Having saved their best till last, what a shame it was that Ireland’s hugely impressive performance in the 1-1 draw with Denmark just wasn’t quite good enough to qualify us directly for Euro 2020.
Not only was this by some distance their best display of the campaign, in my opinion, it was one the best we’ve seen from an Irish side in years. The players didn’t leave anything behind and, one costly error and the final result apart, there can really be no regrets.
Not only did they compete with the spirit, commitment, and intensity that is their default mode, they played the kind of passing game we have only very rarely seen attempted by an Irish team, from Trap through to Mick. What we witnessed on Monday night at the Aviva Stadium was anything but a familiar spectacle: An Irish side for long spells dominating a team of their equivalent or better — which Denmark are — in the passing stakes.
To find something similar you’d have to go back 10 years to the second leg of the 2010 World Cup play-off against France in Paris, that infamous night when a vibrant performance was undone and overshadowed by Thierry Henry’s handball.
You could also, perhaps, include the 1-0 win against Italy at Euro 2016, though the fact that the Azzurri fielded what was their B-team that night has to be factored into any analysis of that celebrated victory.
But, certainly, Monday’s performance was up there with the very best that I have seen from Ireland over the course of three managers.
After the last two underwhelming outings away to Georgia and Switzerland, I think the high-stakes nature of the game — the feeling that it was win or bust, even if that was not entirely the case because of the play-offs — helped shape Ireland’s more ambitious approach. But, more significantly, there were a couple of outstanding individual performances which made a big difference to the improved quality of the performance.
For one thing, it helped Ireland’s cause considerably to have a player of Matt Doherty’s ability on the pitch, someone who can receive the ball in the full-back position, and be composed enough to get himself out of tight situations and progress the play. I thought he was magnificent on Monday night so it was painfully ironic that his one and only mistake — that lapse of concentration for the goal which gave the Danes the lead — proved to be the most costly one on the night.
I know Shane Duffy has said he feels he shares the culpability but if you look back at the replay side-on, it’s clear that Doherty should have stayed with his runner. He couldn’t play him offside because Duffy was a yard behind him and, while you could argue that perhaps the Derryman needed to be more aware, or that better communication between the two Irish players might have snuffed out the danger, ultimately it was Doherty’s failure to track Martin Braithwaite which gave the Dane that free run into the box to get on the end of the cross and score.
Otherwise, Doherty’s was an assured display and one that is bound to have some people questioning whether Seamus Coleman, especially given his recent struggles at Everton, deserves to keep his place in the team.
But I don’t see it as an either/or situation. For me, there can be room for both in the side. For example, I could easily see Doherty playing as a holding midfielder. Glenn Whelan has had a great campaign and, more than likely, Mick will stick with him through to the end, but it goes without saying that he can’t go on forever. And Doherty is so comfortable on the ball that I have no doubt he could sit in there and receive it and pass it all day long.
The other, more immediate option, of course, is for the Wolves man to be played wide on the right of midfield, in front of Coleman. I know he didn’t do himself justice in that role away to Gibraltar but, given the ridiculous conditions that day, few of the players did, and I think it was harsh of Mick to discard Doherty on the back of that performance.
Another possibility, though it didn’t work when the manager tried it against Switzerland in Geneva — with Coleman and James McClean deployed as the wing-backs for the kick-off — is to give another outing to 3-5-2, with Coleman, Duffy, and Egan as the three and Doherty and Enda Stevens as the wing-backs. But it’s probably a bit late in the day in this campaign for that and something Stephen Kenny might be more disposed to look at when he takes over from Mick.
Going back to the game against Denmark, another influential player for us on the night was Alan Browne who I have to admit was a surprise starter for me. It was the Corkman who took most of the responsibility for getting on the ball in midfield, and I think the composure he showed when in possession helped the players around him enormously, especially when we were getting ourselves out of tight situations by constructing those little triangles which enabled us to move the ball wide and get the play going again. It was so rare and so refreshing to see an Irish team playing that kind of football.
David McGoldrick, having missed the Georgia and Switzerland games through injury, also helped transform the side. He’s clever, he’s got those little flick-ons, he gets his body in there, and all of that makes him ideal for linking up the play.
The only thing he is not — and this, as we all know, remains our single biggest problem — is an out-and-out goal-scorer. He had a couple of chances on Monday, one with a header that hit his shoulder, another that he snatched at and sent over the bar, when his control could have been a bit better in the box. He’s probably a one-in-four striker whereas we could badly do with a one-in-one-and-a-half or two.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had one of those in a long time but, optimistically, that’s where Aaron Connolly could really come into the picture between now and the play-offs in March, especially if he continues as well as he has begun with Brighton in the Premier League.
Then, of course, there’s Troy Parrott, of whom so much is expected. If he is to deliver on his huge promise for Ireland, and sooner rather than later, then, in my opinion, he could really do with going on loan from Spurs.
To see how beneficial that can be, just look at Tammy Abraham at Chelsea. As talented as Parrott is, at 17 he is not going to get the nod to play ahead of Harry Kane, just as Abraham was never going to oust Diego Costa or Olivier Giroud at Stamford Bridge.
In circumstances like that, a young player has to go elsewhere to learn the ropes because, as much as it helps to be training every day with top-class players — and, don’t get me wrong, it does — there is nothing better for developing your game than playing at a competitive level.
The Championship could give Parrott that invaluable experience. If he got a loan move, say, on the first of January, and started playing and scoring goals, it could be that he and McGoldrick could play together in the games in March.
That would also offer a viable solution to one of the few problems that was evident in how Ireland were set up on Monday. Jeff Hendrick struggled to make an impact as the link between the midfield and McGoldrick, but, to be fair to the Burnley man, he just isn’t suited to that position. I saw him play it several times under Martin O’Neill and he is not a player who is comfortable with his back to the opposing goal — he just hasn’t got the awareness to hold onto the ball or drop a shoulder when he receives it in tight situations, the way someone like Wes Hoolahan used to do.
It’s a position I think McGoldrick would thrive in — if we only had an out-and-out striker to play in front of him. Connolly is definitely an option upfront if he continues to progress, but, while U21 football is a decent level, for Parrott to come into the picture in a big way in time for March, I think he will definitely have to go out on loan to get some senior club football under his belt.
For now, we are where we have been for so long: Desperately crying out for someone to lead the line and put the ball in the net.
That apart, there was so much to feel positive about in Ireland’s performance on Monday night and no reason to think they wouldn’t be even stronger with Connolly available and, hopefully, Robbie Brady firmly back in contention come the spring.
Over the course of the whole campaign, it’s fair to say Denmark and Switzerland just about shaded it against us and so deserve to be going directly to the finals. The big regret has to be how poor we were in Switzerland and Georgia, especially when you reflect on how different it might have been if we’d played in those games like we did on Monday.
Still, all that matters now is that we reproduce that kind of performance, not once but twice, in March. And if we do, I would be confident that Ireland will be playing as hosts at the Euro 2020 finals in the summer.