The Republic of Ireland enters Euro 2016 as one of the rank outsiders, and prevailing wisdom is that only Albania and our neighbors to the north will have it worse in France this summer.
On paper it’s tough to disagree.
Our squad is padded out with players such as David Meyler, Stephen Quinn and Keiran Westwood, who all make a living in the second tier of English soccer.
In 2012, Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni brought an Ireland squad to Poland for the European Championships, our first tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Four years ago, it’s legitimate to say, we probably had a better selection of players available. Although, those players were regimented to playing a dour defensive style that saw us laughed out of Poland with three defeats, nine goals conceded and one scored. Recently, one of the few standout performers from that group, Keith Andrews, said that by the time Euro 2012 started, the players couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Damien Duff said the players’ wives and girlfriends were housed above a strip club, something that nobody was happy about.
Trap would leave in 2013 just before the end of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers, and Martin O’Neill stepped in with Roy Keane as his assistant. Irish soccer scribe, Emmet Malone, said that it was Trapattoni who made us hard to beat again. Then it was O’Neill who has brought back the spirit.
All through the qualifiers, Ireland faced tough odds, but more often than not prevailed. A late winner in the group opener against Georgia from Aiden McGeady symbolized this spirit early on. In Gelsenkirchen, against the World Champions, John O’Shea scored a last minute equalizer a month later. Even in Ireland’s first defeat against Scotland in Celtic Park, O’Shea would hit the crossbar. In March 2015, normal service was resumed when Shane Long got the last minute equalizer against Poland in Dublin. Later, in October, Long would score one of the most famous goals in Irish soccer history when Ireland defeated Germany at Lansdowne Road. It wasn’t in the last minute but it came amid a barrage of German attacks that were thwarted largely due to Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy’s hard work in defensive midfield.
We lost in Poland where O’Neill’s tactical shortcomings were put on show, after the Poles took a 2-1 lead and retreated with 11 men behind the ball. It was clear that the former Leicester City coach had no real ideas on how to break through that human wall. One could argue that we just don’t have the personnel to be able to force an issue in a game like that, but part of being the manager of a smaller nation is finding the resources when they don’t appear to be there. Thankfully, Ireland would go through in the playoffs, a bizarre 1-1 draw in the extreme fog in Bosnia was followed by a comfortable 2-0 win in Dublin.
The draw for the tournament puts us in the “Group of Death.” We have to play Sweden, Belgium and Italy. That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be optimistic. Southampton striker Shane Long is in the form of his life and has been reportedly been the subject of interest from bigger clubs. While Whelan and McCarthy’s partnership at the base of midfield is a tough prospect for any team. Even Derby County’s Jeff Hendrick shone against superior opposition in qualifying.
Our first game against the Swedes would appear to be Ireland’s best chance of getting the all-important win that would almost guarantee qualification. Except for you know who, their squad includes three players who play in Sweden and three who play in Denmark. Traditionally, part-time players in the League of Ireland have competed well against teams from the Scandinavian leagues. Other players include journeymen such as Seb Larsson and Kim Kallstrom. And for that alone, the Irish players should hold no fear.
The much-feted Belgium are the fourth favorites for the tournament despite being laughed out of World Cup 2014 with an anonymous performance against Argentina. A defender like John O’Shea has nightmares about playing against a dribbler like Eden Hazard, but those terrors become wet dreams when he thinks about facing target men such as Fellaini and Benteke. As you can tell, I’m clearly clutching at straws because Belgium is clearly a force to be reckoned with, but European Championships do have a tradition of throwing golden generations off course.
If I could rearrange the fixtures, I’d have Italy first, Belgium second and Sweden last. Much has been made of the lack of attacking quality in the Italian line-up but it’s the last game. If there’s one team you don’t want to face when things could be desperate, it’s the Azzurri. The chances are that a draw will be okay for Italy in the last game to qualify. That means it will be them holding on for a 0-0 with Chiellini and Buffon. It’s the Italian footballing fantasy.
So there’s the breakdown of our opponents. The only guarantees I can give you are that there will be a lot of talk about how great our fans are, and that my heart will somehow be broken.
I’m going to savor every moment of it.
Follow Paul Farrell on Twitter @paulfarrell1895
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