Sunday 24 February 2019

Major lift is needed in final throw of dice

Denmark 0 Rep of Ireland 0

Robbie Brady put in another below-par display against Denmark in Saturday night's World Cup play-off first leg against Denmark in Parken Stadium, Copenhagen
Robbie Brady put in another below-par display against Denmark in Saturday night's World Cup play-off first leg against Denmark in Parken Stadium, Copenhagen
James McClean challenges Denmark's Thomas Delaney during Saturday night's World Cup play-off

Martin O'Neill persistently bemoans the fact that he no longer has access to the services of a 27-year-old Robbie Keane.

Even a time machine, if one existed, would not have helped Ireland's cause in Denmark on Saturday night. On an evening when Darren Randolph was our most effective player, Keane would have been like everyone else, chasing shadows, looking at the ball high up in the Copenhagen sky, and wondering.

It was awful stuff, awful to watch and tomorrow night could well be more of the same. You'd wonder what Brian Clough would make of it: a current striker from Clough's once-great club (Daryl Murphy), another former employee of the former Eurporean champions (Nicklas Bendtner), both men playing as strikers but seeing so little of the ball, working hard but ending up on the periphery.

And yet...

Ireland are within 90 minutes of a place at the World Cup finals. O'Neill will instantly dismiss any criticism of the team's quality, style of play or his own belief system. Listen with interest if the critical analysis of Damien Duff on RTE TV from Saturday night is put to O'Neill when he faces the media later today (although given that Duff's fellow panelist, Liam Brady, admits on air to "not knowing much about Denmark" despite having weeks to prepare will weaken any argument).


O'Neill will point out that Ireland are within touching distance of a tournament which will have no involvement from the Dutch, the Welsh or the Czechs.

The Republic could well qualify for a tournament from which Italy may be absent. Would the fans of the nation which produced Cruyff and Gullit not prefer to be where Ireland are today? Or what of Wales, providing the friendly opposition for a Panama side heading to the World Cup?

But Ireland have to do better, a lot better, than they did in Denmark. The Danes were almost as bad as Ireland were in the first leg, their much-vaunted front three looking like three chumps than a trio who play their club football in the top divisions of Spain (Sisto), Holland (Jorgensen) and Italy (Cornelius).

There is a sneaky feeling that Ireland got away with it on Saturday, that next time Sisto has a shot on goal, or Poulsen gets a free header inside the box, they will both profit and not panic.

Delaney is a good player, mentioned as one of the best midfielders outside of the Champions League. He looked like a plodder against Ireland but can do better.

Watching Ireland is a frustrating experience. Contrary to what those within the bubble may say about pundits, critics and analysts being inherently negative and failing to appreciate this Ireland team, the supporters want, and deserve, better.

Some of the Irish travellers in Denmark on Saturday are fly-by-nights, attracted to Ireland away days like one of the Inbetweeners on his Gap Year.

Forget the football, let's wave our glasses, sing our songs and have some fun at the expense of a poor Danish girl who just happened to be going into Victoria's Secret to buy a new pair of pants for the weekend.

But many of those supporters live and breathe football. They play for, coach, manage, organise and administer with teams at all levels in all counties. They shudder at surrendering possession any time the ball is near.

Look at Shane Duffy. What would the manager of his club side say if Duffy, in a Premier League game, simply booted the ball as far away, as high up, as possible, with no intention of passing it to a team-mate?

And it's not just about blaming O'Neill. Ireland's midfield needs to be stronger, braver and faster. We can excuse Callum O'Dowda on the basis of his youth and inexperience. But Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are shadows of how they looked in France last year.

Where is the swagger that Hendrick carried against Sweden? Where is the bravado that Brady displayed against Antonio Conte's Italy? Why are Ireland's wide midfielders petrified of getting over the half-way line? Brady's loss of form in the Ireland shirt is a real concern. He had no impact on the game in Denmark, even his set pieces lacking effect.

He is a player that other nations should fear, should talk about pre-match in the way we hype up Christian Eriksen, should man-mark.

On Saturday, Brady didn't need to be man-marked, he cancelled himself out with a display as off-colour as his white shirt. Ireland needs, and deserves, better.

As the fans sing: Shake It Up Brady. Now.

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