Windsor Park in 1993 it is not but Ireland badly need a win
Both of these sides are in dire straits in the Nations League and need a morale boost
Glenn Whelan and manager Martin O’Neill speak to the press. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane speaks to Michael Obafemi during training ahead of the friendly meeting with Northern Ireland at the Aviva stadium. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
International friendly: Ireland v Northern Ireland
Kick off: 7.45pm. Venue: Aviva stadium. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will be running from 7.15pm. On TV: Sky Sports Football.
It is clearly something to celebrate that meetings between these two no longer take place in the shadow of the gunmen but the 11th meeting between Ireland north and south feels like something of a sideshow with both sides more concerned just now about Nations League relegation than their once bitter rivalry.
At the Northern Ireland press conference, the team’s captain, Steven Davis, insisted that there will still be something of an edge involved but perhaps the surest sign of how much things have changed since that poisonous night at Windsor Park 25 years ago is that somebody yesterday had felt the need to ask.
Davis was, perhaps, just doing his bit to stir things ever so slightly by observing that for the visitors this will be rather “like playing any of the home nations”. There was once was a time when the remark might have been taken as genuinely provocative and when the game began somebody might have sought him out to settle the score, Roy Keane-style. The prospect seems fanciful at this stage.
If there is an edge to each side’s desire to win the game it will be born, first and foremost, of the fact that neither has done too much of that lately. With their respective Nations League campaigns due to conclude in the coming days, Michael O’Neill’s side will know by the end of the evening whether they have anything other than pride to play for against Austria on Sunday while Martin is similarly dependent on the outcome of the game between Wales and Denmark tomorrow.
In the meantime, groups three and four of the new competition’s second tier make for sorry reading with the two teams propping up their respective tables, possessing a point between them and having each scored once and conceded five times.
Both managers see themselves as squeezing in a bit of rebuilding before the qualifying stages of European Championships come around in March. Michael O’Neill spoke on Wednesday of having brought seven of the Under-21 that did so well recently to Dublin. His opposite number has kept it to just a couple of a youngsters and one of those, Michael Obafemi, is still not entirely clear, he says, that he actually wants to play for Ireland.
“He’s enjoyed the training and has done really well, very well,” said the Republic of Ireland boss when asked about the 18 year-old striker. “I think he’s really enjoyed it. But I think in terms of a decision that ties him down, that’s some way off.”
A quarter of a century ago the IFA was more purist than its southern counterpart when it came to selection policies and so there might have been scoffing but these days Michael O’Neill shares his counterpart’s view that it is all just another part of the job.
Jimmy Dunne, he said, remains on his radar, after the central defender was cut, on this occasion, from Martin O’Neill’s squad. He met with the 21-year-old not so long ago but did not get the sense that a switch was imminent. “I would not be expecting Jimmy to phone me and tell me he is coming to play for Northern Ireland in all honesty,” he admitted.
Obafemi may feature here and then, like Declan Rice, become something to worry about next year for Martin O’Neill. The more pressing concern is to get the team winning again, or at least build on the improvement shown before they conceded against Wales last month. Avoiding defeat may again be the bottom line in Aarhus on Monday but it would be good if that were quite as obviously the priority as it was when Denmark came here last month and there was some sense that O’Neill’s survival might even depend upon it.
With Matt Doherty ruled out now, his selection here will be shaped by the honour being handed to Glenn Whelan of playing for, and captaining, the side one last time as well as the return of Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady.
The game presents another opportunity to look at some ongoing issues: which formation best suits the side, who or what works best on the left side of the defence and how to generate more goals from a team still pining after its long departed goalscorer.
A return to a flat four defensively with Enda Stevens at left back and Preston pair Callum Robinson and Seani Maguire given the opportunity to sell themselves as an attacking unit capable of producing at international level are all options he might reasonably go for on this occasion.
It is a far cry from Windsor Park, November 1993, in more ways than one.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (Middlesbrough); Coleman Everton), Duffy (Brighton), Long (Burnley), Stevens (Sheffield United); Hendrick (Burnley), Brady (Burnley) Whelan (Aston Villa), McClean (West Brom); Robinson (Preston), Maguire (Preston).
NORTHERN IRELAND: Peacock-Farrell (Leeds United); McNair Middlesrough), J Evans (Leicester City), Cathcart (Watford), Lewis (Norwich City); Davis (Southampton), C Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Saville (Middlesbrough); McGinn (Aberdeen), Boyce (Burton Albion), Dallas (Leeds United).