THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL
Goal-shy Irish are finding their feet and know. . .
WHEN Mick McCarthy says he would have taken this scenario on his reappointment a year ago — beat Denmark in Dublin tonight and they qualify for Euro 2020 — then you really should believe him, for this has been an ugly campaign even by Ireland’s recent unsightly standards.
It started with a fortunate 1-0 win against Gibraltar in March, a match McCarthy described as ‘horrible’, going as far as to say he ‘had not enjoyed a single minute of it’. Those present on that wind-lashed night were in full agreement.
But that struggle against the police officers and customs officials was a sign of the journey to follow.
That is not a criticism of McCarthy. If anything, he has done well to navigate his limited side this far, to a shootout against their old and familiar foes.
It is to the manager’s credit that come-from-behind draws in Denmark and at home to Switzerland have left them with this opportunity.
For, in truth, just six goals from a group that contains both Gibraltar and Georgia should have long since left Ireland planning for the play-offs, which is where they will head if they fail to win this evening.
Last month’s doubleheader — a goalless draw in Georgia and 2-0 defeat in Switzerland — has done little to inspire confidence of a special night beneath the lights on Lansdowne Road.
McCarthy, whose manner often straddles the divide between genial and prickly, was most certainly the latter over the course of six days in Tbilisi and Geneva when he spoke of the ‘begrudgers’ who criticised his team. He could not understand why there was so little excitement given Ireland were one win away from next summer’s finals.
The reality, as he learned during an uninspiring 90 minutes against the Swiss, is that the pessimism of seasoned observers was based entirely on the evidence before them.
Yet, here we are one month on and there appears to be genuine belief around the Irish camp. Perhaps it is the simplicity of what they need to do. Or maybe, as is more likely, they feel damn lucky to have this shot at redemption after fluffing their lines in October. Either way, McCarthy is more bullish than belligerent this time around.
Indeed, when reminded that Ireland have not beaten Denmark in five meetings over the course of the past two years, he said: ‘When people tell me: “You haven’t beaten somebody for so many times”, well, I always believe it’s about time we did and that’s the mentality that I try to instil into everybody else.
‘Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen again.
There’s loads of places being flooded in England at the minute — they’ve never been flooded before, but they are because it’s been raining a lot. ‘For us, always there’s a big performance in us that can win a game. ‘If I don’t believe it, I might as well go home, and I’m not going home anytime soon.’ The safety net of the play-offs will ensure that, regardless of what happens tonight. But McCarthy also knows this could be his last competitive game in Dublin, given they are likely to be away from home in the play-offs. ‘I’ve woken up this morning with the butterflies with the boots on and I’m pleased about that, to be honest with you,’ he added. ‘That nice feeling when you know that the big game is coming. I hope I am going to have a bigger one in June, bigger games playing in the European Championship. But for now, this is the biggest one.’ On that cold night in Gibraltar, he would have settled for the warm glow he now feels.
Danes date: McCarthy (right) and his squad yesterday