14 June 2012, Arena Gdansk: With minutes remaining Ireland trailed the World Champions Spain 4-0 and our European dream was well and truly dead. From the far end of the ground, a defiant group of Irish fans rose to their feet to belt out one last rendition of the Fields of Athenry. What followed was truly amazing and I will take the memory with me to the day I die. Soon, the green jerseys around the stadium had all rose to their feet and joined in a spine tingling rendition of the famous anthem. The sound was absolutely deafening and drowned out the joyous cheers of the Spanish in seconds. I found myself in the Spanish end with a small cluster of my countrymen; nevertheless, we joined the rest of the green shirts in a moment which I was told was surreal to watch even on televisions at home. The Spaniards were bemused as to what exactly we had to sing about, indeed one approached me to ask in broken English when we eventually left the stadium. I thought about how I could convey the emotions I was feeling and all that came to mind was, “Why not?”
I was lucky enough to be among the throngs of Irish fans in Poland four years ago, and following Saturday’s draw thousands across the country will be planning their dream trip to France. Despite us drawing another “Group of Death”, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
As grateful as we were to Trap for getting us there, in hindsight the Italian’s playing style and philosophy was always going to be a disaster on the major international stage. Don’t get me wrong, Trapattoni is a legend of the game and his achievement in securing qualification (and coming agonisingly close in 2010) should not be forgotten. However, it is undeniable that he always saw the limitations rather than the potential of the players at his disposal. Nine goals conceded and one scored (which we celebrated appropriately) are all the statistics you need to sum up that summer in Eastern Europe. Trapatonni distrusted the talented young players available to him that summer, Seamus Coleman was not selected, James McCarthy had pulled out of the squad due to bereavement (but he would probably have been shunned in favour of Paul Green anyway), Darren Gibson and Stephen Hunt didn’t see a minute, James McClean got less than twenty minutes while Shane Long didn’t get much more. Four years on, the group is just as difficult as we face FIFA’s number 1 ranked side in Belgium, Sweden led by super striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and serial opponents Italy. However, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
Ok, the draw was as difficult as it could possibly have been. As many people have pointed out, including Martin O’Neill, we might as well have two pot one teams in the group with Italy and Belgium. However, Ireland never does it the easy way. What is easy is to forget that after the frustrating 1-1 draw with Scotland it looked like even securing a play-off place was out of reach. The Scots sat two points ahead of us and had a trip to Georgia coming up, but the Georgians did us a massive favour with an unexpected 1-0 win which changed the momentum of Group D. Then there was that famous night in the Aviva, Shane Long wrote himself into Irish sporting folklore with that stunning winner (and Darren Randolph didn’t do badly either.) The point here is, just qualifying is a massive achievement, even though this tournament in theory should have been easier to reach with 24 teams competing rather than 16; however, we were once again in a group of death for the qualifying campaign with Germany, Poland and Scotland. The play-offs saw us face a side ranked in the world’s top 20 and counting some world class players in their ranks. However the 2-0 second leg win in the Aviva was more than well deserved. There was some luck in the awarding of the opening penalty which Jonathan Walters slotted home cooly, however the second goal was worthy of the brilliant performance as Walters volleyed home an inch perfect cross from Robbie Brady.
The previous point about Giovanni Trapattoni sticking with the old guard instead of giving the young prospects a chance will be completely counteracted under O’Neill and Keane. Young talent has already been granted its chance in the Irish side, and what’s more they’ve more than proved their worth. Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Ciaran Clark were all essential in securing qualification. O’Neill will also give those who have not been regulars every chance to prove they are worthy of a place in the squad. Harry Arter has been a late bloomer at 25 he has thus far won only one cap, but consistent displays in the Premier League with Bournemouth could well see the midfielder play an integral role in France. 21 year old Jack Byrne is another talent who has a bright future in the international set up; whether that comes this summer or later on. The 21 year old is highly thought of at Manchester City and his loan to the Dutch Eredivise has seen him feature regularly so far. These are only the pick of two out of a host of hopefuls who will have a real chance of breaking into the side. In 2012 the squad was very much a closed door for many prospective talents. Trapatonni remained loyal to the players who secured qualification, but too much so. O’Neill has shown loyalty to these players but if talents who present us with a better chance of success at the finals emerge he will have no qualms about making tough decisions. His assistant Roy Keane revealed as much after the play-off victory when he revealed there were at least 3 places to be won in the squad.
Eamon Dunphy recently claimed we had nothing to fear, which is exactly how we will approach this tournament. In Poland it was always a case of damage limitation, a policy of containment if you will. This time however, we’ll go out and put everything into going toe to toe with these sides and there’s no reason not to. The first game against Sweden takes place in the Stade de France on June 13th and the opener will be absolutely imperative to our hopes. This game is perhaps the most winnable of all the encounters and O’Neill will be eyeing three crucial points. While some people exaggerate how crucial Zlatan Ibrahimovic is to the team, the big striker scored 11 of Sweden’s 19 qualifying goals and that stat says a lot. If we play like we did against Bosnia in the Aviva, we should be the favourites. Mr.Dunphy made another bold assessment describing the Italian team as “old” and struggling to score goals, and the Belgians as “under-acheivers.”While this opinion might be a tad out there, there is some truth in it. Both sides are there for the taking, despite the individual talents they possess, especially Belgium. Both seem to be overly confident as well, Italian manager Antonio Conte seemed to think his side would be facing Northern Ireland, while his Belgian counterpart Marc Wilmots could think of only long balls when asked about Ireland and was already talking about the Semi-Finals. A certain Bosnian manager expressed similar sentiments before the play-offs, so we’ll gladly let the bigger nations think of us as nothing more than a physical side who like to hoof the ball forward. This could not be further from the truth. We do use long ball tactics as most successful Irish teams have done, however these balls to the big men up top like Walters and Daryl Murphy are more often than not held up to bring the likes of Wes Holohan and Robbie Brady into promising positions.
What’s for sure with this team is they will give their all and play at the highest tempo, all that we can promise is what a big name in Irish football history said “We’re gunna go there, and we’re gunna compete” and that’s all we can ask for from our heroes in green. Everywhere we went that summer, the fields of Athenry always loomed large.
by James Cox