Ken Early: Ireland get the opener but Eriksen spills the beans
Irish passion no match for Danish brains as lack of a plan is shown up in Dublin
“I only see one outcome, I think Ireland are going to the World Cup,” David Meyler had said on Monday. “They are a very good team, very good players, but they don’t have the character and the heart and the desire that we have.”
This was ultra-positive talk of the kind Conor McGregor has recently popularised in Irish sport. McGregor, you will remember, wowed the world with his bombast on the May-Mac World Tour, and then got beaten up by 40-year-old strip club owner Floyd Mayweather.
On Tuesday night Christian Eriksen and Denmark reminded Meyler why previous generations of Irish sportsmen have tended to avoid bragging about victory before a punch has been traded or a ball kicked.
Hooked after 45 minutes with Ireland already trailing by two goals to one, Meyler got to watch from ringside as the Danes demonstrated why cool heads will beat hot hearts nine times out of 10. Grandiose boasts about your own warrior spirit and indomitable character mean nothing when your play is strewn with crude errors.
In the end Ireland were left facing a defeat which was their equivalent of Brazil’s 1-7 defeat by Germany in 2014. It had the same narrative arc, with the bullish bravado of the hosts exposed as bloodheaded bluster by the surgical precision of visitors who at times seemed scarcely able to believe how easy it was.
Denmark’s midfielder Thomas Delaney had said after the first leg that trying to score against Ireland was like trying to open a tin of beans with your bare hands. Last night Eriksen remembered the can opener and the Danes ate their fill of delicious beans.
At first, as the rain billowed down and Shane Duffy rose above the Danes to head the opening goal, it had seemed as though Ireland’s supposedly innate Celtic warrior qualities might carry the day.
The only problem was there were still 82 minutes left to play after the goal and, as we were to discover, only one side out there had a plan. Sheer adrenaline and euphoria seemed to carry Ireland along for a while, with one superb move down the left involving five players almost culminating in an exhilarating goal for James McClean.
The Cyrus Christie own-goal with which Denmark equalised was a little unlucky, but also ominous. Denmark had taken several short corners and Ireland never seemed to notice. Harry Arter was left to defend one-on-one against Pione Sisto, who embarrassed him with a nutmeg, but he might wonder where was the support from his team-mates.
The second goal came when Stephen Ward unwisely tried to jink past Yussuf Poulsen with a telegraphed dribble. From the moment he was caught out Ireland were in trouble, defending two against three, and Denmark coolly made the advantage count.
Martin O’Neill knew he had to change things at half-time but all he did was prove that mistakes are not confined to the men on the pitch. The decision to introduce Wes Hoolahan was obvious. The decision to put Aiden McGeady on was strange: what had he done in his previous 92 caps to suggest he was the man to turn to at a moment like this?
But the decision to take out both Meyler and Harry Arter was bizarre. Why remove your entire defensive midfield base at a single stroke? Ireland needed a goal, but they also needed to prevent Denmark scoring again. Instead, O’Neill’s decision freed up the area in front of the defence for Eriksen to run riot.
“I was surprised, they gave a lot of space in centre of midfield for Eriksen. Thank you very much for giving him space,” gloated the Danish coach, Åge Hareide.
“I can’t disagree with that,” O’Neill said when asked whether the decision had cost his side too much defensive stability. “We needed to try and get some goals, we needed to get width back into the side. In terms of strength, physical strength, we lost a bit of that in the side. We needed to try to get some goals, but it wasn’t to be.”
McGeady, as usual, contributed nothing. O’Neill gambled further and replaced Ciaran Clark with Shane Long: Ireland had gone from having nine men behind the ball in Copenhagen to nine men ahead of the ball. Hoolahan, in what might be his last game for Ireland, did create one chance for Long, who chipped over to make it 31 consecutive games without a goal.
But by then the game was over thanks to a catastrophic series of Irish errors. The goal that killed the last hopes of the crowd arrived on 63 minutes, and it was largely the fault of Ireland’s most passionate player, McClean.
Maybe one day McClean will be able to explain the thought process that led him to charge over to the far side of the pitch to try to tackle an opponent who already had two Irish players guarding him. McClean missed the tackle and Denmark transferred the ball to the side he had deserted, leaving Sisto unmarked with ample time to pick out Eriksen to score.
The fourth goal heaped more humiliation on Ward, who swung his foot at a ball into the box and succeeded only in teeing it up for Eriksen, who smashed it gleefully into the top corner. Then McClean clumsily conceded a penalty, and Nicklas Bendtner made it five. “You only sing when you’re winning” the Danish fans taunted as the stadium rapidly emptied.
McClean is the hero of this team and he has arguably been its most important player in qualification. But we place far too much emphasis on his qualities and pay too little heed to his faults. Passion is great, but stupid mistakes always cost you in the end. Let this humiliation forever dispel the notion that fighting spirit will ever be enough to get Ireland to a World Cup. We need to remember that football is a game you play with your brain.