By James Agnew
Against Latvia, on 64 minutes, the Lansdowne Road crowd were becoming restless with the game locked at 2-2. Manager Stephen Kenny took some action and introduced a trio of substitutes (John Egan, Chiedozie Ogbene and Mikey Johnston). There then followed an immediate impact with Johnston adding some much-needed spark and directness to Ireland’s attack.
Just 45 seconds after coming on to the pitch, he made a driving run at the Latvian defence and hit a shot which struck the inside of the post. Ogbene then reacted quickest to tap the ball into the net to put Ireland 3-2 up. Johnston almost scored again on 83 minutes when he used some dazzling footwork to break away from his opponent, slalom between two defenders and unleash a shot that was destined for the net, only to be stopped by a brave block by Latvian defender Marciss Oss.
Johnston has only recently switched allegiance from his native Scotland and was handed his first call up for the friendly against Latvia and the opening Euro 2024 qualifier against France on Monday. The Glaswegian is currently plying his trade in Portugal, on loan at Vitoria Guimaraes from Celtic (making 21 appearances so far, scoring 3 goals). With the Scottish giants he has played 80 games and scored 11 goals.
After limited game time, Celtic decided to loan out Johnston so that he could get some much-needed regular football. Ange Postecoglou sees ability in Johnston, but adds that he just needs the right settings to flourish. “There’s definitely a talented footballer there, but sometimes you just need a different environment to help that happen”.
There is a notion that Johnston is a gifted, yet inconsistent player and his end product can be a weakness. He can be brilliant one match, but anonymous the next.
A right footed player who usually plays on the left, when called up to the squad for this window, naysayers questioned why Ireland had called up a winger – when a Stephen Kenny side does not play with wingers.
“Mikey is someone I have been aware of for a long time,” said Kenny. “He broke onto the scene very quickly for Celtic, played in four Cup finals before he was 22, but he had been out injured for a year and it was a tough one for him.
“He saw a lot of players come in and bypass him while he was injured. For him to go to Portugal was a brave step, a tough league and it is not all upward curve for him.
“He has different characteristics that will add to the squad, and we can’t expect a major impact in this camp, but it is a good introduction for him.”
Looking confident in his cameo debut, Johnston possesses that rare trait. The ability to take on and beat defenders and get fans up from their seats and onto their feet. He looks like a player that will be fun to watch and could perhaps be an ace up the sleeve for Ireland when impetus is needed in attack, or when an equaliser or winner is required. The boss did say that we can’t expect a major impact from Johnson this camp, but judging by his introduction on Wednesday night, let’s hope he can do exactly that when the World Cup Finalists come to town.