Thursday 20 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Ireland display in Denmark pretty much the same as last time - with one important exception'

Derryman Shane Duffy topped off a wonderful performance for Ireland with the equaliser in Copenhagan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Derryman Shane Duffy topped off a wonderful performance for Ireland with the equaliser in Copenhagan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It was ground-hog night in the city of the little mermaid. The performance given by Mick McCarthy's Ireland against Denmark was pretty much the same, with one important exception, as those given by the teams of his predecessors.

That exception was the 5-1 trouncing suffered by Ireland in Dublin. Other than that, five games in 18 months have produced four draws. Three of those have come in Copenhagen so it's going it a bit to claim that the latest Danish stalemate represents a great leap forward.

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It's not just the result that remained the same. This performance was very much in the O'Neill mould as Ireland defended deep, soaked up lots of pressure and sought to strike on the break. All the brave talk about Denmark being there for the taking disappeared as the match developed into the siege mode familiar to viewers of Irish away matches.

Suggestions that the arrival of McCarthy would witness a new spirit of expansiveness and adventure seemed ill-founded. Perhaps Ireland were trying to get on the ball and create things in a way they hadn't under O'Neill. But it remained an aspiration rather than an achievement.

Ireland's midfield play was no more cohesive than ever. Our second goal in five games against Denmark was like the first one, a header from Shane Duffy following a set piece. It was all hands to the pump most of the time and we remained in the game by the grace of terrible Danish finishing.

Statistics of 18 shots to seven, 63 per cent to 37 per cent possession, 558 passes to 326 and 81 per cent passing accuracy to 65 per cent in favour of Denmark are a true reflection of the balance of play. However, only one stat really matters. For all the shortcomings of Ireland's display it yielded an important away point. In this respect maybe the game it resembled most was the 1-1 draw with Germany, which began our eventually successful qualifying campaign for the last European Championships.

The ability to hang in there is a quality not to be underestimated and has served Irish teams well in the past. But we should perhaps go easy on the tub-thumping rhetoric about this being a performance that shoved Denmark's disrespectful words back down their throats. They said we were a limited team and Ireland did in fact give a limited performance.

This particular argument will not be settled until they come to Dublin in November. Copenhagen provided no evidence that we can dominate against a good team and it's likely that the four deciding group games, which will follow tomorrow night's easy win over Gibraltar, will see Ireland coming second in the possession stakes and doing a lot of defending.

Performances like Friday night's or those single goal victories over Gibraltar and Georgia are unlikely to be good enough to oust Switzerland or Denmark for the top spots. Though there will no doubt be a few headlines of the, "Switzerland's concession of a hat-trick to Cristiano Ronaldo shows how David McGoldrick can wreak havoc against them," in the run-up to our match against them at the Aviva in September.

You can't blame people for accentuating the positive after the dismal end to O'Neill's reign and there is one respect in which hype about Friday night's match is totally justified. Duffy's performance was one of the finest given by an Irish player in the modern era. It ranks up there with Packie Bonner's in Stuttgart, with Roy Keane's against Portugal in 2001 and Richard Dunne's epic one-man stand in Russia.

Making blocks, cutting out crosses, getting in tackles, Duffy at times seemed to be playing Denmark on his own. The Derry man also found the time to execute a couple of sweeping passes, to surge over the half-way line like Beckenbauer. He almost scored in the first half before providing the equaliser in the second.

A world where John Stones plays for the Premier League champs and cost £47.5m while Duffy languishes with Brighton and cost £4m is a very strange world indeed. The Derry Kaiser's display was all the more impressive given the off-day endured by Richard Keogh, who was caught flat-footed for the goal by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and struggled throughout. It may be time for McCarthy to consider the claims of John Egan, who enjoyed a better Championship season than Keogh and could profitably link up with his Sheffield United teammate Enda Stevens.

The back four will be as busy from now as they were under O'Neill. Little has really changed in terms of style and approach. Pretending that a great transformation has been wrought by McCarthy is just sentimentality. He is a manager who appeals to our sentimental side. Who can deny that he cuts a much more pleasant figure in the hot seat than his cranky predecessor?

But talk of "putting the feelgood factor back into Irish football" has more to do with PR than sport. McCarthy is probably the best PR man Irish football has ever seen. Whether he can cut it as a manager these days is another matter. After Copenhagen the case is still marked "not proven".

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