'It's not like last time'- John Giles says new Euros format gives Ireland shot at real progress
Ever the straight shooter, John Giles believes Ireland have cause for optimism ahead of the European Championships as the new enlarged tournament format has allowed for the participation of lesser nations, and not necessarily because the team has made any great strides under Martin O’Neill.
Between 1996 and 2012, 16 of the continent’s best sides contested the Euros, but this year that number has increased to 24.
Such an expansion made the task of qualifying for France this summer considerably more negotiable than previous campaigns.
The winners, runners up and best third-placed team automatically gained admission to the competition, while the remaining eight third placed sides entered a two-legged play-off.
Ireland, of course, were one of the beneficiaries of the new system, and their victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina ensured their progression.
Group E rivals Sweden also qualified in this manner, and six other sides who otherwise would be enjoying a far less eventful summer.
Furthermore, when the group stages have concluded, the four best third placed teams will advance to the newly added round of 16.
While Ireland have been drawn in a tough group, it is nowhere near as daunting as the shark tank they found themselves in four years ago, particularly when considering the amended format.
Which is why John Giles reckons the Boys in Green should last a little longer in France than they did in Poland and Ukraine.
“It’s possible, not like the last one,” Giles said at the launch of RTÉ’s Euro 2016 coverage.
“As we know, and as we mustn’t forget, there’s eight more teams in it than there was last time. So it’s bound to dilute (quality of) the teams that qualify, because there were 16 and now there’s eight more teams than last time, including ourselves. We wouldn’t have even qualified four years ago.”
That’s not to say that the 75-year-old doesn’t acknowledge the qualities within the Irish side, as they amply demonstrated in drawing with and defeating world champions Germany during qualification, as well that famous victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Aviva Stadium last November.
If those games taught us anything, it’s that the current group are capable of transcending their footballing limitations through force of will.
“It’s what you expect the team to do. And what you should learn from it that if they can do it in those matches, they can do it in other matches. I’d rather have the last two performances like that than the first two, so that’s a good sign.”
It’s been said that encountering the Swedes first, before meeting the more daunting Belgium and Italy, should be of benefit to Ireland as it will allow them to find their feet at the tournament in a more forgivable environment.
Giles isn’t buying that theory for one second.
"I don’t believe in kindly fixtures. You just have to play the matches. We don’t know how Sweden are going to play, so we just have to play as well as we can, and that’s what we need to concentrate on."