Dreams crushed by harsh Euros reality
IN Poland, our imaginations partied. Football has a habit of playing tricks on the daydreamer. The euphoric nature of the build-up to Euro 2012 ensured that logic and reason were substituted for hope and optimism.
We dared to believe. And that is why, two days before the competition opener with Croatia, Giovanni Trapattoni was asked if he felt his team could go all the way to Kiev and lift the trophy. The genesis of the question may well have been a desire for an attention-grabbing headline on a weekend where the excitement levels reached fever pitch, yet it hinted at a certain level of confidence that had steadily grown in the six months since Ireland had landed a devilishly difficult draw.
Over time, negatives turned into positives. The Italian's rigid unappealing style of play was cast as the Kryptonite that would neutralise the stars of Spain, Italy and Croatia. A long unbeaten run containing a number of clean sheets was trumped as evidence that the underdogs could somehow frustrate their way to the latter stages.
By the time we reached the Polish base of Gdynia, however, the manager was forced to sound a note of caution.
The realism of expectations around the Irish team is a recurring topic that is often manipulated to suit an argument but talk of winning the whole Euros brought it a step too far.
"It would be silly to talk about this," Trapattoni countered. "This is just a dream."
As it transpired, the speculative comparisons with Greece 2004 were daft. This is not being wise after the event.
Trapattoni has taken plenty of criticism on these pages but this correspondent felt beforehand that the aforementioned organisation would lead to a respectable showing and an outside chance of battling with a crisis-ridden Italy for a quarter-final slot if other results went the right way.
Suggestions that this team would be whipped three times were dismissed as nonsense when, in fact... well, we all know what happened.
The concluding meeting with the Italians was nothing more than a dead rubber for the men in green shirts, with the manager's reluctance to recognise it as such by using the likes of Darron Gibson, James McClean and Shane Long causing problems further down the line.
His solid foundations were reduced to rubble in the space of 270 minutes, with the writing on the wall after a defeat to Croatia which exposed the fallibility of the game plan at the top level.
There was no shame in losing to Spain, just a painful reminder that the fare our best serve up is a different sport to the Barcelona-inspired brilliance that brightens up Saturday and Sunday evenings throughout the winter.
Trapattoni's predecessor was mocked for saying there were no easy games in international football. We never envisaged that this improved regime would prove otherwise.
The fans were great, of course, but the debate had shifted dramatically by the time that Michel Platini arrived on these shores in November to present a patronising award to Irish supporters for their conduct in Poznan and Gdansk.
Most of them were absent for the unglamorous showdown with Greece, bringing home the reality that much of the so-called sports-mad Irish public are there for a good time, not for a long time.
For the FAI, the Polish hangover spilled into autumn. Their financial problems are well documented and so too are the poor premium ticket-related decisions which created them. They rely on positive vibes around the senior team to generate cash, and the exposure from an overdue major tournament outing presented an opportunity to boost the coffers.
It didn't work out that way, although the backlash lost perspective when brave Olympic performances were used as a stick to beat the footballers with when spirit was one attribute they did possess. What the Euros team lacked was freshness, both in terms of ideas and personnel, and a coherent Plan B.
Sadly, the major Irish football story of 2012 became the reaction to Poland rather than the competition itself.
Confusion about the future of senior players culminated with Shay Given and Damien Duff retiring, and a meeting with Richard Dunne to secure his commitment, shortly before it emerged he wouldn't be available for the rest of the year anyway.
A turgid win in Kazakhstan was overshadowed by an inappropriate tweet from McClean which summed up a frustration felt by many fringe players. Gibson, now starring for Everton, signed out of this regime post-Euros and is unsure if he wants to come back.
A record home thrashing at the hands of Germany exposed even more cracks, with the first full house at the Aviva Stadium again concluding in embarrassment in front of a big audience.
Then came the Faroes, and a chaotic couple of days where it became clear that senior FAI staff were ready to show the manager the door.
A combination of factors prevented them from doing so, with the insistence that the final call was taken for football, as opposed to financial, reasons an unsurprising declaration.
They were hardly going to say they wanted rid of the manager but couldn't afford it.
Trapattoni handled the circus with dignity, and demonstrated his political skills in front of the cameras.
Nevertheless, he was still prepared to come to Abbotstown and be told ways in which he should do his job differently.
The sudden urgency about appearing at Premier League grounds and a belated realisation that Wes Hoolahan can offer something was either a direct consequence or a dramatic coincidence.
There were reasons to take heart from the Faroes and the Greek friendly, specifically the increased involvement of James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady. It took suspension and injury respectively to give the former duo a chance to shine, and they seized it.
The chain of events have written the perfect tension-filled trailer for 2013.
Once they held a well flagged emergency meeting about the manager's future and chose to stick with him, the FAI decision makers have linked their fate with that of the team.
If March's double-header with Austria and Sweden ends in disappointment, a prolonged game of 'I told you so' will be the least of their worries.
With the absence of a marquee fixture in this calendar year, it is imperative that the World Cup hopes are alive for the autumn visit of Sweden, and that November features a play-off instead of a low-key friendly with a caretaker in the dugout.
There are enough anecdotes doing the rounds to illustrate how tight the finances are; when a tracksuit becomes a precious commodity then it's clear that a serious pick-me-up is required.
The stakes are high for the road ahead. You don't need a wild imagination to figure out what's going to happen if it all goes wrong.