Irish Water and Repealing the 8th can take a back-seat as the Euros kick-off in France. Now all we need are a few Shane Long hat-tricks to seal the deal...
Fuck Brexit. Screw Donald Trump (preferably with a screwdriver). Putin can go and suck his own dick, even if he secretly takes pleasure in it. We don’t care and we won’t care. Not for two weeks at least. Football is all that matters right now. Have I made myself clear? Football. Is. All. That. Matters.
Ah yes, Euro 2016 is upon us and Ireland are in the mix. How can anyone expect us to treat the affairs of the nation as anything other than a piddling side-show when epoch-defining feats of derring-do are potentially in prospect? Who gives a good god-damn about Irish Water when the future of something much more important – Irish football – is at stake? You got it in one. Nobody.
Which brings us neatly to the all important question, upon which the fate of an entire civilisation clearly hangs: have we a hope in bleedin’ hell of making any sort of a positive impression once the ball is finally in play, and we are all permanently glued to the box, night after night after night after night? For the record, we will, of course, also be busy during the day, sticking pins in dolls and engaging in multifarious other arcane rituals, in the understandable albeit possibly illusory hope that some voodoo might just increase the likelihood of one of our brave boys-in-green sticking the liathróid in the veritable onion sack. Preferably the one behind the opposition goalkeeper, that is.
Ah, yes indeed. To grossly misquote the great Voltaire, aka François-Marie Arouet, in Candide: everything is possible in this best of all possible tournaments. Let the madness begin.
It is chastening to recall the build-up to Euro 2012. Ireland, managed at the time by the authoritarian Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, had qualified in rather less than fine style, squeezing into the tournament only via a play-off victory over a poor Estonia side. But we were there – and where there’s life, there’s hope. Or at least there was.
During the build-up to the big kick-off, the notion took hold among optimists that, having made the finals of a major tournament, Trap might finally relax his slavish dependence on the long ball game and allow the Irish side, at least on occasion, to show their creative instincts.
In interviews in Hot Press, John O’Shea and Stephen Hunt made the case that Ireland could go all the way – and who were we to cast aspersions on the grandiose scale of their ambitions? In truth it was music to our collective ears.
We all know what happened. In advance, our opening game against Croatia had been considered our best chance of a win. Sadly, Trap stuck with the neanderthal style that had got us to Poland and we were thumped 3-1. Games against the world champions Spain and Italy beckoned. It didn’t take a genius to work out that our goose was probably cooked. And so it proved. Spain rogered us 4-0. Italy showed some mercy and left it at 2-0. We still boasted a 9-1 deficit after just three games – the worst ever performance by any team in the group stages of the Euro finals.
There were those, at the time, who argued that we had no right to expect any better. The result was an accurate reflection of our true position in the global football pecking order. With a bunch of second-rate journeymen from the Premiership and the Championship making up the squad, we were lucky to have qualified. It was time to get real. We didn’t have the players. We didn’t have the quality.
I wasn’t alone in feeling that this was completely wrong. Of course there was a gulf in class between Ireland and Germany or Spain. But the beauty of football is that a cat can look at a king. Since the game was invented there have been shocks and surprises. If you walk onto the pitch with the right attitude and give it everything, then there is no knowing.
Denmark failed to qualify for the Euro 1992 finals and were added only when Yugoslavia were disqualified as a result of the war(s) in the Balkans. They went on to win the tournament. In 2004, Greece started as rank outsiders. No one gave them a prayer. But they defended superbly throughout, rode their luck and scored a goal or two – and finally beat Portugal, 1-0, in the final.
The only rule is that there are no rules. Great footballers are an asset to any team. Of course they are: would Ireland have fared better if Andrea Pirlo had been playing in the centre of midfield for us rather than Italy, in Euro 2012? Certainly (as long as Trapattoni selected him, that is; he mightn’t have). Would Wales have made the finals of Euro 2016 without Gareth Bale? Probably not.
But Messi hasn’t been able to carry Argentina, nor Neymar Brazil. The reality is that coaches have so little time with their squads at international level, that the most important factor is to get the team organised and functioning effectively as a unit; and to build the kind of collective spirit that enables players to play above their station both individually and collectively. Even where lesser teams like Ireland are concerned, as both Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy proved in their day, if you can do both, then the footballing gods are far more likely to smile on you.
Giovanni Trapattoni was so fundamentally negative and fearful in his approach that in the end it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the players played with fear. The question now is: have Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane flipped it the other way sufficiently to create a feeling among the players that there is no one in the tournament they can’t beat over, a given 90 minutes.
The dynamic between footballers and their managers is very hard to grasp for anyone who is not part of the group. You have to watch what happens on the pitch to gauge what is in the players’ heads and hearts and work backwards from there. And in that regard, the evidence has been hugely encouraging. Early on in the Euro campaign, I wasn’t sure that O’Neill was picking the right team; or that he was allowing them to play football. Trapattoni hadn’t trusted them to have the ball, and to keep it, in their own half. It looked as if Martin O’Neill was thinking along the same lines.
That perception has receded over the course of the campaign. Both he and Roy Keane have put an emphasis on the idea that we should get on the ball and control it. They have encouraged players to believe in themselves. Gradually, they have empowered our goalkeepers to make passes to the full backs or to the centre halves, rather than banging it straight up to the strikers. There is clearly no point in Ireland trying to emulate the tiki taka style of Barcelona and Spain: it is too technical. But we should be able to vary things and we have been doing that, with increasing fluidity.
Even moreso, the players seem to have been galvanised. They go into battle as a unit. They are good without the ball. The midfielders track back and create a defensive shield. People put their bodies on the line. They do the unspectacular stuff really well, winning headers, getting blocks in and making tackles when they have to. And they don’t give up: you can see, to the very end of every game, that they will throw everything they have into defence or attack, depending on what is required.
This is why they took four points against the World Cup winners, Germany, scoring in the last minute, away, to draw 1-1 and holding out fiercely to beat them 1-0 in Dublin. It is why we prevailed against Bosnia in the play-off: we wanted it more.
We are, of course, not unique in bringing qualities of organisation and resilience to France. Iceland and Northern Ireland, among others, have shown a similar aptitude. The curious thing is that on balance we have better footballers – by some distance – than either of our North European fellow-minnows. The challenge for Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane is to get the players to realise that – and to have the confidence to express themselves and be creative, as well as hard-working and strong.
Everyone knows at this stage that the first game will be vital. We play Sweden. They didn’t do well in the group stages and qualified via the play-offs. They don’t have real strength in depth. But they do have one of the greatest footballers of the past decade in Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing upfront and orchestrating things. He is one of the few players in the tournament – Gareth Bale of Wales is another – who can win matches on his own. But if we can shackle him effectively, then we have to be in with a very good chance.
The team that Martin O’Neill names will tell us a lot about his intentions. Most of the team picks itself. But he has big decisions to make about who to start in goal and in central defence. Without the benefit of watching them in training every day, my instinct would be to stick with Darren Randolph for the No.1 shirt, but if he gave the nod to Keiren Westwood, it would be impossible to argue. He has had a great season with Sheffield Wednesday, and is the man in form.
At centre-half, age may be beginning to catch up with John O’Shea, but he is an organiser and a motivator and, with Robbie Keane unlikely to, should start as captain. In raw terms, there is little or nothing to choose between Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy. I would go for Ciaran Clark, who is the best footballer of the three – but it is a close call. Might he go, for example, for Shane Duffy’s height to equalise Zlatan’s advantage in that department?
The biggest issue, however, is will he start Wes Hoolahan? I believe he must. The inventiveness that he brings to the team means that the opposition are far more likely to spend time on the back foot. Plus, we keep the ball far better when he is on the pitch, meaning less energy-sapping racing around trying to fill holes and plug gaps. But Martin O’Neill might just prefer to play Jeff Hendrick in there with Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy, who are certain to start.
The other question is who to start on the left side of midfield. If Hoolahan is playing, it is between Jeff Hendrick, James McClean and – an outside bet – Aiden McGeady. In the diamond formation that Ireland have been using recently, there is every likelihood that he will opt for Hendrick, who tucks in naturally. He also knows Robbie Brady well and can link with him bombing forward.
I’d still prefer to see McClean given his head. He is more likely to do damage in attack. He is a better crosser. And I suspect he has more goals in him. Plus, no one will be in any doubt about the fact that he is on the pitch. He is hard as nails and will let the Swedes know it, early and often.
Whatever happens against Sweden, we have to go into the games against Belgium and Italy believing that we can beat them. If, as happened against Croatia last time out, we ship a heavy defeat in the opening game, then team spirit will be everything. Against Belgium, we will probably have to defend for 70% of the game. They have so many world-class players that they will be a constant threat. But, so far, the Belgium whole has not been as good as the sum of its parts. Which is why we can dream of beating them or at least snatching a point.
Italy tend to come good in tournaments like this, generally performing better than their form in advance promises. If we can put ourselves in a position where a draw will do, then we might well scrape it. But if we have to win to stay alive, it is certainly not an impossible ask.
After that, with the four best third-placed teams making it through, it is anybody’s guess what will happen. But you have to start out on the journey believing that at the very least you will give a good account of yourselves. I think this Ireland side will. It is hard to imagine anything other than that Germany, Spain, France and Belgium will be the last four standing, with an England side that is bursting with talent the most likely to gate-crash the semi-final party.
Ireland’s spirit is personified by Jonathan Walters; our grit by John O’Shea; our power by Seamus Coleman; our technique by Robbie Brady; our guile by Wes Hoolahan; and our pace and attitude by Shane Long. We have a lot of positives as long as Martin O’Neill recognises and plays to them. And if James McCarthy can step up consistently and deliver with confidence on his immense natural ability in the centre of midfield by making passes and controlling the game better, and Shane Long can continue in the magnificent form he sustained through the second half of the season with Southampton, then we really could turn out to be the surprise force in Euro 2016.
Fuck Brexit! Screw Donald Trump (I’ll lend you the screwdriver). And, what the hell, screw Putin as well.
Let the madness begin in earnest!
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