O’Neill gets a friendly helping hand on a night of low drama
Denmark looked the ordinary team they are shorn of Tottenham's Christian Eriksen
James McClean clashes with Denmark’s Mathias Jorgensen and Thomas Delaney during the Nations League match at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
So much for the Nations League spelling the end of international friendlies. The stakes in this one felt lower than a gnat’s knee all night, the sort of game that a cranky coach would break up in a snot if it happened in a training session. Denmark came looking for a draw and Ireland were largely happy enough to oblige. The evening carried all the jeopardy of a lunchbreak game of conkers.
Half an hour before kick-off, there was parking handily available on the Shelbourne Road in Ballsbridge, a five-minute walk from the front door of the stadium. They told us, apparently with a straight face, that the attendance was 41,220. They were understandably coy about how many of the tickets had been given away.
At any rate, for most of the game the place had much the same atmosphere as the closed-doors game between Croatia and England the previous night. Whatever the crowd paid for their seats, they were rarely moved anywhere close to the edges of them. There was the odd wild shot, one save of note apiece by Kasper Schmeichel and Darren Randolph, one hack off the line by Harry Arter and an enjoyably coltish cameo from Callum Robinson.
And that was more or less that. Otherwise it was a night of duelling long throws, the odd half-a-loaf forced corner and the usual grinding midfield stalemate. One early flashpoint involved Jeff Hendrick playing the not especially artful dodger by robbing Thomas Delaney high up the pitch when the Danish midfielder had clearly stopped to allow the injured Arter some treatment.
That Hendrick missed the ensuing one-on-one with Schmeichel was just about enough to avoid an international incident. As Jon Walters put it on Twitter, it was very sporting of the Ireland midfielder to put the ball out for a goalkick given how clear-cut the chance was. Save for a late penalty shout from Shane Duffy – which actually earned the big Derry centre half a yellow card for his swan dive – there wasn’t a whole lot else to get excited about.
In other words, it was precisely the sort of game Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane needed. Boring scoreless draws have lifted the siege for countless Ireland managers down the years, taking just enough steam out of any given situation so that everyone can live to grind another day. Regardless of what happens here against Wales on Tuesday night, it’s highly unlikely that there will be any push now to change the names above the door ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign starting in earnest.
What any Ireland manager needs above all is a lack of drama. We are a hungry people but we are a realistic people. Deadening draws that bore us to our marrow are part of who we are – nobody is going to send O’Neill to the gallows for merely holding a mirror in front of us. Things only get dicey when we start getting thumped by countries who are just as ordinary as we are. Shorn of Christian Eriksen for the night, that describes Denmark to the letter.
They had precious little that was eyebrow-raising to offer here, outside of the occasional burst of energy and wit from Pione Sisto down the left wing. The closest they came to a goal was when centre half and captain Simon Kjaer got his head to a corner just short of the hour mark but with Randolph out of the picture, Arter did the needful stationed on the goalline.
Beyond that, there was the occasional Danish pot-shot to keep the linesmen in work and the only other time Randolph was beaten, Sisto’s curling shot after he cut in from the left hit the outside of his right-hand post. For the rest of the game, Denmark looked like backing singers without a frontman – perfectly competent, thoroughly professional but singularly lacking in stardust.
That’s a scenario Ireland are well familiar with, of course. And for most of the night, the two sides arm-wrestled away to pass the time with no possibility of anyone getting hurt. It was only when Robinson came off the bench in the closing quarter that Ireland had any sort of verve to them. The Preston attacker scampered about the place with intent, haring here and there and waking the crowd up.
For all that, Schmeichel only had one real stop to make, diving to his left to bat a Cyrus Christie shot around the post midway through the second half. When Duffy was baulked in injury-time, he was right to see could he finagle a penalty out of it. Just as the referee was right to see through it.
Anyway, a goal then would have been somewhat against the spirit of the game. Probably best for all concerned that it never came.