From high emotions after the win over Italy, we crashed back down to earth against France. But Ireland didn’t go out of the Euro 2016 without a hard fight against the hosts. This team showed heart and pride and made the whole nation proud. They were a joy to watch and with a bit of luck they could have won, too. But luck is for losers. So, we’re already looking forward to the qualifications for the World Cup 2018. There is just one thing left I feel I need to do: saying thank you to Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and the whole team for their all around performances on and off the pitch.
Ireland at the Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine felt like a wasted opportunity because Giovanni Trapattoni didn’t believe in the team. He had one concept but it didn’t fit to the Irish heart and soul. He wanted to bring Ireland to the Euros and he did. But he didn’t trust his players and the team to be able to make a difference at the very tournament. Consequently, all three group matches had been shocking. And it was hard to watch. It was just sad and nothing to be proud of.
Giovanni Trapattoni continued as Ireland manager but calls for him to resign or for the FAI to finally get rid of him, grew louder and louder. And finally, the FAI pulled the trigger and released Giovanni Trapattoni, but more the whole country, from their misery. Noel King worked as caretaker for the time being, while the new manager had to be found.
Rumours were already out before but on 5 November 2013 it was made official: Martin O’Neill was appointed as the new boss, together with his assistant Roy Keane. I was excited and expected much and had to express my feelings. At the time, I was regularly writing for my football blog, so I came up with this little article (in German there, I’m going to translate it into English and post it here soon) about my expectations for a bright future.
Surviving the Group of Death
After qualifying for the Euro 2016 in France, Irish eyes weren’t smiling after their team had been drawn to the so-called Group of Death of the tournament. You could certainly get it easier than Italy, Belgium and Sweden to overcome and reach the next round of 16. But after beating Germany during the qualification, the confidence to do so was there. Yes, there also had been a heavy loss of 1-0 against Scotland at Hampden Park, but that was two years ago and since then progress had been rather obvious.
Ireland’s first opponent had been Sweden, and as per usual everything said before in the media was about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player and always able to score this one magical goal once or twice a year. But he’s clearly past his prime. And if you’ve got a primadonna in the team and said pampered boy doesn’t feel right within the first fifteen minutes of a game, there is a good chance that the whole team don’t play well.
Still, Ireland had to get a result, at least a draw, to build on, so there was still a good chance to finish in third place in Group E. And, yes, they got the draw but it felt like a loss. Because three points would have been possible. Sweden wasn’t good, Ibrahimovic just the old footballer that he is nowadays, and Ireland played football like a team – like it should be played.
Maybe some thoughts and regrets had been still with the first game when Ireland faced Belgium in the second game. Belgium also played well, much better than in their first game against Italy that they lost. So, Belgium also had to prove themselves and they did. Ireland didn’t get slaughtered but the loss of 3-0 was a heavy set-back. It also meant that Ireland needed a win in the last game against Italy to make the desired third place of their group.
Yes, it helped that Italy only sent out their second team and left out their star players. But those fringe players also wanted to prove not only to themselves but their coach that they’re more than worthy of a starting position. So, of course, it was still a hard task to take. Some good chances were created by the Irish players, they didn’t go for the long ball but kept the ball down for most of the time. And emotion went high when Robbie Brady scored that much needed goal in the 85th minute.
Going against all odds
Ridiculously enough, most headlines afterwards made the love shown between Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane after the final whistle against Italy. I searched through my pictures from previous matches and found that Roy Keane after almost every match (that had been won) hugged the manager or some players who did well. He’s actually a pretty nice guy and Martin O’Neill and him clearly have got the same sense of humour. But the press want stories, so Roy Keane probably stays forever the fiery character that he always has been.
It might work to scare some opponents and when Roy Keane asked a journalist at the press conference who’d mean with ‘underdogs’, he made it pretty clear that Ireland wouldn’t go out to be the prey for the hosts. Because, obviously, it was another hard task that Ireland got in the first knock-out stage of the last 16 teams. It was France of all nations, the hosts, and Ireland only got 5,000 tickets for their fans to attend the stadium in Lyon that holds more than 56,000 spectators.
The support was still loud, and especially during the first half of the game, Ireland played some of the best football I’ve ever seen from them. Darren Randolph was a calm, no-nonsense goalkeeper; Jeff Hendrick with his 24 years was much of a revelation what’s possible for the future: a workhorse, a magician in midfield; Séamus Coleman already the new captain of the team, leading by example. I’m still waiting for James McClean to play to his potential. But every player lived up to the hype they earned themselves for the way they played against Italy.
Referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded Ireland a penalty in the first minute of the match that was cleverly demanded by Shane Long, to put it this way. And when Robbie Brady scored the goal in the second minute, everything seemed possible. Now, Ireland didn’t just want to defend that narrow lead; this would have been dangerous against France anyway. No, they stuck to their game plan, tried to create… create! chances. And France most of the time didn’t find a solution.
That obviously changed in the second half. Maybe it also had been the fiery performance in the first half that took its toll now. France got much more space now from the Ireland players; they got the time and space to create more and more chances. The Irish defence was more or less exposed when they conceded those two goals by Griezmann in quick succession. At least, Shane Duffy was able to prevent a third goal by Griezmann but only at the expense of a sending off.
France only had to defend that lead now against ten Irish men who still tried their best to at least force thirty minutes of extra time to this match. But it didn’t happen, and when the referee blew the final whistle, the Euro 2016 came to an end for Ireland. What’s still left is this feeling of pride and high emotion. To watch this Irish team that played with a big heart, a (mostly) working plan and some good young players who are the future of this team, is something great to build on.
The qualification matches for the World Cup 2018 in Russia couldn’t come too early. And it’s great to still have both, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, on board for the next journey. This is something to look forward to because there was so much progress all around this team in such a short amount of time. May it continue and flourish.
Today is the future
“I’m proud of the team. Proud of the support. The combination of that made it a memorable trip for us.” [x] “I think the performance against Italy cemented the relationship between the team and the supporters.” [x]
Those two quotes from Martin O’Neill said at the last press conference in France before heading home to Ireland on 27 June 2016, sums everything up. Don’t get me wrong, I was looking forward to the tournament, especially because of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane. I wanted to see how well they prepared the team for the tournament and this tough group specifically. Of course, I hoped that they’d at least survive the Group of Death to make the knock-out stages.
But what’s hope and praying for luck? Football is reality, and there is no football god. If something miraculously works for you, in nine times out of ten, the referee made a mistake. So, it had to be hard work, team spirit and an all round winning attitude.
What is still missing, is a strong league on home soil. The big heads in the FAI make a lot of money while the league don’t know how to make it to next month – to put it drastically. There are a lot of great talent in Ireland. But especially the prominent example of Roy Keane makes it obvious what goes wrong and that a lot of such great talent probably give up half way because they don’t get the support they need, the facilities, the youth teams, etc.
And I hope that especially Roy Keane will be able and willing to make his influence count that the League of Ireland can start being a competitive one. First of all, they have to change the schedule. They are currently in the middle of the season, so if players of the league wanted to be considered to play for the national team, their club had to miss them for four or five weeks. Yes, they are well prepared for the qualifying matches for the Europa League but that’s not making up for all the difficulties they have to cope with because of this special role in European football.
There’s nothing better than starting at a very young age. That goes for everything. And the better and broader it goes, the more and better you can choose from. Yes, there’s something romantic about a highly gifted footballer kicking the ball around in the backyard until he’s 19 years of age, just to be miraculously spotted at some random youth tournament. But that happens once in thirty years. And you can’t count on miracles and luck all the time. Making your own luck by building a competitive league and good youth scouting and management. Using a big part of the 11M Euros Ireland got for reaching the first knock-out stage for said League of Ireland and their youth systems, would be a good start.