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O'Neill brings Ireland back to scene of last win of Staunton's doomed reign

Steve Staunton was sacked shortly after that 2007 fixture. Will Martin O’Neill suffer a similar fate?

Paul Dollery reports from Aarhus, Denmark

THE UEFA NATIONS League was conceived as a means of replacing futile friendly fixtures with games of genuine consequence.

Yet when Ireland conclude their inaugural campaign against Denmark tomorrow evening in Aarhus (7.45pm Irish time), nothing will be at stake for either team.

Martin O’Neill Ireland manager Martin O'Neill pictured during Thursday's game against Northern Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Nations League offered Martin O’Neill’s side an opportunity to install the safety net of a play-off place before the conventional qualification process for Euro 2020 even began.

Instead, the results yielded from a series of dismal displays may only have served to make it even more difficult for Ireland to make it to their third consecutive European Championship.

Taking just one goal and one point from their three games so far has ensured that the Boys in Green are guaranteed to finish at the bottom of Group B4, regardless of tomorrow’s result against the Danes, whose place at the top of the table was cemented by Friday’s 2-1 win against Wales in Cardiff.

A goalless draw with Denmark in Dublin was sandwiched between defeats to the Welsh both at home and away. As a result, Ireland have been downgraded from second to third seeds for next month’s Euro 2020 qualifying draw.

Returning to Danish soil has highlighted the extent of this team’s deterioration under Martin O’Neill over the past 12 months. The forecast looked much brighter when O’Neill’s side were last here.

Buoyed by a victory away to Wales, Ireland were seemingly afforded the luck of the draw for the World Cup 2018 play-offs by being paired with Denmark instead of Italy, Croatia or Switzerland.

A view of the Irish fans during the game A huge contingent of Irish fans travelled to Denmark for the World Cup play-off first leg last November. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

An industrious performance in Copenhagen in November 2017 produced a 0-0 draw, leaving Ireland relatively well-placed to advance to their first World Cup in 16 years. Yet despite having home advantage three days later, a second-leg capitulation resulted in a 5-1 defeat which sparked the beginning of a decline which has continued throughout 2018.

Many of the Ireland supporters who made the journey to the Danish capital a year ago were unable to get their hands on tickets. Such was the demand, the Danish FA were forced to issue a statement which warned that Irish fans who purchased tickets for areas of the stadium outside their designated section would be denied access.

Ceres Park in Aarhus is half the size of Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, but there have been no such concerns over capacity on this occasion. To no great surprise, green jerseys and scarves have been comparatively scarce on the streets of Denmark’s second city today. Even the most ardent follower couldn’t be criticised for giving this one a miss.

The impact of the poor fare being served up by Ireland has also been felt at home. According to the official attendance, there were 20,000 empty seats at the Aviva Stadium for Thursday’s game against Northern Ireland. The standard of the entertainment caused that number to be much greater by the time the final whistle sounded.

From possession to attempts on goal, all the statistics were in the North’s favour — except the scoreline. For that, Ireland could be particularly thankful to Darren Randolph, whose superb goalkeeping denied the visitors the win they deserved for controlling the game.

It may have finished level, but the contest put Ireland’s demise in stark perspective, while simultaneously rubbishing the assertion that Irish fans are not entitled to expect anything better from their team because of the quality of personnel in the squad.

asa Ceres Park in Aarhus. Source: Tim Goode/PA Wire/PA Images

Northern Ireland are no world-beaters, and their inability to convert chances has seen them struggle in the Nations League too. Nevertheless, their manager Michael O’Neill has succeeded in defying the absence of outstanding individuals at his disposal by building a team which is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.

Ireland’s passages of play generally broke down before a second hand was required to count the number of passes involved. Home fans looked on longingly as a team of comparable talent retained possession with ease, spread the play at pace and generated goalscoring opportunities without having to rely on set-pieces.

While Ireland lacked confidence and direction, their neighbours were organised and cohesive. It didn’t take long for Northern Ireland to identify the opposition’s weaknesses and limitations, and they were left to rue their failure to capitalise.

Perhaps most importantly, Michael O’Neill’s players appeared to possess an understanding of their individual roles; of what had been asked of them by the man responsible for preparing the team. Each Ireland game under Martin O’Neill seems to offer further evidence that — in spite of the similarities when it comes to resources — the two set-ups are vastly different.

Having arrived in Denmark yesterday, Ireland will train at Ceres Park this evening following the pre-match press conference. Several adjustments to the squad have been enforced since the clash with the North. The lack of any tangible reward on offer tomorrow may therefore tempt O’Neill into a degree of experimentation.

James McClean’s suspension could see Sheffield United’s Enda Stevens handed a first competitive start. Injuries have ruled out John Egan, Alan Browne and Sean Maguire, while Glenn Whelan has returned to Aston Villa on the back of his international farewell.

PA-4960683 Robbie Keane celebrates after scoring for Ireland against Denmark in Aarhus in 2007. Source: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive/PA Images

Defensive duo Jimmy Dunne (Hearts, on loan from Burnley) and Lee O’Connor (Manchester United) have been drafted in, joining goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool) and striker Michael Obafemi (Southampton) in the uncapped contingent among the travelling party.

Martin O’Neill has brought an Irish team to Aarhus for the first time since 2007, when Steve Staunton oversaw a 4-0 victory thanks to a brace each from Robbie Keane and Shane Long. The current side have sunk so low recently that comparisons are increasingly being made to Staunton’s doomed reign.

That win was Staunton’s last as Ireland manager, the legendary defender going on to be dismissed from the role before the year was out. Will Martin O’Neill suffer a similar fate? To answer that question, the FAI will be weighing up the implications for the coffers.

Dismissing a €2million-per-year manager halfway into his contract won’t help the efforts to repay the Aviva Stadium debt. However, dwindling attendances and a failure to qualify for Euro 2020 — where Ireland would be guaranteed two lucrative games in Dublin — would have a much bigger impact on the association’s financial health.

O’Neill’s tenure has produced several nights that will live long in the memory for Irish fans, but past achievements can’t be allowed to obscure a bleak future. This year has been grim. Persisting with the same approach is likely to lead to even darker days in 2019.

Prior to dead-rubber fixtures such as this, it’s often said that there’s only pride to play for. The regrettable reality for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side is that they’ve given fans nothing to be proud of this year. An improbable result in Aarhus would be scant consolation.

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Paul Dollery

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