Congratulations to the Republic of Ireland, on their qualification for Euro 2016. I know I’m writing for an Irish based website here, so I’m duty bound to say that.
It will be good to have the Irish at a major tournament again. I have fond memories of the 2002 World Cup team, led by the extremely likeable Mick McCarthy, Robbie Keane’s late winner versus Germany that won me £20 in a bet, and Roy Keane’s huff.
I also have fond memories of the Irish team that made Euro 2012, mostly because they made a complete laughing stock of themselves. With the current crop of players they have to choose from, a similar result may be inevitable, in spite of once again having a superbly likeable figurehead in Martin O’Neill.
Really, however, the Republic of Ireland shouldn’t be there. This is because the Euros are clearly too bloated at 24 – a fact we suspected previously, but now know for certain.
I don’t have anything against the likes of Ireland, Turkey, Albania, Iceland and Hungary all making it to a major tournament. It’s the fact that many of them did it automatically by finishing second, or after coming third of six and winning a play-off. In Turkey’s case, automatically by finishing third. Call me traditional, but automatic qualification should be reserved for those who win the group, as the ultimate prize. You lessen that impact by spreading it out.
The two major cases here are Wales and Northern Ireland. People were going mad for Wales in the last qualification campaign – a first major tournament in nearly 50 years, Bale doing what the likes of Rush, Southall and Giggs never could, and the adorable sound of Robbie Savage getting all excited on the radio. It seemed like they were the major story.
Really Wales have got very lucky. They choked when it counted – anaemic wins against Cyprus and Andorra, a home draw versus Israel when a win would have seen them qualify, and losing at Bosnia but getting to the finals anyway because of other results. It was not an impressive qualification campaign in the second half, despite what John Hartson would have us all believe.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, were a success throughout. People point to their easier qualifying group, but even as top seeds Greece spectacularly imploded with home and away defeats to the Faroes, NI were still fourth favourites – in terms of on-paper talent and experience, they were behind Romania (seventh in the world during qualifying according to FIFA), Hungary, and even Finland.
The true success story of qualifying was not the Welsh scrambling home with the most talent they have ever had, or of the Republic finally actually winning a play-off second leg. It was in little old Norn Iron making the most of its range of second choice Championship players and Scottish league jobbers, and winning the group. They would be at a 16 team tournament. Wales probably wouldn’t be, Republic certainly would not. I think it is a real shame the Northern Irish have missed out on having the spotlight to themselves.