When Glenn Whelan ‘retired’ from international football, a stop watch rather than a gold watch would have been a more appropriate gift. Because, of course, he didn’t retire at all.
Instead, when given the opportunity by Mick McCarthy, he promptly resumed putting in the hard yards in the green shirt to such prodigious effect that, yesterday, the manager had no qualms about confirming in advance that the 35-year-old midfielder will earn his 91st cap when he starts against Denmark tonight.
It was McCarthy’s predecessor, Martin O’Neill, who decided that the veteran’s race was run and, although Whelan is sincere in his gratitude to the previous manager for giving him that ‘farewell-which-wasn’t-a farewell’ against Northern Ireland, he clearly didn’t agree that his own time was up and, consequently, is truly relishing his second coming.
“You think it’s been taken away from you, that you’re never going to wear the green jersey again,” he says, “so to get a second chance, a second bite of the cherry, it’s great and I’m enjoying it. But for me it’s about qualifying. I am not here on a jolly-up or to be a cheerleader, I am here to qualify and please God we can.”
Reflecting on his relationship with O’Neill, Whelan admits he had a couple of run-ins with the Derry man but, he insists, strictly of the business rather than personal kind.
”It happens all the time, more than you guys realise. Decisions, tactics, where he wants you in a wall (laughs). There is certain stuff that happens on the pitch and should stay there, but it’s important that, if you have something to say, you get it off your chest.
“I think Martin said it, and I’ve said it, there were two times where we’ve clashed, really clashed, but he’s the manager and he wins. But no, we shook hands and got on with it. And at the end of it, I think he appreciated it more me having a go than holding it in and speaking behind his back or to other lads. It was football-related, and that’s what it should be.”
“You ask him who is the first to moan and I’m sure my name will be right up there,” Whelan says with a smile. “Listen, it’s not to make me feel great it’s, please God, to improve people around me and to get the right results, to perform better and get training standards higher, whatever it may be.
“It’s something I’d like to think I’m good at and that people will listen because I have that little bit more experience than others.”
Did Mick have to repair any damage after the more confrontational aspects of the O’Neill/Keane reign?
“We’re not children, no.
“Martin had a go, Roy had a go. Mick has a go too. Confrontations happen all the time, Mick and his staff are no different. You only have to look at Mick for ten or 15 minutes on the sidelines and he is a bit of a mad man so you know what you are getting from him. All managers are the same.”
What has McCarthy done to freshen things up?
“He’s kept everything simple. He knows what he wants. I don’t think it’s rocket science. We got a bit leaky at times come the end of the Nations League, conceding a lot of goals. But with Mick the player he was, and what he was good at, it’s steadying the ship. We know we need to let the reins off a little to attack and to try score more goals but defensively he’s come in and improved that.
And, in Whelan’s opinion, tonight, of all nights, is one for loosening those reins.
“I think we can now because win and we are through. You don’t want to be gung-ho and play four up top and be wide open but we need to get the fans onside and give them something to cheer about early on. We know Denmark’s strengths but we won’t be scared of them. We have to focus on ourselves and perform.
“We have to run more than them, we have to tackle more than them, get in their faces and make it horrible — whatever it needs to be to get Denmark off their game and for us to create and hopefully score goals. Because it is a cup tie and winner takes all.”
As the squad’s most senior member, Whelan has made a point in the build-up of sharing his memories of Irish glory days with some of the less experienced players.
“Yeah, we’ve been talking about the good times, the nights we have got the fans behind us and the stadium has been rocking. The play-off games that got us to tournaments, the Italy result in France. There are a few of the lads who have not been involved in nights like that yet and you need to take the chance when it comes around.”
And, for the evergreen Whelan, there’s the especially acute realisation that this is a last chance for him.
“Yeah, it is I think,” he accepts. “With the young lads we have coming through and the talent that we have, this is the be-all and end-all for me. If we can qualify and I can go out on a high note in the summer, that will be great for me. But I am not looking anywhere other than Denmark.”