I need a break

As a big football fan and Irish to boot, I’ve never been in such need for a break from the beautiful game as I have been this summer. With Irish hopes so high going into this tournament, thinking just maybe we could be in with a chance of making a big name for ourselves in Poland, how utterly naive we were. It was 10 years since our last appearance at a major championship, the World cup and we had a squad back then that was a bit more experienced as regards to the better teams our players were playing for. In 2002 we were in a group with Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia. With all due respect, these teams, Germany apart and even back then they were nowhere near the team they are at present, the chances of us progressing were very good. Now when you take into account the last and only time we qualified for the European championships was 1988 and the teams we were drawn against for this years championship, reality really kicks in. On our day, we can give any top nation a run for their money but when it comes to tournament football of the highest quality we were left fully exposed. To think most people back home thought we would qualify from a group including Spain, Italy and Croatia suggests a lot of people had their heads in the clouds and when Croatia ran us off the park in the first game, winning 3-1, my interest completely evaporated and actually had no interest in the tournament due to such disappointment, hence my complete loss of interest in writing any posts concerning Ireland or football.

I gradually came out of exile and  brought myself around to watching some of the games. Who would have thought Russia would have been going home early after winning 4-1 against the Czech Rep. in their opening fixture, who in turn actually won the group. Or Holland’s dismissal performance. For a team blessed with such fantastic players and not even register point was baffling. Apart from them shocks in the group stage, most teams that were expected to progress didn’t disappoint. The Quarter finals produced some classic matches. Germany went through against the Greeks and did so in style, while at the same time making themselves most people’s favourites for their relentless style of play. Spain went about their business beating France without much fuss and not even playing at their best to progress. Portugal actually improved as the games progressed, with the brilliant Ronaldo finally coming good on the international scene, leaving people to believe that he was about to prove to everyone what he really is capable off. The last Quarter final saw England v Italy and the English had to be admired for their backs-to-the-wall performance that earned them a 0-0 draw and another dreaded penalty shoot out. Again they failed. How frustrating that must be. A special mention must go out to the immense Andrea Pirlo. He really is an outstanding player and has been the driving force behind Italy at these championships.

And then there were 4. Spain/Portugal was much hyped and was a good game in terms of outstanding technical ability but lacked in the goal department. And so it was the Spanish who won through to the final, after a penalty shoot out, their 3rd consecutive appearance at a major football tournament, truly an outstanding achievement. Tonight’s pairing between Italy and favourites Germany really didn’t disappoint. As I mentioned in my earlier post’s were I gave a guide to the teams competing at Poland/Ukraine 2012, I stated that Mario Balotelli could be anything here, villian or hero. As it is, it’s turning out to be the latter. What a devestating display with 2 superb goals to boot to stun the Germans and send them home packing. Now that really was unexpected. But again if you got a chance to read my group guide’s post, you would have noticed that the price the bookies had on Italy to win the tournament was brilliant value for money 25/1 to win outright, Yes that’s winning 25 euros, pounds, dollars or whatever currency you are laying for a 1 Euro etc. stake.

And now what a final we are in for, and the 2 best teams in the tournament will be hosting the main event which really is a good thing. Just who will win is hard to say. Most would say Spain and probably have from the start but think back to the game the 2 of them played in the group stage and you will remember that Italy were very impressive against the Spanish, looking dangerous every time they broke and scoring a fantastic goal into the bargain. It took the Spanish quite possibly one of the moves of the tournament to eventually break down the resolute Italian defence to gain a point. Lets hope we will be treated to more of the same in the final on Sunday. But if there is one tiny bit of consolation Ireland can bring away from this tournament, it’s the fact that we were in the same group as the the 2 teams that eventually reached the final. All I can say now is roll on August the 18th for the start of the English premier league, where I can get my fix of some proper exciting club football.

Advertisements

Trying to predict the EURO2012 winners.

Before any more games are played at these European championships, I must finish off what I set out to do and that was to predict who will win the tournament. If you got the chance to read my posts regarding the different groups and information on all the teams playing, you may have noticed I put my neck on the line and predicted who would finish as winners, runners up and also rans. The games kicked off on Friday evening after all the build up leading to the competition and didn’t disappoint at all. The drama in the first game was sensational with the referee giving one of the Greek players 2 cheap yellow cards resulting in his dismissal just after the  co-hosts had taken the lead. The 2nd half was even more exciting even if a little short on quality. Firstly, Greece equalize against the run of play then the Polish ‘keeper gets himself sent off and concedes a penalty only for the new goalkeeper to save it. After that they have a goal narrowly disallowed. stunning, but the game pitered out to be a bit lame in the end.

Russia and the Czech Republic were next up and this was nothing short of excellent. Russia really put a marker down after dismantling their opponents 4-1. Andrei Arshavin was outstanding and assisted in 2 of the goals as was Alan Dzagoev who looked a constant threat all night getting 2 goals for himself. In stepped Roman Pavlyuchenko in the 2nd half and scored a stunning goal to put the icing on the cake. Thoroughly deserved win.

Yesterday was a bit drab given the teams on show. The hyped up Dutch didn’t show up at all and were beaten by a goal that was scored against the run of the play. They may find it hard to get out now. The Germany-Portugal game was slightly better but was largely an anti climax. Germany scored in the 2nd half to win 1-0 with Mario Gomez netting. Portugal only turned up for the last few minutes. Some of these results might have had a bearing on my group predictions but I’ll have to stick by them and so here are my final predictions before I’m accused of double standards. Hope you enjoy/agree/disagree.

Quarter-finals;

Winner Group A- Russia           v Runner-up Group B- Holland

Winner Group B- Germany      v Runner-up Group A- Czech Republic

Winner Group C- Spain             v Runner-up Group D- England

Winner Group D- France          v Runner-up Group C- Ireland

Semi-finals;

Winner 1- Russia      v     Winner 3- Spain

Winner 2- Germany v    Winner 4- France

Final;  France to beat Spain

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS 2012…………………..FRANCE

The final countdown- groups at a glance 4

Finally, if even a little bit late, I get around to the last group. So here is my glance at group D. On paper this is probably the easiest of all the groups to predict but then again you just can’t take it as given and so I begin with England.

As I am writing this post the rankings for this month are just in and the English team have moved up 1 to 6 in the World rankings. They are managed by Roy Hodgson who was the surprise choice by the FA. to replace Fabio Capello after months of speculation and expectation that Tottenham’s Harry Redkanpp would be the man to step in. He is a highly experienced manager having led many clubs and countries over the last 30 years. Surprisingly enough they are coming to this tournament without the usual hype surrounding them. Usually the English media have the whole nation revved up, having them believe that they are World beaters and are definitely going to win this time, only for them to crash out at an early stage and for the manager in particular to pick up the blame for the mess. There may be a few reasons for this, the Olympics coming up in July, the Quenn’s Jubilee or the unbelievable finish to the Premier league. Whatever it is it can only be an advantage to the players. But there is a lot of problems for the manager to have to cope with as well. For instance, there is debate over Rio Ferdinand’s omission, Wayne Rooney will miss the first 2 matches due to suspension and John Terry’s imminent court case must be hanging over him like a big rain cloud. So taken that into account these are the players I will choose to focus on. Danny Welbeck of Manchester United is a tremendous young talent who seems to be coming of age at just the right time. He is a lad with great heart but also a great passer and dribbler and scores some great goals. No doubt he will start the first 2 games because of Rooney’s ban and Jermain Defoe’s Father passing away. Steven Gerrard of Liverpool is a very special player for his club. He has power, pace, vision and goals in abundance but on the international scene he blows hot and cold. That may change though, now he has been handed the captain’s armband. Finally John Terry could be anything here. He is the true leader of the Chelsea team, where his commitment, passion, calmness under pressure and ability to score a few goals has been the bedrock behind their success in recent years. His court case may weigh heavy on his mind here and they are all ready down players in defence. They are priced 12/1 by the bookies which seems about right.

The next team up are France, who are ranked 14 in the world following the mess they left behind at the last World cup. Their manager is Laurent Blanc and is without doubt one of the best young managers in the game at present. He took over after the players revolted openly at the Raymond Domenech regime and has brought them here on the back of a 19 game unbeaten run. Replacing the golden age of French football was always going to prove difficult but Blanc seems to be going about his work in the right way as he has a great amount of talent at his disposal. They, like the English, are coming here without much fuss which again can only be a good thing. They have won this competition twice in the past, in 1984 on home soil and then in 2000 to add to the World crown they won in 1998. The players I am picking to focus on are; Hugo Lloris who is the Lyon goalkeeper and the last line in a tough French defence. His positioning is second to none and pulls off some breathtaking saves. Definitely one of the best ‘keepers in the World at the moment. Frank Ribery of Bayern Munich is the driving force in the middle for France. He is a tough tackler who can mix hard graft with skill and is regularly the catalyst behind a lot of their  goals. Karem Benzema is the star man of the team. Plays for the star studded Real Madrid team, he has excellent skill and balance and that together with his strength means he scores lots of goals but can also assist in many goals. If you fancy a bet on them you can get them at 10/1 and this represents very good value.

Sweden are ranked 17 in the world and are led here by Erik Hamren. They are coming here as one of the lesser lights and not too much is known about them. In saying that, they did qualify for EURO 2012 as the best runner-up from the qualifying groups where they actually beat Holland in Amsterdam 3-2. According to news reports, the Swedish were a team that always stuck to a 4-4-2 formation and when the manager came in and changed that to a 4-2-3-1 set up, he believed it was responsible for their up-turn in recent form. Their best finish in the competition was a semi-final finish at the 1992 games, where they were the host nation. My players to watch include Johan Elmander of Galatasary who is now the lone striker in the Swedish team. He is blessed with beautiful close control for a tall man and is capable of scoring some magic goals. That said he hasn’t got many lately so will want to be more involved here. Olof Mellberg is the most experienced player in the defence and indeed the team. His presence is much appreciated and brings vast experience with him. These games will be his 6th at a major international tournament. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is their main man. When he is on his game he is one of the best in the world. Great technical ability and skill and also very fast for his size. He will be the man to make way for Elmander up front so will be asked to be more creative. They are one of the rank outsiders and priced at 66/1

Now on to the final team in the group, the Ukraine. They are ranked 50 in the World and are managed by the legendary Soviet record caps holder, Oleg Blokhin. Like Poland, they are coming here without a competitive game under their belt for over 2 years and it looks like they will be going out early, such is their poor form of late. But in saying that, they are playing at home and this might give them a major boost. It is also the first time they have played at the finals of the European championship. The fact that they are also a young team on the international scene, having been in existence for just over 20 years would have a lot to do with it. They are the least known team here but I have picked 3 to watch and they are; Anatoliys Tymoshchuk of Bayern Munich is an imposing midfielder and the star man in the team. He will be behind most of their attacks and a lot will be expected of him. Yaroslav Rakitshy of Shaktar Donetsk is a young defender beginning to make his mark. He is believed to be very hard working but still has a lot of improvement in him. Finally the great Andriy Shevchenko of Dynamo Kiev is a fading star these days. Surely this will be his final chance to play on the big stage so may have something to say. Was one of the top players in the World a few years back and had everything in his game. Speed, control, agility and a goal machine besides. Another rank outsider to win and this shows in the50/1 price the bookies have on them.

My predictions for the finishing places in group D are as follows;

Group winners: France

Runners-up: England

3rd place: Sweden

Wooden spoon: Ukraine

I hope my posts covering the teams competing at these finals have been of interest to you and glad to get all the groups finished. Now it has kicked off, I will be watching in hope for Ireland and pray we can get to the quarter-finals. I will make my predictions for the knock-out stages before group B kicks off tomorrow.

The final countdown- groups at a glance 3

On the eve of the big kick-off, I will be taking a look at possibly one of the most difficult groups to predict group C. It is also the one closest to my heart because Ireland will be participating and I just can’t wait until Sunday. To kick things off I will begin with the World and European champions and number 1 rank Spain.

Spain will be going into this tournament as the rightful number 1 team in the World. They will be led by Vicente Del Bosque. He is a highly experienced and successful manager, notably with Real Madrid, leading them to European glory. Instills a great measure of calmness under pressure in this unique team. Surprisingly though, they are going into the tournament without the same fuss that followed them previously and this is probably due to the massive weight lifted off their shoulders following their recent success’. In the past they were always a highly fancied team and almost always went home early. But there is no fear of that happening now with the unbelievable talent coupled with a winning mentality. They can be mesmerising to watch at times they really are that good and their recent win at the UEFA U-21 championships means it doesn’t look like they will be stopping soon. Winners of this tournament in 1964 and reigning champions following their 2008 win. In a squad brimming with world-class talent all over the pitch, it is very difficult to pick out 3 to watch but nevertheless these are the players I will concentrate on. Andreas Iniesta is just one of many Barcelona players included in the squad and undoubtably one of the best in the World. Blessed with close control and vision to pick out defence splitting passes, he will wreak havoc on opposing teams alongside Xavi. Fernando Torres of current champions league holders Chelsea looks like he is about to explode again after almost 2 years off the boil. Scored in the 2008 final and his goal against Barcelona in the semi-final of the champions league might signal a resurgence. David Silva of money bags Manchester City is quality through and through. Close control, deft touch and a beautiful passer of the ball. He was the best player by far in England up until January and then went a bit quiet but we will be in for a treat if he is back on song this summer. Currently drifting from co-favourite with Germany to sole favourites at a price of 11/4. Many people’s idea of winners but not great value for a punt.

The second seed in this group are the Italians and they are surprisingly ranked 12th. This is because they are rarely outside the top 10 teams in the world. They will be led in by the highly respected Cesare Prandelli who came from Fiorentina where he finished up as their longest serving manager. Italy are well-known for their solid defensive style of play which makes them very hard to score against but at the same time seldom ever do they score highly in their matches. That said, it doesn’t prevent them from producing World class talent time after time and the current squad is no different, although a little more evenly spread. For a country that has been World champions on 4 occasions, it comes as a big surprise that they have only won this tournament once and that was back in 1968!. It can only be a matter of time before they put that right but when it will be is debatable. The following players I have chosen to highlight; Andrea Pirlo of Juventus is the bulldog in the heart of midfield and is very highly respected in Europe. He is a great passer of the ball and links excellently with the front men. He is a veteran of their 2006 World cup winning campaign. Mario Balotelli of money bags Manchester City can be frustrating at the best of times and carries a bad reputation but when he puts his mind to it, he is a serious player. Rarely ever smiles even when he scores, certainly for his club where he ended the season as a champion. That said he can be one of the stars of the tournament, but only if he applies himself. Danielle De Rossi of AS. Roma is the driving force of the team with an engine to match and blessed with skill. A vital cog in their set up and you could call him a stereotypical Italian attacker. On paper they should qualify from this group for the quarter-finals but in reality it’s not that simple as defeat in their opener against the Spanish could seriously hamper them. Most bookmakers price them at 16/1 and it’s not at all unreasonable to imagine them winning, therefore this represents the best value of the tournament in my opinion.

At long, long  last we come to my country, Ireland and I can’t fully explain how excited I am to be able to cheer them on again at the finals of a major tournament. The country is currently managed by the charming Giovanni Trapatoni, a man with success and experience in abundance. He stepped in in 2008 and guided the team to the World cup play-offs after going through the group which contained World champions at the time and his home country, Italy. What happened against France in the play-off was bitter to swallow as it was so clear to see Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball to control it before setting up William Gallas to equalize. But it proved to everyone back home that he was the man to do the job after years of stagnation, calamity and bad decision making by the FAI. Finally, they seem to have put things right and the completion of the new national stadium, the Aviva Stadium has been the springboard to future success coupled with “Trap’s” know how. But it was actually our away form that got us into the play-offs after 4 wins and 1 draw from 5 games which included only 1 goal conceded. The stand out performance was the point gained in Russia, where an outstanding display by the defence and especially by Richard Dunne and  Shay Given proved how hard we are to beat. The blend of experience and youth coming through means we should qualify for more tournaments in future, whereas before hand we went 10 years since our last appearance in a finals, the World cup in 2002. These games will be only our second following our debut in 1988, where a good team led by Jack Charlton made the World open their eyes . An historic win against England and a battling draw against the Soviet Union was followed by a heart breaking loss to the Netherlands who eventually won the tournament. That was 24 years ago and the 2012 vintage have similar qualities, but in their own way. My 3 to watch include Aiden McGeady who plays for Spartak Moscow. He is probably the most technically gifted Irish player since Liam Brady back in the 80s. He is a very tricky winger and works tirelessly for the team. A great crosser of the ball and could make a big name for himself here. Robbie Keane of LA Galaxy is a living legend for the Irish team. Usually plays up front on his own and works his socks off. By far the record scorer and has nearly 60 international goals to his name which included 7 in qualifying. This could be his swan song on the big stage as he is 31 now, so will want to impress. Finally we have Richard Dunne marshalling the defence and we are fortunate to have him fit as there was a doubt about him being ready. One of the best defenders coming into the tournament and will not let us down. His presence along with Shay Given in goal will be an inspiration to all around due to his heroics. He would literally throw himself under a bus for the cause and that is the sort of spirit that will be visible in abundance with this team. We know we won’t win EURO 2012 (OR WILL WE?) but just to know we will be their and fighting as hard as we can makes it all worth while. This is why we are at a general price of 80/1 and I might just have a little flutter on that. COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN!

The final team in the group is Croatia, who are one of the youngest teams in international football following the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Managed by Slaven Bilic, who has proved himself to be a fine leader in his time in the job. They are currently ranked 8 in the World. Another nation to embrace stylish football, they exploded onto the scene when reaching the quarter-finals of EURO 1996 after being in existence for only 5 years. That was the Croatia of Davor Suker and co. who topped that 2 years later finishing 3rd at the World cup of 1998. They equalled their 1996 performance at the last European championship, proving they were no flash in the pan. The current squad though, are a little less experienced and their opener against Ireland will be a key to whether they have a chance of progressing but the omens are not good in this situation because in the 6 games the 2 nations have played, Croatia have only won once. They qualified for these finals via the play-offs and will also bring a large colourful following with them. These are the 3 players who I will pick to highlight. Nikica Jelavic who only joined Everton recently, has proven to be an instant hit, scoring 9 in 13 matches and is coming here at the top of his game. He has great control and links superbly with the rest of the team and could be one of the players to watch closely at these finals. Luka Modric of Tottenham is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players in Europe. He is also very hard working and scores some breathtaking goals. Dario Srna is the Croatian captain and the driving force behind the team. A powerful and precise winger who leads by example, he is a fine crosser of the ball and no doubt his team-mates have the ability to take advantage as he assisted in 6 goals in the qualifying. Croatia are another team who are ranked highly in the world but outrageously priced by the bookies, in this case a massive 50/1, therefore another value bet for anybody who takes it up.

My predictions for this group are as follows;

Group winners: Spain

Group runners-up: Ireland

3rd place: Italy

Wooden spoon: Croatia

You will have to forgive me if you think I’m being over optimistic regarding Ireland’s chances and think they have no chance here at all but when you are looking at a group containing your own country, you tend to see things a little different. I’ve watched them over the last few years and in 3 games against Italy in that time we are unbeaten and won once in Italy so yes I definitely think we have a good chance of making the quarter-finals

The final countdown- groups at a glance 1

On Friday the 8th of June the eagerly anticipated European championships will begin. This 4 yearly event which first kicked off back in 1960 has proven to be a massive success with many fans considering it to be the better of the 2 “big” football tournaments. With no disrespect to any national football federation, you really have to be a fairly decent team to qualify from a European group and in all honesty there hasn’t been a world cup to write home about for quite some time. And this is what the fuss is all about.What a beautiful trophy it is standing proud on it’s solid marble plinth (not displayed here) and must weigh a ton. The current champions are Spain and who will forget their swashbuckling style that helped them to the 1st leg of the double.  It will be contested between 16 nations with 4 groups of 4 playing off against each other for the right to make it to the quarter finals. Qualifying proper would have began 2 years previous to the tournament finals themselves and this years hosts are Poland/Ukraine. This  seems to be a  trend that looks like continuing and makes sense for smaller nations that would love to host something major but lack the facilities alone and by sharing with a neighbour greatly enhances their chances of putting on a show of their own. Below is this year’s official logo.

 In the days leading up to the big kick-off, I will do an analysis on each group, the teams involved, facts and information and finally I will give my humble opinion on who I think will  reach the next stage and who will be going home early. Today I will start on group A. This is the group that contains co-hosts Poland, Russia, Greece and the Czech. Republic.

 The team I will start off with is Poland. Along with the Ukraine they will be the host nation for this years competition. They are managed by Franciszek Smuda and are ranked 65th in the world. No doubt the reason for this is down to the lack of competitive football for the last 2 years. Their squad is made up of a lot of foreign based players with a large percentage plying their trade in Poland. Players to watch out for are Robert Lewandowski top scorer with German champions Dortmund and Woijech Sczcesny, Arsenal’s goalkeeper who is constantly improving and has the makings of a top ‘keeper in the coming future. The rest of the squad are not too well known but home advantage will stand them well. There was a lot of worries concerning the completion of the stadia but all came good in the end. The national stadium’s first game was a 0-0 draw against Portugal putting everyone’s mind at ease. There is a well known hooligan element in Poland and no doubt a lot of policing and security will be put in place to make sure the tournament goes off without any trouble. Fancy a bet on Poland to win you could get them at best price of 33/1. Best of luck!

The next team under the spotlight in the group is Russia. A powerful team that play direct and attractive football. Managed by Dick Advocaat who actually stands down after the tournament. They are ranked 11th in the world and will prove a tough nut to crack for anybody. They looked like going all the way at the last European championship but were unlucky to lose out to eventual winners Spain. They have a great pedigree in this competition both as the Soviet Union until 1988 and under the name Russia since then winning the inaugural tournament in 1960. They reached the final again 1964 but lost out to Italy in the final. In 1972 they were again losing finalists this time the Germans being their nemesis. There was to be more heartbreak again in 1988 losing out to the brilliant Dutch team. Players to watch out for include their outstanding ‘keeper Igor Akinfeev, Alexei Berezutsky a no nonsense commanding defender and the highly rated Alan Dzagoyev all who play for CSKA Moscow. Also they still retain the two players that made them such  an attractive proposition in 2008, Dmitry Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow) and Andrei Arshavin on loan from Arsenal at Zenith St. Petersburg. Definitely the favourites to win group A. They are priced at 25/1 to win outright and are great value at that. They kick-off the tournament against hosts Poland on the 8th of June. Good outsiders

The next team up are Greece. Ranked 14th in the World and managed by Fernando Santos, who will ever forget them shocking Europe and the World when winning the 2004 championships as 100/1 complete outsiders. This sure lends hope to all the other minnows who believe in reality that they are there just to make the numbers up. Their key players are Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Schalke), Giorgos Karagounis of Panathinaikos and Giorgos Samaras the stylish Glasgow Celtic striker. The vast majority of the Greek squad are playing for domestic teams and are not too well known. With no disrespect to Greece in anyway at all, the commentators covering any of their games are going to have to be up to date with their pronunciations due to the multi syllables in their names. Will it be another case of the bookmakers being brought to the cleaners again with the 80/1 price put on them? I would guess not as I imagine not too many think lightening strikes twice. Best of luck to them, I think they will need it.

The last team to represent group A are the Czech. Republic. They are ranked 26 in the world and are managed by Michal Bilek. They are a team in decline and their ranking shows. It wasn’t too long ago that they were most peoples fancy for EURO 2004. They played a very stylish and attractive brand of football with the gracious Pavel Nedved pulling the strings in the middle and making the team purr like a fine tuned sports car. They will also be missing the great Marek Jankulovski who at 34 has been forced to retire from the game due to ongoing injuries. The fact that Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky was completely out of form for a long long time only added to their demise. Thankfully, though he is getting back to his former self and along with him the another player to watch out for is Milan Baros of Galatasary a player who is always a threat in front of goal. No doubt they can feel safe in the knowledge that the great Petr Cech, one of the world’s best ‘keepers for a long time now, will be the last line of defence. Most of the squad play for teams in different countries, another factor in the demise of Czech. football. They won the tournament in 1976 at a time when Eastern European teams were a force to be reckoned with. They were runners-up in 1996 in England losing out to the first trial of the “golden goal” a method were the first team to score in extra time wins the match. Another team with a fine pedigree, they are priced amazingly at 66/1. I would imagine there could be a lot of takers of them at this price especially the each way market.

That concludes my analysis of group A. I hope for anyone that gets the chance to read my post that they can gain a little insight into the first batch of teams competing in this years championship and for what it’s worth here is my predictions for this group

Group winners: Russia

Group runners-up: Czech Republic

3rd place: Poland

wooden spoon: Greece

Best of luck for whatever team you follow and I will be doing a post on group B within a day or so. Do you agree? do you disagree? please feel free to let me know. Thank you.

Come on you boys in green

The time is nearly upon us, the anticipation is reaching fever pitch and after what was without doubt the most absorbing, exciting and thoroughly unforgettable English premier leagues EVER! has come and gone, we can all focus our passions on our home countries as the UEFA European nations cup is almost upon us. For the sports fans upon us we are being spoiled for choice this year. With the fine league season that has just ended, the EURO 2012 finals and the Olympics which are being staged just across the water, the women in our lives who just can’t get their head’s around what all the fuss is will surely be well deserving of that extra loving gesture (or 2 or 3 or…). As an Irish man who has had to endure 10 years of barren summers, usually 3 months from May to August doing cold turkey waiting for the next season to start and no international tournament to cheer on has been hard to take. And so it is that our boys will be heading to Poland/Ukraine for the football banquet with the big boys and every pub, house, street, and maybe the odd dog or horse will be donned in the green white and orangeI was only a small boy in 1988 when the Republic qualified for their first ever major football finals. The memories I will never forget. From the day Ray Houghton’s bullet header to beat the auld enemy England in Stuttgart, Ireland were put on the footballing map after a decade of also rans who had some quite talented players playing from all the big clubs in England. Paul Mcgrath, David O’leary, Mick McCarthy, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, Liam Brady and Packie Bonner. It was only a matter of time we would reach a tournament and in stepped the man who would eventually take us there, Jack Charlton. A no-nonsense man who was a very successful player with the great Leeds United team of the 60s and 70s and brother of the legendary Bobby. His first game in charge was a defeat against Wales in Dublin, something that wouldn’t happen again for another 7 years.

Getting back to the 1988 tournament, after beating England the team faced a then mighty Soviet Union and matched them all over the park and a 1-1 draw was well deserved and who will ever forget Ronnie Whelan’s stunning bicycle kick from outside the box to beat the Russian ‘keeper who was regarded as the best in the world at the time. The world stood up and paid attention now. Italia ’90 was probably the greatest footballing achievement in our nations history, having reached the quarter finals only to be beaten by the host nation in their backyard 0-1. Don’t get me wrong Ireland never played pretty football but it got us results. “Put ’em under pressure” was the buzz word of the day. All we cared about was getting to the finals, what style of football got us there didn’t matter.

Our next foray into the international scene was USA ’94 and after opening our account by beating the Italians (who eventually went on to the final) with a stunning volley from 25 yards scored by none other than Ray Houghton, the team stagnated and ran out of ideas in the sweltering heat of Florida in the summer. They wilted and were put out of their misery by the Dutch in the second round. After failing to qualify for England ’96 by way of losing to the Dutch again in the play offs, Jack finally threw his hat in after bringing us as far as he could with an ageing squad that needed total revamping. He stepped down to a heroes departure and a gracious nation for what he achieved with so little. Mick McCarthy was the new man at the helm and his tenure got off to a reasonable start having the unenvious task off overhauling the entire team. He came close to qualifying for France ’98 but again the play-off door was slammed shut in our face’s. The same again in 2000 amid scenes of violence, bullying and thuggery in Turkey (haven’t we seen that before?). But finally after 8 years in the wilderness we reached the finals in Japan/Korea and who will ever forget the Saipan-Keane -McCarthy saga. After coming through a group that contained Portugal and Holland where we finally got revenge for previous heart- break Ireland were again being noticed on the world stage and especially with a player of Roy Keane’s calibre. What happened in that dressing room is a story for another day. Considering the distractions the players had to bear, they played some attractive football and came out of a group containing Cameroon and Germany only to go on and be defeated by Spain who were totally outplayed and outclassed and finally won through on penalties. Ireland came home with heads held high thinking what might have been. But considering the massive effect and divide in society caused by the Saipan melee, the writing was on the wall for Mick McCarthy and he was quite unfortunate to be forced to hand his resignation in.

And so it was 10 years of stagnation. Back into the footballing wilderness, the uncertainty, the calamities. We plummeted down the world rankings and it was a dark period in the FAI’s history. A new stadium was needed and a new direction also. After a lot of plans for a national stadium, Eircom park being one considered and the now infamous “Bertie Bowl” named after the then Irish premier Bertie Ahern, thought was given to opening up the fantastic arena that is Croke park, but that was still a raw issue and some time away. The final decision was made on demolishing the world famous Landsdowne Road and building a brand new stadium-The Aviva Stadium, for which I had the honour of working there as a steward for some time.It took around 4 years to complete while in the meantime a decision had to be made as to where Ireland would play their home games in both rugby and football. An historic vote was taken to open up Croke Park to “foreign sports” as they were known. This was an old rule dating back to British occupation of the whole of the island of Ireland and was a law of defiance which stood for over 100 years. Unanimously it was over-ruled and the famous ground was used for several home internationals and was given world wide recognition which in normal circumstances wouldn’t have been possible. While we were waiting on our brand new stadium, a new man was appointed to take the team into the future. Giovanni Trappatoni was the man chosen in a time when Italian bosses were all the rage. He came with a CV. of achievement as long as your arm but he also came with bus pass, a term often used for those over 65. But who were we to oppose his appointment after some below standard managers, with all respect due, that came before. His style of play was typically Italian. Very defensive and only attacking at opportunistic moments which in turn produced very little goals, but also produced a lot of clean sheets. They were proving a hard team to beat while at the same time having to bring a lot of youngsters through who showed a lot of potential in all honesty. In qualification for South Africa 2010, a tournament which in the end proved a party you could cope with missing out on, he lead Ireland to unbeaten group runners up in a group containing world champions Italy. A fine performance considering the amount of young talent that needed brooding. And who can forget the play-off against the French. A spirited effort in Dublin ended in a 0-1 defeat meaning we had a mountain to climb. And climb that mountain they did with one of the finest ever displays by an Irish team. We won the game 1-0 and unsurprisingly after pulverising the French in front of their own support. But we were dealt a cruel blow when the infamous handball incident by Thierry Henry which was so clearly visible lead to us losing in yet another play-off

     

After feeling so cheated by the devious tactics employed by the French the whole of the nation was behind “Trap” as he is affectionately known now. And this time we had our own new stadium to host the nations of the world. The Aviva Stadium is a beautiful modern stadium with ease of access to but during the group qualifying we seemed to be our own worse enemy dropping silly points at home that we should quite easily have taken. The 2-3 home defeat by Russia still stands as the only  home group defeat suffered under his reign. But it was our away record that was our strength, 4 wins and 1 draw from 5 and conceding only 1 is form form the top draw. The draw we got in Russia cannot be taken lightly. Ireland were blitzed from the off. Shot after shot went wide, was saved expertly by Shay Given or Richard Dunne threw himself in font of several rasping efforts and had the war wounds to show for it. This was the game that won us a chance at yet another play-off. This time no prisoners were taken and again it was the away form that done us proud. A magnificent 4-0 win in Estonia rendered the 2nd leg pointless and the boys in green were at last on their way to the big time again. 10 years since our last big bash and 24 years since our last European adventure.

We know we don’t expect miracles and playing in a group containing Croatia, Italy and World/European champions Spain we won’t lose touch with reality. One thing is for sure we’re a team that will prove tough to beat. A group of hungry, young, talented individuals who will work their socks off for themselves and their manager will fear no-one. “Trap” has proven himself as a manager for well over 30 years and considering Greece won on 2004 as 100/1 outsiders and Denmark were recalled from their holiday’s at the last minute in 1992 to win as under-dogs of the same nature, miracles can and do happen. We will enjoy the “craic” and I know other supporters will enjoy it with us so come on you boys in green let’s get this party started, we’ve been waiting 10 years to have one. Best of luck to all the fans around Europe, I think this will be a much better spectacle than South Africa 2010 and without the vuvuzuelas.