Coach Giovanni Trapattoni
One to Watch Shane Long
As we approach the summer of 2012 all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, we shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists who will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
We pay a visit to the Republic of Ireland for the next in our series of team profiles for next year’s European Championships. Formerly known as the Irish Free State, the footballing nation which is officially known by FIFA as the Republic of Ireland, first took part in international competition at the 1924 Olympics. As you might expect for such a small country, in which “soccer” is not a prioritised sport, the Republic of Ireland do not have an illustrious history in major international football tournaments.
The Irish have qualified for the World Cup Finals on just three occasions, Italia 90, U.S.A 94, and 2002 when the Finals took place in Japan and South Korea. In all three instances, however, they have managed to get out of the group stage and make it into the knock-out rounds, reaching the quarter finals in 1990.
In terms of European competition, other than their appearance in the European Nations’ Cup in 1964, the Republic have qualified for the European Championships just once, in 1988 when the competition was held in West Germany. This was the first time that the Irish had appeared in a major international finals tournament and, although they didn’t make it through the group, they were very unlucky not to progress.
After defeating arch rivals England 1-0; Ray Houghton with the headed goal that lives long in the memory, and drawing 1-1 with the Soviet Union; Ronnie Whelan with a stunning 20 yard volley from a long throw, the Republic came within eight minutes of achieving a draw against Holland. A result which would have sent the Irish through and the Dutch home. As it transpired Kieft scored for the Dutch, Ireland were out, and Holland went on to be crowned European Champions 1988.
Following on from that, very respectable, debut on the international stage, the Republic of Ireland, under charismatic boss Jackie Charlton, went on to qualify for two successive World Cup Finals. The first of these was at Italia 90, where the Irish qualified for the second round after three draws in the group stage. They went on to beat Romania on penalties, David O’ Leary with the famous fifth spot kick, before losing 1-0 to the hosts in the quarter final.
Four years later Ireland made it to the second round in America after a famous victory against Italy in their opening match, Ray Houghton again doing the business in a 1-0 win. The Ireland squad, which included household names such as Niall Quinn, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton and legendary keeper Pat Bonner amongst others, found the extreme heat conditions difficult to cope with, John Aldridge famously losing his temper with the officials when they tried to stop the players taking on water.The Irish went on to lose 2-0 to Holland in the second round, a mistake from Bonner signalling the end of their tournament.
After defeat to Holland in the play-off for Euro 96, Jack Charlton retired as Republic of Ireland manager and was replaced by Mick McCarthy. McCarthy’s charges were unlucky not to qualify for both France 98 and Euro 2000, losing out in both at the play-off stage on both occasions against Belgium and Turkey respectively.
Successful qualification for World Cup 2002 was followed by a bust up between McCarthy and, then captain, Roy Keane, which ended in the latter being sent home. Despite this, the Republic gave a good showing, again making the knockout stages. This time they were narrowly beaten on penalties, 3-2, in the second round by Spain. Since then successive managers such as Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton brought Ireland little success, however following the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni in 2008, things have certainly improved.
The Italian coach has won just about everything in the game at club level, including six Scudetto and a European Cup with Juventus alone. However Trapattoni feels that he still has unfinished business at international level after his Italian side were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup in controversial circumstances by, co-hosts, South Korea, before failing at the group stage at Euro 04.
Trapattoni or “Il Trap” as he is sometimes known, is over 70 years old but his appetite for success appears undiminished. He has instilled a solidity and a belief within the squad and the effect of his experience and class was seen almost immediately. The Irish were very unlucky not to qualify for South Africa 2010, losing out again in the play-offs, this time after a blatant handball from Thierry Henry set up the winning goal for France. For Euro 2012 the Irish finished behind Russia in their qualifying group, gaining 21 points, and losing only once, they went on to qualify by beating Estonia in a play-off 5-1 on aggregate.
Looking at the Republic of Ireland this time around, the one thing that you have to say immediately is that they are hard to beat. They do not concede many goals, just seven in ten qualifiers and just two in their last eleven. Looking at their squad, they’ve got some really good experience with the likes of Dunne, Given, Robbie Keane, O’Shea and Duff. Within their ranks, Ireland also have some really exciting youngsters such as James McClean of Sunderland and Shane Long of West Bromwich Albion.
One to look out for in the summer is Shane Long, he’s a quick thinking, pacey goalscorer who has made the step up to the Premier League with aplomb this year. He plays right on the shoulder of the last defender, similar to the way Robbie Keane plays, and is always keen to run in behind defences. Long has already netted seven times in 25 international caps and, although he may start the tournament on the bench, he is sure to make an impact later on in games when his raw pace will stretch weary defensive legs. Centre backs beware.
James McClean has been a revelation in the Premier League this season. Signed from Derry City, in the League of Ireland, and given his chance by Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill, McClean has shown that he can more than mix it with the very best. A quick, direct winger with great determination and an eye for goal and, having chosen to represent the Republic rather than Northern Ireland, McClean is another player who could really make an impression in Poland & Ukraine.
Drawn in group c along with Spain, Italy and Croatia, Ireland face a stiff task to achieve anything this summer. Spain are, obviously, favourites to win this group and, despite all their external problems, Italy have a strong, young team and are well fancied. Croatia possess great quality and, with a bona fide goal-machine in Jelavic, could well upset the apple cart by sneaking through in second. Ireland’s defensive strength will be key if they are to stand any chance and key to that strength will be, talismanic centre-half, Richard Dunne and the excellent, evergreen goalkeeper Shay Given.
The Republic of Ireland are rank outsiders to progress in the tournament. That will be of little concern to them, however, as they always are and they have revelled in their underdog status many times in the past, achieving some unbelievable results. Who would have predicted the win over England at Euro 88, the quarter final in 90 and the famous victory over Italy in 94? Ireland are never just there to make up the numbers and, with the fanatical Green Army behind them, they won’t be giving anybody an easy game when the tournament gets going.
Under Trapattoni, the Irish have rediscovered their knack for playing above themselves as a team, the whole, once more, is greater than the sum of its parts and, whilst getting out of the group will take a monumental effort, it would certainly take a brave person to back against it. The key for Ireland is to take at least a point from their opening game against Croatia.
Trapattoni image by PanARMENIAN_Photo. Shay Given image by billy liar.
Green Army image by Sean MacEntee.