By Graham Gillespie
What were we as a nation expecting from our national team before Ireland set off to France? During and following the fallout of the Trapattoni years when one thought of the “boys in green” they almost exclusively thought of the fans on the streets and in the stands. There was nothing to be enjoyed and little to be admired about the team itself on the pitch, worst of all Ireland had been stricken of their identity. We were a team deprived of what great Irish teams of the past were remembered and heralded for. If nothing else this is what Martin O’Neill has brought back to the national team. People have a sense of pride once again in our actual football team. What more could we have asked for when O’Neill took charge of the squad in three years ago?
One of the key differences of the O’Neill era from Euro 2012 is that we no longer go into big games in total fear. The general existential dread that overcame the team and fans when were humbled 4-0 by Spain or humiliated 6-1 by Germany at home in 2014 World Cup qualifying has disappeared. In fact Ireland in their current guise are a team that can struggle against teams of a similar level (drawing with Sweden, only taking one point off Scotland in qualifying), but go into the big games where they are underdogs thinking they can nick something instead of being on the receiving end of a shellacking. The starting point for this change in mood was perhaps when the Irish visited the World champions Germany in Gelsenkirchen and John O’Shea snuck in a last second equaliser. It was not a particularly impressive performance by Ireland but for the first time in several years we showed that we did not have to just roll over for a team that on paper are better than us.
Under O’Neill we have gone back to what we are good at, who cares if it’s they are clichés lets be in the other team’s face and “put em under pressure”. Also the management staff have put faith in our players’ ability (a few Roy Keane quotes notwithstanding). It would have simply been impossible to imagine Trapattoni’s Ireland starting a Euro’s game with Hoolahan and Hendrick in the same midfield and dominate the first half as we did against Sweden. Nor would have one envisaged Glenn Whelan losing his place to allow McCarthy to drop back into his more natural position for games against Italy and France. We displayed at least a bravery to try and play, which was completely absent bar the infamous Paris 2009 game, before O’Neill’s arrival.
So going back to what we wanted from this Euros, it was probably a case that we simply wanted to just feel part of the tournament on the pitch this time and not be already booking our flights home after ten minutes of the first game. We just sought one moment where there could nationwide euphoria, and bloody hell we got two. When Robbie Brady managed to get convert Wes Hoolahan’s perfect cross (both aesthetically and in practicality) we had our moment of national ecstasy, we were more than just at heart-warming viral video of our fans that you watch at half-time. In that moment we weren’t just a sideshow, we were the main event. “It’s Stuttgart, it’s New Jersey… they’re all rolled into one!” as George Hamilton elated at the final whistle encapsulating the feeling of a nation. This would have been enough for us to walk away from this tournament with a smile but taking the lead in the first minute against the hosts in Lyon provided yet another (albeit brief) moment of pure joy for the country.
Along with this, one of the more enjoyable subplots of the game against Italy was that many of our players fought through some sort of adversity however large or small to get to this point. James McCarthy had borne the brunt of much criticism following the first two games, Shane Duffy’s performance could be seen as the crowning moment of his long comeback from rupturing the blood supply to his liver in 2010, and as unfair as it sounds the perception of Wes Hoolahan’s entire Ireland career would have been very different if the Italy game ended just before the Brady goal.
As the dust settles after Ireland’s run to the round of sixteen it is probably fair to class this tournament for Ireland as a success. Sure if one is being a touch more cynical they could point to how Ireland only finished third in their qualifying group and in the group stage proper, if Ireland had done either of these things under the previous qualifying and tournament format they would have likely been deemed failures. Another faction may dispute arguably rightly that Ireland’s successes in France paper over the cracks in the football structures of this country, but we all must remember just how disillusioned the football fans of this country were and how lost our team looked as Trapattoni resigned following our failure to qualify for the 2014 World cup. During this Euros Ireland have rediscovered who they are meant to be as a football team. While our neighbours this week placed the “Brexit” shaped revolver to their heads and pulled the trigger, one could say that we in our own way, without all the horrible racism and scaremongering and with far more joy and positivity, have got our Ireland back.