By Damian Spellman, PA
Evan Ferguson marked his first senior international start with his first goal as the Republic of Ireland warmed up for their Euro 2024 qualifier against France with a 3-2 friendly victory over Latvia.
The 18 year-old frontman, who has scored six goals in his last 13 games for Brighton, needed just 17 minutes to open his account on an incident-packed night in Dublin.
It is the misfortune of every promising Ireland striker to be compared to the prodigious talent of the 17-year-old Robbie Keane, who went on to score 68 goals for his country in 146 appearances.
However, Ferguson did his chances of being involved in Monday night’s clash with the World Cup runners-up little harm with an instinctive finish and an enterprising all-round display in the 73 minutes he was given.
Callum O’Dowda had already put a Republic XI with an average age of just 23.6 ahead before the teenager found the back of the net, but they were pegged back by vicious long-range strikes from Roberts Uldrikis and Arturs Zjuzins and it took substitute Chiedozie Ogbene’s 64th-minute goal to win it.
Victory over the side ranked 133rd by FIFA will count for little against France, who sit third in the standings, but it perhaps provided a glimpse of what the future may hold with midfielder Will Smallbone, on loan from Southampton at Stoke, also impressing on his senior debut.
Both men played a role in the sixth-minute opener, Ferguson feeding the ball out to skipper Matt Doherty on the right to pull it back for Smallbone, who crossed instantly to the far post for O’Dowda to send a diving header past helpless keeper Pavels Steinbors.
Ireland continued to dominate possession, with Smallbone and Doherty linking well, and Ferguson got in on the act with 14 minutes gone, cutting inside menacingly before shooting high and wide, although his moment would come soon enough.
It was keeper Caoimhin Kelleher who started the 17th-minute move from which the teenager opened his international account with Nathan Collins, Jayson Molumby and Smallbone teaming up to hand Doherty the chance to cross.
His ball was recycled beyond the far post by Michael Obafemi and Ferguson gleefully stabbed it past Steinbors with the help of a deflection off defender Antonijs Cernomordijs.
But Kelleher could do nothing to prevent Uldrikis from dragging his side back into it 12 minutes before the break with a 30-yard piledriver from nowhere which flew inside his left post.
The Republic’s fortunes took a further turn for the worse in first-half stoppage time when, after Collins, Andrew Omobamidele, Dara O’Shea and O’Dowda had all failed to clear a free-kick, Uldrikis blasted past Kelleher with a nick off Collins to level.
Latvia visibly grew in confidence as the second half unfolded with Ireland rather having lost their way, prompting manager Stephen Kenny to respond with a raft of substitutions, and two of the newcomers made an instant impact.
Celtic winger Mikey Johnston, making his first appearance for the Republic after switching allegiance from Scotland, broke free down the left and fired against the foot of the post, and Ogbene pounced on the rebound to restore the lead.
Johnston, currently on loan at Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal, was denied a goal of his own six minutes from time when he carved his way through the Latvia defence, but saw his shot repelled by defender Marcis Oss’ brave block.
FT | It ends in victory for the Boys in Green!#COYBIG | #WeAreOne | #IRLLAT pic.twitter.com/VEf3oOsEOD
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) March 22, 2023