Thursday, 7 June 2012

EURO 2012: Minor Hits, Near Misses And Wishful Thinking

Si's Insights looks back at Ireland's recent history in international competitions, while pondering what to expect from Giovanni Trappatoni's men this summer

To many boys and girls in green, the mere sight of their country at the European Championships again is more than enough. It's been twenty-four years since the Irish last graced the Euros with their presence, and a decade since our lads last competed at a major tournament. So you'd think that just having the chance to enjoy the experience again really is, well, everything.

Unfortunately, twenty-four years is a very long time, especially in football. And we've gone beyond the stage where "turning up to have a good time" should be the be all and end all of Ireland's aspirations on the international stage.

At first glance, it isn't logical that Giovanni Trappatoni, Mick McCarthy and even, in retrospect, Jack Charlton should receive the kind of criticism that the likes of Eamon Dunphy and John Waters have directed at them. Problems with the drinking culture, the training gear and so on are well documented, of course ("Suits? Ireland didn't have suits!"), but, baffling management skills or no, those three managers got Ireland to major tournaments - something that the "thorough, knowledgeable and professional" Brian Kerr (Roy Keane's words, not mine) failed to do. And please don't get me started on the wretched Steve Staunton era. (While the north prospered under Lawrie Sanchez, the south was enduring its darkest period in years.)

But when you look beyond their statistical achievements, all three managers represent the best and worst of Ireland. I'm reminded of John Waters' quote on Charlton:
He came to Ireland with modest expectations, and in the end seemed astonished by what he had managed to stir up. Far more effectively than any native son, he had awoken the Irish to the possibility of success. And yet, neither he nor almost anyone else seemed to look beyond the prospect of a modest achievement.
No matter how well (or how badly) Ireland have performed in international tournaments over the years, they have returned to memorable - and sometimes transcendent - homecoming parties. The process began, of course, at Euro '88, where three brave performances, Ray Houghton's looping header, a solitary (albeit famous) victory and a stunning Ronnie Whelan strike were enough to ensure a heroes' welcome. And when looking back at Italia '90, one remembers the joy, unity and spirit brought about by Packie Bonner's penalty save, David O'Leary's penalty, meeting the Pope and a battling performance against Italy, which culminated in 500,000 fans lining the streets of Dublin that summer.

What a summer...

Back then, standards weren't so high. Ireland had never qualified for an international tournament before. And lest we forget, we were kind of lucky to qualify for Euro '88 to begin with. Hence it became very easy to overlook the dark side; for all our success, we'd managed just one win and four goals in eight major championship finals matches.

Cast a more critical eye on the "glory days" under Big Jack (yes, even the narrow failure to qualify for Euro 92, yes, even USA '94 and the great win over Italy) and you'll find the Ireland story to be one of minor hits and near misses. A history of "we could've, we should've... but we didn't".

One cannot help but imagine what might have been in Euro '88 if Paul McGrath's header against the Dutch had gone in, and if Wim Kieft's header in the same match had been disallowed for offside like it should have been. One also wonders what might have happened had Ireland beaten Egypt in Italia '90, and gone on to finish top of the group. They then might have had an easier run in the knockout stages, and a chance of going even further than they did.

And what if Ireland had beaten Poland at home in the qualifiers for Euro 92? What if, as Eamon Dunphy believed, Big Jack had fully utilised the players' passing capabilities in USA 94, heat or no heat? (To this day, I think Dunphy believes that we beat Italy in spite of Jack, not because of him.) What if the team had remained properly organised and disciplined throughout the Euro 96 qualifying games? Just imagine: there might have been less booze-ups, less celebrations of mediocrity, and definitely no Harry's Challenge. And what if, what if, Big Jack had been able to fully resolve his differences with the likes of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O'Leary?

The regrets and missed opportunities continued into the Mick McCarthy era. On the surface, two near misses (one with an ageing team in transition) and qualification from a really, really tough group sounds admirable, as does reaching the last sixteen of the World Cup after losing your best player.

But did the "unlucky" elimination by Spain on penalties (and, let's face it, those were very badly taken penalties) really warrant the celebration in the Phoenix Park that followed? Indeed, there's little that's unlucky about failing to finish off a Spanish side that was, after being reduced to ten men in extra time, literally there for the taking. Looking back at McCarthy's reign, it appears that the man dug his own grave on many occasions in the run up to and during those Far Eastern finals. With or without Roy Keane - and in fairness, the midfield of Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella did an excellent job during the competition - there remains the belief that Ireland underachieved in all four of their matches.

It partly stemmed from McCarthy's apparent desire to squeeze his loyal servants into the team at all costs. Damien Duff was forced to play out of position during the tournament in order to accommodate Kevin Kilbane. John O'Shea would have been both a useful and versatile alternative to the out-of-form Ian Harte, but it was Harte who went to Japan and Korea. The Cameroon game saw Harte's uncle, a past-his-best Gary Kelly, chosen at the expense of the then in-form Steve Finnan, while Steven Reid, who played a major part in turning that match on its head, only made the squad after McCarthy favourite Mark Kennedy got injured. Such favouritism crept into the Spanish match too - how else can you explain Clinton Morrison not being given the chance he clearly deserved, at the expense of David Connolly?

McCarthy seemed to take a lot of pride in celebrating moral victories, rather than actual ones. But despite everything, you could not help but feel sorry for the man. It's quite possible that he was forced into celebrating such minor triumphs because of how the Irish press (and later the FAI, in Saipan) treated him; no matter how many wins he recorded, no matter how many competitive matches he went unbeaten at Lansdowne Road (for the record, eighteen), he simply could not win them over. The occasional over-praising of Roy Keane, legend though he is, at McCarthy's expense certainly did not help; I can still remember a broadsheet blaming Ireland's only loss in a qualifying campaign on Keane's absence, even though the defeat was meaningless and the goal came with the very last kick of the match. More importantly, McCarthy's teams were undeniably more entertaining to watch than "national hero" Charlton's. I still don't think World Cup 2002 merited such "a party in the park", but on the other hand, it's hard to begrudge McCarthy his moment in the sun after what he went through. (And was still to go through.)

And while I do feel that Big Jack could have been a little less rigid, does he really deserve the bile that Eamon Dunphy repeatedly threw at him? No one's denying that USA 94 was a disappointment overall, but when one takes into account that Ireland were robbed of two key forwards (Quinn and Cascarino) before the tournament even began, the appalling heat and humidity, and the fact that Jack was punished the moment he dared to criticize FIFA, it's possible to cut the big man some slack. At least.

The question now is: what can we expect of Trap's lads these next few weeks? (Or this next week, if the pundits are correct.) Well... I've got to admit that our hopes of reaching the quarter finals are mainly resting on the reputation we've created for ourselves at past international finals. That is to say, we're hard to beat - just four defeats in sixteen matches says it all - and our spirit and organisation has been known to carry us over the line in the past. We have been drawn in difficult groups in all of our major final appearances, emerging from them three times and finishing third (by a whisker) just once.

But look again. Of those sixteen finals matches, we've managed a mere three wins - one against Saudi Arabia. Trap's competitive record, though effective, is hardly inspiring; narrow wins over the likes of Cyprus and Armenia are hardly the sort of thing to strike fear into the hearts of Spain, Italy or even Croatia. That, and the midfield is weak; Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan are not even Holland and Kinsella, let alone Keane and Townsend. Star men Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff have seen better days. It seems that the thought of getting out of a group like ours is wishful thinking.

But... since when did qualifying campaigns matter? World Cup, and especially European Championship, history is absolutely littered with teams who qualify in style only to fail at the finals. All that matters now is what we do when we get there; and, if Trap plays his cards right, a host of new Irish heroes could emerge this summer.

For the first time, Richard Dunne will get a chance to command a defence at an international finals. Former Boro man Sean St. Ledger will be keen to show he can still score against top class opposition, as will the maligned Glenn Whelan. John O'Shea will be relishing the opportunity to play in a major tournament at last. Duff, McGeady and Stephen Hunt will be eager to stamp their creative influence on midfield, as will Derry man James McClean if he does get the opportunity to cap off a remarkable season. And with Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Jon Walters all considerable performers, the battle to partner Robbie Keane will be very interesting.

One other thing to remember is, as Roy Keane put it, that "having a go" is winning half the battle in international football, where the high-profile opposition is often overrated and fragile. South Korea (in 2002) and Greece (in 2004) clearly kept this in mind during their triumphs in the early noughties. At least until normal order was restored (in 2006) and the next great Spanish generation emerged.

My ultimate hope is that, whatever happens, the lads can return home from Euro 2012 knowing they have done the country proud, and have thus truly earned the right to celebrate their achievements.

For now, let's put the "what if's" and "if only's" of the past aside, and look forward to the action.

Let the good times roll!

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