Friday 22 February 2019

Searching for winning feeling

Martin O'Neill has a huge job on his hands to lift Irish squad after bitterly disappointing year

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Colin Young

The last time Ireland played in Aarhus 11 years ago, Steve Staunton was in charge for a flattering 4-0 win. Robbie Keane and Shane Long scored two each, Darron Gibson won his first cap and the squad looked in good shape for the remaining five Euro 2008 qualifiers. They went on to draw four, including Cyprus at home, and lose in Prague before Staunton was gone.

The last time Martin O'Neill's side played in Denmark 12 months ago, in Copenhagen, everything in the Ireland garden was considerably rosier. They came away with a hard-fought goalless draw and had a World Cup finals place still within their grasp.

Thanks to Christian Eriksen's devastating display in Dublin a few days later, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane watched the World Cup as TV pundits, and it was Denmark who headed to Russia. Managed by O'Neill's astute former Norwich team-mate Age Hareide, the Danes drew with Australia and France, and beat Peru in the group stages before they were knocked out of the round of 16 by eventual finalists Croatia.

That campaign would have serious implications for the Danish squad, although, sadly for O'Neill and Ireland, not significant enough to last until tomorrow night's trip to Ceres Park and Arena on the outskirts of the east coast town.

Denmark's players returned from the finals to a major dispute with the Danish FA (DBU) over the national squad's commercial image rights. The DBU wanted more flexibility over players' contracts but Christian Eriksen and Borussia Dortmund's Thomas Delaney were among those to dig their heels in and threaten to refuse to play at the start of the Nations League campaign.

Rather than cancel their fixtures during the negotiations, which could have led to a UEFA ban, the DBU insisted on fielding a team for a friendly in Slovakia, just four days before the Nations League opener with Wales in September. A Denmark XI, including futsal players and an online tricks star, lost 3-0 to Slovakia before common sense prevailed and the first-choice squad was restored.

Shane Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Three days after Ireland were humbled by Wales, Denmark beat a strong Welsh side 2-0 in Aarhus, with Eriksen scoring twice. No doubt to O'Neill's relief, the Tottenham midfielder was then injured for last month's goalless draw in the Aviva Stadium but he will be fit to face Ireland tomorrow, although captain Simon Kjaer misses out.

Hareide made no secret of his ambitions, or lack of, in the last meeting. Unlike 12 months ago when Eriksen ran riot, the Danish coach knew the limitations of his team without his star man and he set up to keep Ireland at bay and leave with a point. Defensive midfielder Delaney was comfortably man of the match and Ireland failed to trouble goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

Denmark's win in Cardiff on Friday night is unlikely to change Ireland's mindset. This has been one of the worst years in Irish football history and the deflation and negativity surrounding O'Neill's squad is palpable.

Brighton defender Shane Duffy admitted Thursday night's poor friendly showing was a missed opportunity to lift the gloom. Duffy, now one of Ireland's senior players, is unable to put his finger on the lethargy, desperation and frustration which has handicapped a squad who were on the verge of the World Cup finals just 12 months ago. The mystery stretches into the management and coaching team, it seems, on the evidence of Thursday.

"It has been a tough year," said Duffy. "We want to sign off every game with positivity. We have to keep believing in ourselves and we do. We have got good players in that changing room and good staff and a good manager who believes in the players. It's up to us to go out and perform, but it's not through the lack of effort or trying to get results.

"The manager will keep drilling it into us until we get it right and hopefully with a bit of luck, which we haven't had this year, you never know, a couple of results will go our way. Hopefully we can sign off the year on a positive note and then come back in March, when we will know who we are playing in the Euro qualifiers, and we can kick off with a bit of positivity and go for it again.

"It is just not clicking for us at the moment. We are trying to play it a bit more and not just launch it, but we were getting caught a bit. It was sloppy on Thursday and we need to create a little bit going forward and not just rely on set-pieces. I know we always seem to be talking about it, but it is down to the players out there to show and be braver on the ball and do what lads do at club level. That is where we are not clicking at the moment.

"It hasn't been a good year and it is hard. We are trying and it's a bit negative from everyone around the place so it's up to us as players to get that winning feeling before the game. We said this week, 'Let's get the winning feeling back'. We haven't won in a while and it's down to us now.

"It's a year now since the 5-1 defeat and we are footballers and you've got to move on. If it is hanging over us it shouldn't be and we have to put it to bed. Listen, it will hurt for a long time but it is up to us as players to go out there. A lot has happened since then, it's a different team and it is a different step up.

"This is international football and you are playing the highest quality. I still get nervous going out to play for Ireland, it's a different feeling. It takes time and it takes character if you want to go to the next level and stay there for a long time like the great Irish players have. It comes through patience.

"We have good players here and we have the right man there to guide us. A year ago we were one game away from the World Cup, so it's just about getting the right team, letting them do it and get his team right and I am sure we will be back with good times. It is up to us to make that good feeling for the country again. As a changing room we all want to stick together."

A former Premier League coach and assistant manager, who has been working abroad for more than a decade, said the Ireland team he saw in midweek was the worst for more than 30 years, when he was still playing in the top flight. He said: "Ireland have always had good players, I don't see that now but even when Brazil came to Lansdowne Road, they were full of fear because the Ireland players would get in their faces and get among them and sadly I don't see that either."

Not since 1982 have Ireland only won one game in a calendar year. This year they have won just once in eight games and failed to score in the three home fixtures since the 2-1 victory over the United States in June.

Throughout the year, O'Neill has remained upbeat, if increasingly annoyed at the criticism. After his team was booed off the pitch, and his image on the big screen in the dying minutes booed by supporters from both sides of the border and stadium, perhaps it was no wonder he looked fed up.

The prospect of Eriksen destroying his team again, and putting his job in serious jeopardy tomorrow, cannot be lost on O'Neill. "World-class players can deal with situations and he is a world-class footballer," he said. "He will be hard to deal with. I think that regardless of some sort of plans you might make, players can extricate themselves from those positions.

"In the first game when we played Denmark, he was relatively quiet. We gave him a bit of space here, particularly in the second half which he exploited pretty well and he's a top-class player."

O'Neill has just passed his fifth year as Ireland manager. He was asked if this is his biggest challenge in that period.

"Naturally it's a challenge as you have to try to win some football matches. You're in the business to try win games.

"These are international matches and they are not easy but we should do better. We have to try and get some goals and that has been a problem in my five years here, trying to get goals from somewhere.

"We have been able to manage it in the past and hopefully we can do so again. Not only that, but first of all, we need to be more creative. The more chances we have in and around the penalty area, the better chance we have of converting those.

"In an ideal world, it would be great if we were starting off with guys who are pretty much regulars in their sides, regardless of what league it may be. That's not the case and you take that into consideration.

"Coming in here, for the first couple of days, you're a little bit low because you're not in the starting line-up, you're looking at other players who are maybe doing so and it's up to us to try to build up that confidence. Overall, players are coming into our squad and not all are playing regularly and therefore we have to take a few things into consideration when you're playing them."

When the new Nations League started in the autumn, O'Neill confessed he didn't really understand the rules of UEFA's new competition. Now the first phase is concluding, the mess Ireland have made of it is starting to make sense, although all is not lost and the confirmation of relegation could work in Ireland's favour if they can start taking the competition seriously and win some matches.

It is a long shot but they could still qualify for Euro 2020 through the Nations League format.

Ireland will be in the third-seed pot for the draw in Dublin next month. And then the problems could really start.

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