It was a night when England’s superiority was so pronounced it felt a little strange to think they had not beaten the Republic of Ireland for 35 years. The run was sparked by the Ray Houghton-inspired defeat at Euro 88, with six draws after that, many of them turgid, but here there was only expression as Gareth Southgate enjoyed doing what he is paid to do – win football matches.
The manager has more closely resembled a politician for much of the season and he could reference a “turbulent week” for the Football Association before kick-off, one scarred by the demise of the organisation’s now former chairman, Greg Clarke.
There was plenty for Southgate to savour on the field in this friendly, principally 61 minutes of driving excellence from Jack Grealish, who further fired the clamour for his inclusion in competitive matches. Surely, Southgate cannot overlook him for Sunday’s Nations League showdown with Belgium in Brussels?
There was a fine performance from Bukayo Saka at left wing-back, heavy on pace and incision, and morale-boosting goals for Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho, which gave England a first-half platform. Maguire’s travails this season have been well-documented but Sancho has also struggled at Borussia Dortmund. This was better from him, although Ireland would prove to be powder-puff opponents. Like Grealish, Sancho embraced the freedom to wander away from his flank to create danger.
“The two players in those roles –Jadon and Jack – they’ve got the freedom to go either side of the pitch and try and create overloads,” Southgate said. “I thought at times both of them did that really well. As soon as they are turned and running at people they are a real problem for the opponent.”
Stephen Kenny’s search for an Ireland win goes on. It is now six games without one for the manager and, even worse, his team – who were missing key players – have scored only one goal. They rarely looked like breaching England and, despite looking comfortable on the ball for the first 15 minutes, the performance lacked quality and fight.
England coasted through the second half, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin scoring the third from the penalty spot, and Southgate was even able to get Jude Bellingham on in the 73rd minute for his first cap. The 17-year-old Dortmund midfielder became England’s third youngest international behind Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney.
Maguire wore the captain’s armband, with Harry Kane an unused substitute, and he put England in charge on 18 minutes with a header that showcased his power and determination. Mason Mount’s corner was cleared but only to the industrious Harry Winks on the edge of the area and when he sent a cross back in over the top it invited Maguire to rush in on Shane Duffy’s blindside. The header was not completely clean but it had enough on it to beat Darren Randolph into the bottom corner.
Ireland had worked a few decent crossing positions and Reece James needed to react smartly to snuff out one from Daryl Horgan that was intended for Callum O’Dowda. But once behind, they wilted. Tyrone Mings and Saka had gone close in the early running and England grew after Maguire’s goal. So much went through Grealish, who demanded the ball at every turn and looked supremely at ease on it. Although he started on the left, he found spaces across the final third, frightening defenders when he ran at them, always scanning for the killer pass.
Grealish was involved in the second goal, drawing the Ireland defence after accepting a pass from Winks before popping it on to Sancho. With Jeff Hendrick nowhere near tight enough, Sancho curled low into the far corner. From an Ireland point of view, it was too easy.
England looked dangerous with every forward thrust. At 1-0, James crossed towards Calvert-Lewin after a Grealish pass only for Duffy to leap into a block while from the corner, whipped in by Mount, Maguire again beat Duffy to send a header towards the roof of the net. Randolph tipped over.
Sancho might have got another goal on 38 minutes only for Christie to block while Grealish sliced into the left-side of the penalty area, threatening the shot but then pulling back for Mount. The pass was awry – a rare error. Mings fired wide as the first half drew to a close and, at that point, Ireland looked in for a hammering.
Southgate introduced Dean Henderson for his England debut at half-time and Nick Pope, on the occasion of his fourth cap, could depart having still not been beaten at this level. The reality was that he had precious little to do. Henderson was only marginally busier, having to make regulation saves to deny Alan Browne and the substitute Ronan Curtis.
There was a fluidity about England’s movement and interplay, a pleasing control and it was epitomised by Grealish, with James and Saka also prominent. The 3-4-3 system allows the wing-backs to get forward and, with this particular pair, covers up their lack of high-level defensive nous.
Saka had dragged off-target after a Grealish burst and Mings’s lovely flick and the Arsenal player was too quick for Christie when he won the penalty. Calvert-Lewin showed off his confidence by picking out the top corner. Southgate sent on Tammy Abraham for Calvert-Lewin and he almost bundled home after an explosive burst by Sancho and a shot from Michael Keane. Southgate could be happy with three.