bright spark | 

Chiedozie Ogbene the figure who might help Ireland rewind to the old days of thunder

Chiedozie Ogbene scores his goal against Belgium. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

EVEN as the clocks went forward, Chiedozie Ogbene announced himself as the figure who might help Ireland to rewind to the old, misplaced days of thunder.

Ogbene raided the playbook of the watching Thierry Henry to confirm his arrival as Ireland’s latest sporting luminary.

The 24-year-old’s meteoric rise to terrace darling gained serious momentum with an audacious bicycle-kick goal the old Arsenal maestro would have happily claimed as his own.

And with the hour-glass emptying on this FAI centenary celebration fixture the Nigerian-born, Cork-raised headline act lasered an inch-perfect cross that was powerfully headed home by his fellow Rebel, Alan Browne.

Some perspective, of course: This was an asset-stripped, watered-down, B-list Belgium Lite.

But Ireland, after an incoherent, clueless opening third, brought greater menace to the final hour.

Ogbene, with his infectious smile and sense of destiny, was the runaway success of the night.

For all the romantic, idealistic talk about aesthetics, top level football remains a results business.

And Ireland would have endured defeat against opponents denuded of all their most famous names were it not for those two standout moments for a Rotherham striker who drenched the evening in audacity.

If Roberto Martinez left half a billion worth of talent at home, he still had an eye-catching neighbour in the dugout.

Thierry Henry clearly ranks among the stellar football names of the last 25 years, but for all of 13 years the celebrated Frenchman – now part of the Belgian coaching team – has been regarded in Ireland as something an ogre.

And the disdain burned as intensely as on that long-ago night of Parisian larceny, a sun-soaked Dublin audience announcing him as the evening’s pantomime villain.

When the stadium’s giant screen captured focused on the former Arsenal star, old grudges were stirred again, and the cascade of jeers rose to a crescendo.

There was more than a hint of peak-era Henry’s ability to invade the imagination about Belgium’s opening goal.

But if Michy Batshuayi’s finish – cutting in from the left and curling a sublime finish – was a beautiful adornment to the evening, it was hardly a crowning moment for a trio of Irish.

Shane Duffy brilliantly fulfils the role of Irish Braveheart, but his frailties in playing the ball out from the back were sorely exposed as he cheaply surrendered possession.

Seamus Coleman has enjoyed a decorated Irish career, but the Aviva was offered a sense of Goodison Park’s growing conviction that the Donegal defender is a diminished force as Batshuayi cut inside and left him chasing shadows.

The curling finish to the far post was sublime but perhaps Caoimhin Kelleher will feel his positioning offered the Belgian striker a bigger target than he might have expected.

Ireland had been hopelessly anaemic in the opening half hour: No shots, no corners, precious little inspiration.

The stimulus package when it came was the latest impressive flourish in Ogbene’s eye-catching and joyous opening salvoes in Irish green.

When Callum Robinson’s cross broke into his path, the 24-year-old former Nemo Rangers GAA star was six yards out with his back to goal and the Belgian fortifications lined with defenders.

Ogbene required a single touch to tame the ball, his audacity apparent in his second contact, a glorious bicycle kick.

It required a deflection to take it past Simon Mignolet, but the striker’s ambition deserved the ultimate reward.

Ogbene’s sunlit celebration was that of a player floating through the first chapters of his international career. This was his third goal in just his sixth game.

If Ireland had been almost embarrassingly outplayed in the opening exchanges, the goal pumped several gallons of high-octane fuel into their tank of self-belief.

Stephen Kenny’s side started the second half with a vigour that had been elusive in the early exchanges with Coleman, chasing redemption, illustrating his enduring professionalism.

Séamus Coleman (right) and manager Stephen Kenny arrive for a Republic of Ireland press conference at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

When the captain intercepted a clumsy Belgian attempt to play out of their own danger zone, the visitors were immediately on the backfoot.

After some scramble defence, James McClean’s initial shot was desperately weak, though Callum Robinson’s back-flick deflected it goalward. Jason Denayer atoned for his earlier error in giving the ball away by clearing off the line.

It was the cue for Belgium to reassert their superiority.

Again, Kenny will break out in a cold sweat reviewing how culpable Ireland were for their own downfall.

From a Belgian corner, Hans Vanaken could hardly have been given any more space had the Covid two metre physical distancing rule still been in place.

Unchallenged, his header took a wicked deflection off the luckless Coleman en-route to finding Ireland’s jugular.

The four scalps Kenny claimed were hardly trophies to hang above the mantle: His quartet of victories came against the world’s 155th ranked side Andorra, Azerbaijan (121st), Luxembourg (93rd) and Qatar (52nd).

This was not merely Belgium Lite, but Belgium tissue-like.

The list of absent luminaries – among them De Bruyne, Lukaku, Courtois, Hazard, Witsel, Vertonghen and Carrasco – would stretch the greater part of the distance from the Aviva to Belgium’s own King Baudouin Stadium.

Defeat would have stalled whatever momentum Ireland had built in a six match unbeaten run at the tail end of 2021.

But then came salvation made in Cork: Browne the finisher, but it was Ogbene the provider who sprinkled the stardust on a March evening in Dublin.

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