Saturday 21 September 2019

Plenty to celebrate, plenty to build on for Martin O'Neill's team

Ireland's achievements of 2016 offer real hope that we can continue to make strong progress

Robbie Brady's winner against Italy at Euro 2016 was a reminder that international can still throw up glorious moments, but they are few and far between
Robbie Brady's winner against Italy at Euro 2016 was a reminder that international can still throw up glorious moments, but they are few and far between

Miguel Delaney

At around 4pm French time on June 26, Irish football felt something that it hadn't felt since 1990, and had never felt prior to that. It was the sudden realisation that something really special could have been on; that we could have been about to witness a genuine watershed moment.

Because, at half-time in the Euro 2016 last-16 match in Lyon, the heavily-fancied hosts were rattled. France were panicking. Their players admitted it afterwards, that angry words were needed in the dressing room. That alone was testament to what Ireland were doing. But they were doing more than rattling the French.

Ireland were leading 1-0 and looking good. It was looking like it could really be on. Ireland were one half of football away from what would have been just the country's second international tournament quarter-final. Had they actually gone and knocked out the hosts to do that, though, it would surely have even surpassed Italia '90.

In the end, it didn't happen, but even the genuine hope that it really was close - and that lasted for almost an hour, given how early Robbie Brady scored that penalty - was enough to elevate 2016 above almost every other year in Irish football history, bar probably the ground-breaking years of 1988 and 1990. What remains so encouraging, though, is that it didn't stop there.

The last 12 months might have been among the worst in the real world since the end of the Cold War, but the national football team were a constant source of solace and celebration, reminding us why sport is all the more important at such times.

Even before Martin O'Neill's side got to Lyon, after all, the team had taken the country to rare heights. Brady's match-winning, qualification-securing header against Italy might not have the significance of Ray Houghton's goals against England and Italy, or David O'Leary's penalty against Romania, but it was up there with Robbie Keane's against Spain and Ronnie Whelan's against the USSR. Look at it this way: it was the sort of thing that had only happened three times before - a goal to directly take the side through to the second stage of a tournament. That it also brought a win against a team such as the Italians - even one putting out a second-string side - and that it was a move of such high quality further raises it.

For once, though, there was no tournament hangover. The team actually built on that campaign and raised their level of achievement, going on to beat Austria in Vienna and thereby claim the most significant away win since Scotland 1987. As a consequence, they finish the year top of a group, another rare feat.

To add to what was happening at the highest end of Irish football, though, there was also what was happening in the domestic league. Dundalk put together something equally historic, by achieving the country's greatest ever continental performance in going so close to qualification from their Europa League group. In doing so, Stephen Kenny has put himself forward as a potential future national team manager, while two Dundalk players, Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle, got international call-ups.

That the domestic champions managed that is all the more pointed because all of this happened amid - and in spite of - the usual problems this country's football has faced. The League of Ireland still has so many issues, as highlighted by the debate provoked by the recent Brand Report launch. And there are many scouts, coaches and agents who mutter darkly about how 'there's not much coming through' in terms of youth players.

The successes of 2016 shouldn't cause complacency about the work that badly needs to be done to ensure the future of Irish football, or else they will be a series of hollow victories.

At the same time, those successes should also be seen as an inspiration for that work; as a reminder of how this country has overachieved in international football but can still go further.

It is to the credit of all those involved that they have managed so much despite the inherent problems of the game. Martin O'Neill has fashioned one of the country's most competitive teams ever, despite possessing far fewer players at the very elite clubs than at pretty much any stage in the last few decades.

There is a key point here, however, connected to some of the issues in the domestic game. Even if there are few players at the elite clubs, one of the other more understated positives of 2016 has been how many first-choice picks for the Irish team - Darren Randolph, Seamus Coleman, Stephen Ward, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean - are now getting regular football in the Premier League.

Many of them, too, played in the League of Ireland. In fact, of all the players used in 2016, as many came through the domestic competition as either Premier League academies or Championship academies. That is a break from the past, and could be a sign for the future. With the way English academies now have a global outlook, it could well mean more and more players coming up through the League of Ireland, emphasising the need to improve structures in the long term.

There is still the need to keep things going in the short term, too. In the last campaign, Ireland witnessed the dangers of getting ahead of yourself at the first break in a qualification group. Scotland were, according to some close to the Irish squad, ostentatiously confident of qualifying for Euro 2016 as 2014 became 2015, only to collapse before anyone even got to the play-offs.

If Ireland can learn that lesson, 2017 can feature a similar sense of hope. It offers another rare opportunity: to qualify for consecutive tournaments. That is something else that has not happened since 1990.

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