Shane Duffy’s injury-time goal rescued a draw for new Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny in the Nations League opener in Bulgaria.
Captain Duffy climbed highest to nod Robbie Brady’s corner home after Bozhidar Kraev’s 56th-minute opener.
A youthful Republic attack missed chances in Sofia but Kenny will be satisfied with a point in a testing managerial debut at this level.
The Irish host Finland in Dublin in their second Group 4 game on Sunday.
Kenny signalled his trust in the Republic’s emerging youngsters by handing a senior debut to Norwich City striker Adam Idah, with the 19-year-old flanked by Aaron Connolly, 20, and Callum O’Dowda, 25.
However, it was Bulgaria’s young forward Kraev, 23, who broke the deadlock when he drifted in between Duffy and John Egan before slotting a low shot beyond Darren Randolph.
With the visitors drifting towards a dispiriting defeat, Duffy popped up with his fourth international goal to snatch a point after escaping his marker to direct substitute Brady’s corner beyond Bulgaria keeper Georgi Georgiev.
That late goal will boost the Republic, who must win two play-off games if they are to qualify for next summer’s European Championship.
Kenny era off to underwhelming start
Former Republic Under-21 boss Kenny, who succeeded Mick McCarthy in April, lined out in his preferred 4-3-3 at an empty Vasil Levski stadium.
Behind the front three, James McCarthy returned to international action for the first time since October 2016 to partner Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick in midfield.
Duffy captained the side with Matt Doherty preferred to usual skipper Seamus Coleman at right-back.
There are high hopes that Kenny, who led Dundalk to the Europa League group stages in 2016, will establish Republic as a fluent attacking side, and while there was plenty of pace on show in attack, the visitors often lacked a cutting edge in the final third.
At the other end, there were signs that the Republic players will require more time in which to adapt to Kenny’s style of building attacks from the back, with Duffy’s heavy touch leading to him losing possession after just a couple of minutes.
Kenny will also be disappointed with the space afforded to their hosts on a number of occasions, including the goal.
Republic miss first-half chances
The Republic’s goal may have come late on, but they were most cohesive going forward during the first 45 minutes.
Connolly, earning just his third cap, passed up a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring after 14 minutes when he dispossessed Kristian Dimitrov, but curled his tight-angled shot wide with Idah positioned for a possible tap-in in the middle.
The Republic’s two other noteworthy first-half chances fell to Doherty and O’Dowda, neither of whom managed to keep their efforts on target after crosses from the left flank. Prior to the goal, the Republic managed only two shots on target, both of which were comfortably saved by Georgiev.
Bulgaria, however, showed early signs of their own attacking threat when Todor Nedelev sent a lob over the bar after latching onto Anton Nedyalkov’s stunning diagonal pass.
Republic goalkeeper Darren Randolph was then forced to race out and rob Galin Ivanov on the edge of the area after the midfielder had eluded the Irish defence.
Having found space in behind the Republic defence in the first half, Bulgaria struck the crucial blow 11 minutes after the break when Nedelev spotted the space between Duffy and Egan before finding Kraev, who slipped his left-footed effort underneath Randolph.
But Duffy, who also rescued the Republic with a late header to secure a 1-1 draw against Denmark during the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, ensured that Kenny avoided defeat in his first game with a well-guided header.
- 3ZanevSubstituted forGalabovat 79′minutes
- 9DelevSubstituted forKaragarenat 76′minutes
- 8NedelevSubstituted forTsvetkovat 83′minutes
- 12Slavov Rabotov
- 19Isa Mustafa
- 21Yavorov Krastev
R. of Ireland
- 3StevensBooked at 22mins
- 8McCarthySubstituted forBradyat 70′minutes
- 15O’DowdaSubstituted forRobinsonat 74′minutes
- 9IdahSubstituted forLongat 77′minutes
- Manuel Schüttengruber
Match ends, Bulgaria 1, Republic of Ireland 1.
Second Half ends, Bulgaria 1, Republic of Ireland 1.
Foul by Robbie Brady (Republic of Ireland).
Georgi Georgiev (Bulgaria) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Goal! Bulgaria 1, Republic of Ireland 1. Shane Duffy (Republic of Ireland) header from the centre of the box to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Robbie Brady with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Republic of Ireland. Conceded by Strahil Popov.
Attempt missed. Callum Robinson (Republic of Ireland) left footed shot from outside the box is high and wide to the left. Assisted by Matt Doherty.
Foul by Aaron Connolly (Republic of Ireland).
Birsent Karagaren (Bulgaria) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Attempt missed. Shane Duffy (Republic of Ireland) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Robbie Brady with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Republic of Ireland. Conceded by Georgi Georgiev.
Aaron Connolly (Republic of Ireland) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Foul by Strahil Popov (Bulgaria).
Attempt missed. Callum Robinson (Republic of Ireland) right footed shot from outside the box is high and wide to the left. Assisted by Robbie Brady with a headed pass following a corner.
Substitution, Bulgaria. Aleksandar Tsvetkov replaces Todor Nedelev.
Corner, Republic of Ireland. Conceded by Kristian Traychev Dimitrov.
Attempt missed. Birsent Karagaren (Bulgaria) right footed shot from the right side of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Todor Nedelev.
Attempt blocked. Robbie Brady (Republic of Ireland) left footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Callum Robinson.
Substitution, Bulgaria. Plamen Galabov replaces Petar Zanev because of an injury.
Substitution, Republic of Ireland. Shane Long replaces Adam Idah.