Ireland: Playing Off Again

by | Nov 20, 2019

It was a typical Ireland/Denmark affair. Tight, tense. Whatever free-flowing football fell through the cracks was played by one side. The other defended at some midway point between desperately and heroically, nicking a goal and a point from one of their few forays forward. And yet, in Monday’s ‘crunch’ Euro 2020 qualifier, for possibly the first time, Ireland were the one side and Denmark the other.

Thus was Irish fan frustration at the 1-1 draw compounded. It left the boys in bloody horrible dark green on the long play-off road to god knows where (well, Slovakia) yet again. But while Ireland were clearly the third-best team in Group D, they were clearly NOT the second-best team on the night.

In RTE telly’s post-match panel discussion, Dietmar Hamann said Ireland weren’t good enough over the eight group games. Richie Sadlier said any team could “pick their best performance” and claim that “if we played like that all the time, we’d have qualified.” And they were both caveating Liam Brady’s bold declaration that it was Ireland’s “best performance for years.” But all three were right.

Mick McCarthy’s first spell as Ireland manager took a while to crank into gear. After an early friendly-match trimming, he said that if he could be half as successful as his predecessor, ‘Big’ Jack Charlton, he’d be satisfied. “A fair bit to go, then,” Ireland fans thought in unison. His second spell has also cranked slowly. Ireland were awful until Monday, bar two watchable displays by their second-string in lightweight occasions even for friendlies.

And this second cranking into gear might be too late both for McCarthy personally and the Ireland team. He leaves the role when Ireland leave Euro 2020, even if they win it outright, presumably, a scenario that, naturally, hasn’t been considered. And Ireland would be second-favourites against most of their potential play-off opponents. Yet, before Monday, Ireland might have been third-favourites. Now, as the ‘Balls.ie’ Irish sports website tweeted in the game’s immediate aftermath, “It’s still on.”

Last Thursday’s New Zealand friendly resembled a satisfying support act at a big concert, rather than the meaningless farce it could have been, as Ireland B won 3-1 against a side with some(CHK) familiar names from the impressive All-Whites team at this summer’s Under-20s World Cup. And, from this distance anyway, the evening seemed to boost pre-big-match optimism.

This optimism survived disconcertingly upbeat versions of Amhran na bhFiann and the accursed Fields of Athenry, the latter almost descending/elevating (delete per musical taste) into modern jazz. Sky commentator Rob Hawthorne got his Thierry Henry reference out of his pipes early (ten years to-the-day since THAT Henry handball, none of us needed reminding). And Ireland began the match pinging the ball about like they’d watched a Barcelona 2011 training video for three days solid, despite Hawthorne’s mystifying reference to “a tentative opening quarter-of-an-hour.”

Chances were at a premium. The first quarter was pock-marked with injuries, which especially disrupted Denmark. Thomas Delaney twisted his ankle horribly un-photogenically in a 50-50 clash with Alan Browne. When Ireland centre-back John Egan and Denmark’s Andreas Cornelius clashed heads, the latter shed blood, seemed discombobulated by the tightness with which his wound was bandaged and eventually departed clutching his right hamstring. He’s had better mid-evenings. Egan soldiered on but was replaced at half-time.

And Ireland’s midfield still contained Glenn Whelan, who used his quota of appearances in the final third when he thumped the bar from 30 yards just before Ireland’s goal in Dublin against Switzerland in September. Denmark have defended more strongly during this group than they often get credit for. And with Christian Eriksen playing like he’s played for Spurs all season, Denmark were the most lacking in creativity. For once, Ireland keeper Darren Randolph didn’t have to bathe his battered hands in cold water at half-time. Despite all that, though, the first-half was better than the stats suggested.

And if Conor Hourihane had any little faith in his right-foot, Ireland would have led at the break. Hourihane pounced on some rare dozy Dane defending but didn’t quite have enough time to open his body up to curl a left-footer past Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel, who stopped the shot like a long-leg fielder aware that the batsmen weren’t looking for a second run. Three minutes later, Browne fizzed a right-footer inches wide, with Schmeichel seemingly letting it go for four (that’s the last cricket reference, I promise).

The second half was a touch more expansive. But Eriksen was still in post-Real Madrid transfer breakdown-mode. So when the game started to get “stretched,” Ireland had less to fear than usual. And, as RTE presenter Darragh Maloney noted, they had “a rake of half-chances.” Egan’s replacement Ciaran Clark was, we were over-informed, in better scoring form for Newcastle than their strikers. And his 48th-minute header nearly put him in better goalscoring form than Ireland’s strikers (15 different scorers in McCarthy’s second reign, we were also over-informed).

McCarthy’s attacking replacement of Whelan with Callum Robinson on 68 minutes was therefore transparently correct in the context of the game. But within five minutes it turned from match-winner to game-chaser. McCarthy has never been one for V-shaped offside traps. So the untimely emergence of one, just as Martin Braithwaite toe-ended Henrik Dalsgaard’s cross past the underused Randolph, was a bigger surprise than the fact of the goal itself.

SKY co-commentator ‘whispering’ John O’Shea was a puzzled former centre-half as he wondered who had “run off” Ireland’s defence and how they weren’t offside. And he groaned for a nation over replay footage of his successor centre-back Shane Duffy resembling someone checking his phone near the penalty SPOT and clearly mishearing the instructions as the rest of the defence pushed out to the edge of the penalty BOX. (RTE blamed right-back Matt Doherty for not tracking Braithwaite’s run but that seemed harsh).

Still, Duffy has so often been Ireland’s last-ditch defensive hero, and he scored Ireland’s arguably unmerited 85th-minute equaliser in Copenhagen in June. So we can forgive the dozy git this one error… Especially as Ireland then eschewed their normal panic attack strategy of long balls and pushing centre-backs forward. Instead, with sub Sean Maguire a zippy presence in the final third and teen striker Aaron Connolly missed more than ever, Ireland patiently regained their composure, played themselves back into contention and fashioned their campaign’s third 85th-minute equaliser.

Doherty’s best display for Ireland had already ensured that skipper Seamus Coleman was minimally missed when he semi-drilled in a cross which Denmark barely cleared. And when left-back Enda Stevens clipped the ball in again, Doherty had joined the six-yard box party sufficiently late and un-noticed to plant a downward header past Schmeichel. A goal which simultaneously gave Ireland hope and, being exclusively fashioned by full-backs, exposed their goalscoring problems.

Denmark couldn’t fashion a clear chance in added time, as Ireland hurtled forward in numbers, partly because James McClean started playing like he was twins, sliding in at right-back at one stage. But Ireland couldn’t fashion one either, without the one requisite lucky penalty-box break. And Schmeichel was more bothered by a missile from the knobhead section of the crowd than Stevens’ lash at a late loose ball, which headed for Wicklow as McCarthy nearly did himself a mischief with an anguished pirouette back-and-across his technical area.

But Ireland missed out on automatic qualification less because of Monday than…well…every other day. Especially their timidity in Tbilisi and ineptitude against Gibraltar. Twice. The Copenhagen Post newspaper called Monday “atrocious,” noting disapprovingly that Brathwaite’s goal “was practically his first touch…and he was in the starting line-up.” Now, Danish players and press are always snooty about Ireland. So this may have been anguish at their own atrociousness and failure to beat Ireland over 180 minutes. But, as Balls.ie noted “the Danes are sick to death of Ireland…much like Ireland.”

And, good though Ireland were on Monday, there would surely have been dialectical variants on “WTF was that sh*t?” (with an added ‘e’ north of Birmingham) from any watching England fans, currently enjoying free-flowing, goal-laden dispatches of Georgia-eque opposition. After all, the Guardian felt comfortable headlining Barry Glendenning’s piece on the Groundhog Day nature of Ireland/Denmark matches “An unlikely circle of footballing hell.”

Hope remains, though. The Independent’s Miguel Delaney noted, via headline, the “predictability of the 1-1 draw and how the result defines them.” He called the play-offs Ireland’s “natural habitat” and 1-1 their “natural scoreline,” recounting how (scarily) many Ireland “successes” were “1-1s.” But his article read like it was only fact-checked against the result. And his opening gambit: “It was, like so many Ireland attacks against Denmark, so predictable” was plain wrong.

The ‘B’ teams which beat Bulgaria and New Zealand impressed, even accounting for the flighty nature of the games. Slovakia are beatable, though the Slovak for “Ireland are beatable” is surely being written, especially as they’re at home. Bosnia WERE beaten in 2015. And Northern Ireland were beaten out the gate and down the road in Frankfurt on Tuesday (if Germany had needed ten goals, they’d have got them). Which might leave scars.

Yes, they were a better side in qualifying, third behind Germany and the Netherlands. both better teams than Switzerland and Denmark. And I’d still fancy them in an All-Ireland final, even in Dublin. But, by March, manager Michael O’Neill will have been Stoke supremo for four months. And however “dead easy” he believes combining the two jobs will be, that might also leave scars.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s under-21s are having a fabulous campaign under five-time League of Ireland title-winning manager and next senior boss Stephen Kenny, emphasised by Tuesday’s four-goal, second-half marmalisation of Sweden (remember the name, Troy Parrott; only Jose Mourinho becoming Spurs boss can ruin his prospects…and that’ll never happ…). Lads who could be in senior side contention next spring.

The play-offs are weird. Georgia finished five points behind Ireland yet have an arguably no more difficult route to the finals (home to Belarus, then North Macedonia or Kosovo), thanks to the Nations League and the qualification rules equivalent of a Picasso painting on one of his mad days. On Virgin Media sport’s coverage of Kosovo/England, former Ireland boss Brian Kerr, as is so often the case, put it best in his fiercely Dublin accent: “You should get in on merit, not by beating teams of your own standard because you’re brutal and the others are a little bit more brutal.”

Mind you, until Monday night, Ireland themselves could have been filed in the “brutal” column. So, lets just be glad that Ireland are play-off bound again and hope that a combination of past experience and present improvement (and youth?) sees them through. And if they reach the final and it’s in Dublin, I might even be on the hunt for a ticket myself.