- Lifestyle & Sports
- 27 Nov 15
We're in it to win it… or maybe not. The hard work lies ahead. But Ireland have made the cut for Euro 2016, and now is the time to rejoice...
Cigars and champagne all around, folks: we’ve done it. After a chequered campaign – which the doom’n’gloom brigade had dismissed in June as already stillborn – we’ve come up smiling, and are fully entitled to luxuriate in the glory. Already, next summer is an infinitely brighter prospect, and we have months of frenzied anticipation ahead of us: time to speculate, perchance to dream.
Of course, this is exactly the position we were in four years ago, and you would probably prefer me not to remind you of how that one unfolded. I still have a nightmarish recollection of jetting over to Warsaw the morning after Croatia had spanked our arses, then staggering stupefied from Gdansk’s PGE Arena after the Spanish inquisition, traumatised at the sheer enormity of the humiliation to which we’d subjected ourselves. By the time we hit Poznan to face the Italians, the football element of the whole adventure had become a black- comedy sideshow to the serious business of drinking Poland dry.
After the carnage, opinion was sharply divided as to whether it had been a good idea to qualify in the first place. The stats were damning: three sound hammerings in three games, with a goal-difference of 1-9, was the worst record of any Euro finalist since multi-national Yugoslavia’s 1984 meltdown. Certainly, it was not an experience anybody would be keen to repeat. But there are solid grounds for suspecting that the gods may be kinder to us this time.
For a start, Martin O’Neill can be relied on to actually keep an eye on his players’ form on a week-to-week basis, and to apply an open mind to the small matter of team selection – in stark contrast to old Trapattoni, who more or less announced in public after the 2011 playoff victory that the squad was settled and set in stone, seven entire months before the finals. It’s also unlikely that we will face a first-round group quite as vicious as the one which confronted us in 2012: the expansion of the Euros from 16 to 24 teams, a monumentally bad decision, at least offers a very tangible silver lining.
In pure football terms, the decision is indefensible: it devalues the achievement of qualifying, and undermines its claims to be an elite event. Far more troublingly, it involves a reversion to the discredited format of the World Cups of 1986-1994, where the four ‘Best Third-Placed Losers’ sneak into round two, meaning that 36 games are required to eliminate only eight teams. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on most people yet just how adversely this will affect the quality of the football: it will result in several ‘dead-rubber’ matches between teams who’ve already secured their progress, and will reward excessive caution, opening up a vista where it is possible to clear the first hurdle with, say, two 0-0 draws and a 2-0 defeat. UEFA may as well go the whole-hog and reverse the back-pass ruling while they’re at it.
The upside of the Euros’ expansion, of course, is that we are one of the direct beneficiaries: under the old system, third place would have been no use to us. Other nations who’ve made the cut include Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland aka the Six Counties – none of whom remotely qualify as elite (this is not to belittle the achievement of Michael O’Neill and his crew: we can sneer all we like at the feebleness of their qualifying group, but the point is that they finished top of it).
A ‘mock draw’ conducted in the office has just paired us with Russia, France and Sweden, a prospect to which the initial reaction must be trepidation verging on terror. An altogether more fortuitous roll of the dice might see us paired with England, Switzerland and Hungary. Even middling powers such as Slovakia and Austria are eminently beatable; and while obvious dreadnoughts such as Spain, Germany and hosts France might seem best avoided, it’s no harm to remind ourselves that we held Germany on their own turf and then beat them over here. The significance of that match went well beyond the three points; it was the defining breakthrough moment of the O’Neill Era, the first time since Holland 2001 that we’d gone toe-to-toe with an acknowledged superpower and come out on top. The boost to the team’s collective self-esteem must be immense.
When the fixture list was first drawn up, it seemed reasonable to assume that the four matches against Poland and Scotland would determine our ultimate fate. As it turned out, they were pretty disastrous, delivering two points from a possible 12. We played a lot of frighteningly mediocre football in the course of our triumphant march to the finals: in particular, the 1-0 home win over Georgia stands out as an unadulterated horror show. And we are, of course, fully capable of making lump idiots out of ourselves on the grand stage next summer if we are not firing on all cylinders.
Equally, with a point or two to prove, we might just finally do ourselves justice. I’ll refrain from further speculation until the draw has been made, but for now, we ought to sit back and smile... and dream. This is what it’s all about; this is why we persist through the hard times; this is football. Lord speed next summer.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18