Mick McCarthy was a happy man after seeing wild-card selections Jack Byrne and James Collins shine on their senior debuts for the Republic of Ireland.
Shamrock Rovers midfielder Byrne, who started his career at Manchester City, had a hand in two of the goals and Luton striker Collins scored the third after coming off the bench in the 3-1 friendly victory over Bulgaria.
McCarthy made 10 changes from the 1-1 Euro 2020 qualifier draw with Switzerland and there was an impressive display from Charlton midfielder Josh Cullen, but it was late cameos from Byrne and Collins which caught the eye.
Asked about Byrne, the manager said: “He’s got that position to play, up behind James. I told him, ‘If I see you collecting it between the two centre-halves, I’m going to kick you up the bum’, and he knows that.
“I’m saying that with a glint in my eye, it’s a bit of a joke, but he’s so effective when he’s up the pitch. He’s got goals in him and he started threading balls. He was excellent.”
Ireland dominated a much-altered Bulgarian outfit for long periods without making the pressure tell, but finally broke the deadlock 11 minutes into the second half when keeper Hristo Ivanov, making his international debut at the age of 37, spilled Ronan Curtis’ shot and Scott Hogan laid the loose ball across goal for Alan Browne to tap home his first international goal.
The visitors were level within 10 minutes when substitute Ivelin Popov converted a penalty awarded for Ireland skipper John Egan’s trip on striker Bozhidar Kraev, but central defender Kevin Long and Collins on his debut both struck inside the final seven minutes to seal the win.
McCarthy said: “Ultimately the result pleased me. There were some really good performances. Josh Cullen deserved the man of the match, he was excellent. I thought Alan Browne was.
“I loved James Collins’ performance when he came on. He knocked the centre-half around, upset him.”
The Republic’s win came hours after the Under-21s have fought back to seal a 3-1 qualifier victory in Sweden to extend their 100 per cent start to the campaign under manager Stephen Kenny, who will succeed McCarthy as senior boss after the Euros.
He resisted the temptation to draft in players from Kenny’s squad against Bulgaria and insisted that was the right decision.
He said: “You’re all talking about them coming through into the first team. When he gets the job – and it won’t be that long now – he’ll be perfectly placed.
“In the meantime, it’s me that’s come in and [I] could have taken the backlash had we drawn in Gibraltar or lost in Gibraltar, and that’s protected him from that.
“Hopefully we qualify, get to the Euros and it will be seen as a really good decision to have done what we did.”
Bulgaria boss Krasimir Balakov admitted his side had been made to pay by Ireland’s aerial prowess.
He said: “The third goal was a well-executed counter-attack, but apart from that, we defended well. But it’s in the blood of the Irish players to be strong on crosses and headers.”
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