Hourihane free-kick downs Georgia after Ireland fans’ tennis-ball protest

Republic of Ireland fans came to this match armed with tennis balls and hope. They threw the former in anger but did not have to let go of the latter, because Mick McCarthy’s team delivered with style. Conor Hourihane’s wonderful goal from a free-kick ensured Ireland got three points to reward a highly encouraging performance. True, Darren Randolph had to make two exceptional saves to preserve Ireland’s lead but the home team’s display was brighter than at any point in the recent past. Suddenly the future does not look so bleak.

The buildup had been dominated by two things: threats of sabotage through the tennis balls and promises of a fresh style of football inspired by McCarthy. Both materialised, with a protest unprecedented in Dublin punctuating the sort of fluent performance not seen from Ireland for more than a year.

There had been rumours before the game that home supporters would hurl tennis balls on to the pitch to express their anger with recent revelations about the financial dealings of the Football Association of Ireland and its controversial executive vice-president, John Delaney. Fans made their move in the 33rd minute – the timing chosen in memory of one of Delaney’s more outlandish wheezes, when he tried to persuade Fifa to allow Ireland into the World Cup as a 33rd participant after the country had been eliminated by Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in 2010. That brought ridicule on the country, with the whole football world effectively hollering “you cannot be serious.”

And so, right on cue in the 33rd minute, dozens of tennis balls rained down from the stands of the Aviva Stadium. As soon as they were cleared off the pitch, Hourihane served up an ace, albeit in the form of a shot into the net. Advantage Ireland, thanks to the Aston Villa midfield’s splendid free-kick from 20 yards.

Conor Hourihane (17) curls his free-kick around the Georgia wall to give Ireland the lead.

Conor Hourihane (17) curls his free-kick around the Georgia wall to give Ireland the lead. Photograph: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

That breakthrough was fair reward for a start that brought vindication for McCarthy and relief to supporters who had feared the worst when they saw the team sheet. The manager made two alterations to the lineup that began Saturday’s grim victory in Gibraltar, replacing the striker Sean Maguire with Glenn Whelan, a 35-year-old holding midfielder making his first competitive start since a 1-1 draw with Georgia two years ago. In the other change, Robbie Brady replaced Matt Doherty.

Fears turned out to be misguided. Whelan played well in front of the defence while David McGoldrick was not marooned as the lone striker but instead supported by a fleet of bold midfielders. Martin O’Neill often said, during the unhappy last year of his tenure, that his team would play on the front foot but they seldom did. McCarthy’s, on the other hand, showed genuine ambition and aggression, plus true cohesion. They were good to watch and effective, to boot.

Georgia, regular opponents of Ireland in recent years, might not have recognised the men in green. Within the first 15 minutes Ireland had shown more zest and thrust than in their previous five matches combined. Brady went close with a drilled shot from 20 yards. There was some zippy interplay, with McGoldrick’s touch and intelligence bringing a welcome new dimension to Ireland’s attack. You had to wonder why the 31-year-old was winning only his eighth cap.

Ireland seemed infused with new energy, too. Hendrick made that point well in the 11th minute when he robustly dispossessed Jaba Kankava in midfield, creating a chance for Hourihane to scamper through on goal. The midfielder let fly from the edge of the area but Giorgi Loria tipped the shot wide.

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By the 15th minute, when a befuddled Kankava chopped down James McClean, Ireland could almost be described as rampant. But they needed a goal. Hourihane delivered it with panache.

Georgia, technically adroit, threatened sporadically. Darren Randolph had to make a superb reflex save in the second half to deny Valerian Gvilia.

Despite that reminder of the visitors’ menace, Ireland did not succumb to jitters, another welcome change. They continued to attack with confidence. McGoldrick came close to claiming the goal his overall performance deserved when he latched on to long pass by McClean and ran around the keeper, but he was unable to find the net from an acute angle. Kankava tried to darken Ireland’s mood with a fine shot from long range in the closing minutes but Randolph came to the rescue again, producing another brilliant save.


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