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Hope rather than logic sustaining Ireland ahead of qualification finale with the Danes

There is little evidence that Ireland can pull off the win they need against Denmark tonight – but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

PRETTY MUCH AS soon as we realised Ireland couldn’t roll over the rock in Gibraltar at the start of this qualifying campaign, any thoughts that this year would be the resurrection of Irish football were postponed.

mick-mccarthy Mick McCarthy on the training ground with Ireland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

No, this campaign has been almost entirely made up of the echoes of campaigns past: the returning manager facing returning opponents; the opposing managers praising Ireland’s spirit and set-pieces; the tortured debates about not being able to pass the ball better; the wretched draw away to Georgia; the couple of feelgood 1-1 draws; the genuine quality of the goalkeeper and defence; the brief dalliance with three-at-the-back; the chronic lack of goals; the kvetching about players not being picked; the louder kvetching about the players who are being picked; the driven, dowdy philosophy. 

And now for the latest comic flourish of sameness: Ireland tonight end the campaign with an effective play-off in Dublin against Denmark to qualify for Euro 2020. 

The whole campaign feels like a kind of performance piece satirising the short-term vision of the John Delaney era; exaggerated proof that changing the manager won’t change everything else around him.

‘Hey, hire whoever you want, all I’m sayin’ is Georgia and Denmark will still be there come the end of it.’ 

The FAI’s curious hiring of two managers last year made this campaign explicitly short-term, so perhaps all of this was to be expected.

This was a campaign that was never going to involve taking the risks necessary to evolve a gameplan to do things differently in the future, because that wasn’t the manager’s job. 

No, Mick McCarthy’s job description is solely to get Ireland to the Euros, and why should he feel like taking risks along the way? 

He has taken few, and it means the group ends with the second and third seeds battling it out for second in the group. 

This is a sixth meeting between these sides in two years, and Ireland have only actually lost one of the previous five. (That’s it, we’re not going to mention that game again.)

The rest have been draws, albeit games in which Ireland have scored just twice – both Shane Duffy headers – and rarely looked like winning. 

When asked last week what word springs to mind when he thinks back over these games, James McClean said, “Ehmm…boring.”

Ireland must tonight win to qualify, while a draw will do the Danes. 

McCarthy’s side are at least guaranteed a play-off from the Uefa Nations League if they can’t win tonight, which will involve winning two one-legged games to squeeze into the finals. Potential opponents in that play-off include, naturally, Wales, but McCarthy says he hasn’t given that prospect a moment’s thought. 

Sticking with our old friend continuity, Denmark manager Age Hareide says he is expecting much of the same from Ireland and told the media yesterday he believes Ireland will revert to playing a back four. 

Hareide - six years older than McCarthy – has fallen victim to some FAI-style succession planning at home, and will be replaced by Kasper Hjulmand – who is a year Stephen Kenny’s junior – after the Euros in 2020. The Danish Association say they picked Hjulmand to develop a new, long-term plan for the national team, but Hareide’s has worked well to now.

His pragmatic, more direct approach has yielded a single defeat in their last 34 games, and that loss was a friendly defeat to Slovakia in which the team was made up of amateurs and futsal players as the senior players stood firm in a dispute with the association over commercial rights. 

Much of Hareide’s success is owed to Christian Eriksen, of course, who has scored a mightily impressive 25 goals in his 37 games under his present manager. Although Eriksen has fallen out of form and occasionally out of favour at Spurs, he has continued to deliver for his country: see the sublime assist for Denmark’s winning goal against Switzerland last month.

McCarthy was typically coy on his team selection yesterday, but it’s expected to be similar to what we’ve seen before. Darren Randolph is happily fit to play, John Egan should partner captain Shane Duffy in defence with Enda Stevens at left-back and Matt Doherty replacing the suspended Seamus Coleman on the other flank. 

Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick will continue in midfield, while Conor Hourihane is probably best-placed to join them. David McGoldrick’s return is an enormous fillip for Ireland, and James McClean is expected to continue to his left. The right-hand side is more open, although Robbie Brady probably didn’t do enough against New Zealand to prove himself worthy of that spot.

Callum Robinson is the favourite to start in that role, but he has been peripheral to many games from that position, and that McCarthy last week admitted he is better from the left means that Callum O’Dowda or Seani Maguire might come into contention instead. 

While Ireland must win, and will likely start with aggression to stoke some energy from which to feed, McCarthy warned yesterday that his side wouldn’t immediately be going gung-ho. 

At that press conference, McCarthy occasionally invited a siege to harden his team’s mentality. “I guess the only surprise to everyone tomorrow will be if we win”, he said, later clarifying it wouldn’t be a surprise to him. “I’m really directing that at other people, not to me or the players.”

Ireland are clearly out to prove people wrong. Glenn Whelan said a number of times yesterday that “nobody gave us a chance of being here”, and for all the claims to the contrary, the squad is well aware of the criticism that has been directed their way over the year. 

To give one example: McClean’s assertion to print journalists this week that he “doesn’t give a shit” about what they write about him was undermined a tad by his calling another critical journalist a “fucking weasel” in a separate room a few minutes earlier. 

james-mcclean-dejected James McClean after last month's defeat in Switzerland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McClean, for all that he infuriates and exasperates, has the full backing of his manager. His significant moment of the campaign came in the frantic dying embers of the Swiss game in Dublin, when he sprinted back to win possession and then delivered the cross from which McGoldrick equalised. 

That goal came with a slice of luck – the cross was deflected and Scott Hogan was offside – but McClean has the sheer bloody-mindedness that is a valuable currency in this Irish team. 

His manager has always had that quality, even as a player. Ireland also rounded out the ’86 World Cup qualifying campaign with a home game against Denmark, which McCarthy missed having picked up a training-ground injury the day after racing a journalist who had been critical of his pace. 

On that day, a more talented Ireland team than today’s were beaten 4-1 by an utterly brilliant Danish side, the brutal nature of the defeat summed up by the RTÉ continuity announcer after the game.

“And after the break, more comedy with Cheers.” 

For all this Irish team’s recurring limitations, McCarthy’s side are never to be laughed at.  

There is little evidence that Ireland will beat Denmark tonight, but there is hope. And forget those who say the hope kills – it’s the hopelessness that kills. 

For Ireland, hope abides and hope sustains, and who knows, when tonight draws to an end this decade of repetition and sameness, there may be one last great night to be added to the collection. 

On TV: RTE Two, Sky Sports, KO 7.45pm

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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