Down but not out.
For Irish football, it was a case of deflation once again at the hands of bogey boys Denmark as Age Hareide’s team confirmed their progress directly to the Euro 2020 finals, while Mick McCarthy’s side are left having to try to successfully negotiate the minefield of play-off games next March if they are not to suffer the ignominy of missing out on a summer in Dublin next year.
That said, Ireland’s pain tonight was of a very different order to that felt two years ago when the same opponents ran riot at the same venue, this latest Irish failure being much more of the heroic kind after a monumental effort saw Matt Doherty’s late header cancel out the Martin Braithwaite goal which had given the Danes the lead against the run of play.
Short of coming down to join the huge collective effort on the pitch, the Aviva crowd could hardly have done more to try to help the Irish team complete the comeback — but while the players responded in kind and gave it their all through to the bitter end, in truth, it was a case of too little too late, not just Monday night, but over the whole campaign.
As had been well-flagged, Mick McCarthy stuck with what he likes to call his tried-and-tested for this one, with Conor Hourihane — dropped for the 2-0 defeat to Switzerland in Geneva — returning to the starting line-up and his fellow Cork man, Preston’s Alan Browne, retaining his place from that game but this time as the preferred solution to the problem of the right-side slot which would have likely been filled by Robbie Brady had the Burnley player been able to get more game time under his belt at for his club.
On a perfect night for football — crisp, dry and windless — a pre-match appearance by John Aldridge, big screen images of a nation en fete during Italia ’90 and a blast of ‘Put ’Em Under Pressure’ sought to position this game against the backdrop of Irish football’s glory days, though a full house in full voice — with the visiting Danish supporters, as usual, more than willing to play their part — needed little extra encouragement to generate an electric atmosphere as the match kicked off.
With Jeff Hendrick in an advanced role supporting front man David McGoldrick, who was making a hugely welcome return to action in the green shirt, the home side began on the front foot, looking to press early and high and forcing the Danes into a couple of uncharacteristically sloppy errors before the visitors suffered the blow, barely 10 minutes in, of losing the influential Thomas Delaney after he’d been injured in a challenge with Browne.
The Irish were putting together some encouraging stuff on the ball too, though more than once their promising build-up play foundered for a lack of precision with the key pass, while it was also a concern to see Darren Randolph’s kicking falling directly in front of a white shirt on more than one occasion.
But for all that the Danes, needing only a point, seemed happy to conserve their energy in the opening 20 minutes, it was still the visitors who had the game’s first real sight of goal, Shane Duffy making himself a one-man wall as Christian Eriksen let fly with a full-blooded half-volley.
Denmark’s injury jinx struck again on the half-hour mark, with striker Andreas Cornelius next to be forced out of the fray just before Ireland had their first big chance of the night, Conor Hourihane reacting smartly to a loose pass from McGoldick to break through the Danish lines only to then shoot tamely at Kasper Schmeichel as the Villa man opted for precision rather than power.
Then, from a long ball forward by the all-action Whelan, another clever McGoldrick flick-on set up Browne for a long range, dipping effort which had Schmeichel at full stretch as the ball curved wide of the far post.
Almost on the stroke of half-time, brilliant work on the left by Enda Stevens and James McClean won Ireland a corner and, after Hourihane’s initial delivery was cleared, he set Whelan up for an inswinger to the far post which was just inches too far in front of the lunging Duffy.
It was a positive end to a positive half for Ireland but stalemate on the scoreboard meant it was still the Danes in control of their qualification destiny going into the second 45, which began with Ciaran Clark having to come in for the injured John Egan.
To roars of approval from the faithful, Ireland were back on the front foot directly from the restart but, as they pushed forward in search of the goal they needed, there was always the risk they might be punished by a team well versed in the art of the counter-attack.
Still, the home side were giving it their all, and not just in terms of heart and soul: with McGoldrick providing a dollop of guile, Jeff Hendrick becoming increasingly involved, and Matt Doherty getting forward with real attacking intent, there was more than a little finesse too to complement the fire, though still not enough to make the crucial difference as the game entered its final half-hour.
Instead, almost out of nothing, it was the Danes who struck the killer blow in the 72nd minute, Martin Braithwaite getting in behind a flat-footed Irish back line to stretch out a leg and poke Henrik Dalsgaard’s diagonal ball over the top past Randolph, much to the joy of the Roligans behind the Irish ’keeper’s goal.
That looked to be that for Ireland but then, with six minutes remaining, hope bloomed again, the full-backs combining superbly as Stevens’ clipped cross from the left was headed home by Doherty for his first goal for his country.
With Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson having been brought on to try and beef up the attack, the game’s final minutes were played out in a stadium engulfed in uproar, skipper skipper Duffy now literally leading from the front as the crowd and the players sought desperately for the winning goal.
But it wasn’t to be. The night ended with the men in green shirts slumped on the turf, the Danes celebrating in front of their fans, and home thoughts already turning to the dubious reprieve of those play-offs in the Spring.
IRELAND: Randolph, Doherty, Duffy, Egan (Clark 45), Stevens, Whelan (Maguire 81), Hourihane (Robinson 67), Browne, Hendrick, McClean, McGoldrick.
DENMARK: Schmeichel, Dalsgaard, Jorgensen, Kjaer, Larsen, Delaney (Hojbjerg 13), Schone (Christensen 83), Poulsen, Eriksen, Braithwaite, Cornelius (Dolberg 32)
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)