Euro 2016: Ireland set to scrap it out in tough group
Boys in green keen to improve on Euro results but face daunting opposition in group stages
Jonathan Walters’ goals were crucial during qualifying and he will need to be firing on all cylinders if Ireland are to get out of the group. Photograph: Getty
Martin O’Neill will be hoping Ireland do not repeat the fiasco of Euro 2012. Photograph: Getty
Wes Hoolahan is key to Ireland’s attacking threat. Photograph: Getty
On the face of it, Ireland’s prospects are no better than any of the sides who came through the play-offs with the countries that benefited from this tournament’s expansion likely to be first, for the most part to bite the dust, when the numbers get cut down again. The manner in which the team saved itself from elimination, though, with solid performances against their group’s lesser lights then a big win over Germany and a play-off defeat of Bosnia Herzegovina will fuel optimism that this will be a happier Euro excursion than the one to Poland four years ago. Certainly Martin O’Neill seems to have restored the squad’s collective self belief that on their day, they can beat anyone and one such day might be all it takes to get them through this group stage. Shane Long’s form in advance of the tournament as well as Jon Walters’ through the qualifiers suggests there may be more goals in the side now than before while the defence continues to defy the odds at times. At least it won’t be over by the third game as it was last time and like quite a few other sides, the hope will be that if they can just get to the knockout stages, then anything happen on each given day.
How they qualified
At one stage it looked like the chance had gone. Having followed up a 1-0 defeat to Scotland with a draw against Poland and another draw in the return fixture against Gordon Strachan’s squad, it looked like Ireland’s chances of making a second consecutive European Championship had gone with the wind. That was before Georgia sprung a surprise and beat Scotland. Slight hope was rekindled. Ireland comfortably beat Gibraltar and then saw off Georgia themselves. That flickering flame of hope was getting stronger. Scotland were narrowly beaten by Germany. Was there still a chance? Ireland still had to play world champions Germany at home. Let’s not get our hopes up... But then. Shane Long. The 70th minute. Lansdowne Road erupts. Ireland had beaten Germany. That flame of hope was now fully lit and burning brighter than ever. A win or high scoring draw in the final qualifying game away to Poland would see Ireland qualify automatically. But it was not to be. The Poles came out on top to book their place in France, along with Germany, leaving Ireland to scrap it out in the playoffs. And scrap it out Ireland did. Robbie Brady emerged from the fog of Zenica to fire home a crucial away goal in a 1-1 draw. The nervous tension of the second leg was quickly put at ease by Jonathan Walters’ opening goal. The Stoke man then added a second and Ireland had done it. France here we come.
Manager: Martin O’Neill
The Kilrea man has always been regarded as one of the best managers to come from these parts, largely thanks to successful spells at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa. His first foray into international management was greeted by a media frenzy given the fact that he was teaming up with a certain Roy Keane. Had Ireland missed out on qualification for France questions would have been asked about O’Neill’s ability for the job. But now that qualification has been secured everything is rosy in the garden and questions about his contract extension are never far from the reporters' lips.
Star man: Jonathan Walters
The Stoke City man has come on leaps and bounds in recent seasons and has flourished at international level since being deployed out wide in Martin O’Neill’s system. Walters’ goals were crucial during qualifying – in particular those against Bosnia and Herzegovina – and if Ireland are to have any chance of getting out of Group E in France then they need the 32-year-old to be firing on all cylinders. One thing for certain is that he will give it all he has, there’s no doubting how much the Merseyside-born man loves playing in the green of Ireland.
One to watch: Wes Hoolahan
Put simply, the former Shelbourne man is the key to Ireland posing any attacking threat in France. If Martin O’Neill is brave enough to start Hoolahan then Ireland stand a chance of causing problems in what looks to be a hellishly difficult group. If the 33-year-old is left on the bench it’s hard to see Ireland reverting to anything other than long balls towards the head of Walters. Every time Hoolahan plays he impresses, and Ireland look a better side with him in it. Now it’s up to Martin O’Neill to decide whether or not he wants to take the game to Sweden, Belgium and Italy or sit tight and try to grind out results.
Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Robbie Brady (Norwich), Cyrus Christie (Derby), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), Richard Keogh (Derby), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Shane Duffy (Blackburn), Stephen Ward (Burnley).
Midfielders: Jeff Hendrick (Derby), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich), James McCarthy (Everton), James McClean (West Brom), Aiden McGeady (Everton), David Meyler (Hull), Stephen Quinn (Reading), Glenn Whelan (Stoke).
What President Trump says...
“I love the Irish. I went there once and they sent the King of Ireland to meet me at the airport. He brought his band and some dancing girls. They couldn’t get enough of Trump!”