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The good, the bad and the ugly – a recap of 2014 for the Irish footballers

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John O'Shea, left, celebrates after scoring his side's equalizing goal with team-mates Jonathan Walters, centre, and James McClean

John O'Shea, left, celebrates after scoring his side's equalizing goal with team-mates Jonathan Walters, centre, and James McClean

SPORTSFILE

John O'Shea, left, celebrates after scoring his side's equalizing goal with team-mates Jonathan Walters, centre, and James McClean

Ireland's 2014 international year ended in a friendly win over the USA and despite a roller-coaster year, the Boys in Green are pretty much where most predicted they would be back in January.

Martin O'Neill 'enjoyed' as many defeats as victories over the 12 months and between Roy Keane's book, ticketing fiascos, an altercation at the team hotel and chief executive John Delaney back in the headlines, matters on the pitch often played second fiddle.

The first nine months of the year saw a series of international friendlies that generated only a single victory. The fanfare that accompanied the appointment of O'Neill and Keane quickly subsided with the build-up to the World Cup and the competition itself overshadowing the early days of the new management team.

In truth the internationals bypassed with little mention until Portugal warmed up for tournament in Brazil with a resounding 5-1 victory  in June, stretching Ireland's winless streak for 2014.

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Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (7) reacts after he missed a shot on goal against Ireland

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (7) reacts after he missed a shot on goal against Ireland

REUTERS

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (7) reacts after he missed a shot on goal against Ireland

 

Thankfully Oman in September restored the winning feeling back to the squad before the Euro 2016 qualifying opened in Tbilisi.

Predictions of tight-group have certainly come to pass. Table-toppers Poland surprised the world when they defeated the newly crowned world champions Germany, who join Ireland and Scotland on seven points in Group D.

Given Ireland's form, a large portion of public opinion was less than hopeful of gathering many points this side of Christmas. Besides a banker of three points against Gibraltar, away trips to Georgia, Germany and Poland meant a challenging start.

Those of the 'glass half full' persuasion argued draws in Tbilisi and Glasgow, plus the expected victory over the European minnows in October would be a welcome return of five points. German away was a write-off before ever touching down in Gelsenkirchen. Others offered that a win in either Georgia or Scotland as distinctly plausible, but only in light of a dramatic improvement.

What has transpired for O'Neill is that these expectations have been surpassed thanks to a dramatic win to start the campaign and that never-to-be-forgotten finale against the Germans.  As has always been the way with following Ireland, little goes according to script. A point from visits to Germany and Glasgow was viewed as likely scenario, just not in the manner it was achieved.

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Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant manager Roy Keane Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant manager Roy Keane Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, left, and assistant manager Roy Keane Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

 

The FIFA world rankings system has its critics, but they do offer a guideline as to our standing in the greater scheme of things. Considering we dropped to our lowest position since the rankings we introduced during the course of the poor run of friendly results, we are certainly punching above our weight. Germany (1), Scotland (37) and Poland (44) would be most disappointed if Ireland were to finish ahead of them come next October.

Aiden McGeady's late wonder strike against Georgia and John O'Shea's moment of history in Gelsenkirchen have been viewed in some quarters as fortunate to cover over the cracks of a team that struggles to retain possession and create openings. By the same logic we can consider ourselves lucky to have escaped Glasgow with only a one-goal defeat.

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Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring Ireland's opening goal during the Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring Ireland's opening goal during the Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

PA

Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring Ireland's opening goal during the Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

 

There is no doubt that it is a work in progress. The absence of James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman would make the team look very ordinary indeed, while O'Neill will have concerns that his strikers are not as threatening as he would hope. The defence at times has looked suspect when under pressure and it remains to be seen who will be John O'Shea's settled partner in front of David Forde.

On the flip side, the midfield has the potential to cause trouble, though has yet to fully showcase their talents. Whether a tactical call or a limitation of the team, a direct approach has often by-passed the likes of McCarthy, Whelan and Hendrick, who has showed real promise despite a difficult outing at Celtic Park.

O'Neill and company have four months to wait until the visit of early pace setters Poland. Such is the reactive nature to these games, a win will have us on course for at least second place while a win will confirm the suspicions in some quarters that Ireland will be out of contention by the business end of the campaign. A draw is perhaps what most fans would bank on at this stage.

As 2014 proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, expect the unexpected when it comes to the fortunes of the Irish footballers.

Online Editors