It took a Joseph Chipolina own goal and an injury time Robbie Brady effort to hand Ireland victory as Mick McCarthy’s side beat Gibraltar 2-0 in tonight’s Euro 2020 Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
A goal in either half proved enough for Ireland to take all three points and head into the second half of this campaign atop the table.
The opening goal arrived after 27 minutes as a David McGoldrick's shot was deflected home, but Ireland then had to wait until injury time at the end of the game before substitute Brady sealed the victory with a diving header at the far post.
A real end-of-season feel to the game as a poor crowd populated the Lansdowne Road arena just ahead of kick off; the sunny evening taking the urgency off those en route perhaps – they got there eventually, 36,281 was the official attendance.
But there was no sign of a slumber on the pitch, as Ireland won two corners within the first minute, which led to a bit of dodgy goalkeeping and a Shane Duffy header looping onto the roof of the net.
The keeper’s hesitancy perhaps forgiven in those early stages having probably spent the last few days watching video analysis of Duffy’s aerial prowess.
Two minutes later, Ireland had another chance to settle the nerves as Scott Hogan and McGoldrick linked up well with the latter finally blasting his effort wide of the near post.
It all calmed down for a while after that and it took both centre forwards to take matters into their own hands in carbon copy efforts, as first Tjay De Barr, followed by Hogan, dropped deep, turned with the ball, ran at the defence before blasting high and wide.
Suddenly, twenty minutes had passed and Ireland were looking quite average as Gibraltar, with an extra man in midfield, were not allowing the home side to settle on the ball.
Duffy’s ten-yard pass to Coleman, which missed the skipper by at least three yards and careered into touch, was symptomatic of the frustration creeping in, even at these early stages. The big centre-half then flew through De Barr to give away another free kick.
Ireland’s best route to goal was coming down the right flank as a budding partnership was building between captain Seamus Coleman and Callum Robinson, who was enjoying his freedom to move inside with the defender overlapping.
So it was no real surprise when the goal did arrive in the 27th minute that it was created on that side of the pitch.
And again it was Robinson and Coleman who were the instigators as they combined, albeit fortuitously, leading to McGoldrick’s deflected effort to fly past the keeper.
Two pieces of luck, in fact, as first Robinson’s pass inside was intercepted and pinged into the path of Coleman, and then, after the captain dragged a fine ball into the path of the arriving McGoldrick, the wayward shot cannoned off the chest of Chipolina, diverting the ball past Kyle Goldwin who was left rooted to the spot.
Perhaps not the way that McGoldrick dreamed of his opening international goal, and judging by his reaction he may have expected it to be deemed an own goal.
Buoyed by the goal, again Coleman advanced before slamming the ball across the face, and a defender’s unintentional touch almost deceived the keeper, but the ball rolled just wide.
From the corner McGoldrick should have done better with a free header and his mis-timed effort was easily dealt with.
Eventually Ireland attacked up the left after 37 minutes on the clock as Enda Stevens was picked out by a delightful Hourihane cross-field pass.
Two touches to play McGoldrick down the left and a great ball across, but brave keeping denied Scott Hogan a tap-in.
Robinson then had a chance to double the lead as the first half moved into injury time, again cutting inside off that right flank, and his curling effort looked like it was going to nestle in the top corner, but flew just past the far post.
Despite the lively start to the second half, it took Ireland eight minutes to get into a dangerous position and when the ball did arrive, Hogan was unable to get full purchase on the header, which dropped kindly for the keeper.
Another Ireland attack a minute later turned into a decent chance at the other end, as Gibraltar broke and suddenly it was three on three at the back with Coleman and Richard Keogh up the field.
Liam Walker checked his run and was played square at the edge of the box. Time to shoot, the attacker dwelt a little too long and his shot was blocked; danger averted.
Coleman was up the pitch again less than a minute later and again linking up well with Robinson. This time the captain’s cross took a deflection just before arriving at the feet of McGoldrick and the striker’s shot was tame and scooped up by the keeper.
With 30 minutes still to play, Ireland were in cruise control as wave after wave crashed into the Gibraltar defence, the rock now starting to look a little porous.
And Robinson was really stealing the show as he continued to cause all sorts of trouble on the right flank, now quite happy to also take on the defender on the outside.
In the 65th minute, McGoldrick and Hogan combined as the former slipped the ball inside and the striker did everything right, however, the keeper was alert to the snap shot and batted the ball wide for a corner.
That was Hogan’s last action as Sean Maguire was sent on to see if he could poach a settler for Ireland who still somehow only led by the single goal.
But it was McGoldrick who almost sealed it with a scintillating strike from the edge of the box, having cut in and made space from the left, and this time it was the woodwork that saved Gibraltar as the ball flew off the right post.
In truth, Ireland began to huff and puff after that, panicking with their play as the game moved into the final stages with the best shout being a half-hearted penalty claim as Ethan Jolley fouled Keogh, but out of sight of the Romanian referee.
Robbie Brady had come on for Robinson by that stage but failed to follow on from what should have been a man of the match performance – that accolade going to McGoldrick – and one off-target effort the best he could muster as the game approached the 90th minute.
Four minutes of added time to get through, and finally that second goal arrived and with it plenty of quality as Hourihane sprayed the ball wide to McClean and then his inch-perfect cross to the back post was headed home by the arriving Brady to bring the curtain down on the first half of this year-long campaign.
Ireland head into the summer break top of the table on ten points, and will face Switzerland at home in their next game.
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Seamus Coleman (capt), Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, Enda Stevens; Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick, Callum Robinson (Robbie Brady 73), James McClean; David McGoldrick, Scott Hogan (Sean Maguire 66)
Gibraltar: Kyle Goldwin; Joseph Chipolina, John Sergeant, Lee Casciaro (Anthony Bardon 10), Jayce Olivero, Roy Chipolina (capt), Andrew Hernandez (Ethan Jolley 76), Louie Annesley, Alain Pons (Ethan Brito 64), Liam Walker; Tjay De Barr
Referee: Radu Petrescu (ROU)