So it’s all back to Aarhus on Monday for the first time since August 22, 2007, and what turned out to be one of the most extraordinary nights, for all the right
reasons, of Steve Staunton’s star-crossed reign as Ireland manager.
Staunton had endured two brutally awful competitive outings in the job — the infamous 5-2 defeat in Cyprus and an embarrassingly narrow 2-1 win over San Marino — before Croke Park opened its doors to the national football team and provided the setting for a resurgence in Ireland’s 2008 European Championship ambitions through back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Wales and Slovakia.
The Slovaks away followed by a game against the Czech Republic in Prague would be next up on the campaign trail but, before that crucial double-header, there was the small matter of a friendly in Denmark to negotiate, a fixture which had been moved to Aarhus after the Danes were banned from playing in
Copenhagen following the abandonment of a match against Sweden the previous June. (With the score at 3-3 in the Parken Stadium, referee Herbert Fandel had been attacked by a fan after sending off Christian Paulsen and
giving a last minute a penalty to the visitors. UEFA awarded Sweden a 3-0 win and exiled the Danes from the capital for a number of fixtures).
Peering back from out of the post-Northern Ireland gloom at the tone of the build-up in Aarhus 11 years ago, Robbie Keane’s pre-match comments strike on oddly familiar chord.
“Since Stan took over, a lot of young lads have come into the squad,” he observed.
Given the wildly see-sawing nature of Staunton’s time in charge up to that point, Keane’s optimism wouldn’t have been universally shared but, on the night, a few of those young ‘uns — most notably Shane Long and Aiden McGeady — more than lived up to billing as, against all expectation, the visitors rewrote the record books with a thumping 4-0 win to inflict Denmark’s worst home defeat in 48 years and equal Ireland’s record margin of victory in a friendly, a 5-1 victory over Luxembourg from way back in 1936.
A crowd of just over 17,000 watched the game, which was preceded by a minute’s silence to mark the recent sad passing of Steve Staunton’s father, Tom, while the Irish players all wore black armbands.
Once the action got under way, there was little hint of what was to come as the Danes thoroughly dominated the opening 30 minutes, Niklas Bendtner coming closest to opening the scoring with a header which came back off the underside of the bar.
But entirely against the run of play, it was Ireland who went ahead with a well-worked goal. As my report from the night reminds me, it was “begun at the back by
Richard Dunne, moved on with a touch of individual trickery by Aiden McGeady, before Andy Reid reminded us of exactly what he can bring to Ireland’s game — and what he and Robbie Keane honed at Spurs — with a defence-splitting pass which the country’s record scorer finished with an expert dink over Jesper Christiansen in the Danish goal.”
With the home side rattled and the visitors visibly growing in confidence, the Irish went two-up before the break. Reid and McGeady were again involved in the build-up and, with a welcome inevitability, that man Keane was on hand to provide the finish for what was his 31st goal for his country.
Then, in the second half, it was as if the striker supreme was intent on handing over the baton, Shane Long coming off the bench to grab a brace of his own and, with Danish boos at half-time having long since given way to a deflated silence in most of the ground, it was the small band of travelling supporters who were celebrating in happy disbelief at the final whistle.
Still mourning the death of his father, Steve Staunton understandably delegated media duties to his assistant Kevin MacDonald who, while only too delighted to hail the win, was not blind to the fact that the first half had been a game of two quarters.
“It was a tremendous victory, winning away 4-0 in Denmark,” he said, “although if they had taken their early chances it could have been very different. It means that Stephen now has some difficult choices to make for the next two games.”
Said Liverpool’s Steve Finnan: “We got the goals at the right time and kept the ball really well. Our finishing was clinical and that kind of result will give us confidence for the next two games. The young lads played well, people like Darren Potter and Aiden McGeady, and that’s good for the future of Irish football.”
However, Reading’s Stephen Hunt sounded what would turn out to be a prescient reality check when he said: “It was brilliant but it doesn’t count for anything. We have to start again in two weeks. You can get carried away with a result like this but if we’d done badly we would have been criticised.”
Sure enough, there was plenty of that to come. A draw in Bratislava and a defeat in Prague — in tandem with the eruption of the Stephen Ireland ‘Grannygate’ saga — quickly extinguished the fragile feelgood mood, and when
Ireland could only scrape a 1-1 draw at home to Cyprus in the final game of the campaign, it signalled the end of the road for Steve Staunton’s management of the national team.
Still, for those of us who were there, memories of that hot August night in Aarhus can still warm the heart. But, barring something almost as miraculous, it’s hard to see them surviving the expected sub-zero temperatures on Monday night when limping Ireland finally return to the scene of that unlikely triumph.