Aiden O’Brien marked his senior international debut with a goal as the Republic of Ireland came within minutes of ending a turbulent week with a morale-boosting victory in Poland.
The 24-year-old Millwall striker looked to have won the day with his 53rd-minute header, but substitute Mateusz Klich’s 87th-minute equaliser snatched a 1-1 draw to spare the Poles’ blushes on a night when skipper Robert Lewandowski had to wait for his 100th cap.
Having spent much of the run-up to the game in Wroclaw having to handle the fall-out from assistant Roy Keane’s X-rated summer rant at Harry Arter and Jonathan Walters, Ireland boss Martin O’Neill saw his depleted squad provide a response to their Nations League drubbing in Wales on Thursday evening.
O’Neill’s men were roundly criticised in the wake of a 4-1 reverse in Cardiff, where they were porous in defence and toothless in attack as they slipped to a fourth defeat in five games.
However, a team featuring only two regular starters in keeper Darren Randolph and midfielder Jeff Hendrick, reverted to type in front of a crowd of 25,455, denying the Poles time and space and looked to have nicked victory until Klich intervened.
The manager’s latest experiment with a five-man defence yielded more promising results than in the past, but it was the impetus provided by Bristol City midfielder Callum O’Dowda as the game opened up after the break which caught the eye.
O’Neill had little choice but to turn to his under-studies after injuries and unavailability had ripped his squad apart, but they answered his call for a reaction to the debacle in Wales.
With Callum Robinson and O’Brien stretching the Polish defence, they made an encouraging start, Robinson forcing skipper Kamil Glik into a hurried headed block and then prompting a scuffed clearance from keeper Wojciech Szczesny from which O’Brien almost profited.
However, Ireland were fortunate to escape when they failed to deal with Arkadiusz Reca’s 10th-minute long-throw and Jakub Blaszczykowski flicked on for Arkadiusz Milik to head wastefully wide as Enda Stevens, making his first start for the Republic, slipped.
With Shaun Williams marshalling a three-man midfield, the visitors managed to contain their hosts for long periods, but after Stevens had intervened to deny Krzysztof Piatek a clear run on goal, they almost succumbed from the resulting 28th-minute corner.
Rafal Kurzawa’s set-piece eventually fell to Marcin Kaminski on the edge of the box and his shot was flicked just wide by Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Milik warmed the otherwise under-employed Randolph’s hands with a well-struck effort from distance 10 minutes before the break, but a late goalmouth scramble apart, O’Neill’s men made it to half-time unscathed.
Ireland had created little going forward and if that was a theme of the manager’s comments at the break, it was addressed within four minutes of the restart when O’Dowda broke free and exchanged passes with wing-back Cyrus Christie before testing Szczesny with a curling effort.
Christie might have opened the scoring but for a sliding block by Glik after he burst into the penalty area three minutes later, and the Poles failed to deal with the resulting corner and when the ball fell to O’Dowda, he curled a cross to the near post for O’Brien to head gleefully past Szczesny.
The game opened up as the home side looked for a way back with O’Dowda firing over from distance as he exploited the space they left behind.
Ireland were forced to defend deep with Poland mounting a sustained bid for parity with time ticking away, and they eventually succumbed with just three minutes remaining when Klich played a one-two on the edge of the box and clipped the ball past the exposed Randolph.