another teasing Knight delivery anxiously over his own crossbar with three minutes gone.
As expected, the visitors sat deep and invited Ireland to break them down with defenders Nathan Collins and O’Shea repeatedly finding themselves with time and space, but not the craft to slide the ball through the massed ranks of white shirts.
O’Shea curled a 17th-minute shot straight into Coleing’s midriff and Obafemi should have scored two minutes later, completely missing his kick as he attempted to convert Knight’s near-post cross.
As Kenny’s men warmed to their task, Ferguson thumped a drive at Coleing from the edge of the box and then glanced a 30th-minute header across goal from McClean’s cross with the keeper in no man’s land.
McClean headed wide from yet another Knight cross after the Derby midfielder had surged past defender Jayce Olivero five minutes later, and Josh Cullen whipped an attempt into Coleing’s waiting arms as half-time approached.
It took a fine save from the Gibraltar keeper to keep out McGrath’s rasping 44th-minute strike after Obafemi and Ferguson had used their strength to grind out an opportunity for him, but Ireland largely lacked both penetration and tempo and the half-time whistle was greeted by a smattering of boos.
Kenny made a significant change at the break when he withdrew central defender Collins and replaced him with Johnston and switched to a 4-3-3 formation, and it took the newcomer little time to make an impact.
It was he who made the breakthrough with 52 minutes gone when, after Will Smallbone’s free-kick, awarded for handball against Bernardo Lopes, had squirmed through the defensive wall, he tapped gleefully into the empty net to ease the tension among a crowd of 42,156 at the Aviva Stadium.
The mood took a further turn for the better seven minutes later when Ferguson met McClean’s cross with a firm downward header to effectively wrap up the points, and the centurion was provider once again at the death, setting up Idah to finally open his account with a simple header.