Ire­land want a leg to stand on

O’Neill happy the work has been done in prepa­ra­tion for a big night

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan in Copen­hagen

There was a telling mo­ment dur­ing Mar­tin O’Neill’s eve-of-match thoughts as dark­ness closed in and the rain fell and the Fri­day-night of­fice ex­o­dus gath­ered pace in Copen­hagen.

The Ire­land man­ager was asked, with Scan­di­na­vian di­rect­ness, if he agreed that, player for player, Den­mark had more “class” than his Ire­land team. There fol­lowed the fa­mous O’Neill pause. Then the fierce con­cen­tra­tion as he rooted around in that vast com­part­ment of diplo­matic re­sponses.

“I think they have some fine play­ers,” he said care­fully. “And so have we.”

As a pre­view of the lo­cal ex­pec­ta­tion of tonight’s play­off, that pause car­ried it all.

There is an over­whelm­ing sense that Ire­land have come here to in­flict some griev­ous crime against foot­ball, that the oc­ca­sion could be a case for Sarah Lund and the other de­tec­tives of The Killing. Who wouldn’t be fear­ful of Ire­land, a side that is not so much an ex­am­ple of be­ing greater than the sum of its parts as pre­sent­ing an al­ge­braic rid­dle.

Two and a half thou­sand Ire­land fans are here with tick­ets: it re­mains un­clear how many more are pour­ing into the city in the hope of wit­ness­ing an­other fa­mous night.

Åge Hareide and his play­ers had only to re­view high­lights of the Wales game to gauge how this oc­ca­sion could turn horrible for them.

All of Wales early bright­ness and in­ven­tion grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rat­ing in the face of Ire­land’s re­lent­less­ness, then the de­par­ture of their tal­is­man, an in­evitable Ire­land goal from noth­ing and fi­nally 20 clos­ing min­utes of fu­tile, long-ball at­tack­ing which the gar­gan­tuan cen­tre-backs gob­bled up.

Lit­tle won­der that Hareide chose to flat­ter the emo­tional qual­i­ties of the Ir­ish play­ers rather than the in­tri­ca­cies of the game.


“The game plan is easy. They don’t change it up from game-to-game and you see the same style of play. But you also see the way they stick to­gether and the team spirit so spread out through the team. They work well to­gether.”

It will be tense from the first whis­tle in the Parken but Hareide’s nat­u­ral af­fa­bil­ity prompted a charm of­fen­sive from the hosts as he re­called crash­ing in Mar­tin O’Neill’s place in the less op­u­lent days of English foot­ball when they were both play­ing for Nor­wich.

“A very good lodger,” Hareide re­called. “And he was a very good land­lord.” O’Neill nod­ded at the men­tion of his time show­ing the Dane how the im­mer­sion and oven worked.

“Since I was a bet­ter player, I was earn­ing more money and Åge had no place to stay orig­i­nally so he stayed with me. And I charged him very lit­tle rent,” he joked. “He was good. He didn’t use it that of­ten. Just 23 hours out of the 24. No, he just stayed for a few weeks un­til he got his own place. He turned out to be an ex­cel­lent player and I have kept in con­tact with him. Not ev­ery sin­gle year but he has an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion as a coach.”

This was in 1984-85, be­fore the play­ers they will coach tonight were even born. Both men be­long to a rar­efied group of sur­vivors from that era of the English foot­ball.

Win­ning this se­ries of games would fur­ther their re­spec­tive rep­u­ta­tions. Hareide has said that a 0-0 draw would be ac­cept­able, even if it’s not the spec­ta­cle that Den­mark are hop­ing for.

“And then we have 120 min­utes in Dublin to score a goal,” he added cheer­fully.

It’s the usual mind games. But for O’Neill and Ire­land there is a nagging sense that the best hope of emerg­ing on top is to storm the citadel once again. Bet­ter to re­turn to Dublin on Tues­day night with some­thing to hold onto rather than some­thing to cre­ate.

O’Neill’s team did that in the play­off against Bos­nia and he would ar­gue that they have be­come a dif­fer­ent group since the night they con­jured up that lit­tle-seen and much-cel­e­brated goal in the fog in Zenica. That was ex­actly two years ago and O’Neill feels their ob­du­rate streak has deep­ened since then.

“I think that the play­ers have ma­tured. I think there is a good be­lief in the camp that maybe didn’t ex­ist a cou­ple of sea­sons ago. A sort of in­ner self be­lief, any­way. It is not one that is flaunted or any­thing, but there is an in­ner self be­lief that we can come out and com­pete.

“We know we must com­pete for ev­ery­thing at any given minute. And while we know that ev­ery in­ter­na­tional side has lim­i­ta­tions, some­what, we are go­ing to try and stay as strong as we can and play to our strengths, which is the most im­por­tant thing. And use that ex­pe­ri­ence of the last cou­ple of games to good ef­fect.”

Sharp form

Den­mark’s chief goal sources are clearly iden­ti­fi­able: Chris­tian Erik­sen has been scor­ing for fun through­out this cam­paign, with Ni­co­lai Jør­gen­son and Thomas De­laney also in sharp form for a team that is un­abashed about what Erik­sen de­scribed as their “qual­ity and po­ten­tial.”

To win this play­off, Ire­land must score some­where, some­how in win­ter time. Where the goal – plu­ral may be too much like wish­ful think­ing – comes from is a source of mys­tery. This would be a con­ve­nient time for Shane Long to break what has be­come a con­spic­u­ous drought. But the fact that Ire­land’s pre­dom­i­nant goal scor­ing threat hasn’t been scor­ing fur­ther ad­ver­tises the dif­fi­culty of plan­ning against them.

There is no glit­ter­ing vir­tu­oso like Erik­sen, no lethal six-yard poacher to shut down. It’s just this bruis­ing, whirl­wind col­lec­tive that has be­gun to ma­te­ri­alise in Dan­ish minds; an en­ergy that needs some­how to be chan­nelled and con­trolled.

Rob­bie Brady, one of those Ir­ish play­ers with a flair for the big oc­ca­sion gave a mirth­less smile at the Dan­ish as­ser­tion that if they can break the Ir­ish spirit, they can win over the two nights.

“They can try. But we will see to­mor­row night. We are ready. We have done our home­work and are pre­pared. So we have to wait and see.”

Fair warn­ing has been given.

Man­ager Mar­tin O’Neill and as­sis­tant man­ager Roy Keane at Repub­lic of Ire­land train­ing at the Parken Sta­dium last night. PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN BYRNE/INPHO

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