You’ll never beat the Irish
The Republic of Ireland are back among football’s premier knockout finals after an absence of 10 years. Led by the most successful ever club coach in Serie A and legendary former Italy national coach Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland are not there merely to make up the numbers. Backed by upwards of 25,000 fanatical fans, they are sure to bring a great spectacle to the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Ireland qualified this time on the back of a promising campaign, in which they finished runners-up to Russia and then duly despatched Estonia in the play-offs to take their place in this summer’s extravaganza. Just when you thought things could be kind to them in the group draw, they were pulled out of the hat in the “Group of Death” alongside Spain, Italy and Croatia – ouch!
Not many people would give them a hope of getting out of that group with Spain and Italy around but, in the shape of wily old fox Trapattoni, he will have a plan. And along with this, he will believe that a top-two finish is not out of the equation if they play to his principles.
Spain are the tournament favourites and rightly so, being current world and European champions. Italy are former world champions and are usually there or thereabouts when the prizes are awarded. However, Ireland have been here before. They have been tipped to make an early exit in every tournament they have been involved and yet somehow manage to ruffle a few feathers along the way.
Who could forget Euro 1988, when Ireland beat England, drew with the Soviet Union before narrowly losing to the eventual winners, the Netherlands. Not forgetting that Ireland were the first nation from outside the UK to beat England on home soil, which they did 2-0 at Goodison Park in 1949. Again at the World Cup in 1990, they were grouped with England and Holland; again they held their own and went through, beating Romania on penalties in the last 16 and narrowly losing to Italy in the quarter-finals.
Ireland were the team to be avoided in the United States at the World Cup in 1994, when they shocked the eventual finalists Italy with a wonderful Ray Houghton goal that sent the Azzurri into shock. But they were turned over by their old nemesis Holland in the last 16.
Since those glory days under Jack Charlton, qualification has been tough. Twice they have failed in the Euro play-offs – in 1996 losing again to Holland. Though they qualified for the 2002 World Cup, their competition was overshadowed by Roy Keane quitting the Irish squad on the eve of the tournament after a row with manager Mick McCarthy. Despite bravely overcoming the absence of Keane, they went out to Spain, 3-2 on penalties, in the last 16.
In 2009, in the second leg of their play-off against France, they were harshly treated by the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident in Paris, which probably cost them a place at the 2010 World Cup finals.
However, under Trapattoni, this is a new-look Ireland. There are still some older players in the squad but it’s very much based on youth. The over-30s, like Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Shay Given, are still around to give the team big-game experience. The Italian likes to play with organisation and balance. When you go forward, you do so as a team and, when you don’t have the ball, you defend as a team – an age-old trait in successful Italian club sides.
The Premier League is represented by players from clubs like Everton, WBA, Wolves, Aston Villa, Fulham, Sunderland and Stoke, with Championship clubs Millwall and Leicester also having players in the 23-man squad. LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane and Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGeady give the squad an international flavour.
Sunderland winger James McClean is the final piece in the Trapattoni jigsaw. The young Derry-born flyer has blazed a trail since Martin O’Neill pitched him into the heat of the Premier League battle some six months ago and thoroughly deserves his place on the plane.
But spare a thought for the half-dozen Premier footballers who are not in the squad and you can see the dilemma that Trapattoni has had in picking his final selection. If he can leave out the likes of Stephen Ireland, of Aston Villa, Seamus Coleman, of Everton, Newcastle’s Leon Best, Noel Hunt, from Reading, Villa’s Ciaran Clark and Wes Hoolahan, at Norwich, then you can see the strength and future of Ireland is in good hands.
Ireland will line up compact in midfield and defence, focusing on the speedy wing play of Duff/McGeady/McClean to supply a strikeforce that is sure to feature captain Robbie Keane and Shane Long. I am under no illusions that Ireland will face a fight to get out of the Group of Death but don’t bet against them turning over both Croatia and Italy in what could turn out to be 73-year-old Trapattoni’s finest hour.