Republic of Ireland on Tuesday ignored a bizarre tennis ball protest from angry fans as Conor Hourihane’s first international goal sealed a 1-0 win over Georgia in their UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier.
Hourihane’s excellent first-half free-kick settled the opening home game of Mick McCarthy’s second spell as Ireland manager.
However, the clash in Dublin was overshadowed by irate Ireland supporters, who threw tennis balls on to the Lansdowne Road Stadium pitch in the first half in protest against controversial Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief executive John Delaney.
Delaney, due to take up the newly created role of FAI executive vice president, has come under pressure after it was revealed that he provided a 100,000 euro (US$112,727) check in April 2017 to the FAI that did not appear in its audited accounts.
Delaney said that he had loaned his employer the money “to aid a very short-term cash flow issue.”
The protest was expected in advance and, speaking on Monday, McCarthy said: “I can’t do anything about it. I’m not going to take a tennis racket with me.”
Fortunately for McCarthy, the volley of tennis balls ended up as more of a distraction for Georgia, who fell behind in the early action after a three-minute delay to clear the pitch.
Hourihane’s goal was enough to make it two wins from two Group D matches as McCarthy bids to take Ireland to next year’s European Championships.
“It didn’t affect us. When things like that happen, you have to really concentrate,” McCarthy said of the protest.
“I was conscious we didn’t want to take the free-kick and get done on the break. It didn’t happen. Nothing was stopping that free-kick,” he added.
McCarthy, who led Ireland to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, admitted that he hated every minute of Saturday’s 1-0 victory at minnows Gibraltar in his first game.
However, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sunderland manager’s first home match as Ireland boss in 17 years was not much easier.
“The lads worked an unbelievable shift and played really good football,” McCarthy said. “We created opportunities and unfortunately didn’t take them, but we didn’t let them in, so one goal takes it.”
Hourihane should have put Ireland ahead early after Jeff Hendrick stole possession near the Georgia penalty area.
The Aston Villa midfielder was clean through on goal and also had Robbie Brady free to his right, but he squandered the chance, shooting too close to Georgia goalkeeper Giorgi Loria.
When Brady won a free-kick in the 33rd minute, the tennis balls rained down from the stands.
There was a delay while Ireland defender Richard Keogh joined stewards in clearing the makeshift missiles from the pitch.
Once play resumed, Hourihane got the Ireland fans’ focus back on the match as he curled his free-kick around the Georgia wall and past slow-to-react Loria in the 36th minute.
However, Ireland’s first goal in four home matches should have been followed by a Georgia equalizer in first half stoppage-time.
Valeriane Gvilia slammed his shot goalward from close-range, but Darren Randolph rescued Ireland with a fine save.
Jeff Hendrick, who scored the winner against Gibraltar, thought he had netted again when he slotted home from close range, only to see an offside flag rule out his second-half effort.
Ireland’s failure to finish off Georgia nearly came back to haunt them in the 85th minute, when Jaba Kankava’s long-range strike grazed the woodwork.
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