The European Championships in 2016 were supposed to be easy to reach for Ireland. That was what we were told from the second that the tournament was expanded to 24 teams.
Basically, half or Europe was going to get in. Ireland did not even need to be that good to make it. It would nearly be harder not to qualify, at least for a measly play-off.
However, no matter how hard a task it may have been, trust Ireland to have plotted a course right to the brink of fourth place and missing out on such a play-off entirely.
As each international window in this campaign came and went, the sense of dread and despair around this Ireland squad grew and grew. All they seemed to do was draw games. The nadir for this feeling came with the 1-1 draw at home to the Scots.
This was supposed to be the game where everything changed, where this squad stood up and were counted. Instead, they drew. Again. The public had basically given up hopes of finishing third in the group. That was until, last month when Scotland went to Georgia and came home with a defeat.
Two wins for Ireland meant that all of a sudden, Martin O’Neill’s men were four points clear of Scotland and with their play-off destiny in their own hands. Now, with the final two games of the group coming up over this weekend, Ireland are poised to fall backwards into a play-off. Just how did we get here? And why does it feel so much like an accident?
Let me take you back to last October. Back to Gelsenkirchen and the last moments of injury time as Ireland laid siege (ok, a short siege, but a siege none the less) to Germany’s goal in search of an unlikely equaliser. Having held out for 71 minutes, Ireland went behind to a Toni Kroos goal. That was supposed to be that. Another brave but ultimately futile away performance against a top seed in qualifying. Except it did not end that way.
As we all know by now, Wes Hoolahan whipped a ball to the back post, Jeff Hendrick hooked it back towards the six yard box and that famed fox in the box John O’Shea got a toe to the ball to send it spinning past Manuel Neur and into the German net. Ireland had secured a precious point away to the world champions.
That night, the mood of the nation soared as we dreamed of France and Euro 2016. We could forget about fighting it out for second place in this group, we had a great chance to win it outright.
A month and a 1-0 loss away to Scotland later and we had crashed back down to Earth. The point against Germany had been rendered useless, we decried. What good was it to the team now that they had gone and lost to Scotland? This was pretty much the mood which remained around the Irish team for the rest of this campaign; a frustrated restlessness, kicking ourselves for allowing our hopes to have been raised.
There was a sense that this result had left us chasing our tails. A strong start from Poland, coupled with this vital win for Scotland, put us fourth in the pecking order quite quickly.
Following the pattern which the Irish team had developed first under Trappatoni, every game which pitted O’Neil’s men against a qualification rival seemed to be drawn. Poland and Scotland both came to Dublin and took comfortable points (Ireland needing a last minute equaliser against Poland to snatch even that). Only minnows Georgia and Gibraltar have been beaten thus far.
The uninspiring nature of the results, as well as of the performances, only added to the fatalism which was building readily around the campaign. Every time the squad met up, there seemed to be a new crisis, something else which had gone wrong. Martin O’Neill did not seem to know what his best team was nor how he wanted them to play. James McCarthy was not becoming the leader Ireland needed him to be, he was too quiet and too timid.
Then there was Jack Grealish. That whole saga is now best forgotten but it is undeniable that his name followed this Irish team everywhere for the past year. Even now, in the lead up to two pivotal games, Roy Keane is still being questioned on Grealish by the media. It was a perfect example of what this campaign has been for Ireland; largely dull and disappointing and needing to be spiced up by adding in tangential issues.
It says much about the disenchantment of the Irish public with their team that even the prospect of pulling off an unlikely third place finish in this group has not raised much above a vague cheer. If we think back to the campaign for Euro 2012, we remember the excitement and passion of the whole country as Trap put the cat in the sack on the way to Poland and Ukraine. That level of interest is still sorely and noticeably absent in this campaign.
Perhaps it is the way in which we have arrived at this position almost by accident. In a reverse of qualification for Euro 88, Ireland have had the door opened for them by an unexpected Scottish defeat. Regulation wins over Georgia at home and Gibraltar in the Algarve were, on the face of it, nothing worth getting excited about.
However, coupled with Scotland’s loss in Georgia, it leaves Ireland four points ahead of Gordon Strachan’s team with only two games to go. Even if Scotland have a banker three points again Gibraltar in their last game, Ireland now hold their fate in their own hands.
It seems so odd to have arrived at this point of the campaign in this position given how uninspired many of the games have felt. Since the high of Gelsenkirchen, Ireland have not had one performance which they could claim as a standout or a statement of intent. They have sputtered and stuttered forward and now appear on the verge of falling over the line into a play-off.
While nothing is yet set in stone, and one can never underestimate the Irish team’s capability to mess things up, being in such a position with two games to go seemed extremely unlikely even before last month’s set of fixtures. It will come as a very welcome surprise to Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane who had seemed to be set to face some awkward questions about their futures had this campaign ended in disappointment.
While a potential third place finish will hardly be a major triumph, and indeed would have been a minimum expectation at the groups outset, given how the results have gone, it would represent a certain level of achievement.
One of the strangest qualification groups in recent Irish history will come to an end on Sunday. There have been campaigns in which the team have performed to a much higher standard and not come nearly as close to qualifying. Now, with only one notable result to their name, they stand on the brink of a two-legged shot at only Ireland’s third European Championships.
If results do not go to plan, one can expect O’Neil to come under significant pressure from at least the fans, who do not need much of an excuse to vent their frustration in the current climate. However, if Ireland do qualify for a play-off on Sunday (or beforehand), the entire feeling around the campaign will shift totally.
The draws against Poland and Scotland will no longer be frustrating but vital and gutsy points on the board. The most confusing and accidental qualifying campaign for Ireland in a generation may be about to end in a play-off appearance and a shot at France next summer. It may just be the lift that Irish football needs.