Tuesday 20 February 2018

Republic of Ireland not heading to France just to make up the numbers

Martin O'Neill will lead the Republic of Ireland into Euro 2016 finals battle confident they can make an impression
Martin O'Neill will lead the Republic of Ireland into Euro 2016 finals battle confident they can make an impression

An air of resignation engulfed the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2016 qualification hopes almost a year ago, after they were held to a 1-1 draw by Scotland in Dublin.

Gordon Strachan's men left the Aviva Stadium with a fortuitous point last June 13 after John O'Shea had unwittingly deflected Shaun Maloney's shot past goalkeeper Shay Given to leave the Scots, Germany and Poland seemingly battling it out for the two automatic qualification berths and the consolation prize of the play-offs.

Manager Martin O'Neill and his players were putting a brave face on it, but few expected the Republic to drag themselves back into the mix as a squad which had performed so poorly at Euro 2012 and missed out on qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals seemed destined to slip further down the international pecking order.

And then something remarkable happened.

Regulation victories over Gibraltar and Georgia sent Ireland into their final two qualifiers still with a mathematical chance of making it to France, albeit with the world champions and the Poles standing in their way.

On October 8, with one almighty swing of Shane Long's right boot, the door was nudged ajar.

The Southampton striker's piledriver not only stunned Manuel Neuer and left the Germans on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline, but symbolised the re-birth of the belief that an Ireland team built on hard work, commitment and a burning sense of pride could once again compete with and beat the best against all the odds.

They needed to safely negotiate a tricky two-legged play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina to book their ticket, but O'Neill's men will be in France this summer and ready to ruffle a few feathers once again.

That is something they did on a sustained basis under Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy and, during the early part of his reign, Giovanni Trapattoni.

However, as big names departed - Given, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff have all retired from international football, although 40-year-old Given has since returned to the fold, and O'Shea and Robbie Keane are approaching the end of their careers - and, with ready-made replacements in short supply, the omens did not look good.

During his five-and-a-half-year tenure, Trapattoni repeatedly bemoaned the lack of world class at his disposal, but celebrated the ability of his team to repeatedly amount to more than the sum of their constituent parts, and O'Neill knows as he prepares for group games with Sweden, Belgium and Italy that he can rely on that at the very least.

He is adamant that Ireland are not going along simply to make up the numbers and confident they can cause problems for their opponents.

O'Neill said: "After Germany, the players feel as if they are capable of dealing with that. Do you want to go in as underdogs? I think we will naturally anyway, but I don't genuinely think it will bother us."

The Republic will be playing in their second successive Euro finals after ending a 24-year absence in 2012, and will travel with high hopes following a chastening experience in Poland and Ukraine.

Pitched into a tough group once again, they were up against it from the moment they lost their opening fixture to Croatia, and they never looked like extending their stay as eventual finalists Spain and Italy condemned them to a return home without a single point to show for their efforts.

Defender O'Shea remembers the pain of the experience only too well, and is desperate to right the wrongs of a difficult and all too brief campaign this time around.

He said: "I've done my best to erase it from my memory, but people keep bringing it up! I was hardly delighted with it.

"Obviously we wanted to get out of the group and we didn't, so that's the main thing we'll be looking to do this time around."

Press Association

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