Wednesday 11 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Danish dagger goes through heart just as blood starts pumping again'

Spirited and disciplined Irish performance gets crowd onside but fails to clinch required win

Killer blow: Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite puts his side ahead during the 1-1 draw with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Killer blow: Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite puts his side ahead during the 1-1 draw with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The crowd stayed with them to the end and that felt important, the least of their entitlements.

Ireland came up short but, if there was a glorious way to fail, Mick McCarthy's men maybe found it. Matt Doherty's 85th-minute equaliser set up a riotous, almost lawless, close to a night that had Denmark sufficiently frazzled for Kasper Schmeichel to be berated by Mister Brych for time-wasting.

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But the visitors got there and, so, it was their management team falling into an emotional brace as the last whistle sounded. In his programme notes, McCarthy acknowledged a responsibility for his team to inspire the fans "by setting the tone".

The message, clearly, was delivered to those in charge of the tannoy too, 'The Fields of Athenry' booming out loud just before business commenced. An anarchic sound on a night crying out for rebel spirit.

So the lights flicked on and off and the stadium speakers throbbed. It felt like something sinful was being planned in the old town.

Dysfunctional

Then again, Ireland against Denmark is football's idea of a dysfunctional relationship. Casually abusive on their side. Resolutely neurotic on ours. As we see it, they view our football as the equivalent of deploying quills in the digital age.

So coming together for a sixth game in two years had a faint air of kinetic comedy about it. Two tribes with a self-image invisible to one another. The team in red straight out of central casting in their own eyes. The one in green keyed largely into the energy of resentment.

Much of Mick McCarthy's life in football has been spent harvesting the latter. Liked and admired in the English game, he's still never had his name written into speculation about a top-six Premier League club. That's just not his territory.

Mick's gift is a way of identifying the glory in struggle.

So this was his canvas, no question. The chance to light a fire in the minds of an underdog team now presented with this single, glorious opportunity to do something special. In McCarthy's world, the only thing impossible to protect against is a loss of will.

But that doesn't happen with these Irish players. Their belligerence is a fundamental beauty, maybe their only one. They keep running. Maybe the best of what they do is a cliché at this stage but that doesn't make it any less noble.

For all that, McCarthy's men needed a win here, not sympathy or condescension. And to get it, the risks taken had to be measured. Two years ago, forced to chase a half-time deficit against the Danes, Martin O'Neill was seduced by tactical hara-kiri. Rumour has it he's been on Christian Eriksen's Christmas-card list since.

McCarthy didn't need to see that to know what Ireland could not afford to do last night. The middle third simply had to be kept claustrophobic because, if it wasn't, Eriksen could be trusted to play as if to music.

That called for spatial discipline and intensity from McCarthy's men. The Danish number 10 may be in decline, but his mastery of space is still an art-form, his finishing radar-guided. Ireland's full-backs, Doherty and Enda Stevens, did forage high when opportunity presented itself, but never with abandon.

In possession, Ireland encountered a purposeful Danish press designed, clearly, to force mistakes. Early on, Eriksen, Andreas Cornelius, Yussuf Poulsen and left-wing Martin Braithwaite all charged forward in melodramatic surges without the desired impact. It was a sign, though, of their low technical regard for Ireland. Their sense that mistakes could be forced here. Glenn Whelan in the holding role was a conspicuous target, but his street savvy kept taking him out of traffic.

So the first 20 minutes passed largely as a game of bluff. No chances created. No sense of either side finding a rhythm that was either planned or comfortable. Trouble was Ireland weren't spending much time in the opposition half. Their achievement was entirely one of containment. Staying in the game. Hoping.

Players toboganning into tackles was all we had to animate the home crowd and, 26 minutes in, Shane Duffy somehow got his head in the way of an Eriksen volley.

But the atmosphere palpably changed just after the half-hour when a Lasse Schone error let Conor Hourihane in. Though the Corkman's shot wasn't strong enough to trouble Schmeichel, the Danish No 1 was scrambling nervously towards his right-hand post three minutes later when a fine Alan Browne volley whistled inches by.

A hard-working David McGoldrick then tried his luck from distance, the Danes slowly - seemingly - losing their appetite for the night.

On the stroke of half-time, Duffy almost got to a Whelan in-swinger, Denmark's idealised notions of themselves now no longer conspicuous in their body language.

It wasn't that they looked spooked exactly, more that they'd become programmed to biding their time.

That seemed a dangerous game to play though, especially when Hourihane's 49th-minute in-swinger was millimetres away from the out-stretched boot of substitute Ciaran Clark - Schmeichel reduced to playing a game of charades with fresh air.

Nicest

Maybe the nicest comment coming from a Danish voice all week had been the goalkeeper's observation: "The beauty of football is that there's no right or wrong way to play it!"

This was proof. A nerve-shredding, flawed, often deeply inelegant contest keeping alive the idea that this under-talented Ireland could actually do this. They weren't going to fail for want of trying. That much we knew.

As the minutes passed, Irish prudence began to diminish. There would be honour in a draw, but no glory. They knew it and chose to keep spinning the wheel. It was beautiful in a way, witnessing the sheer depth of Irish will, green shirts piling forward in a blur of incoherent fury.

But they weren't working Schmeichel and, on 73 minutes, the kill-shot.

Ireland's defenders seemed unprepared for a right-wing cross from Henrik Dalsgaard and Braithwaite ghosted in between Doherty and Duffy to get a faint, but murderous touch.

With Ireland needing two now, the game was effectively up. A pity.

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