Asked, after the victory in Cardiff, who he feared the most of the four seeded teams, the manager replied: “We fear everybody – and then we go and beat them.”
That odd mixture of trepidation and confidence probably still reflects the fluctuating mood of most Irish supporters in the wake of a favourable draw which sees O’Neill’s team pitted against the Danes next month - in Copenhagen on Saturday November 11th and back in Dublin three days later.
But that’s only logical for those who have tried to make sense of seeing Ireland take four from six against world champions Germany and one from six against Scotland in Euro qualifying, while losing at home to Serbia but winning away in Austria and Wales en route to this latest qualification shootout.
The popular consensus before the draw was that Italy and Croatia were best avoided and that, for preferred opposition, it might as well be a toss of the coin between Switzerland and Denmark. But with the Swiss actually the highest-ranked team in the draw by virtue of their nine out of ten wins in qualifying, most people will be satisfied that drawing our old friends the Danes is the most desirable outcome for Ireland – especially since we will have home advantage in the second leg.
Of course, that’s according to the play-off textbook and not necessarily supported by the actual evidence of Ireland’s World Cup campaign to date, in the course of which O’Neill’s team has picked up 11 points on the road as against eight at home.
It’s pretty pointless looking too far back into the historical record for a guide as to how Ireland might fare in 2017. As it happens, it’s a pretty discouraging exercise too. A success rate of three out of eight certainly doesn’t look too smart, even if two of those came in the last two attempts. And we can hardly afford to read too much into the play-off for Euro 2012 when the luck of the draw was firmly on Ireland’s side as Giovanni Trapattoni’s team drew the weakest link, Estonia.
Play-off games aren’t usually won or lost in the first leg – though significant damage can, of course, be done with the scoring of an away goal – but that’s exactly what happened in Tallinn six years ago as the hosts fell apart and Ireland and Robbie Keane made merry with a 4-0 win which turned the second leg in Dublin, a 1-1 draw, into more of a party than a competitive game.
It was very different four years later under Martin O’Neill, as Ireland emerged out of the fog of Zenica with a valuable draw against Bosnia courtesy of Robbie Brady’s superb solo effort, before completing the job in impressively assured fashion at the Aviva as a brace from Jon Walters settled the tie and secured qualification for Euro 2016.
That more recent play-off history certainly gives grounds for encouragement this time around, since the results against Bosnia were reflective of the stand-out characteristic of O’Neill’s time in charge of Ireland: the ability of his teams to pull out big results when the chips are down.
Encouragingly too, Ireland go into next month’s games on the back of the latest of those milestone achievements, the victory against Wales having taken its place in the pantheon as a night to remember alongside wins at home to Germany, away to Austria and against Italy in Lille at the Euro 2016 finals.
The results against the Italians and the Welsh are notable too for the fact that, on both occasions, nothing less than victory would do for Ireland. And that knack for coming out on the right side of the win or bust equation should, you would like to think, stand to them again next month when the second leg, at the Aviva Stadium, is likely to prove the decisive game.
Of course, as O’Neill needs no reminding, there are grounds to be fearful as well as cheerful, with Spurs’ Christian Eriksen the kind of game-changing talent who alone could tip the balance in favour of a Danish side prone to blowing hot and cold.
In the first leg in the wonderfully atmospheric Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, it’s not hard to envision the Irish approach being a lot like the one Jack Charlton’s team deployed in securing a scoreless draw in the same venue en route to qualifying for USA ’94. That was the night when an Alan Kernaghan tackle stopped Brian Laudrup dead in his tracks as the Danes threatened to capitalise on a counter-attack, leaving that old no-nonsense stopper, Big Jack himself, in raptures. “’E fookin’ nailed ‘im, right in the middle of the park,” was how he put it to me afterwards.
Of course, the difference this time is that these games are about goals, not points, and so Ireland finding the net in the Parken could be hugely important to the overall outcome. But O’Neill is hardly likely to go for broke in search of the breakthrough, especially with the safety net of the second leg still to come.
Ireland’s struggles in front of goal have been well documented, those victories over top sides by a single goal an indication of how important the clean sheet is to hopes of success. In that context, the green light for the latest injury worry, Shane Duffy, would be most welcome. Already, the loss of the suspended David Meyler for the first leg in Copenhagen is a blow since he has emerged as a commanding figure in the team over recent games, and Ireland’s leadership reserves have already been depleted with the loss of Seamus Coleman and Jon Walters.
But, as ever, O’Neill will simply have to make do with what he has while hoping that injuries don’t take a further toll on his options between now and then.