In the build-up to two huge play-off games for Ireland against Denmark, Eugene O'Driscoll casts his mind back to the last meeting between the teams, when debate raged about accommodating a small gifted midfielder, but a 4-0 win offered hope.

Embed from Getty ImagesIn the build-up to two huge play-off games for Ireland against Denmark, Eugene O’Driscoll casts his mind back to the last meeting between the teams, when debate raged about accommodating a small gifted midfielder, but a 4-0 win offered hope.  

The last time we played Denmark was in August of 2007, in a 4-0 away victory. August internationals, which were thankfully scrapped by FIFA a few years ago, were almost torturous. Football fans would spend all summer waiting for the domestic leagues to kick back off (outside the LOI, of course) and the rhythm of the league would be immediately disrupted by insipid, lacklustre fixtures.

The year earlier on the corresponding fixture date, we got ran off the field by a strong Holland side. But the game vs. Denmark in 2007 represented everything which could be useful about an August friendly with crucial September qualification fixtures looming. Time together to experiment is precious and hard to come by, and an away fixture against good opposition could somewhat replicate the challenges ahead of the competitive games in a few weeks.

It was a chance to experiment and to build momentum. We did both. Steve Staunton was in charge. His regime as a manager is generally viewed as a disaster, but vibes were rarely as good under him as they were that night in Aarhus.

Week of reckoning looming

The March wins in Croke Park vs. Wales and Slovakia, gave us a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, we would pip the Czech Republic for 2nd place and qualify for Euro 2008 as a Czechoslovakian week of reckoning was looming in just over a fortnight, facing both of the state’s former tenets consecutively.

The squad was looking great in terms of quality at a club level. In retrospect, the depth we had in terms of both established Premier League performers and developing young talent puts the calibre of player in today’s squads in perspective. Stephen Ireland, who was included in the squad for this match but later withdrew to injury, showed exciting potential for both club and country. Little did we know that in a few weeks, Stephen Hunt would allegedly try to rip out his transplanted hair, which would induce him to lie about two of his grandmothers dying.

The Reading trio of Hunt, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long had transformed from newcomers at the start of the campaign to mainstays of the squad just a year later. Embed from Getty Images

Decorated back line

In the team that lined out that night, we had a back four of Carr, O’Shea, Dunne, and Finnan – one with a collective quality which we are unlikely to see the likes of again for Ireland. Yes, Finnan at left back was always fitting a square peg into a round hole (something which was frequently done under Kerr and Staunton, and meant that we did not get as much out of a superb full-back as we should have.)

But, nevertheless, in retrospect, this back line was arguably the most decorated in terms of individual and team honours at club level which Ireland ever ran out. Finnan was a Champions League winner and O’Shea, who had already won several trophies at Manchester United, would become one. Carr and Finnan were previous inclusions into the Premier League’s PFA Teams of the Year, and Richie Dunne, who was near the peak of his powers at this stage, would be included in one in 2010.

The midfield featured Aiden McGeady, who was still regarded as one of the brightest young talents in the game, and Stephen Hunt on the wings. Darron Gibson would come off the bench to make his international debut, but it was Darren Potter who started ahead of Kevin Kilbane rather surprisingly in the centre of the field, after impressing Stan on the dubious America tour earlier in the summer. He was probably the only one who found that trip a worthwhile exercise.

He partnered Andy Reid, who was our Wes Hoolahan 10 years ago before Wes Hoolahan himself came onto the international scene, despite the two being the same age. Before Trappatoni disposed of Andy Reid over a few pints and a drunken guitar rendition of Wonderwall at 4 in the morning, he was the most divisive figure in Irish football, for the same reasons that Wes is today. He was different than all the rest, the playmaker who offered a bit of creativity and cleverness, eager to keep possession and to play delightful through balls in between defenders.

He was a media darling and one which many fans clamoured to see included in our starting XI, the same way in which Wes is today. For me, the biggest difference between the two is that Andy Reid did not merit the same consideration Wes does currently for one simple reason. Back then, our front line featured Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle in their primes, a partnership which was quite fruitful, and complimentary and which perhaps does not get the credit it deserves because of the barren qualification spell. Plain and simple, the two of them were undroppable.

Doyle, a year after taking the Championship by storm, continued that form in the Premier League with Reading, while Keane was in the midst of his glory years partnering Berbatov at Tottenham. The two both possessed intelligent movement, and Doyle’s aerial prowess suited Keane. Andy Reid would have to be accommodated in a 3-man midfield. Playing him in a two-man midfield in a competitive game, even in the era while 4-4-2 was still very popular, would have been tactically naïve at best, and defensively suicidal at worst, especially at a point when Stephen Ireland was still pencilled into the team. What’s more is that in this scenario, Keane would have had to played up front on his own, when time after time in his career he flourished as part of a front two. Embed from Getty Images

A night for Andy Reid to shine

However, given his chance, this was a night for Andy Reid to shine. Denmark began the game brighter, but we went ahead on a beautiful goal as a tasty Reid through-ball was finished by a left-footed Robbie Keane dink. A few minutes before half-time, Reid was instrumental again as he played an unreal outside-of-the-foot cross-field pass to McGeady, who whipped in a dangerous cross which was luckily finished by Keane.

Shane Long would score two well-taken goals in the second half, but the talk of the night were the two moments of magic which Andy Reid had provided us.

Although a 4-0 scoreline was probably flattering towards us, it was a great away performance against a quality international side, which contained Niklas Bendtner in the pre-Internet meme universe, when he was still a promising Arsenal youngster. It was only a friendly, but it was still a rare night where the shackles appeared to be off for the Ireland team and we played enjoyable football against decent opposition. Our players and coaches alike offered soundbites afterwards praising our ability to keep the ball.

In a tumultuous campaign in which we had the doors blown off of us 5-2 vs. Cyprus, we could again cling to the hope of major tournament qualification.

Debate about Irish possession rages on 10 years later

Looking back at this from 2017, there are two main takeaways from this game. First, the quality of the team in this period, with a nice blending of accomplished Premier league footballers and emerging young talent, makes it a genuine shame that we so badly underperformed in this qualification cycle. It should make one wonder what a pure footballing brain like Brian Kerr, who had a few unlucky results in a very tight World Cup group, could have done with the talent we had in the team had he been given more time.

Second, it is melancholy-inducing to think that the same debate plagued Irish football regarding a possession-based game 10 years later. The debate over Andy Reid which spanned across the Staunton era into Trappatoni’s first campaign is quite similar to the one which still rages on with Wes Hoolahan, with both of them being ball-playing midfielders who never offered much defensively and were not very often picked by their international managers. The fact that this same issue is still talked about is disappointing and indicates a lack of technical progress in Irish football culture at all levels. Both back then and now, one man was held up as the cure to Ireland’s stylistic problems. One man can indeed change the tempo of the game, and instil calmness on all his teammates around him. Both of these men were capable of it, and Hoolahan still is.

But the fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t have had to, and still shouldn’t have to, depend on one man to lead us in playing a better passing game. One man isn’t going to bring Ireland to international tournaments.

I am still fully convinced that we certainly had, and still have, enough individual quality in our team to command more of the ball and to show more composure in keeping the ball than we have displayed in all my years as a supporter. But for now, we’ll put all this to the side, and take a playoff win over Denmark in any way, shape, or form.

Eugene O’Driscoll is an Irish New Yorker who, outside of his footballing interests, is an historian. Follow Eugene on Twitter: @theresonly1geno