Philip O’Connor: A toothless attack and comical defending .. why the future could be bleak for the boys in green
IRELAND’S participation at Euro 2012 was supposed to lift the gloom caused by the worst recession in living memory but for their hopelessly optimistic fans it ended up adding to the despair and then some.
After three defeats in their Group C games - among them a 4-0 humiliation by a Spain side that should have scored twice as many - the plucky Irish head home with little to show for their efforts.
With coach Giovanni Trapattoni admitting that “"one or two" senior players had indicated they would retire, Ireland have even less hope for the future.
Their World Cup fate, like that of their economy, will be strongly influenced by group favourites Germany.
The omens are not good. With a toothless attack and defending that was at times comically bad, they were the only team in the group stage to look entirely out of their depth.
By the time they played their final game, they had scored fewer goals and conceded more than any of the 16 teams at the finals. Having developed a suicidal habit of letting in early goals, they never gave themselves a fighting chance.
Though not helped by the austere, defensive football prescribed by the ageing Trapattoni, the nub of the problem forIreland is that, despite record interest in the game, they do not have enough players of international quality.
After punching above their weight at previous finals, the 2012 vintage put in the most disappointing Ireland display at a major tournament.
Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and Shay Given are all approaching the end of their careers, and the crop of players coming through is unlikely to reach their standards.
In the past, the majority of Irish players spent their careers with British teams but this squad does not boast a single player from a top-six club in the English Premier League.
Instead, many of them have prepared for Euro 2012 by battling relegation, with several players struggling to perform consistently in England's second tier Championship.
Ireland's domestic competition is one of Europe's weaker leagues, and very few players in Trapattoni's squad have been exposed to Champions League football.
There is little diversity, with scant experience of European football outside of England and Scotland. Only Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady ply their trade outside Britain.
When Ireland first qualified for a major tournament in 1988 they had plenty of journeymen in their ranks, but they also had a core of strong, skilful players playing for clubs likeLiverpool, Manchester United and Celtic.
The exploits of Paul McGrath, Niall Quinn and Roy Keane caused an explosion of interest in the sport, but that has not translated into a flood of talented replacements.
When the fruits of the renewed wave of interest after the 2002 World Cup came to be harvested by Trapattoni and his assistant Marco Tardelli, they were to be found at Sunderland,Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The only people to emerge from Ireland's Euro 2012 fiasco with any credit are the fans, who waited 24 years for a return to this tournament and were so friendly and supportive of their team that the city of Poznan threw a party in their honour.
They deserved much better and, if a new golden age is to dawn, the FAI must harness the interest created by the Euros to bring on new players, not the bitter disappointment their previous failure to do so has heralded.