Early away trips will decide if 2014 is a year to celebrate
Published 24/02/2014 | 02:30
SHORTLY before Christmas, John Delaney was at a function where he was asked for his reflections on a 'fantastic year' for Irish football.
It was an innocently posed question which hinted at how the appointment of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane has dramatically altered perceptions of a year which started with only one focus in mind and that was making Brazil.
In that context, 2013 was a failure, but it managed to end on a high which bred optimism for the future.
Now, after a long winter of ruminations, the draw in Nice has created dates for the diary which will finally allow the new regime to plot a coherent road towards France 2016.
After the long run to September, they will hit the ground running with three big away trips before Christmas – Georgia, Germany and Scotland – that will shape how 2014 is remembered.
O'Neill was always eager to play down the advantage of being second seeds, and the outcome of yesterday's UEFA shindig proved that he was right to do so. As Michel Platini observed on Saturday, there is little difference between the teams ranked 15 to 40 in Europe.
Scotland, the fourth seeds in Ireland's group, are ahead of both Martin O'Neill's side and Poland in the world rankings. Conceivably, the three could swap positions in the charts before the proper business begins. There isn't a huge amount between them.
The glass-half-full approach is that Ireland have little to fear from two nations they know well. The half-empty attitude is that Adam Nawalka and Gordon Strachan will feel exactly the same way.
O'Neill conceded that – during a draw where the Pot 2 teams were drawn out last – he was eyeing up England's Group E as the most attractive option.
That vacancy went to Switzerland, who will face Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino.
Northern Ireland's Group F, which also features Greece, Hungary, Romania and Finland, would also have been preferable.
So this is tough and O'Neill wore a facial expression which suggested as much. He had a brief 20-second chinwag with Keane after the draw before being whisked away for press duties, and they were on the same page in terms of the difficulty.
Certainly, it's a collection of challenges that will test the FAI's main man. O'Neill encountered a fair few of the Scotland squad in the course of his club career, and the derby atmosphere will call his renowned motivational abilities into the equation.
The Scots have improved considerably under Gordon Strachan, winning home and away against Croatia in the latter stages of a World Cup campaign which was over early, spelling the end for Craig Levein.
The clashes with Poland will also present a tactical test. Containing the pace of the brilliant Borussia Dortmund attacker Robert Lewandowski will impact how he sets up the team. They're not a one-man show either. Another Dortmund star, Jakub Blaszczykowski, is a creative talent.
O'Neill has rightly dismissed the significance of previous friendly meetings with the third seeds. It'll be a different story when Poland come to Dublin 4 next March; Ireland's approach to home matches under Trapattoni was criticised and this will be a first meaningful chance to test the Derry man's philosophy in the competitive sphere. An opponent with a serious tool in the counter-attacking department adds intrigue.
Then there's Germany. Trapattoni's charges were dismantled by Joachim Loew's rampant side on their last visit. The Italian felt that no other manager would do better with the same group of players; now we shall find out. A point from either of those games would be a bonus, though, while anything less than six from Gibraltar would be a disaster, despite the unusual confidence of the newcomers' coach.
The key to qualification is often mopping up wins over the fifth-ranked side. Trapattoni's Ireland were extremely lucky to get six points from Georgia on the way to a World Cup play-off in 2010, and the FAI are not held in high esteem over in Tbilisi, having successfully lobbied to get the away clash moved to Germany due to political instability in the region.
A group of Irish journalists bumped into a leading Georgian official ahead of the Dublin friendly between the nations last year and he made it clear that bad taste lingers, even though that particular game was effectively part of the olive branch process.
In a group packed with attractive trips for the supporters, the welcome in Tbilisi will be slightly colder.
Financially, the FAI will be satisfied over the two years, even though they could have done with a marquee Aviva tie later this year to construct ticket packages around.
Furthermore, landing the traditional meal ticket that is Germany reduces the level of profit from the centralised TV deal that shares revenue equally amongst all 54 nations; under the old system this would also have been lucrative.
Crucially, the Germans will bring a good travelling support to Dublin, and the Scots will also sell out their allocation, while the recent friendlies with Poland have turned into carnival affairs because of their huge population in Ireland. They'll have followers in all corners of the ground.
Unquestionably, this is a positive in the eternal struggle to fill the Aviva Stadium.
Success is the biggest selling point, however, and qualification the largest earner. The FAI invested in O'Neill and his staff with the target of reaching the enlarged version of international football's second biggest competition.
Delaney has previously gone on record to say that the expansion should make it easier to reach the top table. The post-draw reality for a nation like Ireland is that there will be nothing easy about it.