Denmark v Republic of Ireland: Starring for Leeds United can send O’Kane to Russia

Pressing his case: Leeds United's Eunan O'Kane is hoping to add to his seven caps as Martin O'Neill and the Republic of Ireland bid for a place at next summer's World Cup.
Pressing his case: Leeds United's Eunan O'Kane is hoping to add to his seven caps as Martin O'Neill and the Republic of Ireland bid for a place at next summer's World Cup.
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FOR a select band of Championship footballers, a change can be as good as a rest during an international hiatus.

That certainly applies to Leeds United midfield enforcer Eunan O’Kane during the current recess which tantalisingly promises to gift-wrap an early Christmas present if all goes well.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill

The 27-year-old is currently with his Republic of Ireland team-mates preparing for the first leg of their World Cup play-off meeting with Denmark in Copenhagen this evening – when he is aiming to firmly get into his club manager’s bad books.

Whites head coach Thomas Christiansen is, of course, a Dane by birth, but O’Kane’s allegiances are very much with the Boys in Green, with the County Derry- born player waiting in the wings if called upon during the Irish’s dual date with destiny – with the pivotal second leg being staged in Dublin on Tuesday.

A groin strain kept O’Kane out of Ireland’s two World Cup qualifiers at the start of September, before he earned a recall for the games with Moldova and Wales last month.

O’Kane may not have been involved in the match-day squad during the climatic play-off clinching win in Cardiff, but being part of a victorious Irish party remains a cherished memory – most definitely in an autumn where club business with Leeds has had more downs than ups following a bruising run of seven defeats in United’s last nine outings in all competitions.

It is the biggest competition in the world and to be so close and to have the opportunity to hopefully go and do that is phenomenal.

Eunan O’Kane

Like every other footballer worth his salt, O’Kane is dreaming of being involved with his country in a World Cup in what could prove to be the most momentous season in his career to date – with his club harbouring their own play-off and promotion hopes.

O’Kane, capped seven times by his country – latterly in a friendly in Mexico in June – said: “I think every kid grows up wanting to represent their country and to go and play at the World Cup.

“It is the biggest competition in the world and to be so close and to have the opportunity to hopefully go and do that is phenomenal.”

Should Ireland find a way past the Danes to book a World Cup spot for the first time since 2002, then the hard work will begin again in earnest for O’Kane as he bids to showcase his wares during the winter and spring to secure his seat on the plane for Russia.

Competition is likely to be fierce, with O’Kane one of a number of central midfield options which also include Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan, Conor Hourihane, David Meyler and Harry Arter.

But solid club form, allied to an injury or two, could yet propel O’Kane up the pecking order if fate decrees, with the Leeds grafter viewing the glass to be very much half-full.

A managerial duo who could never be accused of missing much in Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane will most definitely be watching.

He added: “The manager at Ireland has alluded to it before where if you are in the team and playing at your club then it is better than being in the Premier League and sitting on the bench every week.

“I always say the reward is going to play for your country. But you have to put the shift in here (at Leeds), you have to be playing here and doing well.

“Hopefully, the way things have been going for me personally in terms of minutes and me playing every game, that will continue.”

O’Kane is not the only one dreaming. Boss O’Neill, himself, says reaching next year’s World Cup in Russia would rank alongside his best achievements as Republic of Ireland manager.

O’Neill led Ireland to the last 16 of Euro 2016 – beating Italy in the group before being edged out by hosts France in the knockout stages.

Defeating Wales in Cardiff last month earned the Republic another crack at a major tournament, and ahead of tonight’s first leg in Copenhagen, O’Neill said: “It’s a great game for us.

“As far as we’re concerned qualifying for the Euros was a great achievement for us, and we thought that some of the performances were great.

“We forged a very strong reputation by playing brilliantly in that competition, getting there is big but the World Cup is something else as well so if we could make it it would be fantastic and obviously our opponents will feel the same as well.”

O’Neill admitted he had sympathy for Northern Ireland after seeing them beaten by a controversial Switzerland penalty on Thursday night, but refused to go as far as endorsing video referees.

“It looked a pretty poor decision,” he said of the referee adjudging Corry Evans had handled the ball. “We sympathise with that; if that is an event that ends up deciding the tie that will be very disappointing.”

Robbie Brady has told his Irish team-mates to forget the fear of suspension tonight.

Nine men – Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Aiden McGeady, James McClean and Daryl Murphy – stand one card away from a ban which would rule them out of the second leg.

Denmark too will walk something of a tightrope with 10 players in a similar position, although Brady, who has already served two suspensions during the campaign, insists that cannot be on their minds.

He said: “There are a few going into the game tomorrow on yellow cards. I don’t think you can concentrate too much on that.

“We’ve got a job to do - get that done first and foremost and go from there. But hopefully we can avoid any more yellows. It would be helpful.”