The countdown has commenced. It is now just over a month until the start of Euro 2016 and Irish fans are gearing up for another march on Europe, as they prepare to follow the boys in green in their quest for European glory.
Leicester’s triumph in the English Premier League has captivated the imagination of those who follow the underdog in the world of sport and make no mistake, Ireland are huge underdogs.
Ever since Euro ’88 when Ray Houghton popped up to put the ball in the back of the English net, Ireland fans have always thought that it was possible to overcome the odds. It was that day that started the notion that Ireland could cause a major upset and we have on a number of occasions. Italia ’90 may have been a dour affair in the qualifying stages but anyone who was alive in 1990 will remember the famous line from George Hamilton, as David O’Leary stepped forward to take the final penalty against Romania, ‘a nation holds its breath.’
I saw George on TV recently and he explained that in those days, Ireland only had the two TV stations in many parts, RTE 1 and Network 2. Network 2 was showing the game and when it went to penalties, they interrupted the main evening news on RTE 1 so the entire nation was actually watching the match at that point.
The Giants’ Stadium in New York played host to one of the most remarkable performances ever witnessed in an Irish jersey from the enigmatic Paul McGrath. Playing with a dodgy shoulder and the legendary dodgy knees, McGrath was tasked with marking the then World Player of the Year, Roberto Baggio and the Black Pearl of Inchicore showed what a world class athlete he really was by not giving the Italian a sniff of it over the ninety minutes. At the other end, Ray Houghton did the honours with an audacious lob and a peculiar head over heels celebration that sent the nation into raptures.
Jason McAteer booked his place in the annals of Irish soccer by getting on the end of a Steve Finnan cross, which effectively dumped a hugely talented Dutch side out of the 2002 World Cup. Overmars, Kluivert, Davids et al were put to the sword by Mick McCarthy’s men who were captained by the legend himself, Roy Keane. We will leave this anecdote at this point, as it brings up too many bad memories.
Euro 2012 doesn’t merit much of a mention in a positive feature like this and the likes of O’Shea and Whelan will be eager to dispel the memory of Poznan and Gdansk with success this summer.
So how will we fare in Group E, a group that contains Belgium, Sweden and Italy? Sweden are up first and we have a score to settle with the Swedes who effectively ended our world cup hopes for Brazil in 2104. They are over reliant on one Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he is the type of player who could win the game by himself or slip into oblivion over the ninety minutes. John O’Shea and whoever partners him in defence will have a tough time if he is on form but let’s hope the PSG man has an off day. Whatever happens in the first match, it is imperative to avoid defeat, as it would leave the lads with a mountain to climb in the final two games.
Who can forget the buzz that was generated before the Croatia match in 2012? Regardless of what people said, that buzz was not generated over the course of the other qualifying matches after we were defeated in such a convincing fashion. It also gives hope to the players that they will still be in with a shout in the final game against Belgium. Was there a worse game to be at than the game against Italy when we knew we couldn’t qualify?
The second game against the Italians will, of course, depend a lot on the result of the first games. If we were to get a win against Sweden, the pressure would be off and we could play for a draw, something Martin O’Neill has mastered over the years, especially in European games with Celtic. It may not be pretty but it can be effective. The final game against Belgium will hopefully see us in a position to qualify for the next round, especially with two of the best third placed teams qualifying. Can you imagine what would happen if we make the second round?
Which brings us back to the initial question of this post (I do go on don’t I?) which was of course, how far can we go? Martin O’Neill is probably one of the best managers suited for these types of tournaments. He is not scared to sacrifice entertaining football for results and more importantly, he is very good at creating a siege mentality among his teams, with players prepared to put themselves on the line for their team-mates. This is something that was missing under Trap in the final stages of his reign. Think of his Leicester teams and his Celtic teams, they both punched above their weight. And at Villa, he had them over achieving if you consider what has happened since, the same with Sunderland and he got them out of a relegation dogfight when no one thought it was possible.
Shane Long’s form will be giving fans a huge boost in confidence, with the Tipperary man bagging his tenth goal of the season at the weekend and drawing praise from Thierry Henry, who thought he was man of the match against Man City. Long has never been prolific in an Irish shirt but maybe this is the platform he needs to prove himself as our ‘go to’ man this summer.
Wes Hoolahan will be a key figure for O’Neill, as he is one of the few players who can help Ireland to control possession, something which does not come naturally to us, as a footballing nation. And though I could be accused of jumping on the bandwagon, how good is Jack Byrne? If YouTube clips are anything to go by, this guy has some serious potential and at the risk of being a real bandwagoner, is he not a better option than Stephen Quinn? Check him out on YouTube and make up your own mind.
Having been to the last two friendly internationals, I have noticed a major change in the confidence of the Irish players. The fact that they have qualified for a major tournament may be the reason but for me, the scars of Euro 2012 took quite a while to heal and when you consider the 6-2 drubbing at the hands of Germany in the October after the Euros and contrast it with the 1-0 win, courtesy of a Shane Long goal, it is clear that we have witnessed a major change in the dynamics of this side.
I’m not going to go crazy and say that we can win it, but if we can qualify for the second round, I think we are suited to knock-out football. We have lads like Whelan, who is vastly under-rated and will work his socks off, Brady, who has been a revelation, McCarthy, who has been a consistent performer, despite media criticism and Long, who can hit a run of form and send us to at least the Quarter-Finals. From there, who knows what might happen?
All I know is that I can’t wait for June.