Republic of ireland
Four years ago, the Irish flocked to Poland and Ukraine in their thousands, tricoloured flags adorning any corner of Poznan’s narrow cobbled streets that weren’t filled by green shirts and sunburnt faces. All had one thought in mind: a European Championship experience to remember.
It was memorable all right. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland team equalled the worst display of any country in competition history, losing all three group games and conceding nine goals. The 4-0 humbling by Spain led one tabloid to proclaim ‘Murder on Gdansk floor’.
This summer, the same enthusiasts cross land and sea again. This time, though, their optimism is probably better placed.
Can they put Euro 2012 behind them?
After Euro 2012, the Irish football fraternity self-consciously felt the Republic had to prove it belonged in the illustrious company of Europe’s finest. The tournament was so demoralising that the hangover lingered into World Cup qualifying. Even when Trapattoni was replaced by Martin O’Neill, it took time for the inferiority complex to dissipate.
The turning point was a 1-0 win over world champions Germany last October. With their confidence restored, the Boys in Green need to translate the spirit of that Dublin night into something less transient.
Ireland have been drawn into a daunting group, as they were in 2012. For Spain, Croatia and Italy, read Belgium, Sweden and Italy again – i.e. the previous tournament’s finalists, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the world’s second-best team according to FIFA. This time, four of six third-placed teams make the last 16, so Ireland have a chance – one that’s likely to hinge on their opening match against Sweden. Slow start? Quick exit.
Squad members remain but of the 11 that lined up against Spain four years ago, only John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan still start regularly. A fresh group of players feel they can make an impression on this tournament – a better one than last time.
What they’ve learned
Ireland have learned at last to shift focus from established faces to a younger generation. Record goalscorer Robbie Keane no longer has 90 minutes in the tank, and the sight of Shay Given – now 40 – stretching his weary limbs for most of the first half against Germany before making way for Darren Randolph showed why his time has passed.
In their place, twentysomethings Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady stepped up to the mark. They secured Ireland’s qualification with intelligent, technical craft supplementing the national team’s trademark spirit and endeavour. The new breed are ready to take ownership of the shirt.
The Irish are at their strongest in defence. They conceded only seven goals in qualifying, the fewest in a group that contained Germany and Poland. Being just as miserly again, through tight organisation, will form the bedrock of any success in France.
West Ham’s Randolph should retain his place between the sticks, while Coleman is a certainty at right-back, looking to prove that a poor season with Everton doesn’t mean he no longer carries a serious attacking threat. O’Shea, fresh from another successful relegation battle with Sunderland, will endure similar hair-shredding stress in the heart of defence, alongside either Ciaran Clark or Richard Keogh. On the left, Brady and Stephen Ward alternative depending on the opposition, although Cyrus Christie might fancy his chances of sneaking into the team even on his unnatural side.
Goals are a Long shot
Ireland’s capacity to score is limited. Keane, the source of so many match-winning moments throughout the years, now makes fleeting appearances from the bench. Shane Long isn’t prolific, despite his excellent all-round game, iconic winner against Germany and best-ever season with Southampton. He is unquestionably Ireland’s best forward – any injury to him would constitute a full-blown crisis. Brady and Wes Hoolahan are consistent creative outlets and O’Neill will be hopeful of profiting from set-pieces, but they do lack a goalscorer.
There’s also an alarming dearth of young talent coming through: virtually every recent Irish squad has featured zero players under the age of 23. But that’s a worry for another day...
There are no pre-eminent individuals in this Irish team – everyone’s contribution is of the same importance. That’s a kind way of suggesting they lack a world-class player; one who, like Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale or David Alaba, can elevate the chances of a less-than-elite footballing nation.
The man who personifies this Irish team is Jon Walters. The Stoke forward is instrumental in leading their press, defending from the front, and also scored five goals in qualifying. A marginal figure under Trapattoni, he’s now one of the first names O’Neill jots down on his teamsheet.
O’Neill himself said, in the aftermath of his team’s play-off win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, that Walters “epitomises our spirit and never-say-die attitude”, adding: “He’s been pretty exceptional throughout the campaign and I couldn’t speak more highly of him.”
The Irish public share that sentiment, having adopted the Liverpudlian as one of their own. He may not be the most glamorous or gifted of footballers, but Walters’ steely fortitude makes him a favourite among supporters and team-mates alike.
O’Neill’s two-and-a-half years with Ireland could be split into three parts. Act I: An initial wave of goodwill, aligned with encouraging performances. Act II: Frustration as qualification begins to stall. Act III: The glorious turnaround, starting with the Germany game, as O’Neill begins to shape the team in his own image. As an encore, he’ll quietly fancy himself to take Ireland into the knockouts.
While assistant Roy Keane is expected to leave after Euro 2016, O’Neill will probably stay on. At this stage of the 64-year-old’s career, the less taxing nature of international football suits him. The Irish team has an identity again and it’s largely thanks to him.