Soccer correspondent The women’s team became the first Irish international side to be obliged by the current coronavirus crisis to play a big game behind closed doors on Wednesday. And while they won well in the end in what was a strange atmosphere in Montenegro, the silence might seem a good deal more stark when Mick McCarthy’s side take on Slovakia in two weeks’ time.
The closest a men’s senior team will have come to encountering this sort of situation is probably the friendly against Northern Ireland at the Aviva in June 2015 when the two sides played out a scoreless draw in a training game held in an empty stadium. There will only be a couple of survivors from that starting line-up in Bratislava.
The stakes will be much higher on March 26th and Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers, who played for St Patrick's Athletic in the Europa League game away to Steaua Bucharest in 2009 when spectators were banned, believes that while the absence of fans for the Euro 2020 playoff is bound to favour Ireland, it is not an entirely straightforward affair.
“There’s definitely a different dynamic to the game,” says the 38-year-old who was beaten three times in the second half at an empty Ghencea stadium after the Dubliners had kept their hosts at bay for 56 minutes.
On the one hand, Rogers suggests, the lack of what would have been a hostile crown benefitted the visitors through the opening stages. But as the home team struggled to get the opening goal, he acknowledges, the presence of increasingly frustrated supporters might well have compounded the pressure on local players who knew they were expected to win.
I remember there was an edginess to that game. The atmosphere was very different because of the lack of fans
“The pattern of the game influences the mood of the fans and that in turn has an effect on the players,” he says. “When you’re going well and the crowd get behind you then you can feed off that energy as a home team but it can work the other way too.
“I remember there was an edginess to that game. The atmosphere was very different because of the lack of fans. Obviously we would be happy about that because the Steaua crowd would have been regarded as a hostile one – that was why the game was being played behind closed doors in the first place – and from our (Dundalk’s) experience of playing Slovan Bratislava, I think Ireland could have expected something similar.
“It’s hard to quantify, though, because on the one hand players don’t pay a huge amount of attention to what’s going on in the stands but it will definitely make a difference. As a goalkeeper one of the things that I remember was that I could hear everything that was being said in the game and my team-mates could hear me. Communication is obviously much easier and that will probably benefit the two defences.”
Rogers believes that the decision to hold the game behind closed doors is the right one really given all that is going on. “The bigger issue,” he says however, “is whether all the fans just travel over anyway and then congregate in the city centre. If that ends up happening there probably won’t have been much point to it at all.”
Meanwhile, Newcastle United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka is out of the game after his club confirmed that he will be sidelined by a knee injury for a month or more. Dubravka sustained the injury at the weekend when he clashed with Danny Ings during the 1-0 win over Southampton.
The news will come as a blow to the home side and their manager, Pavel Hapal. Dubravka has been the country's undisputed number one and was a regular through the group stages of the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.
Hapal already has concerns over the availability of several squad members who are based in Italy and the country’s football association has been in talks about the situation since restrictions were put in place on travel between the two countries.