It’s May 29th 1993. Manchester United are champions of England, Denmark are champions of Europe and Hungary are in town for David O’Leary’s testimonial.
I’ll never forget that day. It was the first time I went to Lansdowne Road (or any ‘proper stadium’) for a football match. Hungary (or Hungry as we called them) beat an Irish XI 4-2 despite soon-to-be Man United midfielder, Roy Keane, scoring after just eleven seconds.
Back then the Irish squad was full of players from Premiership clubs, not that you could tell from the primitive football we played. Expectations were fairly low compared to what they are now but we always put it up to the so-called ‘big footballing nations’. That year our World Cup qualifying group included Spain, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Albania. We were defeated just once, at home to Spain (3-1).
Fast forward 14 years and circumstances have changed considerably for Ireland and Denmark. Globalisation has led to cheaper foreign imports and that has resulted in less playing time for Danes and Irish alike at England’s top clubs. The closest to a Jan Molby, a Peter Schmeichel or a Roy Keane is Christen Eriksen. However, while the Danes seem to be willing to ply their trade in mainland Europe, the Irish still rely on England and Scotland for their development as professional footballers. This has led to the gap between our domestic league and international panel closing in that time; I don’t remember Ireland fans pleading for the inclusion of the League of Ireland’s top scorer in 1993!
While I am of the opinion that we have players who should be capable of passing a football consistently, it’s also important to realise that free-flowing football has never really been our strength and it’s too late to change that ahead of Saturday night. Therefore, we must dig in, defend stoutly and repeat the heroics of Cardiff, Vienna and Lille.
By this time next week we’ll know if we did enough to qualify for Russia next summer. Perhaps our 1994 World Cup Qualifying campaign can provide some sort of clue as to how the 2017 edition will go? We drew twice against the Danes: a dour scoreless draw in Copenhagen and a one-all draw in Dublin. While we’d obviously prefer the away goal this time around, we did manage to qualify at the then European champions’ expense!