Wednesday 21 February 2018

Miguel Delaney: Irish on course to overachieve once again

Our recent record in getting to tournaments shows we are punching above our weight

Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

Back in the Ernst Happel Stadion last Saturday night, there was a slight comedy of manners, as Martin O'Neill continued to discuss what was a hugely significant win for Ireland. The Irish manager was still talking to the media beside the little platform set up for the press conferences, only for his Austrian counterpart to walk in for his own briefing. Except, Marcel Koller had to somewhat uncomfortably stand there waiting, because O'Neill just kept on going as the media team tried to shuffle him towards the door.

The 64-year-old wasn't being rude or impolite. It was just that he was so engrossed. There was so much to discuss; this victory meant so much.

And it might end up meaning even more than was realised then. Because, by finally beating Austria away from home to bury so many ghosts and enjoy a rare victory like that, Ireland could fittingly have given themselves a foundation for something bigger. Staying top of this group would bring qualification for the World Cup, and that is prize enough on its own, but a deeper point is that reaching Russia wouldn't actually stand alone. It would be part of a genuinely impressive trend.

Ireland would be qualifying for a second successive tournament - for the second time in the country's history.

That isn't to be sniffed at. It is something that countries of Ireland's population - and a fair bit bigger - haven't really done. Then again, Ireland have made a habit of doing what similar-sized countries have struggled with.

Consider the following bare stats.

Ireland are: the second smallest European country to qualify for consecutive tournaments, after Slovenia 2000-'02; the fifth smallest country to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup or European Championship; the third smallest to reach the second stage of a World Cup twice or more; and the second smallest in the world to qualify for a World Cup or Euros at least six times.

That, by pretty much any measure, is overachievement. It is also worth even more consideration in a month when Ireland's defeat of New Zealand and Conor McGregor's latest win have been talked up in fairly bombastic terms. This is not to try and dismiss either of those achievements but, up against defeating one of rugby union's greatest ever sides and winning two title belts, feats like reaching the second stage of a bloated Euro 2016 or merely qualifying for a World Cup can wrongly sound a bit humdrum. Aside from the accusations of "just being happy to be there", too, they are usually feats put in the context of how much the players earn in contrast to other Irish professionals.

They are the wrong figures being concentrated on, and the right figures should mean the football team's feats are seen as anything but humdrum. They are huge.

The difference is scale. Given how massive the football world is, and the high numbers that compete within it due to its widespread popularity, Ireland's performances for a country that size mean they are punching above their weight. In context, it represents real conquest.

It is all the more impressive - and arguably astounding - because of the eternal issues weighing Irish football down further. Even right now, people within the country's football structure are arguing that there's not that much coming through, that there are pressing problems with the youth infrastructure.

These have also been issues since the international team finally started to reach regular tournaments in the late 1980s. At that point, there was an argument that the more open nature of Irish citizenship laws as a result of the diaspora - and in contrast to some other countries - increased the potential player pool. The convoluted nature of how so many second- or third-generation internationals came to earn caps, however, indicates that it didn't make too much of a difference to the 3.5 million population at the time in real terms. Rare players at the likes of Oxford United like Ray Houghton and John Aldridge still had to be unearthed, others had to be persuaded.

Compare the progress since the late 1980s to countries of around 5 million people like Norway (three qualifications), Slovakia (two since 1994), Finland (no qualifications) or even Scotland. The Scots might have reached more tournaments in their history, on 10, but history has changed. They haven't qualified for anything in 18 years and would envy Ireland's three tournaments in that time.

In fact, the only similar-sized countries Ireland should feel any way envious of are Croatia (nine qualifications and one semi-final out of 11 since 1994) and Uruguay (two-time world champions, repeat South American champions). Both have done more than just compete. They have produced successive sides of true quality. They are models.

None of this is to say the Irish structure can't be improved and take lessons from elsewhere, or that O'Neill's team can't be criticised. Success on an overall level doesn't necessarily mean everything within is properly built for success.

It is to say, however, that Irish teams do seem to have developed an intrinsic competitiveness that the current management team have tapped into. That was something else that the Austrian game showed. Sure, it might have been different had Marc Janko taken any of his late chances, but they didn't really come from the typical habit of dangerously sitting back and leaving any lead hostage to fortune, though.

If we are looking at larger time-scales, it is worth considering it is over four months to the next qualifying fixture, when Ireland meet Wales in Dublin. That is a long time that sees an awful lot of potential changes to a team in club football, and consider what it meant in the last international campaign.

As the sides went into that winter break, Ireland looked in big trouble after losing away to Scotland, while Gordon Strachan's side looked - and felt - like they were fully on course for qualification.

All changed. Some within the Irish set-up, in fact, even cited the boisterous mood of the Scots after the 1-1 draw in Dublin as a motivating factor in the rest of the campaign. Whatever the truth of that, Scotland badly fell away, unable to maintain their form.

O'Neill must keep this team engrossed, to maintain their form, and maintain this trend of overachievement in the last three decades.

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