By Liam Mackey
Shane Duffy is probably the only Irish player entitled to have mixed feelings about the last time the Danes were in town and only then if the definition of the word ‘mixed’ can be stretched to accommodate one spasm of ecstasy giving way to prolonged agony.
The Brighton man’s goal in the sixth minute of the World Cup play-off last November briefly had him, his teammates, and a euphoric Aviva in dreamland only for what happened next to curdle into a nightmare from which Irish football is still struggling to awake.
Of his feelings leaving the pitch that night, with the scoreboard showing Ireland 1 Denmark 5, Duffy says: “I’ve had some bad ones but that would definitely be one of them, the worst. But you can’t really dwell on it. For this game now you can’t really think it’s a bit of a revenge game. It’s not. They got to the World Cup and we didn’t and over the two legs they deserved it because they beat us. It’s up to us now.
“I’m looking forward to getting the chance to play and hopefully put it right and not leave here with the same feeling as last time.”
Of course, one of the main reasons the bad feeling still lingers all of ten months on is because, on Ireland’s return to the competitive arena last month, they promptly endured a night of comparable punishment in Cardiff. And, as Duffy appreciates, there’s only one way to show that such heavy defeats are not, as many think, evidence of a team in terminal decline.
“We have to prove we can play at this level first and prove to you (in the media), and the fans, that we can compete again and be a good team,” he says.
“A couple of bad results don’t make you a bad team. We’ve got good players here. Obviously we want to play for the fans but most importantly we’ve got to prove to ourselves that we’re good enough to be here and play at this level.
“If you do have a bad night, both of those teams can punish you. We have got to be at our top game to get a result. We have got to be all at it. That’s the main thing. We know we can get results against these teams, because we have done before. But if we slip off it for a second, we get punished, and the game will be past us and done. We know what happened the last time and we can’t let that happen again.
“When we’re on top of our game, we suffocate their good players so they can’t really get on the ball. We try and give no space for them to play, and impose our style of play. That just didn’t happen against Wales. They did it to us and on the night it was a victory for them that was fully deserved.”
So which Ireland should supporters expect will show up tomorrow night?
The Derryman insists he has no qualms about playing in a three-man defence if that’s the way Martin O’Neill chooses to go.
“It’s different, it is, but you just have to adapt to it,” he says.
“If you play on the right of the three, you’re more with your wing-back. If you’re in the middle you have to do both sides and command a lot of what’s in front of you as well.
“But it’s still the same basics of defending — winning tackles and headers. It’s just adapting. Ask any footballer and they have probably played every formation out there. In training with Brighton we do it, and we played it last year against Chelsea. I played it a few times here as well, so it can work, and it’s a nice formation if you get it right.”
Bittersweet recollection of his goal against the Danes last November is a reminder that Duffy — who has just been rewarded with a new five-year deal by Brighton — also presents a threat at the other end of the pitch.
Indeed, it says a lot about Ireland’s lack of a cutting edge up front, that the big defender, with two goals for his club, is currently the leading Irish scorer in the Premier Division.
He’s not at all shy about backing himself to deliver more for club and country.
“I feel like I can score in every game, I feel like I’m a threat at set-pieces in the box,” he declares. “Every time we get a corner, I feel I can score. I feel like I’ll always get a chance. It’s obviously not the most important thing that I have to worry about, that’s my defending and keeping clean sheets. But it’s always a nice bonus if you can help the team by scoring. Obviously there’s a bit more pressure because it’s your country but if I get a chance on Saturday I feel like I could score again.”
And, hopefully, this time, without the crucifying backlash. ”You can’t always go in hoping,” he says.
“You need belief as well. We want to win every game, that’s always the attitude. Belief. We believe we can beat anyone, that’s always the belief we’ve had in the squad. We’ve had a few bad results, with people losing that belief outside. But inside we have good leaders who will tell you the right things, who have the belief. And you have to listen and believe you can win.”