Tuesday 11 December 2018

Daniel McDonnell: 'Please spare a thought for the organisers of the 2018 FAI Senior International Awards'

Danish dead rubber still has meaning for manager in his attempt to build momentum heading into crunch period

Keane eye: Roy Keane seems deep in thought during Ireland’s training session in Aarhus last night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Keane eye: Roy Keane seems deep in thought during Ireland’s training session in Aarhus last night. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's time to spare a thought for the organisers of the 2018 FAI Senior International Awards.

Tradition dictates that the gongs are handed out before the first game of the following year. The event is sold as a celebration. Tonight's showdown in Aarhus is the final opportunity to salvage it from ridicule.

As it stands, the Abbotstown planners are going to be presented with some difficulty. On the basis of the eight matches so far, the outstanding candidate for player of the year and young player is probably Declan Rice.

Stall

He was Ireland's best performer in all three of his friendly appearances before the decision to stall on his international future. It's a slow bicycle race for the gong if Rice has checked out of the scene by March. Few others can say they've enjoyed a good year in green.

Meanwhile, the goal of the year competition is in danger of being sued for false advertising.

The four-runner field at the moment consists of a Shaun Williams dink following an Aaron Ramsey brain-freeze, a one-yard effort from Graham Burke, an Aiden O'Brien header in Poland and Alan Judge's injury-time strike against the USA which was again kicked off by Rice invention. What a time to be alive, indeed.

So we are in damage-limitation territory here, no matter what way it's dressed up. O'Neill and Ireland need to be able to draw some encouragement from this match with a view to the road ahead.

The European football community will descend on Dublin on December 2 for the 2020 qualifying draw. They are set to be greeted by a bedraggled host.

O'Neill did not appear to enjoy the eve-of-match press conference in Aarhus yesterday. In the context of a question about Michael Obafemi, he was once more forced to defend his decision not to cap Declan Rice in a World Cup qualifier with Moldova 13 months ago.

He retains the view that it would have been 'lunacy' to fast-track the West Ham youngster into a game of significance, especially as Rice may have backed out, and Seamus Coleman backed up the manager's general argument. It remains an unfair criticism. There are other areas where O'Neill has to come under scrutiny, though, and he was again pressed if he had any fears about his future in the gig following a deeply uninspiring run that is inevitably being contrasted with the exploits of the rugby team.

"The question has been asked a number of times," he replied. "It's the same answer. You're in a job where you are constantly under pressure. You just start by trying to win some football matches, whether they are friendly matches or not."

Easier

O'Neill argues that a statistical look at 2018 should take into account the fact that difficult tests were taken on such as away dates with Turkey and world champions France. "I see no benefit in getting your stats up," he said, suggesting he would advocate easier encounters if that were his motivation.

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The Nations League tests were supposed to put Ireland against teams in the same bracket, and inadequate displays have delivered punishment in the form of demotion to third seed status for the 2020 draw.

Germany need a positive result against Holland tonight to avoid ending up as second seeds. The recent attempts to downplay the importance of the UEFA Nations League will be destroyed if Ireland end up in a nightmare regular qualifying pool containing Germany and a top seed. O'Neill was conscious from the beginning of this gathering that Denmark away could turn out to be a dead rubber and that has come to pass.

Ahead of the Northern Ireland slog, he mused that it might leave room for experimentation. In the aftermath of the scoreless draw, he clarified that there would be limits to any such process.

Last night, O'Neill spoke in language that implied that he will treat this as an important match - mentioning that the prospect of a debut off the bench for Michael Obafemi could be snookered by a limit of three substitutions.

The fact that Denmark have nothing to play for might help, however. Christian Eriksen will play, yet Age Hareide has confirmed that the playmaker will be withdrawn at some point. Kasper Schmeichel and Thomas Delaney are suspended.

Hareide is conscious that a number of his squad have big club matches coming around the corner - there was once a time when Irish managers had Champions League regulars - and will be mindful of how he uses personnel. In other words, they might not be going full tilt at this fixture.

O'Neill is well aware of the mood music and, while the FAI appear to have retained faith in the management team, the experienced football man will know that a drubbing will kick off another debate about his standing.

The 66-year-old does believe that the switch to a 3-5-2 system has solved the defensive issues that were evident in the play-off thrashing and September's humiliation in Cardiff. Should he give it another twirl here, then he will have to think about who to deploy in the holding role that was shared by the departed Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane last Thursday.

Harry Arter dirtied his bib with an ill-disciplined display against the Welsh, while David Meyler has played no football lately and wasn't even on the bench at Lansdowne.

Shaun Williams is best suited in terms of ball retention, but the manager continues to harbour doubts. It wouldn't be a huge shock if Cyrus Christie re-emerged in the centre.

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick toiled on Thursday and will have to step up their performance level by several notches, although that is becoming a tired refrain at this juncture. Eriksen's movement will have to be tracked and it's possible that one of the star Euro 2016 duo will be tasked with that brief.

Kevin Long and Enda Stevens are straightforward replacements for the absent John Egan and James McClean if Thursday's system is the template. Richard Keogh replacing Darragh Lenihan would be no surprise either.

Callum O'Dowda was ineffective in support of Callum Robinson and the unavailability of Seán Maguire has removed the most plausible replacement. O'Neill kept returning to the issue of creativity in his musings, and was reluctant for Coleman to be pressed on that subject.

"It's down to me," he said. "Seamus is the captain of the side. He follows the instructions. It's my responsibility to get them to play. I want them to play with a bit of confidence, to restore that and get back to where we were not that very long ago."

From the drudgery of last Thursday, it would be a surprise if the group lifts themselves to eke out a result that could be described as the year's highlight. Avoiding another lowlight may be as good as it gets.

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