Euro 2016 feels different and we should dare to dream despite nightmare draw
Published 15/12/2015 | 02:30
Forget religion, booze or even opium itself - sport is the real opium of the people and while we tend to go overboard with our claims that we are the best fans in the world, nothing can bring this country to a screeching halt quite like a massive match.
I've never bought into the notion that the Irish football team helped to create the Celtic Tiger. It's too glib and open to factual rebuttal. But it would be wrong to deny any links between how well our national team performs and how the national mood, and in turn, the economy, can be both elevated and deflated by the results.
1-3. 0-4. 0-2.
They are the scorelines which still provoke a shudder of despondency in Irish football everywhere.
Those three results from our catastrophic campaign in Euro 2012 remain emblazoned in our collective memory, bringing an almost visceral sense of frustration and disappointment.
And let's not forget the bitterness we all felt every time Giovanni Trapattoni effectively told the wider football world how it was a miracle for him to be able to guide a team of such complete donkeys to the tournament.
Well, guide us there he undoubtedly did, but he also managed to achieve what would have been previously been an impossible, unthinkable task - making Irish fans actually regret that we had qualified.
It wasn't a great time to be in Ireland during the summer of 2012.
Job losses were continuing at a dispiriting rate. What the economists refer to as 'wage compression' - pay cuts, as normal people call them - were the order of the day for those who still had a job.
But after our qualification we were able to put those concerns to the side for a brief period. We just didn't realise how brief that period would be. In fact, once Croatia opened the scoring after three minutes in our opening game, all hope was lost. And that is the legacy of the 2012 tournament - we knew we were out before even five minutes of the first match has elapsed.
There were obvious parallels thrown up by Saturday evening's draw, not least another fixture against Italy, who cruised past us 2-0 in the dead rubber final game of the group in 2012 when the only thing left to sing about was the fact that the fans kept on singing; a small act of stubborn defiance which dwarfed anything we had seen from the coach.
Croatia, Spain and Italy were our opponents back then, as opposed to Sweden, Belgium and Italy this time, and while Martin O'Neill was rather downcast in the immediate aftermath of being drawn in this apparent group of death, there remains a genuine sense that this time is different.
This group may indeed bring the prospect of another three defeats. But there's no fear that we will stink the place out like we did in Poland, when we managed the dubious distinction of becoming the joint worst team statistically to ever appear in the finals.
At the last tournament, Roy Keane lambasted the coaching staff and poured scorn on the fans - as is often the case with Keane, it was an entirely valid assessment delivered in unnecessarily withering fashion - but his presence in the dug-out this time around at least means that nobody in the Irish squad will be happy to simply be there.
We're heading into this tournament in better shape, both on the pitch and financially, than we were in 2012.
Then, the economy was still stagnant and flat. Now, IBEC is talking about 7pc growth and not only is the economy growing at its fastest rate in 15 years, it's also growing more robustly than any of our European partners.
That's not going to make much of a team talk before our opening match against Sweden, and millionaire footballers based in England aren't going to receive an extra boost by hearing that the Irish economy is making an improvement. But compared to Euro 2012, when the paucity of imagination on the pitch matched the economic ennui at home, we should be at least prepared to admit that we're in immeasurably better shape now than we were back then.
Even though this is such a tough draw, there is still a sense of elation that we have qualified for what promises to be the biggest - literally and metaphorically - Euros ever.
The increased number of countries - which offers us a back door out of the group as one of the best third-placed teams, lest we forget - combined with the presence of our three nearest neighbours, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, means this is one party for which we desperately wanted an invitation.
Christmas would have been more subdued without the events of this summer to look forward to. It would have been impossible to watch or read the British media from next March onwards because nobody wants to be the unloved step-child, peering through the window while all the other kids go to (kick) the ball. Even better, we return to Irish football's very own boulevard of broken dreams, Stade de France, for our opening match against Sweden on Monday, June 13.
This is Ireland, of course, so the whole jaunt could end up as a nightmare.
But I don't think that will happen.
Anyway, forget about nightmares, this is still a time to dream.