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A False First XI: Dane-ger Here

So we’re still in the tie after what was a predictably turgid 90 minutes but I’ve no doubt that, as is the case with most of the support, Martin O’Neill would have taken that result before kick-off.

For once in my life, I’d actually managed to organise myself sufficiently to book a direct flight before prices went through the roof. In fact, I’d even taken a gamble and booked Friday to Sunday before the fixture dates were confirmed on the basis that due to the rugby international at Lansdowne on the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday were the only possible dates for the home leg leaving Friday and Saturday the only away options. Flights duly booked and with what seemed a favourable draw, it was just a case of counting the days till take off.

After a month of countless messages on various WhatsApp groups (mostly about tickets or the lack thereof to be more accurate), I got my own ticket confirmed the week before the game. Luckily, I had 6 away tickets on my record with the FAI, which was where the cut off was set for independent travellers. I actually had 7 aways but having been rejected for the Bosnia play-off two years back, I had to source a ticket elsewhere so got no credit for it.

While it’s welcome that there are now visible criteria that away fans have been made aware of, there is a whole other question about how someone with, say 5 aways in the last two campaigns can miss out (as regular traveller, Conor McShane did), while there were clearly hundreds of fans with tickets there that had nowhere near that record. It’s an argument for another day and I’d like to think that the recent meetings with the FAI that myself and the rest of the YBIG Independent Fans Mandate group have been productive and are moving towards a fair, transparent system. There aren’t many games where demand exceeds supply but this one was as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

Anyway, with my ticket collected last Thursday, all was set for my Friday lunchtime SAS flight which got me into Copenhagen around 5. Despite it being pitch dark and lashing rain on landing, making my way into the city was well handy, with Central Station only 3 rail stops from the airport.

Brummie Bren was rooming with me on this trip and, having arrived a couple of hours earlier, was waiting when I got in. One quick freshen up later and we were on the road to The Dubliner, an Irish bar which had positioned itself as one of the hubs where our fanbase was congregating.

Philly, Greg and Fuggy had also landed earlier and had grabbed a decent spot with a couple of tables and by the time we arrived, the place was absolutely hopping. In fairness, and showing my age here, it was nearly too hopping for my liking but with the Amsterdam and Barca crews en route, leaving wasn’t an option so the next few hours were spent chatting (or should I say roaring over the noise!) as the various groups of friends arrived.

The Dubliners!

Another indication of our advancing years is the fact that we generally remember to eat these days so myself and Bren nipped off for a bite into a nice restaurant next door where we had our wallets well and truly rinsed. Trust me, if you think Dublin is expensive, think again! Still, the pulled pork burger was pretty good and we had a bit of craic chatting with a few locals before venturing back to the Dubliner to watch the Italy v. Sweden play-off.

By this stage, with the earlier rain having eased, there was a huge crowd skulling cans out on the streets, so the atmosphere was pretty full on, inside and out. After watching the Swedes beat the fancied Italians with a fairly fortuitous goal, thoughts started turning to whether this might be a weekend for the underdogs.

Trying to get all the different groups we tend to hang out with on these trips together is essentially like herding cats. In fact, it’s worse. So the whole time we were in The Dubliner, there were messages coming through from other factions with the Quinn Towers, Terry the Tash and most of the London crew checking in from another boozer called The Southern Cross. After their early start, the Swords mob had headed for home by now and with the Amsterdam boys looking to get food, we managed to get a good crowd out of The Dubliner and towards the Southern Cross. That said, we lost most of them on the way to reaching our destination, a lovely basement bar that was a little quieter than the madness we’d left!

Having ensconced ourselves into a corner where a Danish lad was out drinking with his adult son, we had a great yap about the great 1980’s/90’s Danish team and about my theory that Christian Eriksen’s performances in this campaign since Denmark started playing a more direct style is reminiscent of Liam Brady’s renaissance in the Euro ’88 campaign under Jack having been poor in the ’84 and ’86 campaigns. Having to explain to his son who Liam Brady was hurt me a bit though!

The Great Danes!

After reaching the pub, there was one man notable by his absence, we were told that Terry the Tash had taken a tumble on a wet Burger King floor while getting food and fucked his leg up rightly. I’ve said for years that eating Burger Kings will be the death of him but this wasn’t how I expected it to put him in hospital! It’s been a long time since this man missed an away fixture but, although I’m reliably informed he’ll be there on crutches on Tuesday, Saturday was a bridge too far. Get well soon, mate!

Brummie Bren has always fancied himself as a bit of a dartist and, to be fair, I once witnessed him take out a 170 checkout on an American board in Nagano during World Cup 2002 and instantly back it up with an 8 ball clearance from the break in pool. Now, the way he tells it, you’d swear there were 200 people in the pub giving a standing ovation rather than the 20 that were actually there. I mean, I wound up on the decks banging out tunes on vinyl that night and would love to say there was a jam-packed dance floor screaming for more rather than the aforementioned 20 people! But there wasn’t (although the manager did try to book me for the next weekend but alas, I was in Tokyo by then!)

Anyhow, since then, there’s always been a bit of slagging about the story, and the Quinns, being decent players themselves, have always said they’d like a pop at Bren on the oche. We’ve been talking about it for years but it never happened. Until now.

With a dartboard on the wall and a fair drop of drink taken, it was only a matter of time before someone arrived back from the bar with a set of arrows. I’d love to say that the young bucks were able to show him how it was done. But, no. Despite the wily old fox scoring appallingly, once he got down to the double he was imperious. I even had to suffer the indignity of missing a double 4 by a fraction and watch him take out 5 by hitting the double 1 by accident on his first dart and backing it to hit 1 and another double 1 to take the leg! The waxy get!

With fairly lax licencing laws over here, it was nearly 6 by the time we got back to the hotel and I was rudely awakened at about 11 by the Amsterdam crew who fancied a bit of tourism before the madness of game day. As Bren had to collect his ticket at the ground at 1, I threw my shit together and, bleary-eyed, made my way to meet the gang in the lobby.

It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny day but was absolutely Baltic outside. A half hour walk took us down to the famous Copenhagen Street Food Market where everything from Ostrich burgers to vegan bean wraps are available. The market itself is in a nice area by the docks and a stone’s throw from our next stop, Christiania.

What’s up, dock!

Christiania is an old military barracks that was taken over by hippie/anarchist squatters in the 1970’s. Claiming to be self-governing, it’s entire ethic is anti-establishment and despite issues and efforts to bring it into line, it is allowed exist and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

When you walk in, it looks like a standard enough alternative marketplace with stalls selling clothes, jewellery, food and other locally produced goods. However, turn a corner and suddenly you’re faced with an entire marketplace where people are selling every form of cannabis under the sun! While everyone is familiar with the Dutch model where shops have licences to sell weed, this is next level. Essentially, the authorities turn a blind eye and despite efforts to regulate it, it survives and thrives.

On yer bike!

A big part of the ethos seems to be that hard drugs are not allowed in the area (nor is photography) and there are signs and graffiti promoting this all over the place. But weed is a different matter and is totally accepted. Needless to say, this reporter made his excuses and left!

After wandering back down to the town and making a quick stop at the Dubliner, the outside of which was like Dante’s Inferno by now, the clever call was to go back to the Southern Cross where any tickets that had been sourced could be given to those who deserved them. Once that was boxed off, we had a good bit of craic with a few locals before we started walking towards the ground with the Swords crew. After stopping for a carry-out and a pie and realising how far the walk actually was, a great call to get a taxi and forget the walk was made. Even though it took nearly as long as the walk and left us the wrong end of the ground, it was still worth it to get out of the cold!

Once we were in, I managed to find a corner for the 69ers flag before finding a spot to stand with Steve, Muriel and their kids and got ready for kick-off. To be fair to the Danes, the pre-game formalities were pretty impressive with a huge red and white firework display signalling the end of the anthems and ratcheting the atmosphere up another notch.

I was happy enough with the team named as Martin O’Neill didn’t surprise me with his selection of Daryl Murphy up front but did surprise most of us with his pick of Callum O’Dowda in midfield rather than Glenn Whelan. Was this move a sign that we’d take a more positive approach than seen recently?

It didn’t take long after kick-off to realise that no, it probably wasn’t. I’d read an interesting article from ex-Ireland international, Darren O’Dea earlier in the week where he made a good point that I hadn’t really considered before. His point, essentially, was that he’d never seen a team as effective at controlling a game when they don’t have the ball as this Ireland team. It’s a fair argument and he pointed to last month’s Wales game as a prime example.

So with us conceding possession again, the first ten minutes passed by with little in the way of free-flowing football from either side. That all changed a minute later with the first real flurry of action, which Denmark may yet rue not making the most off.

Kjaer sprayed a long diagonal pass to Larsen on the left wing who took a touch and hammered the ball goalwards. Darren Randolph did very well to parry it but my heart was in my mouth as the rebound fell straight to Cornelius who looked sure to score. Lucky for us, his nerve deserted him somewhat and while his shot had power, it was straight back at Randolph who somehow got the ball to stick to him. First test passed. Now it was up to us to try and play our way into the game a bit more.

It took another 5 minutes or so but eventually, we got a little foothold in the game. We weren’t pressing the Danes too far back but managed to hold the ball for a while and win a couple of frees while withstanding anything coming back at us handily enough. The problem though, was that as has unfortunately been the case for most of the campaign, Robbie Brady’s delivery was nowhere near as good as it can be.

With Denmark themselves reverting to a more direct style, it was through route one that their next chance presented itself about half an hour in. And it was one they really should have taken. Kasper Schmeichel had hoofed a long ball forward but it looked like a bread and butter clearance for Ciaran Clarke. However, instead of getting the ball out of danger, his attempted clearance was cushioned back to Eriksen, who stepped forward and let fly. Randolph again did well to parry but the rebound fell to Sisto, who had an empty net to aim his shot at. Somehow, he snatched at it and dragged the ball right and wide.

That aberration aside, we settled back into our comfort zone and actually created a couple of chances of our own before the end of the half. James McClean made some headway to square for O’Dowda whose shot was blocked. A couple of minutes later, Cyrus Christie made a run reminiscent of our injured captain, Seamus Coleman, and surged past Larsen to close in on goal. However, putting his laces through it might have been the better option as Schmeichel managed to claw away his attempted flick. Hendrick managed to get to the rebound but saw his shot blocked behind for a corner. Which once again, we promptly wasted. Still, we were now at half-time and still all square.

I’ve mentioned before that these sort of big games attract a different crowd than your average away trip. Like Wales, it was more a tournament crowd which is fine, the more the merrier is generally my ethos. That aside, it has to be said that it also brings out an element more akin to a stag party who don’t seem to know when enough is enough. I enjoy a drink as much as the next man on away trips but the levels of drunkenness by a minority in our section of the ground was way over the top. Whether it was the strong Danish beer or the fact that the kick-off was an hour later than the norm at 8:45 Danish time I don’t know but you wouldn’t see as many fallers in the Grand National as I saw in Block D1.

I’m talking lads that were incapable of getting up once they hit the deck and myself and another lad actually had to spend a few minutes trying to convince one lad who was absolutely comatose on the steps to move onto a seat where he could get a bit of air and not have someone else fall over him. It’s definitely becoming more of an issue at the bigger games and for the life of me, I can’t understand why you’d get yourself into a state where you won’t remember being in the ground, let alone see the game. And there were plenty around in that state. Where exactly they had got their tickets from is again a discussion for another time.

With our Samaritan duties complete, we settled back to the match as the second half started in similar scrappy fashion to the first. Both sides had resorted to long balls by now with the only moment worth mentioning a half-hearted Eriksen claim for a handball against Arter which would have been even worse than the penalty decision that did for Northern Ireland against Switzerland on Thursday.

A couple of Danish corners came to nothing as our attempts to frustrate Denmark continued apace. We even created a half-chance ourselves at the midway point as a Brady free dropped to Clark just outside the six-yard box but the big centre-half couldn’t adjust himself to get a shot off.

The introduction of the much-maligned Danish cult hero Nicklas “Lord” Bendtner livened the home crowd a bit as we entered the last 15 minutes but we still looked quite comfortable as O’Neill responded with a substitution of his own which saw Shane Long replace Murphy.

Still, the cat and mouse continued with the referee being generous to both Arter and McClean by keeping his hand in his pocket when he could potentially have put either of them out of the home leg by flashing a yellow. Arter was replaced by Whelan not long after.

A couple more set pieces came and went with a Duffy header saved by Schmeichel as close as we got to scoring. There was time for a couple more heart in mouth moments as the game ticked into injury time. First off, Larsen managed to get free and swung a cross into Poulsen who made a good connection with the header only to put it straight at Randolph who tipped it over acrobatically.  A couple of minutes later, the ball made its way to Larsen again whose shot deflected off Christie and squirted wide.

With the corner duly cleared, a further bit of time wasting saw Hendrick replaced by Conor Hourihane before one final effort from Larsen went nowhere near and the ref blew for full time. Nil all and all to play for in Dublin.

Another cab back to town saw us head back to The Southern Cross to meet a few of the gang including a couple of my cousins who’d trekked down from Sweden for the game. The post-mortem on the game was followed by yet more darts till we hit the wall and headed back to the hotel via KFC en route. Another trip done and now it’s on to Tuesday.

A family affair!

Reading the reports of the RTE coverage en route to the airport made for a sobering experience on Sunday morning but I find it hard to agree with the sensational nature of the analysis. While it wasn’t pretty, personally I thought we played better than we had against Wales, with that vital goal coming from the sort of mistake that Denmark didn’t make on Saturday. Although we conceded more in the way of half chances, I felt that we stuck to a game plan and played further up the pitch than we did against Georgia away, for example. Maybe the fact that Denmark also play in a fairly direct manner suited us and I left the ground fairly satisfied, albeit with that feeling tempered by the lack of an away goal.

Going into the second leg, it’s the away goal that I’m most in fear of. I feel that we have a goal in us but with the onus on us to get that goal, we will have to commit forward more. We conceded first at home to both Austria and Serbia but the Austria equaliser remains our only home goal in the campaign against the top 3 seeds in our group. I would like to see Wes Hoolahan start but given how tight the game is, I feel that O’Neill will prefer to keep things tight and avoid conceding as long as possible before making more positive changes in the last half hour or last quarter of the game. So I reckon we’ll see David Meyler in for O’Dowda and possibly Shane Long come in for Murphy.

With ninety minutes separating us from a first World Cup in 16 years, we’re so close I can nearly feel it. My head is telling me a score draw is the most likely outcome while my heart is screaming out for a comfortable win similar to the Bosnia play-off last time out. Fingers crossed it’ll be the heart that prevails.

 

Tony Considine

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