Northern lights brighter on night of minor distractions
Martin O'Neill says side were disappointing going forward and guilty of sloppiness
Michael O'Neill shakes hands with Ireland's Darren Randolph after the international friendly at the Aviva stadium. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Word has it that coming into this game some of the Northern Ireland players were still smarting from that 5-0 defeat suffered when they last visited in 2011. Well, who can blame them? Having to wait seven years to settle a Carling Nations Cup score’s gotta hurt alright.
If the occasion this time was supposed to have a bit of needle about it then that was about the level we were talking alright. Sure, the home fans booed God Save The Queen then, at the end, their own team’s performance, and those who travelled did their best to give our Jimmy McClean a hard time. Nobody, though, is going to be pestering those who played here for interviews about their memories of the occasion when the 25th anniversary of this game eventually come around.
Both sets of supporters did their best to seize on whatever minor distractions there were to be had. When Robbie Brady sent in a well-weighted free and it was cleared in McClean’s direction, the Derryman positioned himself for a first time volley and a half-full stadium held its breath. He sent the ball flying over the bar, though, and into the Northern Ireland fans packed into the Havelock Square end. For the moments that followed, their guffaws filled the night air.
It was the turn of the locals a few minutes later when George Saville pulled off something vaguely similar at the other end. On balance, though, there was rather less laughing done by the locals.
At regular intervals over the course of the night, the perimeter fencing flashed up an advert for something called the National Football Exhibition. There didn’t seem to be any explanation of what exactly this might be at the time but it seemed pretty safe to assume we were watching it.
There was, to be fair, a lot to jeer about.
Glenn Whelan can be forgiven if he remembers it all a little differently. The 34-year-old got 36 minutes and was warmly applauded as his 85th and final international appearance came to an end. He coasted through it for the most part although a badly misplaced pass at one point handed Stuart Dallas the chance to spoil the occasion. It was one of several opportunities the visitors passed up while Darren Randolph also made a couple of decent saves on a night when Northern Ireland had much the better of it but couldn’t score.
The hosts didn’t really come close. Having previously suggested he is a player capable of getting on the ball and carrying it forward, willing to take on opponents and able to open up their defence up, Callum Robinson was rewarded with the lone striker’s role, something that has, over the last few years largely involved standing with your back to goal and hoping against hope that somebody else can produce precisely those qualities. It was generally what he was reduced to here. Robbie Brady’s return might have given him some hope but it just didn’t happen for either of them.
Not much of a particularly positive nature did for the hosts. The teams struggled for long spells, fed on scraps and managed a couple of half-decent set-pieces. Sean Maguire came and went, injured again. Ronan Curtis got on while Michael Obafemi stayed on the bench. It will not, in short, be well remembered.
“I thought we were basically in control for the whole game,” observed Michael O’Neill afterwards. “We had to defend for periods but that was mainly from setpieces. But we’ve seen the same pattern there that we did in the Nations League games with us doing well but not taking our chances.
“At the end of the day, the Republic of Ireland didn’t lose the game but the way we carried the ball out from the back, the performance of our goalkeeper, who is only 20 . . . there were a lot of positives from our point of view.”
His opposite number was fairly frank about how few positives there were on offer for him. “Yeah, very much so,” he said, when asked if he was disappointed with the way things had panned out. We should be able to do more going forward. We were guilty of a bit of sloppiness and Darren (Randolph) had to make a couple of saves but certainly in terms of going forward we should be able to do more.”
The chances of doing more in Denmark seem slim on the face of it with Maguire appearing to be ruled out for that and possibly for a while afterwards with what seems to be yet another hamstring injury. “He seems to be plagued with them,” said O’Neill. “It’s a blow to him, a blow to us and a blow to Preston.”
Obafemi, he suggested, has a chance of playing in Aarhus and “should come not that he has made that commitment”.
The mention of his “rawness,” suggested that the manager still has his reservations for now even if he accepts his options are not great.