Shane Duffy’s header deep into injury time salvaged a point for the Republic of Ireland as the Stephen Kenny era got up and running with a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria in Sofia.
The Derryman, captaining the side for the second successive game in the absence of Seamus Coleman, headed home a corner from substitute Robbie Brady in the third added minute.
It was something of a reprieve for the centre half as his error, shared with partner John Egan, had allowed Bozhidar Kraev to put the hosts in front against the run of play early in the second half.
The Ireland defence was caught square by Todor Nedelev’s incisive through-ball – the type of final pass that, despite their dominance of possession, Kenny’s charges lacked throughout.
That the equalising goal came about from the tried-and-trusted method of hitting the lanky centre-half from a set-piece was oddly fitting, because so much of this performance suggested change is afoot.
Ireland held the lion’s share of possession throughout – 57% at half time and 59% by the end – and made almost double the number of passes as their opponents – 549 completed to Bulgaria’s 295.
These are no eye-watering statistics by any measure, but for an Ireland side accustomed to ceding the ball and playing on the break, it was a step into the relative unknown.
So too was the team selection: 19-year-old striker Adam Idah debuted up front, preferred to Shane Long, flanked by 20-year-old Aaron Connolly and Callum O’Dowda.
So too did Matt Doherty start at right back in place of Seamus Coleman, the captain benched in a competitive game for the first time since Kazakhstan away in September 2012.
Kenny was bold in his selections, with a bruised James McCarthy trusted to sit in midfield, and opted to press high up the pitch to keep the ball in the right area of the pitch.
The inherent risk was exposed within two minutes, however, as Doherty overcommitted in the Bulgarian half and was turned by Nedelev.
The home side spread the play with pace and Ireland were a touch fortunate that the cross from Strahil Popov left Galin Ivanov with too much to do with his header.
The upsides were clear to see too, and Connolly capitalised early on the Bulgarians’ slack passing from the back, intercepting a lazy ball forward from Kristian Dimitrov.
The Brighton man nutmegged the defender and closed in from a tight angle but he couldn’t add the bend to his shot to pick out the far corner.
Moments later, he had another sight of goal as Jeff Hendrick’s through ball bobbled into his path and, though Georgi Georgiev did brilliantly to deny him, the offside flag was up regardless.
On the opposite flank, O’Dowda was impressive with his nimble feet and the Bulgarian defence looked worried any time he put his head down and ran with the ball.
One slaloming run produced a free kick in a promising position on the edge of the box but Conor Hourihane was uncharacteristically wasteful from the dead ball.
Bulgaria’s threat lay in the speed of their transitions and, in Nedelev, they had a player who could put the ball wherever he wanted.
One ball over the top found Kraev on the burst and he was wrongly called offside as he ran through on goal, while another similar opportunity was spurned when Spas Delev tripped over his own feet.
Connolly had another gilt-edged chance early in the second half following a nice lay-off from Idah but the ball didn’t bounce kindly and Petar Zanev was able to nudge the ball clear as he shot.
For all their possession, Bulgaria had carried the great goal threat in the first half and so it proved when they broke the deadlock 11 minutes into the second period.
Hourihane’s pass in midfield was easily cut out and in a split-second Nedelev had played a square ball through to Kraev, who slid the ball under the legs of Darren Randolph.
The inquest began immediately but neither Duffy nor John Egan tracked the run of the striker, though Duffy would take more of the blame as he had full sight of the pass.
Neither Kenny nor the players panicked and they would continue to play the same patient style as before.
Another superb run from Connolly saw the Galway man flash the ball across the face of goal but neither Idah nor O’Dowda had gambled on getting on the end of it.
The introduction of Brady, Callum Robinson and Shane Long provided a spark as Bulgaria began to sit ever deeper, but clear chances remained elusive.
That changed in the third minute of injury time as Brady’s deep corner found Duffy who, shoving Long aside to make space, planted his fourth international goal in the net with his head.
Bulgaria: Georgi Georgiev; Strahil Popov, Petar Zanev (Plamen Galabov 79), Kristian Dimitrov, Anton Nedyallkov; Kristiyan Malinov, Georgi Kostadinov, Galin Ivanov; Spas Delev (Birsent Karagaren 76), Todor Nedelev (Aleksandar Tsvetkov 83), Bozhidar Kraev.
Subs not used: Martin Lukov (gk), Nikolay Mihaylov (gk), Stanislav Rabotov, Filip Krastev, Yanis Karabelyov, Ismail Isa, Dimitar Iliev, Ivan Goranov, Neuciano de Jesus Gusmao (Cicinho).
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Matt Doherty, John Egan, Enda Stevens; Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane, James McCarthy (Robbie Brady 70); Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah (Shane Long 77), Callum O'Dowda (Callum Robinson 74).
Subs not used: Mark Travers (gk), Caoimhin Kelleher (gk), Harry Arter, Alan Browne, Séamus Coleman, Darragh Lenihan, Sean Maguire, James McClean, Jayson Molumby.
Booked: Enda Stevens (22).
Referee: Manuel Schuettengruber (Austria).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Todor Nedelev (Bulgaria).None
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