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Robbie Butler: Ireland were rubbished for not trying at Euro 2012, but the stats proved they worked their socks off


Damien Duff and Robbie Keane leave the pitch after defeat against Italy at Euro 2012. Photo: Reuters

Damien Duff and Robbie Keane leave the pitch after defeat against Italy at Euro 2012. Photo: Reuters

Damien Duff and Robbie Keane leave the pitch after defeat against Italy at Euro 2012. Photo: Reuters

WITH Euro 2012 heating up and the mouth-watering prospect of a repeat of the 2008 European Championship Final likely, Ireland’s brief involvement in the competition is now but a distance memory. Unlike Euro ’88 or our previous World Cup adventures, Euro 2012 passed us by. With the exception of a Sean St. Ledger goal, we failed to land a blow at a tournament that was laden with so much Irish expectation.

In light of our disappointing exit the post-mortem has begun. Sadly, as is the way with examinations, the first victim of any such analysis is often the truth. This is most unfortunate and a consequence of the unscientific manner of analysis.

Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2012 was an incredible achievement. When the draw for the qualifying rounds of Euro 2012 was made on the 7th of February, 2010 in the Congress Hall of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Ireland were ranked the 25th best team in the draw and placed in Pot 3. Fourteen teams qualified for Euro 2012 via the qualifiers. Ireland were the only team outside of Pots 1 and 2 to qualify! Nine teams ranked higher than us, including Switzerland, Turkey and Romania, failed to make it to Poland and Ukraine. With the exception of hosts Ukraine, every other country that qualified played at Euro 2008 or Euro 2004. Ireland had not been at the competition since 1988.

The draw for the finals on 2 December 2011 at the Ukraine Palace of Arts in Kiev was particularly unkind. Spain, Italy and Croatia had all been seeded in Pot 1 in the qualifying draw. Neither Spain nor Italy were beaten in qualification, with the former winning all eight games on the way to qualifying.

Since our exit in Poznan commentators have suggested various reasons for our poor performance. One commentator wrote that the performance against Spain displayed a “bewildering lack of effort by many of the Irish players” and as he “sat and watched Ireland play second fiddle both in football terms and, more worryingly, work rate and application, I couldn’t share the sentiments of the tolerant Irish support” who continued to sing in spite of our drubbing by the superior Spanish side.

While it was obvious for all to see Ireland could not compete on footballing terms, I decided to test the second part of this hypothesis. Was there a lack of effort? Was the work rate below par? Fortunately, UEFA provide player stats on every game in Euro 2012 and one such stat provided is distance covered in metres. While not a perfect measure of effort, it’s fair to assume that tracking the ground covered by a player is a very good indicator of work rate and application.

Ireland ran 109.495 kilometres in Gdansk. Nearly one kilometre more than the Spanish (108.775km). On average, an Irish player covered 9954.1 metres in the game compared to the average Spanish player of 9888.6 metres. The nearly 12,000 metres covered by Keith Andrews was unmatched by any other player in the game. The top eleven players in terms of ground covered in the game includes six Irish players; Andrews, along with Aidan McGeady (11,451m), Stephen Ward (10,837m), John O’Shea (10,449m), Glenn Whelan (10,234m) and Sean St. Ledger (10,186m). This evidence clearly shows Ireland did not lack effort against Spain. Asserting this is simply incorrect. The Irish ran further, covering more ground than the Spanish.

In fact the effort against Spain eclipsed that of both the Croatian and Italian games. The team covered a total of 106.526 kilometres in Game 1 with an average per player of 9684.2 metres. The younger Croatian team covered more ground (109.807 kilometres in total; 9982.5 per player). Ireland’s least energetic performance was against Italy, and is probably a function of the effort put in against the World Champions in the previous game and the average age of the Irish team. The team ran just over 100 kilometres against the Italians with an average of 9221.8 metres covered per player. The Italians bettered this and ran 104.381 kilometres over the 90 minutes and 9489.2 metres on average.

Since our exit, work rate, application, tactics, team selection and the position of the manager has all been questioned. The answer is simpler; Ireland were not good enough. Preparation, work rate, application and spirit were all present in abundance but the team simply met three other teams that were technically far superior. This happens in all sports. Kilkenny regularly annihilate the most hardworking of hurling teams. The efforts and application of the Irish rugby team were sorely exposed by the All Blacks recently. In Poland, we meet the reigning World and European Champions and the 2006 World Champions. Losing to these teams is not a sign that we are failing to ‘maintain our standards’. In fact, competing against these teams at all shows how far we have come under Trapattoni.

That commentator finishes his piece suggesting that the Irish fans “could do their team a few favours by balancing their chorus [of singing] with a few home truths”. Indeed, his flawed analysis required the same ‘home truths’.

Robbie Butler lectures in economics at UCC