When the final draw for EURO 2016 was made back in December, some Republic of Ireland fans may have been forgiven for thinking we’d once again been placed in the dreaded Group of Death.
Not many teams in Europe would fancy their chances getting out of a group containing Sweden, Belgium and Italy but unfortunately those are the cards we were dealt.
On a relatively positive note for most of us, all we can do is travel to France and cheer on the Boys in Green from the stands or stay at home and follow events from the comfort of our sofas or local pubs.
Manager Martin O’Neill, however, is in the unenviable position of assuming full responsibility for team selection, tactics and how to approach the opposition.
Fans needn’t worry though as such is the meticulous nature of the Derryman, nothing will be left to chance when we take on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard, Giorgio Chiellini et el, as he explained to the media after training on Thursday:
I haven’t imparted this particular knowledge to the players yet but I know the opposition squads inside-out. I thought that what we would do is we would get the Dutch game out of the way.
Maybe even the Belarus game on Tuesday out of the way. Once those two games are gone we will watch the DVDs. Some of the lads enjoy the DVDs. Some of the lads don’t enjoy them. Those lads who don’t enjoy them won’t be there!
A idle threat no doubt and the players will be looking forward to being there on Friday night as Ireland take on Netherlands at the Aviva Stadium which will be the last opportunity for many fans to send off the squad to France given that next week’s match against Belarus will take place in the more modest confines of Cork’s Turner’s Cross.
O’Neill is relishing the test that Danny Blind’s Dutch side will provide and is hoping that a good performance and result can maintain an already positive atmosphere within the camp. He told reporters:
The opposition will be very tough for us. I think they will really stretch us and cause us plenty of problems. Our job is try and cause them a few problems when we have possession of the ball.
I really do think it’s a great game for us. I would like us to try and play well and use the ball well and even though it’s a friendly game, I’d like us to win if we can and keep the spirits pretty high.
Sitting alongside O’Neill was Sunderland defender John O’Shea, now an elder statesman of the squad having made his debut in 2001.
The 110-times capped Waterford-man spoke of the positive feeling within the camp in the lead-up to the tournament and general feeling of anticipation across the country.
The main thing is that everyone enjoys these two games, puts in as a good performance as possible to keep the positive feeling going.
As always, playing for your country you have to enjoy it and ultimately make sure you win the games. It’s always the case, it’s a major tournament.
It’s very exciting times and everyone wants to be a part of it. The whole country’s looking forward to it, not just everyone in the team hotel in Castleknock. There’s massive enthusiasm building and everybody’s looking forward to it.
O’Neill dished out advice to those players on the fringes by encouraging them to do the things they do best on the training pitch. He explained:
I think I will naturally get a better idea when the games have been played. You do pick up things from training and it’s natural that players at this moment just want to impress.
The best way to impress is to just do the things that you’re really good at. Don’t try and over-complicate it, just get on with it. That’s what the players for the most part are trying to do.
Obviously, most people in this room could pick 90% of the players who will make the squad. If you’re in the other 10%, that’s the time to just impress as much as you can.
O’Neill is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding which 23 players will make the journey to the squad’s base in Versailles.
Once there, he isn’t too worried about players having to deal with long, lonely nights in hotels.
Famously, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Fabio Capello’s regimental regime resulted in a number of his England players experiencing cabin fever which arguably contributed to a disastrous showing on the pitch.
O’Neill was adamant that the privilege of representing your country should be enough to keep the players’ minds occupied.
Years ago, I was playing for Northern Ireland, I had a chance to make the squad and I had to travel to the other side of the world to prove that I could do so. I don’t think that’s a problem.
With more than a hint of sarcasm to his tone he added:
I feel so, so, so sorry for them. You’re playing in a competition that comes around every four years. It doesn’t come around every time for every player, if players don’t make the squad.
So, go for it. Get bored in a month’s time.
Four days into this particular international gathering, there’s no sense of anyone feeling bored, be they players or supporters.
Conversely, should Ireland exceed expectations and arrive home to a heroes welcome at the end of the tournament, the mass fervour awaiting them should make a few evenings of boredom in France very much worth it.