For a nation currently ranked 59th in the world we are not short of ambition in terms of our footballing expectations at international level. An expectation based on very little facts, too much imagination and an excess of hope. None of which was dampened seemingly by the events in the EURO 2012 when the Republic of Ireland was drawn in the 16 nation tournament in the same group as Croatia, Italy and Spain. The telling facts showed our players far inferior in every aspect with the telling results in each of those matches confirming the same. Leaving the apologist’s extolling the idea that against the world champions little more could have been expected. Or the rationale that Italy were world champions in 2006. With some more tame remarks when explaining away the Croatia result.
All a far cry from that potentially great night against Spain in Suwon when against ten men Ireland missed a chance to clinch a quarterfinal place. Only to lose on penalties in the end to a scabby one from Spain's normally majestic Gaizko Mendieta, along with a miss from the usually reliable Matt Holland. Even more remarkable as it was on foot of the now tired football civil war tale that was Saipan.
None of which saved Mick McCarthy from an ignominious exit in the end as exaggerated national expectations could not be met in the EURO2004 campaign and he was replaced by the youth miracle worker, Brian Kerr. An appointment that filled the ballroom in The Shelbourne Hotel as it was hailed as a defining moment in Irish soccer with one of the nation's own taking the reins.
But as history recalls, a Thierry Henry goal yet again - this time in Lansdowne Road - ended that dream with Kerr now living out in punditryland far removed from the beautiful game. Along with Eoin Hand who had his time in the 1980’s with the national team in those twilight years prior to Jack Charlton and the Holy Grail of EURO 1988 - all courtesy of Gary McKay’s unlikely goal for Scotland in the winter of 1987 against Bulgaria.
Which for those who fans who marched to the Neckarstadion in June 1988 along the banks of the Rhine was irrelevant as it offered a chance to do battle against an England of Peter Shilton; Trevor Stevens; Kenny Sansom; Neil Webb; Mark Wright; Tony Adams; Bryan Robson; Chris Waddle; Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker. All household names to Irish football viewers and all big enough thanks to Match of the Day to shiver your timbers.
But such is the beauty of sport that Ray Houghton ended that national sense of fear, as he did again in 1994, allowing Republic of Ireland fans suddenly to believe. Perhaps too much....
So much so that Ronnie Whelan's shinned goal against Russia a few days later - which put Ireland into the lead - nearly sent the nation into orbit. A place we do not seem to have returned from since the Charlton team reached the quarterfinals in Italia 90, courtesy of Packie Bonner's penalty save in Genoa. And David O’ Leary’s magic goal a few moments later.
The euphoria only to be repeated in Giants Stadium in New York four years later when the might of another footballing superpower was again undone by a cheeky goal from Houghton. Ably supported it has to be said by some cataclysmic defensive work from Paul McGrath – and the sorcerer’s apprentice at the time, Phil Babb. The legend that was Jack though was finally unravelled at Anfield one cold December night in a play-off with Holland for the EURO 96. The defeat leaving man fans dreams extinguished.
For a time it was a taste of real life as the Republic struggled to find their way back to the big time. Something Mick McCarthy finally set right in 2001 winning the play off against Iran which took the Republic of Ireland to Japan and Korea. A major tournament for the first time in eight years and only the third world cup.
It was a result that reignited Irish fans sense of entitlement with a trip to the far blue Asian yonder which saw them squeeze out the group and into the knockout stages. Despite being drawn with Cameroon Saudi Arabia and Germany. Only to fall against Spain that hot summer night in Korea.
With the era of Stephen Staunton now almost air brushed out of Irish footballing folklore, it proved a sad demise for one of the longest serving premier league players of his era. Who with the now departed Bobby Robson compounded the expectations for the fans even when faced with the might of Germany at Croke Park. Having been close to the situation at the time it was sad to see an Irish legend undo the goodwill that had been earned over decades at Liverpool and Aston Villa. But such is football, and the likes of minnows Cyprus, that his name is probably only equalled in many ways by Kerr who did much to put the youth game on the world map. But was unable to transfer similar success at senior level as those needed results could not be delivered.
As FIFA rightly reminded the Republic of Ireland this week with the ranking, the nation is way down on a global scale. No matter what Sky Sports tell us about the Premier League week in and week out, Irish players are increasingly less relevant at the top clubs. Which in a sense is a red herring given that 65% of teams are populated with non-English players, as the top teams barely reliant on players from these islands. Be they Irish Scottish Welsh or English such is the transfer game now. Excluding the unprecedented Gareth Bale move to Real Madrid.
Indeed, long gone are those Arsenal days on Match of the Day of Liam Brady, Dave O’Leary and Frank Stapleton. Or even the golden oldies of Gerry Daly, Ashley Grimes at Manchester United. Or Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge at Liverpool. Such is the game now that Irish players are much further down the food chain.
Hence Giovanni Trapattoni was limited in his options. Or more limited than some previous national managers who benefited from a raft of gifted players that seemed to prove a seismic force on any given day. The dismantling of Holland on September 1st 2001 a vivid example of the possible dream with Ireland as the team undid Edwin Van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Philip Cocu, Marco Van Bommel, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Albeit the nation came very close at Stade de France in 2009 against France in the second leg play off- had it not been for the hand of God. Or Monsieur Thierry Henry that night.
However that was the sole night of elation that Il Trap could rustle up over five years, depriving the national sport those moments that live long in the memory. Instead proffering a litany of score draws and vacuous victories that were boring to behold and testing to follow. Even that rainy night in Bari against Italy, which could have been a cracker had we the courage to chase the win. But such is the defensive mind-set that colours Trapattoni's view of the game it proves diametrically opposed to the football so prevalent today. Or that played by Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, or Juergen Klopp of BVB Dortmund. Their philosophy being, we will always score more goals than the opposition and won't obsess with defending.
Thankfully Champions League at the knockout stages is about that and it is no surprise that the likes of Juventus struggle in the tournament every year. Clearly the Italian ways work in Serie A, even if it is not as pronounced these days as was practiced by Il Trap during his years there.
In truth Irish football followers live for those days in Stuttgart 1988, Genoa 1990, New York 1994 or Ibaraki 2002. Games where the impossible happens even against the footballing aristocracy. With Trapattoni there were none of those moments which most other managers this century were able to produce at some stage. As were the many ones that made 1966 World Cup winner Jack Charlton the most loved English man in these parts
Now for those of who know little about Martin O’Neill, he too helped bring such moments to his people as a player. In fact Northern Ireland pre-empted the Chariton era in Valencia in 1982, when Gerry Armstrong scored the goal that shocked the hosts Spain in their opening world cup match. A goal that sent O'Neill’s team into the second stage group where they were unhinged by a France side that contained the best In Europe at the time; Dominique Rochteau, Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, François Battiston, Marius Tresor, Manuel Amoros and Jean Tigana.
Nonetheless Northern Ireland gave their fans a lift that has yet to be equalled, despite also qualifying for Mexico 1986.
One has to believe that running through his mind when deciding about the FAI job is that he could give the Republic of Ireland one of those moments again. Or at least get the players to believe in such a moment,
Don’t forget too with Nottingham Forest he also won two Champions League trophies beating Malmo in 1978 and then Kevin Keegan’s HSV Hamburg in 1979. Memories that fans in Sherwood Forest still talk about.
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