Irish teams have had very few opportunities to qualify for a major tournament on home soil.
When I was playing in the side that beat Bulgaria 2-0 at Lansdowne Road in 1987 to finish our European Championship qualifying campaign on 11 points, none of us —including the manager, Jack Charlton — thought that total was going to be good enough to get us to the finals in Germany.
But then up stepped Gary Mackay with his celebrated goal in Sofia as Scotland pulled off an unlikely victory to deny the Bulgarians the point they needed to top the group on goal difference — and Ireland had that historic first-ever qualification, for Euro ’88.
Since then, Ireland did achieve qualification at home when Giovanni Trapattoni was the manager and we made it to the Euro 2012 finals. But the second leg of that play-off in Dublin, which ended in a 1-1 draw, was really little more than a formality, a party waiting to happen, after we had already beaten Estonia 4-0 in Tallinn.
Of a very different order then, was the Jon Walters-inspired 2-0 victory over Bosnia to qualify for Euro 2016 after a Robbie Brady goal had helped secure Martin O’Neill’s side a 1-1 draw in the fog of Zenica in the first leg.
Unfortunately, on a night which would have eclipsed all of those, things went disastrously wrong when Ireland found themselves one game in Dublin away from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A 0-0 draw in Copenhagen and an early Shane Duffy goal at the Aviva only served to raise hopes which were then comprehensively dashed as the roof caved in for O’Neill’s team and, with Christian Eriksen mercilessly showing the way to goal, Denmark ran riot in that play-off second leg.
And now, with memories still raw of that night two years ago, the same opponents once again stand between Ireland and another chance for automatic qualification on our home turf. But, in this instance, I feel there is even more at stake than the huge reward of a place at the Euro 2020 finals.
Tomorrow night’s match against Denmark also provides an opportunity to reignite Irish soccer after what has been a calamitous couple of years for the game in this country.
For Mick McCarthy too, this is one of the biggest nights of his career. After what happened to him post-Saipan and the World Cup in 2002, a win this evening would represent total redemption for the manager, all the more so since he would be the man to guide an Irish team to European Championship finals, a tournament in which games will be played in our own capital city for the first time.
I have no doubt that the FAI will be praying that Ireland pull it off to give Irish football something to cheer about in the midst of the ongoing crisis in Abbotstown, although I would be concerned that, if the team do succeed, some people who still remain in positions of power in the organisation will think the distraction provided by the feelgood factor of qualification gives them a better chance of staying on.
Indeed, even John Delaney, the man who, to everyone’s surprise, announced a succession plan which would see Stephen Kenny take over from Mick McCarthy next year, might well regard a victory tomorrow night as some sort of redemption for him and his leadership as chief executive.
Given all the problems at the FAI, the financial implications of qualifying are also huge. Something I’ve been beating the drum about for a long time is that, in Delaney’s time in charge, the development of Irish football talent stagnated badly, with the result that now, as Ireland face into this huge match, it’s plain to everyone that the senior team is simply not blessed with the high calibre of players we enjoyed in the past.
If the many rewards of victory tomorrow night are abundantly clear, I’m afraid it’s much less easy to see how this ordinary Irish team might actually go about beating a superior Danish side.
To begin with, I expect Mick McCarthy’s selection to be a vote of confidence in the players who have gotten us into this position to qualify. I’m sure Mick will be telling them that, having suffered just one defeat in seven, they are good enough to do it, that this is the chance to rubberstamp his faith in them by delivering the big performance that will be required to get Ireland over the automatic qualifying line.
If that is to happen it will require, as it most always does, the team making the absolute most of those familiar characteristics of spirit, endeavour, and commitment while probably trusting that our most likely, if not indeed our only, route to getting the goal (or goals) we need to win, will come through maximising our threat from set-pieces.
I do feel our limited ability to create chances from play will definitely be improved by the return of David McGoldrick. In holding the ball up well and linking up the play, McGoldrick gives us a bit of the flair we are so short of and, while he is not the quickest, he has a presence about him that was badly missed in the last two games away to Georgia and Switzerland.
But, on the downside, I have to say that it’s a real blow that Aaron Connolly, a big new plus for us going forward, misses out through injury.
If there were any of the newer players from the friendly against New Zealand who deserve to be in with a chance of being involved tomorrow night, I would nominate Troy Parrott and Jack Byrne. The young Spurs striker definitely has the ability and presence beyond his years to merit the place on the bench which the manager has already confirmed he will have.
And while Byrne, with all due respect to Shamrock Rovers and the League of Ireland, is playing his club football at a lower level than most of the squad, for me he has the personality and quality — which we are especially lacking in midfield — to be involved at international level.
Defensively we look good, with Darren Randolph behind a centre-half partnership of Shane Duffy and John Egan which is shaping up to be one for the long term. In the absence of Seamus Coleman, it will be interesting to see how Matt Doherty handles his big chance at right-back. To me it’s baffling that, even when Coleman is available, a place hasn’t been found elsewhere on the pitch for a player of Doherty’s quality and versatility.
Certainly, it would be nice to see him put in the kind of performance tomorrow night that he delivers so often for Wolves as a tremendously gifted, overlapping full-back. Likewise, on the left side Enda Stevens is having a fine season for Sheffield United, and if he too could bring his club form into play for Ireland, it would give us a real opportunity to get at the Danes down the flanks.
In midfield, Mick has brought Glenn Whelan back from the retirement thatWhelan himself had never announced, and you have to say that over the campaign he has been one of our most consistent performers. The fact Conor Hourihane didn’t start against New Zealand suggests that, after he was dropped for the game in Geneva, the Corkman will return to the starting line-up to partner Whelan.
It would also be timely to see Jeff Hendrick reproduce his better club form in an international shirt, something he hasn’t done for a couple of seasons. On the left, I expect a start for James McClean who, while he hasn’t had the best of campaigns, will give everything in a bid to cause the Danes problems with his aggression, workrate, and crossing.
The right side is a difficult one because, even though McCarthy might feel Robbie Brady is not quite back up to the demands of the kind of high-intensity 90 minutes which are in store tomorrow night, the Burnley man has shown in the past that he can be a big game player.
It’s always a concern when no single candidate appears as an obvious replacement, so if Brady is not to start then the manager has a difficult call to make from the various other options available to him on that side.
We all know about Denmark’s attacking threat, in particular the creative ability and clinical finishing of Eriksen — Whelan and Hourihane will certainly have their work cut out to shackle him — and, while the visitors might be lacking an out and out goalscorer, Yussuf Poulsen, with his penchant for arriving late in the box, is another real danger man.
At the other end of the pitch, the Danes, having played us so often in the last couple of years, are going to be well prepared for an aerial battle. It’s another thing you have to admire about them. With the commanding Simon Kjaer at the heart of their defence, they are well up to a physical test and, Shane Duffy’s goal in Copenhagen apart, tend not to buckle in the face of the high ball into the box. And in Kasper Schmeichel, they have a really good goalkeeper as their last line of defence.
Although we now know Ireland will have the fallback of a play-off place should they come up short tomorrow night, I think Mick McCarthy is quite right when he says he and the players will put that thought right out of their minds.
The best approach tomorrow night has to be to treat it as a once-off chance to achieve qualification and, while that is by no means an impossible task — and one I fervently hope they can pull off — realistically, I have to say that I expect us to be back having another go, via those play-offs, in the spring.
Finally, and on a very sad note, I want to end this column by paying a personal tribute to the late Fran Ray. He was a great friend to me since I first played for the DDSL as a 14-year-old and someone I was always delighted to keep in touch with over the years. My condolences to his family and friends.