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Dublin: 16 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020

After years in the footballing wilderness, Ireland's hero last night is finally getting due recognition

Darren Randolph was deservedly named man of the match in Copenhagen.

Ireland's Darren Randolph makes a late save.
Ireland's Darren Randolph makes a late save.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN PEOPLE REMEMBER Ireland’s last qualification for the World Cup 16 years ago, the improbable 1-0 victory over Holland at Lansdowne Road is generally thought of as the key moment.

Yet Mick McCarthy’s side still had plenty of work to do after that famous match.

They had to defeat Cyprus — something that is not always easy, as would be emphasised in particular a couple of years later during the Steve Staunton era — and they had to beat a strong Iran side in a two-legged play-off.

In the first leg of that Iran match, Ireland secured a 2-0 win. But people forget that it could have been so different had it not been a couple of crucial saves from a young Shay Given.

Source: Chimpanzeethat/YouTube

That tense evening in Lansdowne Road felt like a coming of age of sorts for Given. For a couple of years prior to then, he had vied with the more experienced Alan Kelly for the Ireland number one jersey. It is also easy to forget that less than a year previously, his club career was in danger of unravelling, with the player handing in a transfer request after losing his place in the Newcastle team to Steve Harper.

Yet from that World Cup play-off onwards, Given grew in confidence and was pretty much the first name on the Ireland teamsheet for the next decade when fit.

Randolph has arguably had an even rockier road to his current status as Ireland’s first-choice stopper. His place has been continually questioned by critics in recent years, with goalkeepers of the calibre of Given, Rob Elliot, David Forde and Keiren Westwood all eyeing up the number one jersey at various points.

Darren Randolph with kit man Dick Redmond Ireland’s Darren Randolph with kit man Dick Redmond. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Every Irish player who started against Denmark last night has had at least one full season with a lower-tier English club, while most have spent multiple campaigns away from the glamour of the Premier League.

Randolph is no exception. Now 30, in 2003, he joined Charlton Athletic’s youth set-up from local side Ardmore Rovers. For someone so agile and good with his hands, it’s no surprise when you learn that his US-born father Ed was a distinguished basketball player with UCD Marian among other teams.

The goalkeeper’s road to the top was anything but easy though. On the books at a club who were in the Premier League at the time, like current international team-mate Harry Arter, he would spend a period on loan at non-league outfit Welling United.

In the following years, more loan stints would follow at only slightly more high-profile clubs — Accrington Stanley, Bury, Gillingham and Hereford United. Randolph was learning his trade the hard way.

During this period, Charlton had gone from the Premier League to League One. However, still, Randolph never really established himself at the Valley.

In 2010, after seven years at the club, Randolph rejected Charlton’s offer of a new contract and joined Scottish side Motherwell. Ironically, it was Elliot — the man who he is keeping out of the Irish side currently — who was preventing his path to first-team football at the Addicks.

In the Scottish Premier League, Randolph was finally given the opportunity to play regular first-team football for a full season. And it was at Fir Park that the Bray native began to forge a reputation as a goalkeeper of significant potential.

During three seasons there, he was named in the PFA Scotland Team of the Year, was a virtual ever-present in the side and even got a chance to represent the club in the Champions League qualification stages.

In his final campaign in Scotland, Randolph helped Motherwell seal second place in the league behind Celtic. He could probably have spent a career there, continually earning accolades as one of the SPL’s best goalkeepers. Yet Randolph was not prepared to settle and wanted a bigger challenge, so he turned down the club’s offer of a new contract to join Championship side Birmingham in 2013.

The Wicklow-born stopper would enhance his reputation with the Blues, missing just one Championship game in two seasons.

Again, Randolph could comfortably have spent the rest of his career at St Andrews, but when the Premier League came calling, the offer proved too good to resist.

As he told The42 in a 2015 interview: “You have to back yourself. If you’ve no confidence in yourself, there’s no point in doing many things in life.”

Initially though, the switch to the Hammers failed to pay dividends. Randolph appeared to have traded first-team football for the role of Adrian’s back-up.

In his first season at Upton Park, he featured just six times in the Premier League.

Yet last year, Randolph displaced his colleague as the club’s number one, playing 22 Premier League matches in total. There were a couple of memorable performances and eye-catching saves in big games against Manchester United and Liverpool.

However, there were also a few errors that cost the club points in games against teams, including Tottenham and Sunderland.

Having sung his praises earlier in the season, the West Ham fans suddenly turned on the Wicklow-born goalkeeper. Then-manager Slaven Bilic ultimately caved to the supporters’ demands, and Randolph was cast aside again.

The easy choice for Randolph would have been to sit on the bench, relax and let those Premier League wages roll in. But he is not a man afraid of a challenge, as his previous willingness to leave Motherwell and Birmingham illustrated, despite the positive situations for him in both instances.

After the Hammers bought Joe Hart in the summer, it was clear he would not be first choice at West Ham anymore. So Randolph, no doubt keenly aware it was a World Cup year, showed little hesitation in uprooting and moving to Middlesbrough for £5 million.

I wanted to be playing games so I had to get out,” he explained in an Ireland press conference last August. “I couldn’t expect to keep playing (for Ireland) if I’m not playing at club level, so that was definitely a factor.

“I heard about Joe Hart coming in at the end of last season. I went away on holiday and then came back to Ireland for the Austria game.

“It was clear he was going to sign and that there was a race to see who could try to get out of the door first. I just think with the situation we were in, they weren’t going to let both of us go. They would have had to keep one and then let one go.”

Having been dropped by a Premier League club, many individuals would crumble and struggle to recapture their confidence of old. Yet Randolph has played with a new lease of life at the Riverside, garnering plenty of accolades and playing every minute of the league season so far, lining out alongside Irish team-mate Cyrus Christie for a Boro team currently fifth in the table.

So like almost every member of the Irish side, what Randolph lacks in pure talent, he more than compensates for in resilience.

For Ireland, he has scarcely put a foot wrong since replacing the injured Shay Given during that famous 1-0 win over Germany in October 2015, which was Randolph’s competitive international debut.

While players such as James McClean, David Meyler and Shane Duffy have been getting plenty of plaudits in recent times, Randolph has arguably been just as vital as anyone.

Martin O’Neill’s men’s problems in attack have been well-documented, but Randolph and his back four have provided the team with a solid base.

They have conceded just six goals in 11 matches now — a hugely impressive record. Randolph has earned clean sheets when faced with some of Europe’s top sides — Germany, Italy, Wales (twice), Bosnia, Austria and now Denmark.

Last night against the Danes, he gave an accomplished performance that had shades of Given’s similarly crucial Iran display 16 years ago, making a couple of fine saves to ensure both sides went into the second leg at the Aviva on Tuesday with it all to play for.

“I knew I’d have something to do, it just depended on when,” he told RTÉ in his usual unflappable manner during a post-match interview. “Thankfully I was able to do my bit for the team today.

On his impressive double save early on, he added: “It’s the stuff you work on in training and thankfully today it paid off.”

In 14 seasons in senior football, Randolph has played in just 29 Premier League matches. Since making his debut against Oman in 2012, he has earned 27 Ireland caps and nine clean sheets, though the vast majority of those have come in the last two years — he is the only player in the Ireland squad to have played every minute of the team’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign so far.

But more than anything, Randolph’s story shows the value of patience and persistence. Although he may be about to play a key role in guiding his country to their first World Cup since 2002, he has experienced as many lows as highs. He has played at Anfield, Old Trafford and the Emirates, but more often, he has lined out against teams such as Shrewsbury, Morecambe, Brechin and Stranraer.

Like every player in this Irish side, Randolph has tasted the big time enough to savour it and want more, but he has also been low enough to do everything possible to never go back there. And consistent performances like last night will ensure he never does.

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Paul Fennessy

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