The latest chapter of the 18-year-old’s remarkable rise arrived 17 minutes into his full senior debut, as he netted from close range and became Ireland’s youngest goalscorer since Robbie Keane against Malta in 1998.
Much of the discussion before the friendly centred around the Brighton striker, after Kenny confirmed he would make his first Irish start on the eve of the friendly. The early goal, a poacher’s finish after Michael Obafemi knocked it back across goal, provided the 41,211 in attendance with the moment they came to see in a well-rounded performance by the former Bohemians man.
He was comfortable in possession and in laying it off to those in support, a trait which led to Ireland’s opener through Callum O’Dowda. Ferguson also dropped deep on several occasions to help out in midfield, and left the pitch on 73 minutes to a standing ovation from the Lansdowne Road crowd, who will be hoping his debut goal is the first of many in green.
The visit of 2018 World Cup winners France on Monday will prove a totally different test however with Ireland likely to have far less possession as they enjoyed against Latvia. Ferguson will hope to find the net again against Les Blues but it remains to be seen how he will fare in a more counter-attacking approach. But for now, it was a dream first start for the striker, who clutched his match shirt under his arm while leaving the Aviva Stadium.
“I’m going to bring my jersey back and give it to my Mam and Dad, they will probably stick it in a frame. I don’t think there's a much better feeling than scoring at home with family and friends watching,'' he said.
While Ferguson took most of the headlines with his first international goal, Smallbone’s Ireland debut resulted in the midfielder being awarded Man of the Match.
The former U-21 cap proved a bright spark on the right-hand side of Ireland’s midfield three, and linked up well with wing-back Matt Doherty on several forays forward. Smalbone’s fine cross put it on a plate for Callum O’Dowda to net his first Ireland goal after five minutes, while crosses from open play and corners caused the Baltic visitors many problems.
Smallbone, on loan at Stoke City from Southampton, was a constant threat down the right flank for Ireland. According to Opta, he created more chances (6) than Latvia did as a team.
Josh Cullen and Jason Knight were rested with Monday’s opening Euro 2024 qualifier in mind, and although Smallbone has made a case to retain his starting place, Ireland boss Stephen Kenny remained coy about his chances with Jayson Molumby in contention too. “He gives us something to think about certainly. He gives us another option,” said Kenny of Smallbone afterwards.
A worrying trend continues
This team certainly has an unwelcome knack for conceding strikes from distance. Roberts Uldriķis’ thunderbolt on 33 minutes was the latest long-range goal Ireland have coughed up, after similar concessions against Armenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Luxembourg under Kenny recently.
Kenny’s side must do better at closing down space while out of possession in their own half. They have been punished far too many times from range, and if they are going to qualify for Germany 2024, this is a trend they must stamp out.
The spectacular goals tend to come against so-called ‘weaker nations’ when Ireland have the lion's share of possession and are dispossessed, but the statistics speak for themselves.
According to Opta, since the start of 2021 Ireland have conceded 23 goals, 39pc of which have come from outside the box, the highest of any European nation in that time.
“We gave the ball away in a critical area for that chance. It was a fantastic goal from their point of view. We are not happy with it but it was some strike,” said Kenny afterwards when asked about the remarkable trend of long range strikes against his side.