Tuesday night was one of the happier times in recent memory for the home nations in competitive international football. There was the fairytale delight of John O’Shea heading Ireland to a point with world champions Germany in Gelsenkirchen, while 2000km away in Piraeus, on the outskirts of Athens, Kyle Lafferty was put the finishing touches on Northern Ireland’s third successive victory- the first time in their history they had achieved such a feat in any major tournament qualifying.
Not to be left in the cold, the cold of Warsaw to be exact, was Gordon Strachan’s Scottish titans, who engineered a commendable 2-2 draw with Poland to stay firmly in touch with them, Ireland and Germany in Group D.
Perhaps they were spurred by another admirable effort by Wales, who had successfully seen off Cyprus 2-1 on Monday night to stay top of Group B. Here we have the distinct possibility that England will be joined at France 2016 by more than one of their neighbours, which marks a dramatic change in fortune for the home nations.
Every recent qualification process has borne the same pattern for the home nations, Euro 2008 aside when England inexplicably failed to qualify. Apart from the McClaren charade, England have grown comfortably accustomed to proceeding through qualifying campaigns largely unscathed after a series of dull wins over teams vastly inferior in FIFA ranking and all-round quality.
Paradoxically, Wales, Scotland and the two Irish sides have laboured and struggled year after year, lamenting at watching their more resourceful neighbour waltz into another shot at glory while they look on, unfulfilled and frustrated at their lack of development. Wales have not qualified for a major tournament since 1958, whilst Scotland have yet to scale similar heights since their ill-fated 1998 World Cup campaign.
Similarly, Northern Ireland were once an entertaining side to watch in the World Cup, which seems laughable when looking at their record in recent years, but have failed to appear at a major tournament either since Mexico ’86. Ireland have had slightly more joy, reaching the last Euros in 2012 only to be swept aside mercilessly in a group of death containing eventual finalists Spain and Italy.
However, this year seems different. On the surface, they seem hungrier and more confident in their abilities to do battle with some of the most prominent nations on the continent. Ireland avoided defeat against Germany, which was far from the case two years ago when Die Mannschaft galloped gloriously out of Dublin after a 6-1 hammering.
Scotland were narrowly edged out by Joachim Low’s global conquerors 2-1 last week but Gordon Strachan’s men fought hard and were unlucky not to get more out of the game. Their performance resonated deeply because of their positive approach and focused game-plan. They looked like a team who knew how to handle the might of the Germans. Ireland too, were able to organise themselves in such a way as to frustrate the home side and take the chances that would seldom befall them.
It is not negative football to shut up shop to an extent against one of the most supremely impressive teams ever to play the game. It is merely exercising the available resources. It is smart football business. Ireland and Scotland do not boast the lucrative footballing academies of Munich or Dortmund and can not expect to have an influx of fresh talent each year in the same manner Low enjoys. They have, as has become apparent on the basis of their most recent performances, adapted to what they have expertly and managed to progress steadily enough so that they can dare to dream.
Ireland were in desperate need of a reboot after the flailing latter stages of Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign and Martin O’Neill has proven to be the saviour. Drafting in the services of the terrorising Roy Keane as his assistant, the former Aston Villa and Sunderland boss has rejuvenated a stagnant Ireland squad and has fostered a renewed team spirit that has been sadly lacking since the Mick McCarthy-era.
Immediately before kick-off in the Germany game, Robbie Keane, acting in due part as Ireland’s elder statesman, made sure he was the voice and vision of O’Neill on the pitch by bringing the team in for a huddle. The players’ bodies obscured most of Keane’s remonstrations, but it was clear what was happening. Keane was reminding his team-mates that they were on an upward trajectory, that the future is suddenly looking brighter once more and that they had everything to play for. His words did not fall on deaf ears as they played as an efficiently communicating unit fixed on quelling the German charge.
This is what Ireland needed – a sense of purpose, a clearer vision and a new style of play to go along with their new management team. Their road to France is undeniably blockaded by difficult ties with Poland, Scotland and at home to Germany but they have done enough in their first three matches to suggest they possess the gall and hardihood to come out the other end.
Scotland, who will face Ireland in their next competitive match in November, have also gone under a similar metamorphosis facilitated by the influence of a new manager. Gordon Strachan has this Scottish side playing with a conviction and endeavour that seems refreshing. Unlucky to miss out against Germany, they attracted a wave of plaudits for their character and craft against Poland on Tuesday night.
Buoyed by the impressive performances of Steven Naismith, Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya, Scotland remain on course to fighting for one of the top three places right to the end of the campaign. They have not blown anyone away just yet, but they have given themselves a platform for which to build and upset the odds in what is one of the toughest groups on paper. Strachan has implemented a managerial blueprint which simply seems to fit the team and has produced results which are prompting shouts of “In Gord We Trust” from the Tartan Army. Four points from an away double-header to Germany and Poland is extremely meritorious, whatever way you look at it.
Wales have had the Millennium Stadium bouncing of late, a chorus of Celtic delight at their heroes in red. They sit top of Group B, after seven points from three games and are looking strong. They were frustrated not to get three points from Bosnia on Friday but made up for the dropped points by overcoming a plucky Cyprus team.
The toughest examination of their progress is yet to come, against Belgium, but they have thrust themselves into a commanding position as to give them something really worth fighting for. A first major tournament in 58 years is on the line. To be the man to lead his country to such a distinction is what drives Chris Coleman on. The honour of representing his country at the finals is why Gareth Bale is giving his absolute all. He has achieved his boyhood dream of lifting the Champions League with Real Madrid, now he has his sights set on inspiring Wales into a new era.
Last, but by no means least, are Northern Ireland, who reached unprecedented levels of success on Tuesday night when they triumphed over Greece. It signalled their third successive victory from the beginning of qualification, the first time they have achieved it. But the history books are not a concern for Michael O’Neill and his men. They are fixated on the future and what it could hold for the Green and White Army.
O’Neill is masterminding a reawakening which is drawing parallels to the 1982 and ’86 sides that had the fans dreaming. O’Neill has reformed the thoughtless tactics of years gone by whereby he espouses simple possession over long-balls.
It has instilled a more positive mindset in the players. Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird have added consistency to their experience whilst Kyle Lafferty has done enough to suggest he can finally replace David Healy as the bringer of goals. His finely taken strike over Greece was further confirmation that he is a player with a renewed focus and energy.
Seemingly settled in the Championship with Norwich after spells with Palermo and FC Sion, Lafferty has finally found the discipline and maturity his technical ability cries out for. As the campaign evolves, he will increasingly become the focal point of Northern Ireland’s attack and a source of hope for the fans who have endured a horrid time in recent years.
Roy Hodgson and England will more than likely be present at Euro 2016, there is no surprise in that. However, they may be joined by one or two of the home nations that are starting to turn heads and make positive headlines of their own.
There is a long road ahead for both of Ireland’s teams, Scotland and Wales but previous evidence suggests that it may definitely be worth watching for a change.