AIDEN MCGEADY SPENT the first half of last night’s 1-0 win over Bosnia Herzegovina sat on the bench listening to 37,100 fans roar on James McClean’s every touch.
McClean was one of the liveliest players on the field during the opening 45 minutes, putting in a number of crosses and having strike on Asmir Begovic’s goal.
“I think in the first half he played very well,” Giovanni Trapattoni said of the 22-year-old in his post-match press conference. “We wished to give him the opportunity because he needs the confidence with the other players. It was the first time he played with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle.
In the second half he went a little bit down, was tired and was running too much but for his first game, he played very, very well.”
The hype around the Sunderland youngster isn’t dissimilar to how Irish fans treated the Glasgow-born winger when he burst onto the international scene some eight years ago.
At the time, a teenager with lightning quick feet and the ability to beat his man had just had his first taste of senior football with Celtic. In a friendly win over Jamica, he made his bow seven minutes from the final whistle and received a rapturous applause.
Watching from the sideline yesterday, McGeady wanted to feel that love again.
As soon as he stepped onto the pitch, he seemed intent on making an impact on the game. His abundance of talent is undoubted and some will argue that the Spartak Moscow player was one of our biggest threats during qualifying but his end product has often come into question.
Despite falling out with manager Valery Karpin earlier in the year, he ended the Russian season on a high by helping them to second place and Champions League qualification.
And from his showing against the Bosnians, he is bang on form going into these finals.
As well as producing the cross which provided the only goal of the game, he played Jon Walters in with a through-ball just seconds later and ended a delightful move by again finding Long at the back post only for the opposing goalkeeper to pull off a terrific save.
With Damien Duff the favourite to start on one flank and Stephen Hunt also vying for a spot, the emergence of McClean has had a positive impact on Ireland’s option on the wings, if yesterday is anything to go by.
The starting XI yesterday. Credit: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Further back, Paul McShane made his first appearance in an Ireland shirt for nearly a year and earned himself a hero’s reception when he was withdrawn for Stephen Kelly on 78 minutes.
The Hull defender has never been Ireland fans’ flavour of the month due to a couple of high profile blunders, including his part in the infamous Thierry Henry incident, but didn’t put a foot wrong and even showed his willingness to overlap down the right.
Although he will join the squad in Montecatini as the stand-in guy, his best chance of making the cut will come from the misfortune of John O’Shea or Kevin Foley if either fails to recover completely.
In the centre of the park, Trapattoni said of Darron Gibson: “He was one of the best on the pitch – with his mentality, attitude and vision.”
As if it was a surprise, the Derry-native move to Everton has done him the world of good and while he may not have had an eye-catching performance, does look more assured now he is getting first team football.
And then there are the strikers. Robbie Keane spoke yesterday of the gulf in class between this year’s front five and the fire power Mick McCarthy brought to South Korea and Japan ten years ago.
The captain was busy before being replaced. He shot sharply on the turn and his pass to set up Duff was a touch of class.
Kevin Doyle, meanwhile, is obviously enjoying the break away from what must have been a tough atmosphere at relegated Wolves as he put himself about for 63 minutes.
Their replacements, Shane Long and Jon Walters, between them scored one but could have had two more each. Simon Cox, who may not play regularly for West Brom but has looked promising on every occasion in the team, also brings something to the table.
In every job, competition is very important. Competition is the life,” spoke Trapattoni when asked about his options up front.
“Shane Long, Walters and also in the past, Cox, we have good options. I think today we can have more trust about choosing the players.”
The Italian has admitted that he knows his starting XI in his head and, let’s face it, most of us would probably have a decent go guessing it.
With Keith Fahey’s withdrawal and doubts over the fitness of a couple of others, however, it is good to see players being pushed by the rivals for their spots.