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.