24 years have passed since Ireland made their debut at the European Championships in 1988 in Stuttgart. While it was the first time the nation had ever qualified for a major international tournament, it would unfortunately be just a brief yet hugely memorable cameo appearance. Under the stewardship of World Cup winner, Jack Charlton (who subsequently led the nation to two World Cups – Italia ’90 and USA ’94) Ireland opened their Euro ’88 campaign with a famous 1-0 victory over neighbours England however, a draw with the Soviet Union and a 1-0 defeat to the eventual winners, Netherlands – under the guidance of Rinus Michels – meant that Ireland did not progress to the knock-out stages.
In 2012, Ireland have qualified for the European Championships in Poland-Ukraine – it is also the first time that qualification has been achieved for a major tournament in 10 years, since Mick McCarthy led the country to the World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002. Having been a Thierry Henry handball away from qualification the 2010 World Cup, Giovanni Trapattoni’s side will certainly be relishing playing at the tournament this summer, with around 30,000 Irish fans expected to travel to Poland and in particular to Poznan where the Irish camp is based. No doubt there will be a typically Irish carnival atmosphere accompanying those who are travelling to support the Boys in Green.
How did they get here?
From the outset, a play-off place looked to be Ireland’s best bet of securing qualification out of Group B having been drawn along with Russia, Slovakia, Armenia and Macedonia. The campaign started well with victories over Armenia 1-0 (a) and Andorra 3-1 (h). However, a month later in Dublin, Russia were 0-3 to the good after less than an hour, before a late rally from both the manager and players brought the score to 2-3. That was before wins both home and away against Macedonia, prior to a 0-0 draw with Slovakia. Four days after that draw in Dublin, the real turning point of the campaign came when Ireland travelled to Russia in September of last year. It certainly wasn’t a game for the faint hearted as Ireland didn’t so much put on a defensive master class, but a dogged determined display which featured heroics from Richard Dunne and Shay Given, the former putting his body (and face) on the line on many occasions during the game. Qualification ended with 2-0 and 2-1 victories versus Andorra and Armenia respectively, leaving Ireland in 2nd place, just two points behind Russia, in the play-off spot with a record of: P10 W6 D3 L1 F15 A7 – 21 points.
The play-off draw couldn’t have been more favourable for Ireland as they were drawn against the lowest ranked team in the draw – Estonia – who were the team standing in the way of Ireland and a place at the European Championships. Ireland ended up taking a 4-0 lead back to Dublin; Robbie Keane scored a brace, along with goals from Jon Walters and Keith Andrews. Trapattoni, ever the pessimist re-coined a phrase that he had previously used in Italy (much to the dismay of his translator) as he refused to say the game was over at 4-0, saying “Be careful the cat. No say the cat is in the sack when you have not the cat in the sack.” A 1-1 draw the Aviva Stadium and the lap of honour that followed meant that Ireland had secured their place at the European Championships for the first time in 24 years.
Since Giovanni Trapattoni took charge in 2008, Ireland has risen 24 places in the FIFA rankings from 42nd up to 18th. Ireland have suffered two defeats in 24 competitive games under the Italian and go into the tournament on a 13 game unbeaten run – with their last competitive defeat coming in that 3-2 loss against Russia back in October 2010. The wily old Italian, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day, will be the oldest coach at the European Championships at the age of 73. Despite grumblings from the fans and media alike that Ireland should mix things up and add more to their game or the pandering that certain names should picked on the back of performances for their club sides, Trapattoni has almost certainly stuck to his guns in this regard. Ireland are difficult to beat and this is testament to the Italian, one of his great strengths since taking over in the post-Kerr and post-Staunton era where Irish international football was at a low, he has built a side that have the ability to qualify for major tournaments but one that cannot boast of star names like Charlton’s side did back in 1988.
Ireland are a defensive side and there is no getting away from it but it so happens to be their great strength. Organisation, defensive discipline and attention to the so-called ‘little details’ is what Trapattoni regularly preaches. Six clean sheets during qualification was testament to this philosophy. In a group of Spain, Italy and Croatia, open attacking, expansive football is not going to be possible, and so Ireland will be playing to their strength. While many modern managers favour a 4-2-3-1 or a variation of that formation, but the Italian is more old school, sticking rigidly to a bog-standard 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with Robbie Keane playing in behind Kevin Doyle. Counter-attacking will be essential and having the likes of Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady (James McClean also) on the flanks means Ireland can make that transition from defence to attack very quickly, while the central midfield of Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan will sit in front of the back four.
Likely starting XI: Given, O’Shea, Dunne, St. Ledger, Ward, Andrews, Whelan, McGeady, Duff, Keane and Doyle.
Who has made the squad?
In recent days, there has been a lot of a controversy surrounding the exclusion of Kevin Foley from the final squad, having been named in the provisional 23-man squad by Trapattoni a few weeks earlier. Foley, who had been carrying a slight injury, was replaced by Paul McShane despite playing 45-minutes in a warm-up game in Italy. Keith Fahey was another casualty from the original squad and withdrew due to an injury; he was replaced by Paul Green. James McCarthy, whom many called for to be included, had to pull-out due to a family illness. Perhaps the one and only surprise in the squad is that of James McClean. A couple of months ago McClean had not even made his debut for Sunderland, and at the start of Ireland’s qualifying campaign back in 2010 was still plying his trade with Derry City. Trapattoni has certainly had his head turned by McClean who could become somewhat of a secret weapon this summer.
There is experience in abundance in this squad – Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne are all veterans of the last time Ireland qualified for a major tournament in 2002 and they possess 405 caps between them – Given (121), Keane (116) Duff (96) and Dunne (72). All are the cornerstones of this Ireland side, despite an injury concern or two they should all take to the field in the first game against Croatia. There is a distinct possibility that this could be Shay Given’s last tournament, at 36 he will be 38 in 2014, Richard Dunne is 32, Robbie Keane 31 and Duff 33. Ireland will be the oldest squad at this summer’s showpiece with an average age of 28.35 (Germany are the youngest at 24.52) – although Italy won the World Cup in 2006 with an average age of 28.2 and Greece won the tournament in 2004 with the oldest squad – so perhaps it is a good omen?
Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, David Forde.
Defenders: Richard Dunne, Stephen Kelly, Darren O’Dea, John O’Shea, Sean St. Ledger, Paul McShane, Stephen Ward.
Midfielders: Keith Andrews, Damien Duff, Darron Gibson, Paul Green, Stephen Hunt, Aiden McGeady, Glenn Whelan, James McClean.
Strikers: Simon Cox, Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Jon Walters.
Can we qualify for the knock-out stages?
It will be very tough, there’s no question about it. Despite Ireland’s impressive unbeaten record in preparation for Euro 2012 a group of Spain, Italy and Croatia makes progress to the knock-out stage difficult but not impossible. Trapattoni has cited Greece’s 2004 victory on a couple of occasions as the model Ireland should aspire to be. The opening game against Croatia on June 10th is crucial and is a game that Ireland will be looking to win or draw ahead of games with Spain and Italy. Previous records at major tournaments suggests that Ireland always have a big game scalp in them at Euro ’88 there was the victory over England, Italia ’90 draws against England and Holland, USA ’94 beating Italy and in Japan/Korea in 2002 a draw against Germany. Before Ireland, only two nations have come to the Euros 24 years after their first appearance, France in 1984 and Greece in 2004 – both won the tournament. Now, that is certainly food for thought.
Euro 2012 coverage: Group A Preview
Ireland’s national airline, Aer Lingus, has created a short handy guide to the Euros: