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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

Opinion: Euro 2020 news a much-needed boost for Irish soccer

The sense of disillusionment with the national team remains, but this latest development is a step in the right direction.

The Ireland team recently beat Georgia in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier.
The Ireland team recently beat Georgia in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

TODAY’S NEWS THAT Dublin’s Aviva Stadium will play host to four Euro 2020 games comes at a time when Irish soccer is in need of something to cheer about.

The fanfare that greeted Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane’s arrival into the management team, following the intermittently successful but frequently dull Giovanni Trapattoni regime, has now dwindled considerably, largely owing to the inevitable sense of anti-climax that followed it.

Not that O’Neill and Keane can be significantly faulted for this change in attitude though — even if Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson took over the national side, they would struggle to maintain public enthusiasm owing to the dire prospect of eight successive friendlies since the World Cup qualifiers ended with an unremarkable victory over Kazakhstan just under a year ago.

The party atmosphere evident around the Aviva Stadium during Ireland’s 3-0 win over Latvia in O’Neill’s opening game in charge has also disappeared along with the hype that came with their surprise induction, culminating in the 2-0 friendly win over Oman earlier this month, which drew an official attendance of just 14,376 — 22, 724 people less than the figure for that opening clash of the new era with Latvia.

And once the phoney war of friendlies finally ended, the first competitive clash of the new campaign didn’t exactly bring renewed optimism. A glance at Twitter during the somewhat monotonous Georgia-Ireland game will have likely have brought attention to tweets comparing the match unfavourably with the thrilling All-Ireland hurling final that had just taken place between Kilkenny and Tipperary.

It was an unfortunate juxtaposition, but nevertheless, a telling one. Sports such as GAA and rugby have seen their popularity increase for a variety of reasons in recent years, putting further pressure on the FAI and Irish soccer to up their game.

As big an achievement as it was for Ireland to qualify for Euro 2012, in contrast with past major tournament campaigns, the team returned home with their reputation damaged rather than enhanced thanks to a series of toothless performances.

So in truth, Irish soccer has struggled to find much to truly get excited about, barring that emphatic 2011 playoff victory over a mediocre Estonian team, since that memorable defeat of Holland at Lansdowne Road in 2001 and the ensuing enthralling World Cup campaign that followed, with well over a decade passing since then.

Nonetheless, the more optimistic Irish fans still see signs of hope. The 24 teams that can now qualify for the Euros has created a renewed sense of belief that Ireland can qualify for another major tournament sooner rather than later.

A decent (and arguably underachieving) generation of footballers that included Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne is now well past its prime, but there is promise in particular in Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady — three ostensibly important members of the Roberto Martinez revolution at Everton.

There are also potentially others behind them who can become established Premier League players in years to come — Ian Lawlor, Brian Lenihan and Jack Grealish (if he declares) to name three are highly regarded and could well establish themselves as important players provided their early promise is fulfilled.

Nevertheless, reservations about the set-up at underage level and the country’s struggle to produce top-quality homegrown players (two of the aforementioned Everton three grew up playing football in Scotland) will rightly continue until results start to improve.

Ruud Dokter 9/10/2013 Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

(The appointment of the highly regarded Ruud Dokter as FAI High Performance Director has created cause for optimism)

Liam Brady — as fine a judge as any given his prominent role in the Arsenal youth system in recent years (before stepping down last season) — has continually highlighted the lack of quality Irish players coming through the system and his inability to unearth a new Robbie Keane or Damien Duff. He believes there is too much focus on power, physicality and winning tackles, while technical ability and smaller skillful players almost become an afterthought. It is a message that has been constantly emphasised in recent years, but whether it is eventually heeded by the powers that be remains to be seen.

The FAI’s limitations are well documented, given the substantial debt they still need to pay back, but the appointment of Ruud Dokter as High Performance Director appears to be a step to address those issues, as does the implementation of a €19m National Sports Campus at Abbottstown, yet their impact on Irish soccer is impossible to measure at this early stage.

But with the news that Ireland will play at least two Euro 2020 games at home should they qualify, the motivation and pressure to qualify will now be greater than ever.

For instance, consider the possibility of Ireland playing England, Spain or Germany at the Aviva Stadium in the last 16 of the European Championships — even regardless of the result, in terms of atmosphere alone, it would surely be up there with the greatest occasions in Irish sporting history.

So while much work needs to be done if the team is to even have reason for confidence in qualifying for major tournaments, Euro 2020 in Dublin represents the pot of gold at the end of the prospective rainbow.

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Paul Fennessy

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