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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 23 February, 2020

Other countries' Euro qualification puts overall Irish performance in perspective

With the likes of Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales all confirming their place in France next summer, you can’t help but ask questions.

Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

CERTAINLY THE PRAGMATISTS will argue that nothing matters but the end result. So, should the Republic of Ireland win their Euro 2016 play-off tie and confirm their place in France next summer, then why does anything else matter?

But right now, as we try and guess and second-guess who our possible play-off opponents could be, we’re perhaps missing a bigger point. Look around. Look at all those other countries that have already qualified for the expanded tournament.

It’s pretty easy to be envious. Particularly when you start naming them.

Iceland, Slovakia, Albania, Wales, Northern Ireland, Poland, Romania, Austria, Switzerland and Czech Republic. In the battle for the last automatic spot, it’s a straight shootout between Hungary and Turkey with the latter in pole position. 

So, what do they have that we don’t?

Firstly, let’s deal with the counter points.

(1) We faced a tougher draw than most

Well, Iceland would have grounds to claim they faced the hardest group, alongside Czech Republic, Turkey and the Netherlands. Austria dropped just two points in ten qualifiers, despite facing Russia, Sweden and a sticky Montenegrin side. So, it’s fair to say the Republic of Ireland had a competitive group, not an overtly difficult one. Especially as this was an expanded tournament. Second place – so often our foe in various campaigns – meant automatic qualification. And we failed to attain that.

(2) We don’t have a world class attacker

Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale have played a huge role in pushing Poland and Wales to next summer’s tournament. But elsewhere, is it so much of a one-man show? Yes, the other qualified teams mentioned above all have their star player. Xherdan Shaqiri, Marek Hamsik and Gylfi Sigurdsson have all impressed at various times for Switzerland, Slovakia and Iceland respectively but they’ve had help. For the little guy, it’s always been about a unity and togetherness. We know more than most.

And in the cases of Hungary, Romania and Albania, there’s a distinct lack of stardust. The Austrians may have David Alaba but their main goal threat is Marc Janko, the veteran striker who spent last season in Australia’s A-League.

Soccer - UEFA European Championship Qualifying - Group F - Northern Ireland v Hungary - Windsor Park Northern Ireland have been blessed with the unlikely reemergence of Kyle Lafferty but they've needed a lot more to qualify. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The most immediate comparison, of course, is that of Northern Ireland. Their top-scorer, Kyle Lafferty, has as many goals in qualifying as Wayne Rooney and Edin Dzeko. Only the likes of Ibrahimovic, Muller and Lewandowski are ahead of him in the top scorer list. Lafferty has played 13 minutes of Premier League football this season. In many ways, international football has been his crutch to lean on through the really dark days.

While the Irish team struggle with the status-quo, others are attracting attention for their systems and advances.

Iceland are the smallest nation to ever qualify for the European Championship. From a population of 317,351, there are roughly 20,000 registered players in the country. Because it’s small, it’s easy to oversee. Facilities have been developed to combat the weather. It means there’s football all year around now, despite the country spending seven or eight months in preseason. Technical ability is improving. In recent years, the administrators identified key concerns and acted on them. From childhood, players are also exposed to a qualified, paid coach. A vast difference to other countries.

Netherlands Iceland Euro Soccer Iceland have enjoyed a remarkable Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Source: Peter Dejong/AP/Press Association Images

In an interview with Jon Townsend earlier this year, Director of Education for the Icelandic Football Association Arnar Bill Gunnarsson said:

“We always play 4-4-2. We always play fast. We always play with two strikers. The style of play is number one. The work rate has to be high the entire time. If a player cannot work for us, they do not play. Some players can be the top scorers in Holland or Norway but can’t make the starting XI for Iceland.  It’s about having a fantastic work rate. We can’t have any relaxed players on the team that don’t want to run. When we win, we don’t change the winning teams.”

I think the mentality in the group is very good. For example, when we beat Holland, the mentality of the group was so strong. After we won there was no celebrating on the pitch. It was ‘Well done. Next game. Come on, guys’. They were not huddling in the middle, screaming and celebrating. It was just, ‘Now we beat Holland, next game, come on!’ It’s pure focus.”

There was an inevitability to losing in Poland. Those types of games have always been the Irish kryptonite.

The reality of the situation is that the Republic of Ireland took four points from Germany. We beat them at home and it was a party. But when it mattered most, we lost. When we face teams at the same level as us, we persistently struggle.

Soccer - UEFA Euro 2016 - Qualifying - Group D - Republic of Ireland v Germany - Aviva Stadium There was much celebration after the win over Germany but, against Poland, the Irish failed when it mattered most. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/Press Association Images

In this qualifying campaign, we took two points from four games against Scotland and Poland. That’s dismal. That’s why we didn’t qualify automatically for Euro 2016 and why other similar-minded countries did.

In qualification for World Cup 2014, the Irish took two points from four games against Sweden and Austria. Much is still made of the 6-1 thumping at the hands of Germany at the Aviva Stadium but that result had little to do with us finishing fourth in the group.

We failed in games where we should’ve been better.

Looking around the European groups, it’s strange to think the majority of other ‘unlikely lads’ weren’t faced with the same last-day frenzy as us. Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Austria all had their work done. They were solid, consistent and didn’t lose themselves after high-profile results. Instead, it was back to work. For them, nothing was achieved until qualification was confirmed.

But our history shows that we obsess over the big moment, the heroic save, the iconic goal.

It’s charming and heartwarming but sometimes misplaced. There’s a bigger picture and as others push forward, we’re dragging our feet.

And too busy looking behind us.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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