Jeff Hendrick got the only goal as Mick McCarthy’s second spell as Republic of Ireland manager began with a laboured victory against Gibraltar in their opening Euro 2020 qualifier.
Hendrick’s low 49th-minute shot was all the Republic had to show for their efforts at the Victoria Stadium as they struggled to convert their dominance into goals in a swirling gale.
It was the Republic’s first competitive win in almost 18 months but it will do little to allay fears their poor form under Martin O’Neill may persist.
McCarthy will have another chance to boost his side’s morale when Georgia visit Dublin on Tuesday for their second Group D qualifier.
Georgia opened their campaign with a 2-0 defeat against Switzerland in Tbilisi.
Republic blown off course
Wolves’ Matt Doherty had struggled to force his way into the Republic side under previous manager O’Neill but the in-form wing-back was deployed on the right wing as part of a 4-4-2 formation that also allowed McCarthy to accommodate team captain Seamus Coleman in his customary full-back role.
The two right-sided defenders struggled to connect and Doherty was substituted with over 30 minutes remaining as the Republic’s attacks were repeatedly hampered by the swirling conditions.
The unpredictable wind and the artificial pitch meant the visitors’ strike force of Sean Maguire and David McGoldrick were often left frustrated in their attempts to find space in a crowded Gibraltar defence.
McGoldrick frequently had to drop deep to gain possession while Maguire struggled to read the crosses as they came into the area.
For the home side, Anthony Hernandez harried the Irish backline and forced an early free-kick that Liam Walker sent just over, but the Irish midfield pair of Conor Hourihane and Harry Arter gradually began to dictate the tempo and dominate possession.
A Hourihane corner resulted in the opening chance for his side but Richard Keogh spooned a weak shot straight into the arms of Kyle Goldwin and the Gibraltar goalkeeper also had to be alert to prevent an own goal by his captain Roy Chipolina.
Hendrick strike calms nerves
Gibraltar made a strong start to the second half as they forced a corner in the opening minute. Darren Randolph had to produce a superb reflex save to deny Roy Chipolina as the veteran defender out-jumped Doherty to connect with a powerful header.
The Republic responded immediately as Hourihane found McGoldrick with a clever, raking pass and the striker muscled his way into the area before cutting his pass back into the path of Hendrick, the Burnley midfielder powering home a low finish from the edge of the area.
Centre-half Shane Duffy had a couple of half-chances to add to the visitors’ lead but it was Gibraltar who came closest to getting a goal after Coleman lost a battle for possession and Lee Casciaro’s shot had Randolph scrambling as it curled just around the post.
A new era but old failings remain
The Republic scored just four goals across their nine matches in 2018 and their lack of cutting edge in attack once again proved their Achilles heel against Gibraltar.
A source of goals is now McCarthy’s most pressing concern after watching his side struggle to break down a team ranked 194th in the world.
Hendrick’s goal was Ireland’s first in all competitions since Aiden O’Brien’s strike in a friendly draw with Poland in September 2018 and the introduction of midfielder Harry Arter for the ineffective Maguire in the 72nd minute suggested that the new manager had little faith in the other striking options he had available.
Record goalscorer Robbie Keane, who scored five times in two games against Gibraltar in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, is now part of the coaching team and McCarthy will hope that his assistant can impart some of his goal-scoring knowledge as their campaign progresses.