Stephen Kenny’s tenure as Republic of Ireland boss started with a 1-1 Nations League draw in Bulgaria as Shane Duffy struck an injury-time equaliser.
After an encouraging first-half display, Kenny’s side were caught out by Bozhidar Kraev (56) after he found space in between Ireland defenders Duffy and John Egan.
Ireland looked out of ideas with time running out but a late corner was headed home by Duffy (90+3).
The original plan was for Kenny to succeed Mick McCarthy after Euro 2020 but due to the coronavirus pandemic that tournament has been rescheduled, so Kenny has the chance to take Ireland to the Euros via the play-offs.
However, they have won just one of their last 11 away matches in all competitions, failing to score in six of those – something which will be a big cause of concern for Kenny ahead of their crucial one-legged play-off in Slovakia next month.
How Kenny kicked off the new era…
Kenny’s team were perhaps fortunate to escape when defender Kristian Dimitrov was allowed to meet a free-kick with a glancing header, but it was Dimitrov who was heaving a sigh of relief within minutes when he gifted the ball to Aaron Connolly, who shot wastefully across goal from a tight angle.
Ireland were enjoying the better of the game without creating chances despite Connolly and Callum O’Dowda seeing encouraging amounts of the ball, and were working hard to pin the Bulgarians back deep inside their own half for long periods.
However, they were almost caught when, after Matt Doherty’s through-ball had been picked off, full-back Anton Nedyalkov delivered a fine cross-field pass into the path of Todor Nedelev, who lifted his shot high and wide.
Doherty was unable to make meaningful contact with Conor Hourihane’s inviting, but half-cleared, cross four minutes before the break, and O’Dowda could not direct Enda Stevens’ driven ball at goal after good work by Jeff Hendrick on the stroke of half-time.
Darren Randolph comfortably fielded Galin Ivanov’s speculative effort seconds after the restart, and then had to dive to his left to claim Nedelev’s swerving 50th-minute free-kick.
Georgiev had to keep out Connolly’s effort two minutes later after he had been flicked through by Adam Idah, but it was the home side who made the breakthrough 11 minutes into the second half.
Nedelev was allowed time and space to slide a pass between central defenders Duffy and Egan for Kraev to stab a shot through Randolph’s legs.
McCarthy, O’Dowda and Idah made way for Robbie Brady, Callum Robinson and Shane Long as time ticked down, although Bulgaria substitute Birsent Karagaren might have doubled his side’s lead.
But it was Duffy who rescued the Republic at the death when he rose to thump a downward header into the net from Brady’s injury-time corner to snatch a draw.
There were some nice touches from Idah, while Connolly and O’Dowda caused problems for the Bulgarians in the first half but their influence faded. In the end it was a reliable source that rode to the rescue.
Kenny’s first game in charge looked destined to end in a disappointing defeat until central defender Duffy, who this week sealed a loan move to Celtic from Brighton, headed home his fourth international goal in the third minute of stoppage time in Sofia.
Yes, he was partly at fault for the goal but it was his endeavour that handed his team a point they deserved.
The man himself gave an honest appraisal of his own performance.
He told Sky Sports: “It was a bittersweet feeling. I’d take the blame for the goal. It was sloppy defending and I didn’t get in quick enough. I haven’t played a lot of football and it was tough out there to get going. It’s disappointing but the more games I get under my belt the sharper I’ll be. It’s early days under the new manager and it will take a bit of time to get his ideas in.”
What the manager said
Ireland boss Stephen Kenny: “We had good passages of play and created some good chances. There were some good areas but also areas of improvement are needed too. We never surrendered belief and kept doing the right things. We deserved the equaliser. It could be a point gained considering it was a late equaliser. It was a brilliant header from Duffy and Robbie Brady showed great endeavour to win the corner.”