At the height of the credit crunch, as both nations were plunged into a catastrophic banking crisis, there was a joke that the only difference between Iceland and Ireland was one letter and six months. These days, it is one place in Fifa’s Rankings and there was very little to separate them here.
That joke was a reminder of how close both came to a financial meltdown which could have destroyed them, but in footballing terms neither country can be laughed at anymore, although the sight of Ireland wall ducking out of the way of a free kick as Iceland scored the only goal of the game will amuse some.
If Iceland’s humbling of England in the Round of 16 was the headline grabbing shock of the tournament, Ireland’s victory over Italy in the final group game was almost as impressive. As was the scare they gave France in the first knockout game, taking the lead in the first half before the hosts over turned things round in the second half.
They are two small nations punching above their weight looking to follow up their heroics in France with a place at a second successive major tournament, which is why the wanted to face each other in a friendly here. How better to measure your progress than against someone of stature and strength.
Neither team looked anything like a starting XI, though. It was almost as neither manager wanted to show their hand, when they could yet meet each other again in a World Cup qualifier if they both finish second in their group.
It was a friendly, a time for experimentation. For Ireland, there were debuts for Brentford defender John Egan and Aston Villa midfielder Conor Hourihane. There was also a first start for Aberdeen winger Jonathan Hayes.
For Iceland, there were seven changes to the team that won beat Kosovo last week, while only four of the side that beat England last summer started.
A dull first 20 minutes ended with Iceland taking the lead. Egan committed a foul on the edge of the area and with Ireland’s goalkeeper Keiren Westwood leaving a big gap directly behind his defensive wall, Hordur Magnusson curled a perfect free kick into the bottom corner.
Iceland began to threaten more regularly after that, although Ireland did muster a half chance of their own, Kevin Doyle glancing a cross from James McClean wide.
It was a rare moment of danger. Ireland were poor, Jeff Hendrick following up a disappointing performance against Wales with another sloppy display. The Burnley midfielder looks heavy and with it and far less effective than he was when he was still a Championship player at Derby.
Alongside him, Hourihane looked nervous, as did Hayes. Given an opportunity to show what they could do, neither took it in the first half.
There was an improvement after half time but Ireland had the same trouble England did trying to break Iceland down, who seem to defend a lead as well as anyone in Europe.
With half an hour remaining, O’Neill had seen enough, the most eye-catching of four substitutions, the introduction of former Dundalk winger Daryl Horgan for his first cap.
Now at Preston, Horgan was given rapturous reception, having starred in the League of Ireland’s club’s Europa League campaign last year before moving to England in January.
Ireland pushed hard for an equaliser, the substitutions injecting some pace into a pedestrian attack, Mclean almost getting on end of Horgan’s cross.
More substitutions were made as Iceland tried to hold on, Horgan again causing them problems down the left before another dangerous cross was tipped away by goalkeeper Ogmudur Kristinsson.
Moments later a surging run from Bristol City’s Callum O’Dowda ended with a shot being deflected wide when he called have played in the unmarked Horgan wide of him.
Iceland, though, did to Ireland what they had done to England a few months ago. They are horrible team to play against and that is meant as a compliment.