Must the ball come into our thinking?

On Monday, Martin O’Neill suggested Ireland would attempt to “deal with the ball a wee bit better” in the second leg of their World Cup play-off.
Must the ball come into our thinking?

It sounded like one of those long-finger promises you make on recalling a previous bit of unpleasantness.

A vague plan to save a few bob for unexpected bills. Or a vow to buy a plunger in case the jacks overflows again.

If the worst happens, and the ball arrives at our feet at some stage, we will try to cope as best we can this time.

There was early disappointment last night when referee Szymon Marciniak marched out at the Aviva with a shiny six-panel adidas under his arm, confirmation of the hand Ireland had been dealt; a ball was to be involved.

This contest would not be decided entirely on our preferred disciplines; shadowing, pointing, shuttle runs, and tireless foraging in the channels.

Playing well without the ball might only get 90% of this job done.

Ireland hadn’t bought that plunger, of course. Wes Hoolahan was not in our cabinet. So there was an anticipation we would rely again on aimless flushing and maybe eventually a bout of flustered poking with some kind of stick.

The first leg was likened, in places, to a Wimbledon v Watford encounter from the ’80s. It wasn’t a surprise when Bjelland lashed forward and out of play from the kick-off.

The Danes loaded the mixer early on and, freed of the yellow cloud that hung over Copenhagen, both sides could add an ingredient absent by necessity from the first leg: Fouls.

The Norwegians fell in love with English football in the ’80s and you suspect some of Åge Hareide’s eagerness to highlight Ireland’s primitive football was born of a fear the natives in the land of the Laudrups might grow restless with his own brand of Norwegian lumberjacking.

“They just want us to make the mistake. I don’t have the patience for that,” sniffed Hareide beforehand.

So, they got that out of the way. With this minimalist approach, an Ireland free-kick on the halfway line requires the careful choreography of a Riverdance production.

Robbie Brady directed, Jorgensen sliced and Shane Duffy Flatleyed. Had a game of football been set free? After just six minutes. And did we have a plan for that?

Not good football maybe — Meyler and McClean kicked one another in their eagerness to take out the floodlights.

But something utterly compelling, for a while. The crowd entranced by it. Roaring encouragement at anything remotely encouraging.

There are sports we watch every four years at the Olympics that we wouldn’t ordinarily draw the curtains for. Sports given a brief profile by the lustre of gold.

If Martin O’Neill and Age Hareide were in charge of every football team, we might find ourselves down the local badminton hall more often.

Yet, we’d still tune back in for nights like this; gripped by the stage and the stakes.

There was 15 minutes when we could almost enjoy it. Flashes of guile, from Brady and Cyrus Christie. The two hearts chasing of McLean. Randolph denying Kvist brilliantly.

Not possession of the ball, of course. The ball was theirs if they wanted it, but what were their intentions? Kjaer was quarterback and punter — his booming deliveries remained their most potent threat, until Sisto finally produced one of those assists we were warned about.

Even then, the dismay was eased by a sense we too had got the inevitable out of the way early enough.

There was no such silver lining when Stephen Ward vindicated both managers’ concerns about making use of the ball in dangerous territory.

Christian Eriksen’s brilliance meant, like it or not, we were going to have to deal with the ball now.

The early indications were that part of the plan had stayed on the long finger.

Duffy hammered one over the sideline. Clark followed suit. By the break, the Danes were giving us the ball with a kind of fond curiosity.

With murky water around our ankles, the plunger arrived at half-time, but the flooding had tripped the electrics.

Former Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano famously likened the revival of reductive safety-first football to “shit hanging from a stick”.

It got smelly for us. By the three-quarter mark, the scoreline was the one that bade Eoin Hand farewell when the Danes visited 32 years ago. Before Bendtner made things worse.

This isn’t an end game. O’Neill has his new contract, though our fear in Copenhagen will mean calls for yet another referendum over our approach.

Must the ball come into our thinking?

The manager will argue that Eriksen’s brilliance vindicated his fears of what might happen when a game breaks out.

“We don’t have all the skills that maybe other nations have,” he said on Monday. “We have to find it in a different manner.” He couldn’t find that last night.

But it’s not quite black and white, as we were told yesterday. Qualification or not.

We must now plug on under the same grey cloud, our best footballers assured that they are not trusted to have the football.

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