The man who safeguards Ireland's Euro 2016 hopes

Cormac Byrne profiles one of the newer Boys in Green - West Ham United's Darren Randolph

Back row left-right) Republic of Ireland's James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy, Darren Randolph, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, (Bottom Row L - R) Wes Hoolahan, Robert Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Seamus Coleman and Glenn Whelan pose for a team group photo during the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Playoff second leg at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Back row left-right) Republic of Ireland's James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy, Darren Randolph, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, (Bottom Row L - R) Wes Hoolahan, Robert Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Seamus Coleman and Glenn Whelan pose for a team group photo during the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Playoff second leg at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

 

Meet Darren Randolph, he's the Ireland new boy, and according to his International team mate Robbie Brady, he's the most important man on the pitch. He's the goalkeeper who few knew before he denied World Champions Germany on the Aviva Stadiums turf back in November of last year. 

Now he's one of Ireland's best players. Commanding from the back, the Irish defence with Randolph at the helm have conceded just three goals in four competitive games. Back in March, Norwich City and Ireland left back Robbie Brady told me how influential Randolph is on this Irish team, "He's one of the most important men on the pitch.His confidence is excellent for us defenders".

The West Ham 'stopper is set to start in goals for Ireland at EURO 2016, but first we must look back at his rise to prominence for 'The Boys in Green'.
Randolph was thrown in at the deep end against Germany. Ireland were on the ropes, Mesut Özil had already scored a goal that had been ruled out for offside and veteran goalkeeper Shay Given had come off injured just before half time. Most Irish fans would have accepted a humble one or two goal defeat at that point.

Darren Randolph must not have read the script for that October night. Not only did he go on to keep a clean sheet, he was involved at both ends of the pitch.

Bayern Munich's Thomas Müller couldn't best him, neither could Real Madrid's Toni Kroos. On the verge of the 70th minute something magical happened. The Irish midfield broke down another German attack, David Meyler rolled the ball back to Randolph, and under pressure from Muller he punted high and long. The ball bypassed the midfield and bounced 20 yards outside the German box, suddenly Shane Long was through on goal and he finished divinely to Manuel Neuers right. The scenes that followed; delirium. 

Ireland had beaten the World Champions and were closer to qualifying for EURO 2016. Darren Randolph secured his place in the history books of Irish football that night, if he retired tomorrow fans would still remember that infamous punt towards Shane Long. 
With a tough play-off win against Edin Džeko's Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ireland have long since cemented their place at Euro 2016 following that faithful October night in Dublin 4. 

We've been handed a tough group, drawn in group E with Sweden, Belgium and Sweden but with the confidence building in the Irish camp, fans can be optimistic of success. 

I spoke to Darren in March, after a Euro 2016 warm up game in which Ireland bettered 12th in the world Switzerland by a score line of 1-0. In the post-match mixed zone I asked if he foresaw his rise to international prominence when he was just a young lad playing for local side Ardmore Rovers from Bray. He laughed and replied "Not when I was at Ardmore no, but I suppose as soon as I made the move over to Charlton It was on my mind, it's always your goal to play for your country". 

What struck me most about Darren Randolph is his confidence, not just in himself, but in his team mates too. A couple of Swedish journalists jokingly asked the Irish 'keeper if he would rather have the world renowned Sweden star Zlatan Ibrahimović in his team, or inform Irish striker Shane Long. As if to show the solidarity of this Irish team, Randolph, with no hint of a joke stern facedly replied 'Shane'. 

The coolness of Randolph transmits off the pitch too.

He's relaxed in interviews and thoughtful in reply, it's no wonder that the diamond ear-ringed Bray man is one of the first faces sent out to converse with the Irish media after a game. Journalists are greeted with smiles and it's refreshing to see such a grounded young man safe guarding the Irish goals. Darren knows his place in the team isn't guaranteed, he knows that he needs to replicate his previous performances of quality in order to keep that number one jersey.

Of the competition for places Randolph remarked, "There's places up for grabs, I only came in because Shay (Given) was injured so everyone gets their chance to perform and it's down to the manager to pick what he feels is the strongest team". 

 There was supreme competition for the goalkeeper role in March. Rob Elliot, the Newcastle 'keeper was given a chance against Slovakia in another friendly game which ended in a 2-2 draw. However, he went off injured after 20 minutes and once again Randolph emerged from the dug-out to play his part. 
 
Fast forward to May, Elliot has been confirmed to be out for the rest of the season with a ligament injury while Shay Given picked up an injury playing for his club side Stoke City. Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill addressed the goalkeeping situation at a press conference hosted at the Aviva at the end of April.

"Elliot was in the form of his life.It's really unfortunate.I wanted Rob to play a full a game and I wanted to give Darren Randolph a full game, that was my intention, if there was a spell in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a game I wanted to give David Forde a few minutes.if I hadn't used all my subs, that was the idea at the time, but obviously best laid plans and when Elliot got injured it didn't materialise".

Ireland's opener against Sweden is approaching fast. The Stade de France will play host to what should be a hotly contested game. The Paris venue has not been a good hunting ground for Irish teams in recent years. In 2009 Ireland were controversially denied of World Cup 2010 qualification there after the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident. 

Most of the Irish team of that night have retired. Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, Keith Andrews and Kevin Kilbane have all hung up their boots, they have been replaced by bright younger players like Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Seamus Coleman, and Even Randolph who at 28 is quite young for a goalkeeper.

There can be optimism among Irish fans that this younger, hungrier Irish team can deliver the goods at Euro 2016. With Randolph between the sticks, droves of Irish fans can be sure that Ireland won't be short of confidence from back to front when they emerge from the famous tunnel of the Stade de France on June 13th.

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