Saturday 24 June 2017

5 things that have happened since Ireland last led halfway through a qualification campaign

Jack O'Toole

Ireland head into Friday’s World Cup qualifier with Wales in pole position in Group D with 10 points from four games.

Martin O’Neill’s side have the chance to distance themselves from the rest of the chasing pack with a win against Wales.

However, the last time Ireland led a World Cup qualifying group at the halfway stage of a qualification campaign, the Boys in Green somehow managed to not qualify for the tournament; as Brian Kerr’s Ireland side failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup despite leading Group 4 after five games.

With two wins and three draws from their first five outings, in a group that also included France and Switzerland, Ireland sat atop of Group 4 on goal difference over France who would ultimately go on to top the group before losing the 2006 World Cup final on penalties against Italy.

Meanwhile, Ireland ultimately faltered at the final hurdle of their 2006 qualification campaign with Switzerland earning a 0-0 draw at Lansdowne Road in the final game of the group to advance to the play-offs at Ireland's expense.

The result would ultimately cost Kerr his job as Ireland manager, but over the course of the next decade, a number of things happened that have led Ireland to where they are today, which is a distant place from where they were at the end of the 2006 qualifiers.

1. Steve Staunton was hired and fired

After the FAI parted ways with Brian Kerr at the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, a three-man FAI sub-committee was set up and spearheaded by John Delaney, who promised that Ireland would appoint a ‘world-class’ manager in the wake of Kerr’s exit.

After Martin O’Neill, David O’Leary, Terry Venables and Bobby Robson were all linked to the job, the FAI sub-committee eventually appointed Steve Staunton, who was a player/assistant manager for Walsall at the time.

“The Gaffer”, as he soon came to be known as, endured a tumultuous 21-month spell as Ireland manager before he was relieved of his duties when a 10-man FAI committee voted against him keeping his job at Dublin City Airport’s Radisson Hotel. Delaney removed himself from the selection process of finding Ireland’s new manager, stating that he would let ‘let football professionals’ go and deal with the appointment of Ireland’s next manager.

2. Roy Keane retired, became a manager, and eventually Ireland’s assistant

After leaving the Ireland team in Saipan just before the beginning of the 2002 World Cup, Roy Keane left international football for nearly two years until Kerr finally convinced him to return to the Ireland fold for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. Keane played nine games in his return to the Irish set up but had to withdraw from the final two qualifiers against Cyprus and Switzerland after breaking his foot in a game with Liverpool a month earlier.

Keane retired from professional football less than a year later and took up a career in management, where he guided Sunderland to promotion to the Premier League before a spell at Ipswich Town. In November 2013, Keane was announced as Martin O’Neill’s assistant manager, a role he continues to fulfill today.

3. Robbie Keane was appointed captain and entered the all-time goalscoring charts

Keane was appointed Ireland captain by Steve Staunton in March 2006 with the striker holding onto the role for nearly a decade, until ceasing control of the armband to John O’Shea and eventually Seamus Coleman during the Euro 2016 qualification campaign.

Keane had 25 international goals to his name at the halfway point of the 2006 qualifiers, and went on to score another 43 goals in 93 games for Ireland; tied with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for 13th spot on the all-time international goalscoring charts.

4. Ireland’s home record has worsened

In the 70 home matches Ireland have played since the halfway point of the 2006 qualifiers, Ireland have won just 33 games, whilst drawing 19 and losing a further 18 games during that time.

Ireland’s 47% win record pales in comparison to the 10 years from 1995 to the midway point of the 2006 campaign where Ireland boasted a 59% win record at home, winning 31 of 52 home games.

However, Ireland have been a lot more convincing at home under current manager Martin O’Neill, winning 13 of 21 home games whilst only losing three matches during the former Celtic boss’ tenure, all of which were friendlies.

5. Ireland have qualified for more tournaments

It may be a blatantly obvious point to make that Ireland have qualified for more major tournaments now than they did in the previous 10 years prior to the last time Ireland led during the halfway point of a qualification campaign, but nevertheless, Ireland now look poised to qualify for their third major tournament from their last four campaigns.

During the 10 years prior to the 2006 qualifying campaign, Ireland had only qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, after missing out on the 1998 World Cup in France, and the European Championships in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

However, the last time Ireland were on course to top their World Cup qualifying group after leading Group 8 in the 2010 qualifiers with 10 points through four games, the same return they have so far during this campaign, they failed to get over the line.

Italy accumulated 15 points from a possible 18 over their final six games to top that group, with Ireland then losing in a heartbreaking play-off finale with France to fall narrowly short of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Ireland are in the same position now as they were seven years ago, top of their group after four games, but hopefully Martin O’Neill’s charges can finish a lot stronger than their counterparts did under Giovanni Trappattoni in 2009.

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