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, 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 against Belgium in Brussels?
There was a fine performance from Bukayo Saka, 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, having been bright for the first 15 minutes, would prove to be powder-puff.
Stephen Kenny’s search for a win goes on. It is now six games without one for him while the statistics show that his team have only scored one goal. They never really looked like breaching England, who coasted through the second half, scoring the third through Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s penalty. Southgate could even give Jude Bellingham a first cap as a 73rd-minute substitute; the 17-year-old Dortmund midfielder became England’s third youngest international.
Maguire wore the captain’s armband, with Harry Kane among the substitutes, and he put England in charge on 18 minutes with a header that showcased his power and determination. Mason Mount’s corner was headed away but only to Harry Winks on the edge of the area and, when he dropped a chipped cross back over the top, it invited Maguire to rush in on Shane Duffy’s blindside. Maguire ambushed his marker and, if the header did not look to be completely clean, it had enough on it to beat Darren Randolph into the bottom corner.
Kenny has Nations League ties against Wales and Bulgaria coming up but, with only two points from four games, the focus has turned towards the World Cup qualifiers next March, to bedding in the progressive style that he seeks.
Ireland looked comfortable in the early exchanges, working the ball into good areas around the sides, into a couple of crossing positions, and Reece James had to react smartly to snuff out a low ball from Daryl Horgan that was intended for Callum O’Dowda. They would fade.
England created openings for Tyrone Mings and Saka – the second following a flap by Randolph that led to the corner for the opening goal. And, once in front, they grew visibly in stature.
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 appeared in dangerous areas across the final third, constantly scanning for the killer pass. It was plain that he was enjoying himself.
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 not tight enough, Sancho curled a ruthless finish into the far corner. From an Ireland point of view, it was too easy.
England looked dangerous with every forward thrust before the interval. At 1-0, James crossed towards Calvert-Lewin after a Grealish pass only for Duffy to leap into a block. 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 one on 38 minutes only for Cyrus Christie to throw himself into a block while Grealish sliced into the left side of the penalty area, threatening the shot but then pulling back for Mount. The pass was just in front of thye intended target – a rare error. Mings fired wide as the first half drew to a close and, at that point, the contest looked over.
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 more busy, having to make regulation saves to deny Alan Browne and the substitute Ronan Curtis.
For England, it was all about what they did at the other end. There was a fluidity about the team’s movement and interplay, epitomised by Grealish and hungrily embraced by the wing-backs, James and Saka, among others. Saka had prodded wide after a Grealish burst and Mings’s lovely flick and the Arsenal player was too quick for Christie when he won the penalty from which Calvert-Lewin picked out the top corner.
Tammy Abraham, on to replace Calvert-Lewin, almost scored after good work by Sancho and Michael Keane but three goals were more than sufficient.