Martin O’Neill saluted unlikely heroes Alan Judge and Graham Burke as they fired the Republic of Ireland to a first victory in five games.
Brentford midfielder Judge struck seconds after being introduced as a late substitute to snatch a 2-1 win over the United States at the Aviva Stadium after Shamrock Rovers striker Burke, the first League of Ireland player to start for his country in 11 years, had opened his senior international account.
It was a landmark night in particular for Judge, who had only just returned to action in January following 20 months out with a badly broken leg.
O’Neill said: “It’s very, very pleasing, pleasing for him because he’s had such a really tough time. I think he thought his career was over. It was a very serious injury.
“He’s a really likeable lad and just to get on, when you see the feeling – if was as if he’d won the World Cup for us.”
Judge’s timely intervention came in the 90th minute, but it was Burke who reignited Ireland’s challenge after Hamburg frontman Bobby Wood had put the visitors ahead on the stroke of half-time.
His goal, which came from his last touch before he was replaced by Daryl Horgan, was the first by a League of Ireland player since Ray Treacy’s effort in April 1978.
O’Neill, who thanked Rovers for releasing their 10-goal frontman from Friday night’s league fixture against Dundalk, which they lost 5-2, said: “Well, of course it’s rare.
“That’s just pleasing for the lad for a start and pleasing for the club. He’s a good player for them to miss out, and to lose the game in the fashion they did, I have to say a big thank you to them tonight for not playing him in a game which was of great importance to them.”
If the game was in part about the Republic’s future, it was also about the past as veteran defender John O’Shea bowed out of international football after winning his 118th cap.
The 37-year-old has indicated his intention to play on for another season, but also has managerial ambitions.
O’Neill said: “All I will say is that in my time here, he’s been excellent round about the place, he has a really great attitude, the players respect him greatly for what he’s done in the game.
“I’m obviously delighted for him and there’s nothing to say that he couldn’t be a future, really terrific manager or coach. He’s worked the very, very best and I think he’s got all the attributes.
“Who knows, he may be doing this job in the not too distant future.”
United States acting head coach Dave Sarachan urged his young players to learn lessons from their defeat in Dublin.
He said: “At the end of the day, we almost came away with a result, but credit to Ireland, they never quit. We were caught late at the end, which is disappointing for us.
“But for our young guys, this is what it’s all about. It’s a great learning exercise for the guys. I was pleased in the locker room that they were a bit gutted that we did not get the result – that’s a good sign.”
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