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Ireland deserve credit for their Euros qualification, but let's not get carried away this time

Martin O’Neill’s men secured their passage to France after beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 last night.

Jon Walters celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Euro 2016 play-off second leg last night.
Jon Walters celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Euro 2016 play-off second leg last night.

Updated at 08.55

FOR A WEEK or two in June 2012 at least, Roy Keane was the most hated man in Irish sport.

During Ireland’s 2-0 loss to Italy at Euro 2012, fans chanted: “We will sing what we want, f**k you Roy Keane, we will sing what we want.”

It wasn’t exactly Saipan, but Keane had nonetheless managed to alienate himself from a considerable section of the Irish support for the second time in his career.

The reason for the anger directed at the Man United legend were in light of comments he made in the wake of Ireland’s emphatic 4-0 loss to Spain — a result that ended Giovanni Trapattoni’s side’s interest in the competition after just two games.

“I think the players and even the supporters, they all have to change their mentality, it’s just nonsense from players speaking after the games about how great the supporters are,” Keane said in his post-match analysis for ITV after the match.

“Listen, the supporters want to see the team doing a lot better and not giving daft goals away like that. I’m not too happy with all that nonsense. To praise the supporters for sake of it… Let’s change that attitude towards Irish supporters.

“They want to see the team winning — let’s not kid ourselves, we’re a small country, we’re up against it, but let’s not just go along for the sing-song every now and again.”

And though Keane’s comments may not have been appreciated by the thousands of fans who sung their hearts out in Poland and spent considerable portions of their income to get there, the former Ireland captain had a point.

In Euro 2012, the Irish team played as if they were lucky to be there — every game was a repeat of their miraculous 0-0 draw with Russia in the qualifiers, except this time, the goals went it.

Naive tactics and ageing players, who were struggling for fitness in some cases, ensured the three games in which Ireland competed during that sobering summer were nothing short of a disaster.

It was the beginning of the end of the Trapattoni era, though greater indignities — most notably the 6-1 hammering by Germany at the Aviva Stadium — would follow.

Trap’s famous “we are Ireland” interview gave an insight into the low esteem in which he held his players and while this masochistic philosophy was arguably necessary and garnered success up to a point after the shambles of the Staunton era and the humiliating 5-2 Cyprus defeat, the Italian coach’s tough love began to grate eventually and players ultimately began looking just as demoralised as they had been upon his arrival.

Enter Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane — even by Irish footballing standards, the unlikely duo didn’t seem to have much to work with when they originally took charge.

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Three stalwarts of the side for the past decade — Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and initially at least, Shay Given, were no longer available to them. Record goalscorer Robbie Keane had seen better days. The team were drawn in probably the toughest Euros group of all nine. In short, the outlook did not seem promising.

Source: GOALS ON THE FIELD/YouTube

It hasn’t been an easy process. O’Neill and Keane were reminded of the squad’s limitations early on in their tenure, as a fringe Irish team were thrashed 5-1 by a World Cup-bound Portugal side the summer before last.

The challenge became even more daunting after a less than promising start to the campaign. Despite a brief bout of euphoria amid a 1-1 draw with world champions Germany in Gelsenkirchen, Ireland and O’Neill were brought back to earth and dealt a severe blow after taking just one point from two games against a conspicuously ordinary Scotland side.

Many people wrote off Ireland’s chances last June, after that fortuitous Shaun Maloney strike silenced the Aviva and left the team needing to achieve what looked like an impossible task to qualify, yet O’Neill remained adamant that hope was not lost.

It was that positivity from a manager who specialises in getting the maximum out of his players that would shine through in the subsequent months — a far cry from the “we are Ireland” days.

First, some good fortune: Georgia beat Scotland in Tbilisi — a result almost no one expected. Three days later, the Irish did what the Scots couldn’t and overcame the Georgians in Dublin thanks to a Jon Walters strike — not the first or last crucial goal the Stoke forward would score for his country.

Then, a second miracle: Ireland rode their luck and showed plenty of perseverance along with occasional flourishes of panache to earn a sensational 1-0 victory over Germany. It was their first significant win against a truly top-level side in over 14 years — the similarly improbable 1-0 defeat to effectively knock Holland out at the qualifying stage of the 2002 World Cup.

It was probably also the loudest an Irish football stadium has been since Mick McCarthy’s greatest victory, and it was undoubtedly the turning point for O’Neill and Keane.

There was the setback of the 2-1 defeat to Poland in Warsaw, when Ireland became the latest victim of world-class striker Robert Lewandowski, but O’Neill emerged from the experience as unapologetically defiant as ever, insisting his team still had high hopes of qualification.

Against a Bosnian side that boasted some good individual players but looked eminently beatable, Ireland finished the job of qualifying last night — it wasn’t entirely nerve-free, but it was another win against a side ranked above them, and probably the team’s second best result since the McCarthy era after the Germany triumph.

While the football isn’t always pleasing on the eye, Ireland are suddenly playing with a level of self-belief that has echoes of their late 80s/early 90s golden period. When people talk about the Irish team’s ‘spirit,’ it is far from a meaningless term — during this campaign, Ireland have scored key goals in the final 25 minutes of matches against Georgia (twice), Germany (twice), Bosnia (twice) and Poland.

The concern, of course, is that the Boys in Green flop at the Euros, as they did four years previously. After all, qualifying for the competition is less significant now than ever, given the onset of the 24-team tournament.

But following Ireland’s victory last night, in an otherwise relatively bland and jokey RTÉ interview, one phrase used by assistant boss Roy Keane stood out: “We’re not going there to make up the numbers.” You suspect he believes it, and hopefully this time around, the Irish players do too.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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