Miguel Delaney: Positives outweigh the negatives to banish all apprehension
Ireland's performances in France should provide solid foundation for difficult World Cup campaign
Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30
It seemed one of the obvious sources of celebration from Ireland's eventful Euro 2016 campaign, although it quickly became apparent Robbie Brady was one of many players who still didn't really know what to think of any of it. That was despite making everyone forget themselves for a famous few seconds.
The hero of Ireland's tournament had been talking rather glumly about the defeat to France in the Lyon mixed zone after the game last Sunday, only to be asked what it actually feels like to have followed Ray Houghton and Ronnie Whelan in providing the kind of special moment the country will cherish for years. Brady evidently hadn't yet felt it all.
"It's been mentioned a couple of times but, while we're here, I haven't really had time to reflect on it," the 24-year-old said. "Maybe it is like one of those goals and I will be able to enjoy it a bit more later on."
That's probably the thing with making history. It's hard to properly register when it still constitutes the present. For all the justifiably deeper debate about the exact merit of the campaign and what it all means, though, that goal against Italy will still be one of the main memories from Euro 2016 and what it will always be connected with in Irish football lore.
Ireland have now played 23 games at major finals and, until Wes Hoolahan's enticing delivery in the 84th minute of the final group game against Italy in Lille, those occasions had at best provided 10 moments for the country to really let go; 10 moments for the country to enjoy the kind of emotional release many others wait decades for.
Brady's goal against Italy is thereby one of preciously few proper celebrations on that kind of stage. That is not to be dismissed, and it obviously meant so much more that it ensured Ireland were not dismissed from the competition. Reaching the last 16 afforded a respectability to the campaign, a world away from the humiliation of 2012.
In Lyon, there wasn't the same need to dolefully sing about how low the fields of Athenry lie, as the players instead stood tall in front of proud fans. That will be an image that resonates, alongside Jack Charlton waving the tricolour on the running track of Rome's Stadio Olimpico.
That the campaign was so consciously about rectifying the shame of Euro 2012 obviously adds more weight to the achievement but, on the other side, it could never have had the freshness and wide-eyed illusion of what happened in 1988 and 1990. You can only make that kind of history once.
That, however, is undoubtedly why the players had so many regrets. They believed they could do more than those Charlton teams. The players really felt they could get to the quarter-final stage the 1990 World Cup squad did, but that after actually going and beating the highly-fancied hosts. Following on from the victory over Italy, it would have made it the most fulfilling Irish tournament ever.
It instead meant the overriding emotion was about what might have been. In the aftermath of the game, the players weren't too interested in talking about the guts they'd shown. They were all gutted they hadn't claimed victory.
"We really believed we could get something from that game," Seamus Coleman said ruefully. "I know it's France who beat us but, still, it felt like we really could have got something out of that game and we just tired a bit. I suppose, when the dust settles and you look back, it was successful and that was a great night on Wednesday with Robbie's goal. I just wish we could have gone that little step further.
He wasn't the only one.
"It's just a hard one to take," James McCarthy said, looking and sounding utterly deflated. "The most important thing was the team and making sure we got through to the next round. We haven't managed that and it's real disappointment within the squad."
The players were so down in the dressing room that Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had to remind them of the positives, to give them a pep talk about how encouraging it all was.
That situation doesn't so much touch on the biggest Irish football themes as tackle them with all the force of a classic Keane challenge - and that reference is pointed. For anyone that is still irritated by the principles of Saipan or has ever lamented Ireland's apparent unwillingness to demand more of ourselves, the regretful words of the players should be relished. It shows this squad want more. They aren't happy to just be there.
That is ironically the inverse of Euro '88 in that way. Ray Houghton admitted recently that Irish players were initially delighted with their performance in West Germany 28 years ago, only to later realise "what an opportunity it was".
It might well be the opposite for the current players. It did seem they felt that only a quarter-final would have brought full vindication.
In a way, though, that is a reminder that there should still be some debate about this campaign. All of the emotion and pride should not obscure the reality that Ireland blew a big chance against Sweden, and then got somewhat fortunate to be playing a second-string Italy.
That is not to disparage Ireland's effort. A deflated team still had to do their job, still had to rise to a difficult situation. They did that and then soared, to the point they rattled France. N'Golo Kante admitted to his side were "worried", and it is now known that the French players had their own dressing-room discussion at half-time, although filled with anger rather than encouragement.
But this achievement still shouldn't banish the bigger issues in Irish football. Despite all of the spirit shown, and the rousing nature of Ireland's attacks in three of the four games, the squad still ended the campaign with a pass completion rate of 69.7 per cent. That is the third worst in the competition, only ahead of Northern Ireland and Iceland.
The country needs to take a long hard look at how we develop players. According to one UEFA source, studies indicate Irish players aged between six and 16 get 14 times fewer touches per session than other European kids of the same age. That is not exactly conducive to developing the technical excellence we see in similar-sized countries.
The worry about all of this is that any relative success means the FAI won't be under the same pressure to speed the glacially-paced changes to the country's football infrastructure. Sometimes - as even the Germans discovered in 1998 and 2000 - you need proper embarrassment to push the kind of transformation really required. Then again, it's not like the humiliation of 2012 changed anything in that regard anyway.
It's also something that's unfair to stick on the current players, who are victims of the country's football problems rather than saviours. As Roy Keane said before the Italy game, it's highly unlikely Ireland are going to solve those problems "in the next 48 hours". It is to the players' credit, then, that they did what they did despite all that. In fact, what is a real positive about this tournament is that O'Neill worked around those failings to create an approach that saw Ireland attack well.
They really went for it in the last two games. They took the game to supposedly better teams. The fear and apprehension of Giovanni Trapattoni's time was gone. It offers something to build on for the World Cup qualifying campaign, the foundation of a proper tactical identity the team had been missing for some time.
A new core of players, fresh for new ideas, helps too. Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy, Darren Randolph and the resurgent McCarthy outright stated their readiness. "The sooner the World Cup campaign starts the better," McCarthy said. Coleman has also grown into a leader, while Brady has developed from a stand-in left-back to a player that can never again be wasted there. He is an attacker whose attitude and technical ability have to be built around, and arguably a ready-made successor to Wes Hoolahan.
Brady was too modest to admit any of this but the sense of it was still there. "Coming here and being able to play at such a big level gives you such a big platform to play on. The lads around me helped me throughout the tournament by how well they were playing. It brought an energy as well as the fans so to come here and put a stamp and make half a name for yourself is great so I will take the positives from it."
Another positive is that this young core has been further bound together with the kind of spirit that only tournament progress can properly bring. That in itself fosters a faith in each other that translates into greater intensity on the pitch, a knowledge that it will really matter if they really put it in. It will also create more confidence in that proactive game. "We've got good players," Coleman enthused. "Jeff, Robbie and James in midfield are good ball players and if we can change that mentality slightly like we have done in the last couple of games, the future's bright."
Whether it's bright enough to bring Ireland to Russia in 2018 remains to be seen. It is a difficult qualifying group with little margin for error. There are only 13 European places in the tournament, rather than 23, and one of nine second-placed sides won't even get into the play-offs.
Ireland got through the first stage of Euro 2016, provided one of the special moments and for over an hour against the hosts made everyone believe that something better than ever was possible.
"We wanted to come here and put a show on," McCarthy said.
They more than did that. It was something this football country had been missing for too long.
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