“Will it be a tale of goalkeepers?” George Hamilton intones portentously as the camera zooms in on Kasper Schmeichel. “Will it be a tale of goalscorers?”
Will it be a case of either one, and even if it is, will it matter a jot in this Hotel California of a qualifying system? Fail to win tonight and Ireland won’t be checking out of the competition, still less leaving it.
The early signs are promising. The hosts play some snappy one-touch football. John Egan, surely the most underrated player on this team wearing green and gold, wins a thunderous header. Thomas Delaney, displaying a clumsy tackling technique that would have horrified his cousin JJ, hurts himself and departs the scene.
The first quarter concludes with a graphic showing Ireland enjoying 56% possession. George and Ronnie Whelan do their best to hide their astonishment. They fail comprehensively.
Upon which the Danes step up a gear and win a succession of corners, none of which comes to anything.
“There’s not much going on out there, is there?” Ronnie muses rhetorically. He is not looking for an answer and he doesn’t require one.
Still, not much going on in an Ireland match is considerably preferable to Ireland being awful in an Ireland match. For this may the Lord make us truly thankful.
By the 33rd minute the visitors have had two men depart injured and, with Christian Eriksen being about as influential as he has been for Spurs this season, have yet to force Darren Randolph into a save. At the other end, in contrast, Schmeichel is forced to shake himself by Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne. At half-time it remains 0-0 but for a refreshing change it’s a bright, breezy, well-deserved 0-0 for Ireland.
Soon after the restart, Glenn Whelan goes in two-footed and is booked, a decision that drives his namesake to the verge of apoplexy. “A terrible, terrible decision,” fumes Ronnie, a man who once shared a midfield with Graeme Souness and clearly spent too long there. “It’s not bad, it’s not dirty, it’s not malicious.”
The replay is shown and George points out that it’s Whelan’s “second foot” that has done the damage. “From the playbook of yesteryear, Ronnie,” he tuts gently but reprovingly. Quite. We’re not in the 1980s any more, Toto.
After ten minutes of the second half it’s apparent that Denmark are determined to slow things down and waste time. Ireland take due encouragement and force a series of corners, with Ciaran Clark — on for the injured Egan — always a threat. Another graphic shows them 5-1 ahead on goal attempts. It may not be earth-shattering but, again, it’s pleasing. Remember: This is Ireland.
As if to prove you don’t always get what you’ve fought for, the game is finally broken open in the 73rd minute by Martin Braithwaite. “Can’t say it’s deserved but it’s what Denmark do,” Ronnie ochóns. Doubtless Sean Quinn is penning an angry missive to Uefa, the Danish FA, the Vatican, or whoever.
It’s not over yet. Matt Doherty pops up with a wolfish late finish to make it 1-1, but try as the men in green do, they cannot find an even later winner.
Yet if they cannot progress to the finals directly from the group, at least they’ve finished the qualifiers on an upbeat note.
Liam Brady, a man who channels compliments with the same measured thought he channelled passes, deems it “the best we’ve played for years — we were really good in possession of the ball”.
Richie Sadlier seconds that motion. “You can be disheartened with the result but not the performance. So many aspects were pleasing. They looked like they cared about keeping the ball.”
A tale not of goalkeepers or goalscorers, then, but of — for once — a really good Irish performance. Tune in for the playoff draw at 11am on Friday. Heaven knows when checkout time will be.