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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021
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'You can change the manager, but cannot change the players' - Danish taunts could inspire Ireland

Age Hareide’s men are in confident mood ahead of tonight’s game.

Ireland players make their way to training.
Ireland players make their way to training.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT FEELS LIKE an eternity since the last time Ireland played Denmark in a qualifier for a major tournament, but the sense of confidence — some would say cockiness — that the Danes brought to Dublin that day remains palpable.

In the one year, six months and 24 days since that ignominious 5-1 defeat to their World Cup-bound rivals, it is no exaggeration to say Irish football has been turned on its head.

There is a new management team in place, the board of the Football Association of Ireland is seemingly in the process of a radical overhaul and there is a fresh sense of optimism that has been absent for so much of the past year and a half.

Yet while tonight is undoubtedly Ireland’s biggest match since that anti-climactic November 2017 play-off, the build-up to this very important game has felt low key.

Perhaps it is due to an end-of-season fatigue for football watchers, possibly it’s the sense that Ireland matches more often than not tend to be uninspiring to behold, or maybe it’s just due to the fact that the side are meeting Denmark team, who are plainly superior to the Irish player-for-player, for the fifth time in 18 months, with a sixth encounter to come in November. With the odds firmly in the hosts favour in Copenhagen and the likelihood that the visitors will be spending a considerable portion of the game defending in their own half without the ball, the average fan could be forgiven if wariness rather than excitement is the go-to emotion amid thoughts of this mundane prospect.

Yet there are some green shoots of hope ahead of this somewhat daunting fixture. There has been an air of over-confidence about the Danes, dating back from previous games.

Christian Eriksen accused their opponents of being “too scared to go forward” after the sides last met in Aarhus, while as The42‘s Gavin Cooney points out, an ad on local TV is currently offering odds on the Tottenham star scoring the fourth goal of a 4-0 win for Denmark.

Yet they have saved their most incendiary comments for the build-up to tonight’s match, with Martin Jorgensen remarking: “You can change the manager, but cannot change the players.”

Thomas Delaney similarly described Ireland as “the most annoying opponent,” adding: “They don’t play flowing football, but they’re skilled at what they do and that makes it a struggle.

“But it’s also easy to sit and defend a 0-0. That’s just maintaining the status quo so it’ll take something different for Ireland to score.”

Coach Age Hareide and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel have since played down suggestions that they were disrespecting the Irish ahead of the game, but it seems hard to imagine that McCarthy and co won’t be using the quotes from Delaney and Jorgensen as motivation ahead of this vital match.

There is an obvious gap in quality between the teams, but McCarthy is no stranger to inspiring teams to punch above their weight, not least in his last tenure as Ireland manager, when the Boys in Green toppled sides of the calibre of Croatia, Yugoslavia and Holland, while outplaying Germany and Spain for large portions of World Cup encounters.

Mick McCarthy Mick McCarthy pictured during Ireland training on Thursday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Barnsley native has also taken ordinary enough Sunderland and Wolves teams to the Premier League, and guided an even more ordinary Ipswich squad to the Championship play-offs.

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The first home competitive game of McCarthy’s second spell as Ireland boss, a 1-0 win over Georgia, had a level of excitement that felt rare for such occasions. Prior to that match, the Aviva had not sounded as enthused or intense, owing to an Irish performance, since the 2-0 Euros play-off win over Bosnia, which will be four years old in November.

Tonight, though, McCarthy faces undoubtedly the biggest challenge of his reign so far, against a Danish side that were a penalty shootout away from reaching the quarter-finals of the last World Cup.

While it is still too early in the campaign to consider it a do-or-die fixture, there is more than one parallel from a famous qualification victory that McCarthy oversaw as Irish boss.

When Louis van Gaal’s Dutch side came to Lansdowne Road in 2001, like the Danes are now, they were supremely confident, to such an extent that they had already made travel arrangements for the forthcoming World Cup.

“I knew that the Dutch had already booked flights and hotels for the play-off and for the World Cup,” McCarthy recalled in a 2016 interview. “That just pissed me off completely. I made sure the lads knew all that and it made the team talk a bit easier.

“It was amazing. It summed up what we’ve gone through as a nation. We drew 2-2 over in their place, but still no-one gave us a chance against the team they turned up with. With the quality they had, it was hard not to be apprehensive.

“I knew if we lost, I was out of a job.

“Individually they had better players than us but, collectively, they didn’t have a better team. They didn’t have a team that was willing to fight, to scrap, to stop the opposition playing.”

18 years ago, an Irish victory over a Dutch team that boasted some of the best players in Europe seemed just as improbable as a win against Hareide’s men does now. Could history be about to repeat itself? Will the Danish, like the Dutch, ultimately rue showing a lack of respect towards their unfancied opposition?

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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