Evan Ferguson marked his first senior international start with his first goal as the Republic of Ireland prepared for their Euro 2024 qualifier against France with a 3-2 friendly win over Latvia.
The 18-year-old leader, who has scored six goals in his last 13 games for Brighton, needed just 17 minutes to open his account on an eventful night in Dublin.
It is the misfortune of any promising Irish striker to be compared to the prodigious talent of 17-year-old Robbie Keane, who went on to score 68 goals for his country in 146 appearances.
However, Ferguson did little harm to his chances of being involved in Monday night’s clash with the World Cup finalists with an instinctive finish and an enterprising full display in the 73 minutes given to him.
Callum O’Dowda had already put in a Republic XI with an average age of just 23.6 before the teenager found the back of the net, but they were overtaken by vicious long-range strikes from Roberts Uldrikis and Arturs Zjuzins and it took substitute Chiedozie Ogbene’s 64th-minute goal to win.
How the Republic of Ireland defeated Latvia
Victory over FIFA’s 133rd-ranked side will mean little against third-placed France, but it may have given a glimpse of what the future could hold with midfielder Will Smallbone, on loan from Southampton to Stoke, also impressing on his senior debut.
Both men were instrumental in the sixth-minute opener, with Ferguson feeding the ball to skipper Matt Doherty on the right to take it back for Smallbone, who instantly crossed at the far post for O’Dowda to send a diving header in front of helpless ‘keeper Pavels Steinbors.
Ireland continued to dominate possession, Smallbone and Doherty linking up well, and Ferguson entered the act with 14 minutes remaining, cutting inside menacingly before shooting high and wide, although his moment would come rather early.
It was goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher who started the move in the 17th minute from which the teenager opened his international account with Nathan Collins, Jayson Molumby and Smallbone teaming up to give Doherty the chance to cross.
His ball was recycled past the far post by Michael Obafemi and Ferguson happily stabbed it past Steinbors with the help of a deflection from defender Antonijs Cernomordijs.
But Kelleher could do nothing to stop Uldrikis bringing his team back 12 minutes before the break with a 30-yard piledriver from out of nowhere that flew inside his left post.
Republic’s fortunes were further compounded in first-half stoppage time when, after Collins, Andrew Omobamidele, Dara O’Shea and O’Dowda all failed to clear a free-kick, Zjuzins past Kelleher with a free kick. Collins at the level.
Latvia visibly gained confidence as the second half unfolded, with Ireland instead losing their way, prompting manager Stephen Kenny to respond with a series of substitutions, and two of the newcomers had instant impact.
Celtic winger Mikey Johnston, making his first appearance for the Republic after switching allegiance to Scotland, broke free on the left and fired against the foot of the post, and Ogbene pounced on the rebound to restore the head.
Johnston, currently on loan at Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal, was disallowed a goal six minutes from time when he fought his way through the Latvian defense but had his shot denied by the defender’s brave block Marcis Oss.
Kenny: Ferguson takes it all in his stride
Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny refuses to take anything for granted after watching 18-year-old striker Evan Ferguson launch his senior international career in earnest.
Asked if he’s seen a glimpse of the future, Kenny said: “It’s never easy with players. Injuries can take their toll on young players. The demands are high in the leagues they are in and it happens sometimes.
“What we have now is a high number of players who have passed, unprecedented in our history, the number in a short proximity. It has given us depth in our team.
“Evan, it’s his first start and he scored a goal. You can’t predict things going forward. He’s still learning the game and he took it all in his stride.
“Will, having watched a lot of Stoke recently, I’m so impressed with how he’s started. He’s added other aspects to his game, so he’s given us food for thought.
“Mikey, that was a snapshot of what Mikey can be.”
Republic of Ireland host France in the European Championship qualifying group B on Monday at the Aviva stadium; kick off at 7:45 p.m.
Latvia visit Wales on Tuesday in European Championship qualifying Group D in Cardiff; kick off at 7:45 p.m.