Euro 2012: The waiting is over
Three weeks in camp, seven months since qualification, two and a half years since Paris, 10 years since Japan and Korea . . .
ARE you ready? The long wait is almost over. Chances are you've probably heard that sentiment quite a few times this week.
Last night, as green-shirted fans poured into Poznan from different parts of the globe, they struck up discussion with new comrades by asking where their trip started. For this Irish team, that question offers many different answers.
They've been waiting for three long weeks in camp. Seven months since that glorious night in Tallinn. Two and a half years from Paris. Or, for a small coterie, 10 years from the highs of Korea and Japan. In truth, every player that boards the bus for the Stadion Miejski tomorrow is continuing a journey which started when they first kicked a ball. And this could be the ultimate destination.
This is what it's all about. This is what they are about. Whatever happens now, the class of 2012 will be cemented together in history.
When Giovanni Trapattoni was appointed as Ireland boss in 2008, there were some who said he belonged in the past. Heck, a fair share have probably said it the intervening period. Now, at the age of 73, he becomes the oldest man to ever manage a team in a European Championship finals, a fact that leaves him with mixed feelings. "I feel 20 years old," he said yesterday, when again reminded. "But with more experience."
He always says he prefers to look forward rather than behind, but he couldn't resist harking back to Euro 2004 as he spoke in Gdynia, reflecting on the controversial draw between Sweden and Denmark which eliminated his Italian side, and humiliated their manager.
"Do you know what Lennart Johansson (the Swede who was then UEFA president) said?" he asked. "He said, if this game finishes in a draw, we'll open an investigation. I'm still waiting."
This is Trapattoni's chance to achieve some sort of redemption. In the eight years since Portugal, he has operated at a level below the stage where he spent most of his managerial career. The only moment which brought a familiar degree of attention was the six seconds in the Stade de France that were dominated by the hand of a Frenchman.
Now, he's front and centre on a global stage. Irish football is too. This team couldn't half-fill a stadium in Dublin a year ago. As the numbers swell in Poznan, it looks as though the travelling army could fill a couple of venues. This is box office, and every player has a story. Every fan also. "I reminded the players about their duty to the country," said Trapattoni, before draining the emotion. "But football is 90 minutes."
Where do we stand on the eve of Ireland's kick-off? Trapattoni surveyed proceedings in the home of Arka Gdynia with a contented smile yesterday.
He sensed that a certain intensity was back, energy that contrasted with the hint of lethargy that existed earlier in the week. Yet the most encouraging sight yesterday involved Shay Given diving at full length to keep out a Darron Gibson thunderbolt in an 11 v 11 match, and later demonstrating that his right knee was capable of supporting the strain of kicking duties.
Elsewhere, the men in orange bibs were the XI who began proceedings in Budapest. Kevin Doyle refuses to believe he will start until the team is named, but he was alongside Robbie Keane in the 'A' team. There was never any suspense about the other positions once John O'Shea proved his fitness. He joins Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger and Stephen Ward in defence, behind a midfield of the protective Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, and the inventive Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff.
"My main worry one month ago was that I watched every English game, praying for no injuries," said Trapattoni. "I am happy now. We are in a good situation."
Can we beat Croatia? "I think we can," Trapattoni replied. "We don't play any game to take the draw. It is the second best result."
But it's better than the third best, and even the most optimistic Irish fan knows that their manager will enter this fixture prioritising the avoidance of the worst-case scenario.
"They have great players," he said. "They have (Luka) Modric, and they are above us in the rankings. But our players know them, and I think, in the one-on-one situations, that is important."
Indeed, in a separate room, Whelan talked about his reasonable individual record against the Croatian playmaker. Knowledge is power, but then the predictability of Ireland's style should arm Slaven Bilic with a significant weapon.
Even the most casual follower of this Irish side knows the key aspect of the manager's strategy. They need to counter the dominance of Croatia in the midfield department. Whelan and Andrews will be overrun unless McGeady and Duff share the responsibility of tucking in, and either Doyle or Keane drop back to counter the numerical imbalance.
And it's about more than just curbing Modric. Attacking duo Nikica Jelavic and Wolfsburg's Mario Mandzukic have the combined power to stretch the Irish defence, while the indications are that Bilic will have Niko Kranjcar available to come from the bench and provide additional subtlety if Modric is shackled.
But what of Ireland's threat? The set-pieces which the wingers are capable of winning will be crucial.
However, it could well be the case that the ideal scenario is retaining parity beyond the interval, forcing the Croatians to really throw caution to the wind in search of the three points they are confident of collecting. Ireland have striking options on the bench, with the pace and physicality to be effective against tired legs on the counter-attack.
You sense that Jon Walters and Shane Long will have a big part to play.
Greece. Oh, Greece. When they won Euro 2004, they provided small countries like our own with an example to support a far-fetched theory.
Management and players are never going to dismiss the prospect of bringing home the trophy. Nevertheless, Trapattoni, who mentioned the example of the Greeks on his first day in the job, delivered a relatively measured response above and beyond the 'never say never.'
"I think it would be very, very, silly, if I think Ireland can win it," he said. "Too many situations must be in our favour. We need a lot of things to go in our favour. No injuries, no red cards, it's a long list. If we have two or three changes, we have the players, the substitutes the same. But Richard Dunne... one name..."
There was no need to elaborate, particularly on the Dunne reasoning. "There is no result that satisfies me," Trapattoni continued. "I'm never happy until I get the ultimate prize, to achieve what I think, I believe is possible to achieve."
And what is that in this context?
"I think we can come out of the first round," he said, with a glint in his eye, before breaking into a smile. "After the first round, do you know who there is then? Maybe France or England."
Imagine that. It's a giddy thought, and much of the next 24 hours will be filled with a wonderful kind of nervous anticipation. Making it this far was the initial dream, and nobody is ready to wake up just yet. With controlled application, and proper utilisation of the back-up, they can keep it alive for now.
VERDICT: Ireland 1 Croatia 1