Friday 19 January 2018

Daniel McDonnell: The A-Z of a truly memorable 12 months for Irish football

2016 went well for Martin O'Neill and now an interesting 12 months lies ahead

The Euros matches were some of the most watched programmes of the year. Picture: Sportsfile
The Euros matches were some of the most watched programmes of the year. Picture: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Some years fade from memory quickly, but 2016 most certainly will not.

The FAI never stage their annual international awards within the calendar year. Practical reasons mean they wait until the days before the first home game of the following year, when the manager and players are all back in town.

When March comes around, the focus will be on Wales and the World Cup of opportunities that Ireland's excellent start to the qualifying campaign has opened up.

However, they will also be entitled to one night spent reflecting on what has gone before. Here is the A-Z of what was a truly memorable 12 months.

A - The suitable grade for Ireland's performance throughout the calendar year, given that O'Neill works with a small pool of top-flight players.

Bordeaux - When Ireland were taken apart by Belgium in the second-half of a sunny afternoon, a cheery outlook for the rest of 2016 appeared unlikely.

Changes - The instinctive decision to overhaul the side for the final group game with Italy gave Ireland the injection of energy to extend their stay in France. O'Neill also earned another 'C' - his contract.

Dundalk - O'Neill and Roy Keane had to take notice when the Louth men took Europe by storm, and three members of Stephen Kenny's dressing-room featured in competitive squads in the autumn. Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan have ambitions to figure again in the year ahead.

Emotional - Think of all the times that footballers are accused of being slightly out of touch with reality. The pictures of Robbie Brady rushing into the crowd to embrace his girlfriend and his brother after his winning goal against Italy showed what it meant to the group.

Fatigue - Ireland completely ran out of gas in the second-half against France in Lyon, with the unsatisfactory scheduling of the new 24-team tournament giving the hosts three days extra to prepare. Then again, Ireland would have been at home if it wasn't for the switch to the expanded competition.

Goodbye - The Irish career of Robbie Keane (pictured bottom right) effectively ended at the Euros, but the record goalscorer was offered central billing for the August friendly with Oman and signed off with his 68th international goal. We'll never see his like again. We'll probably see Oman again.

Hendrick - He looked off the pace against Belarus in May and Roy Keane was miffed. However, at the Euros he mirrored the development of his hair by growing out of all recognition. The Dubliner is a Premier League player now and has adjusted reasonably well at Burnley.

Irresponsible - The spreading of rumours that Harry Arter was considering jumping ship to England when he missed the October double-header. An embarrassing episode for all concerned.

Jack - During a fine loan spell in Holland with Cambuur, the invitation for Jack Byrne to train with the senior squad in March was welcomed. He spoke confidently about making an impact and his technical quality had shone through in the Eredivisie. His loan stint at Blackburn has ended ingloriously, but that doesn't make him a bad player. Maybe it's just the wrong league at the wrong time.

Killybegs - The Donegal town is now the proud home of the Irish captain, and the special homecoming afforded to Seamus Coleman after the Euros demonstrated his popularity. He has grown into the role.

Lille - Thanks to Brady's perfectly timed run and header, this otherwise unremarkable city will always be remembered fondly by Ireland fans. Robbie's effort has joined the list of all-time Irish greats.

Mistake - Shane Duffy made a big one in Moldova and he racked them up in his final weeks at Blackburn, but both Martin O'Neill and Brighton boss Chris Hughton see a talent that is worth persevering with. He's got a good decade ahead of him and Brighton are promotion favourites.

Nun - When French nuns board a train, they expect to be serenaded by Irish fans. Well, they don't actually. That was just one unfortunate nun who got stuck in a banter trap that was always going to be filmed with the intention of going viral. O'Neill did find the clip funny, though.

O'Dowda - The well-spoken Callum, an Oxford lad, is the grandson of the late Brendan O'Dowda, an Irish tenor known for his take on the works of Percy French. Like Jack Byrne, Callum was offered the chance to train with the big boys, but O'Neill kept him around for all of Ireland's French homework and talked about bringing the youngster as a 24th player. That didn't happen, but Bristol City's summer signing is now a fully fledged squad member.

Preston - O'Neill and/or Keane could be spending a fair bit of time there in 2017, with six Irish options in Simon Grayson's first-team squad. Greg Cunningham can count himself slightly unlucky to be out of the picture.

Quarrel - It's a polite word, something one might expect to find in a children's book. One suspects that O'Neill and Ronald Koeman would use stronger terms to describe their feelings towards one another after clashing over James McCarthy's availability.

Regrets - Darron Gibson and Anthony Stokes should have a few. Two of the most talented footballers of this Irish generation missed the France boat. Gibson was cut at the last minute because he rejected loan moves that might have given him a squeak. He's done nothing this season, while Stokes has made no impact at Blackburn.

Security - 'Serbia' was another option and the two go hand-in-hand after visiting fans in Belgrade were shocked to be searched under the watchful eye of FAI staff for the away qualifier in September. They believe they were targeted because of links to a flag that poked fun at the current FAI hierarchy. 'Sensitive' works too.

Treacherous - The pitch in Belgrade was a messy affair as well, but Daryl Murphy's overdue first Ireland goal rescued a point and could really turn out to be important in the long run.

Underrated - Stephen Ward is still judged by past mistakes, but he's had a fine year at Burnley and has been solid for Ireland.

Vienna. O'Neill's team are trying to update reference points and last year they got rid of the 'Ireland haven't won a big home game since 2001' stat. James McClean's winner in Austria removes the 1987 success in Scotland from the 'last away victory against a serious qualification rival' bookmark.

Wes - That right-footer at the Stade de France against Sweden was a beautiful moment, a reward for persevering through the wilderness years to find the stage that he deserved.

X-rated - One possible description of the tackle on Alan Judge that ruled the Brentford playmaker out of a summer, where he was aiming to both go to France and complete a top-flight transfer. It could effectively cost the Wicklow man a year of his career.

Yawn - This could soon be the default reaction to coverage of Scott Hogan's Irish dilemma. At this stage, it would be a pleasant surprise if Judge's team-mate opted to declare. Either way, it's dragging on a bit.

Zero - The number of 2014 World Cup qualifying groups in the Eurozone where 20 points was not enough for a top-two finish. With 10 on the board already, Ireland are in an outstanding position to secure a play-off or better. Dare to dream.

Irish Independent

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