Psychological shift was too much for Ireland to handle
Martin O’Neill’s men looked lost when they had to chase the game against Denmark
Stephen Ward loses the ball to Yussuf Poulsen, leading to Denmark’s second goal against Ireland. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Nobody is too surprised today, are they? Not really, not honestly. Maybe there’s an innate fatalism that comes along with hanging around with Ireland football teams for long enough but whatever it is, the sense that this was always possible has never been too far away. As long as the calling card of Martin O’Neill’s teams was First, Don’t Get Beat, the question of what would happen when the terms of engagement changed hung there like a bad smell that nobody wanted to own up to.
On some level, all sports come down to battles of competing psychology. In soccer, that pull-and-drag is particularly acute because of the uniquely hefty weight of a single score. Most sports feature an equivalent of parking the bus and trying to nick a winner on the sly but they’re all facsimiles, really. In rugby, you have to keep the scoreboard ticking with the odd penalty; in GAA , you still need to get out and force the odd score at the other end. Even in cricket, you can only tie up the crease for so long - eventually you need to play a few shots if only for variety.
But because one goal wins a game of football, deciding that whatever else happens that one goal isn’t going to go past you is a wholly acceptable strategy. It takes discipline and attitude and concentration. It requires your focus to be narrow to the point of being blinkered. You need to shrink your world to whatever is needed to keep an 8ft x 24ft rectangle unbreeched and anything beyond that is superfluous.
In general, people are realistic enough about Ireland’s prospects and sanguine enough about the aesthetics of it all. You’d like it to be better but if it wins, it’s hard to make your argument. Whatever it takes to compete is fine - as long as the team stays competitive.
In the Irish Times ratings after the Wales game last month, the verdict on Martin O’Neill ran as follows: “Ireland were seeded fourth in the group and finished second so all other questions fall away. Planned survive the first part of the game and win the second. Guts, aggression and composure got his team there.” He got a seven out of 10.
The true nightmare of last night against Denmark was the icy wind of what happens when all those other questions come back. The subtext to the complaints about the style of football has always been that there will come a time when just holding the other crowd at bay isn’t going to be enough. And what then?
Nobody expected it to be this catastrophic, obviously. But the threat was always there, like an unexplained shadow on an x-ray. Not that Ireland would end up getting thumped, more that they simply wouldn’t have the tools or even the mindset for chasing a game against a decent, organised team.
If you can bear it, go and watch back the few minutes between Cyrus Christie’s own goal and Christian Eriksen’s first. The Ireland players know they have to do something more than just dig in now and they start to try things they haven’t had to for a long time. The shift in psychology is brutally laid bare in front of everyone.
They tried manfully but they looked like men who had been told not to worry about learning the lingo on a foreign holiday, only to find the locals in insular mood. They had a go at getting their point across but they couldn’t construct their sentences or even find the right words in time.
Straight after the goal, David Meyler got onto a loose ball in the centre circle and saw Daryl Murphy slip into a fairly wide gap between the two Danish centre-backs. Under no physical pressure, he overhit a routine through ball and Kasper Schmeichel was able to pick up at his ease. Meyler had a strong campaign but his best work was always destructive. Here, when he needed a facility for playing the right weight of pass over a distance of 20 yards, he overclubbed and the chance was lost.
After a brief flurry down the right where they won a couple of throws and Christie got to the byline for a cross that was cleared, the ball fell to Stephen Ward on the halfway line - and we know the rest.
He played a one-two with Robbie Brady but when the Danish pressure squeezed up on him, he chose not to give his usual clipped ball up the wing and instead tried to jink outside Yussef Poulsen. He was heavily punished and the Dane’s breakaway was touch-perfect from start to finish. But at its heart, Ireland paid for Ward trying to do something he’s not used to.
That psychological shift was too much for Ireland to pull off when it mattered most. It was always going to be - it’s way too much to ask. That’s why nobody is surprised today. Shocked that it collapsed so spectacularly, yes. But not surprised.
The World Cup will be fine without us, of course. We won’t be missed. Which isn’t to say it would have been a disaster - far from it. There will be plenty of teams in it who Ireland would have given a game to and you wouldn’t have bet against us poxing our way through the group stages at least.
But as long as O’Neill’s working plan was to hold out and hopefully nick something, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that would have ended this way eventually.