As Shane Duffy wheeled away in delight after glancing home a whipped free-kick from James McClean after just five minutes, his mind may have wandered back to the last time he gave Ireland the lead with an early header in a crucial international game. It was against Denmark in 2017, and Ireland ended up losing that game 5-1. In the stands here in Copenhagen and in pubs and living rooms across Ireland, euphoria quickly turned to dread. This goal had come too early. There would be a storm to weather.
The stakes for a UEFO second round match are already inevitably high, but with the media frenzy in overdrive ahead of Ireland’s meeting with England, this game felt like it was about much more than football. It was about Ray Houghton and Euro ’88, it was about Lansdowne Road in ’95, it was about potatoes, it was about Brexit and Northern Ireland, it was about Leo and Boris and Michel Barnier and Schengen and free movement and invisible borders in the sea and no blacks no dogs no Irish and Terry Wogan and Ernest Shackleton (they were Irish, dammit!), it was about Mick and Jack and olé olé olé Kevin Sheedy and it was all threatening to become too much.
Trust the Irish fans to undercut all the gravity with some mischievous levity. After the national anthems were respectfully observed in a packed-out Parken Stadium, the Irish end began humming Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, either as a tribute to the EU or to John McTiernan’s 1988 action classic Die Hard, and after the murmurs of laughter had died out, it became apparent that the entire stadium, with the exception of a bemused England section, was humming along too. It only lasted a minute (does anyone know it beyond those iconic first few notes?) but it was a moment of beautiful unity for almost all of the stadium and almost all of Europe. It gave way to a truly deafening set of roars from every corner of the stadium as this encounter finally became about football and football alone.
Much of the pre-match build-up had focused on England’s Declan Rice, capped for Ireland three times and at every youth level before deciding to switch his allegiance to England. The young midfielder looked entirely unaffected by the furore as soon as England settled into an attacking rhythm after Duffy’s early strike, and with the Irish already dropping deep and isolating Obafemi and McGoldrick up front, Rice had the relatively easy task of mopping up the occasional hoofed clearance and feeding the ball to the more creative players in front of him.
What attention hadn’t been focused on Declan Rice was focused squarely on Harry Kane. The England striker has managed to score three goals in UEFO 2020 despite not making it past half-time in any of England’s matches, and it’s hard not to think that Gareth Southgate would actually prefer him to have had less of an impact. As long as he’s able to stand up, Kane appears undroppable regardless of how far off the pace he looks. Shane Duffy must have been thanking his lucky stars at this uniquely English phenomenon: Kane looked more unfit than ever and Duffy had the beating of him for strength, pace and in the air. The England captain was finally withdrawn on 80 minutes after failing to register a single shot on goal, his only meaningful contribution a yellow card for deliberately handballing a Sancho cross into the net. The Irish fans had a traumatic minute of Thierry Henry flashbacks before the referee’s VAR review produced the correct decision.
Lucky for England, then, that they have so many other attacking options besides Kane. Sancho and Sterling were today in typically rambunctious form, constantly teasing and tormenting Stevens and Coleman respectively. Unlucky for England, however, that Darren Randolph was in superhuman form.
In addition to one truly breathtaking double save – flying high to his left to touch a wickedly swerving drive from Oxlade-Chamberlain onto the bar, and then somehow recovering to fling himself low to his right to repel Sancho’s header from the rebound – Randolph did all of the simple things perfectly. He claimed cross after cross with authority, sprinted from his line on the rare occasions England broke through and distributed the ball quickly and accurately to ensure that Ireland posed some threat on the counter. Indeed, it was his quick throw after claiming yet another corner that released Michael Obafemi just before half-time, and if the young Southampton striker had squared to an unmarked David McGoldrick rather than attempting an ambitious shot from a tight angle, it would have been an even more stressful half-time break for Gareth Southgate’s men.
It was only after Kane’s withdrawal that England truly began to threaten. Like a rambunctious sugar-fuelled toddler unleashed on tired grandparents, Rashford’s energy was exactly what the hitherto outstanding but inevitably exhausted Duffy and Egan did not need. Within moments of his introduction, Rashford drew a wild lunge from Egan, and the Sheffield United defender let out a roar of frustration on seeing the yellow card brandished by the referee: he is suspended for the quarter-final against Germany.
Moments later, Rashford came within inches of the equaliser. He wriggled through a non-existent gap between the now-jittery John Egan and Seamus Coleman and his clever toe-poke was the only shot of the evening to beat Darren Randolph. It hit the outside of the post and went wide.
With the tension now racked up to a barely tolerable level, a rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ began to echo around the stadium. It was neither jubilant nor resigned, instead a beautiful moment of collectively dealing with an almost unbearably tense situation. It continued as the English fans roared their approval of Jordan Pickford’s arrival in the Irish box for a series of corners that Ireland couldn’t quite clear and England couldn’t quite force in. Pickford’s contributions, if anything, hindered the efforts of Keane and Maguire to make their height advantage count, and the final whistle blew as Randolph rose above Pickford’s clumsy jump to claim his eleventh corner of the evening.
The boys in green swarmed their heroic goalkeeper as the Parken erupted in delirious joy. Any Danes present have seen more than their fair share of defensive Irish performances over the last years, but this one felt like it had made up for those hours of turgid football. This Irish team, in this game and against Poland, has learned how to add menacing counter-attacks to their typically excellent defensive organisation, and while England had some 68% of the possession, they never really looked like scoring.
As the Irish now turn to a quarter-final clash with Germany, England and Gareth Southgate return home to lick their wounds and reflect on yet another elimination at the hands of a team they expected to beat with an injured player leading the line. There are no new mistakes for Southgate and his compatriots to analyse: it’s the same old familiar ones as always.