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Monday, October 17, 2011


After an interesting Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, the Irish national senior men's team find themselves - yet again - facing home-and-away play-offs in order to qualify for the final stages of a major tournament, which, this time, is scheduled to take place in Poland and Ukraine next June.

Ireland finished second to Russia in the qualifying group, ahead of 2010 World Cup qualifiers Slovakia, the group's surprise package Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra. The Irish national side and the play-offs have always been more than uncomfortable bedfellows; now, the question is: can the Boys in Green finally end their dismal record of never having beaten a European team in a play-off contest?

With only the co-hosts (naturally enough), group winners and the group runners-up with the best record qualifying for the Euro 2012 finals - in this case Sweden, who beat Holland 3:2 in Solna on Tuesday evening - without the need of a play-off, any opposition with whom Ireland would have been paired would be a daunting prospect. Seven other nations made it through to the play-offs, and it was a tasty menu to choose from as well: Turkey, Croatia, Portugal, Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Czech Republic.

The draw took place on Thursday 13/10/11, and Ireland were  eventually paired with Estonia. Ireland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Croatia were all seeded, so they all avoided each other in the play-offs and they host the second-legs of their respective ties.

The full play-off schedule is as follows:

Bosnia-Herzegovina : Portugal
Estonia : Ireland
Montenegro : Czech Republic
Turkey : Croatia

The question must be asked, though; was Ireland's seeding a kind of compensation for the shambles which was the play-off series for the 2010 World Cup, when the European play-offs were originally unseeded, but when it appeared that France might not make it through to South Africa via the group stage, the whole system was changed and Les Bleus ended up being seeded against the Boys In Green?

The tie against Ireland will be the first play-off ever contested by the Estonia, but it will hardly be the first time that Ireland will find themselves in play-off territory; after all, it has happened several times before. Here's how Ireland's play-off story has gone so far (together with a nod to the various successes and failures in between - it's a long and winding road, as you will see); it spans more than 60 years and it makes rather uncomfortable reading for Irish fans..

Once upon a time, a team representing Ireland, now known in FIFA circles as Ireland Republic, but then known as the Irish Free State, first played international football at the 1924 Olympic Games, which were held in Paris, and in the association's first-ever international, defeated Bulgaria in Paris on 28/5/24 before losing 2:1 to the Netherlands on 2/6/24. An invitation was issued to the country's football association, then known as the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS - now known as the FAI, or the Football Association of Ireland - Cumann Péile na hÉireann in Irish), to compete in a World Cup tournament in 1930, organised by the Uruguyan FA to celebrate 100 years of Uruguayan independence, but the invitation was turned down by the FAIFS.

After being eliminated in the qualifying stages for the 1934 World Cup (losing 2:0 away to Holland and drawing 2:2 at home against Belgium - a match which featured Paddy Moore scoring a hat-trick, the first southern Irish player to do so under the new association - in the process; in fact, he scored all four Free State goals), qualification for the 1938 competition saw the Free State paired with Norway in Group, the group being a straight two-legged home and away affair. Although officially classified as Group 2 in the European qualifiers, the tie could be looked at as a two-legged play off.

The first leg took place in Oslo in October 1937, and the hosts won by the odd goal in five. Nowadays, this would leave the Irish team in a good position for the second-leg, but back then, if Ireland had beaten the Norwegians, a third match would have had to have been played, no matter if Ireland had won by 1:0, 2:1 or 10:0. Sadly for the FAIFS team, there was to be no third match; the return match staged in Dublin a month after the first-leg ended in a 3:3 draw, and the Free State were eliminated 6:5 on aggregate.

Years passed, and the country which had since 1949 become known as plain old Ireland (or as Ireland Republic in FIFA-speak) had come nowhere near qualifying for the World Cup, nor, for that matter, the new Europaean Championship, in which Ireland actually not only earned the distinction of playing - and hosting -the first-ever fixture in the new competition n 5/4/59 against Czechoslovakia in Dublin, but defeated their Eastern-European conterparts by 2 goals to 0, with Liam Tuohy (later to become Ireland manager, and who is now a sprightly 78-year-old), earning his place in European football history by scoring the first-ever goal in an European Championship match. Unfortunately, they lost 4:0 in Bratislava just over a month later and were eliminated.

The Czechs thrashed Ireland 7:1 in a World Cup qualification match a year later in Prague, which put the seal on a miserable campaign in which they lost all four matches, 2 against Czechoslovakia and 2 against Scotland. The Czechs qualified for the World Cup, which was held in Chile in 1962 and went all the way to the final, where they lost 3:1 to Brazil.

The qualification campaign for the 1964 European Championship qualifiers saw Ireland up against Iceland, Austria, and Spain, who eventually not only came out on top of the group, but who won the European Championship that year, defeating the Soviet Union 2:1 in the final. It would be Spain who would turn out to be standing in the way of Ireland qualifying for the World Cup finals for the first time after, erm, Syria withdrew from their qualifying group for the 1966 finals, which were to be held in England.

The Syrians apparently withdrew after FIFA decided that the winners of both the African and Asian sections should play off against each other to determine who should qualify alongside 10 countries representing UEFA (including the hosts, England), 4 countries from CONMEBOL (including Brazil, winners of the 1962 World Cup), and 1 country from CONCACAF - the African nations withdrew en masse, and the Syrians - and most of the other Asian nations - did likewise as a show of support. Only North Korea and Australia were left, and they played off over two legs in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with the North Koreans running out easy winners over two legs by an aggregate of 9:2 (6:1 and 3:1). For the North Koreans, the rest was history..

Why Syria had originally been drawn together with Ireland and Spain is anyone's guess, but their withdrawal left just a two-leg play-off for a berth at the 1966 World Cup Finals between Ireland and the Spaniards. Well, it should have been a two-leg affair, but it turned into a three-leg affair after Ireland defeated Spain by a goal to nil at Dalymount Park, and Spain beat Ireland 4:1 in the return leg in Sevilla. The third and deciding match (aggregate scores were not yet the deciding factor in play-off affairs), Ireland's first "proper" play-off took place in Paris in November 1965, and Spain took the honours and a place in the 1966 World Cup finals thanks to a goal, scored with 10 minutes left, from their forward Ufarte. It would not be the first time that Ireland were to suffer elimination in Paris..

Meanwhile Ireland were to continue to suffer elimination after elimination in the group stages of both European Championship and World Cup action, perhaps most unfortunately in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers, when, having got off to a good start in a group containing France, Cyprus, Holland and Belgium, they faced Belgians in Brussels in March 1981. Frank Stapleton scored for Ireland, but it was wrongly adjudged by the Spanish match officials to have been offside. Jan Ceulemans did score for Belgium in the last minute, when a foul on goalkeeper Séamus McDonagh was also missed. Ireland went on to beat France, but to no avail. Belgium finished top of the group, France finished second and Ireland third, with only a point difference between the sides.

Eoin Hand was the Irish manager during that campaign, and he also oversaw what were, in all honesty, rather limp attempts to qualify for the 1984 European Championship and 1986 World Cup. In the end, Ireland were never in the hunt in either qualifying group, finishing in fourth place in both, though one small crumb of comfort which was gleaned from both qualifiying tournaments was Ireland's 8:0 thrashing of Malta at Lansdowne Road on 16/11/83. It was, and remains, Ireland's biggest international victory at senior level.

After losing away to Russia in the penultimate game in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, Eoin Hand's reign as Ireland manager came to an end. That Hand was effectively hounded out of the Irish hot-seat by the Irish media and factions within the FAI was an appalling way to treat one of Irish football's most loyal servants, but he left a legacy to cherish: Tony Cascarino, Mick McCarthy, Packie Bonner, Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath and Tony Galvin were all given their débuts for the national team under Eoin Hand, and went on to greater things in the years ahead.

They all, with the exception of Galvin, went on to represent Ireland at both the 1988 European Championships in what was then West Germany, and the 1990 World Cup, which was held in Italy. Galvin played in all 3 games in the group stage in 1988 (which was Ireland's first appearance in the final stages of a major tournament), when Ireland were eliminated by a freakish goal scored by the left ear of Wim Kieft, which seemed to bounce at a 90-degree angle before sneaking past Bonner in the Irish goal.

There was, of course, the consolation of Ireland getting off to a winning start by beating England 1:0 in Stuttgart through a Ray Houghton goal, and Ronnie Whelan's spectacular effort against the USSR a few days later.  Two years later, Ireland got as far as the quarter-finals in their maiden appearance at the World Cup, losing 1:0 to Italy. The Irish team-manager for both tournaments was, of course, Jack Charlton.  

Ireland failed to make it to Euro 1992, which was held in Sweden, though they gave England a good run for their money in the qualifying group. They qualified for the 1994 World Cup, with America as hosts, but were, once again, undone, by the Dutch, this time in the second round by 2:0.

England were the hosts of Euro 1996, and, in the qualifying group, Ireland finished ahead of Northern Ireland on goal-difference, but were to finish in the runners-up spot, finishing a country mile behind Portugal. The two group runners-up from the qualifying competition were required to face-off in a single-match play-off for the very last qualifying spot; Ireland were to find themselves up against Holland at Anfield on 13/12/95. Unfortunately, although they showed plenty of heart, Ireland lost 2:0, Patrick Kluivert scoring both goals for the Dutch. It was a disappointing end to the qualifying campaign; it was also the end of the road for Jack Charlton, who decided to call it a day after almost 10 (largely successful) years in charge of the Irish national team, having earned the thanks and adoration of the nation.

Qualification for the 1998 World Cup Finals was, ultimately, also to slip out of Ireland's reach. With Mick McCarthy moving up from captain to national team manager, they finished a distant second to a rampant Romanian side in the qualifying group, a point in front of an improving Lithuania. They faced Belgium in the play-offs, with the first-leg taking place at Lansdowne Road in Dublin at the end of October 1997. Denis Irwin put Ireland in front early on, but Luc Nilis equalised for the Belgians on the half-hour mark, and the game ended 1:1 with the Diables Rouges looking very comfortable indeed ahead of their hosting the second leg.

The second leg took place at the King Baudouin Stadium (formerly known as the Heysel Stadium)  in Brusselson 15/11/97. Luis Oliveira scored half-way through the first-half to give the Belgians the advantage going into the break, but Ray Houghton drew Ireland level just before the hour mark. However, the Belgian advantage on the night, and on aggregate, was restored through what proved to be the winning goal from Luc Nilis, scored with 20 minutes to go. Ireland's players left the field in tears, a stark contrast to the exuberant celebrations of the Belgians, who thus qualified for France '98 having beaten Ireland 3:2 on aggregate.

If that was not bad enough, what happened during the Euro 2000 qualifiers was nothing short of protracted agony for followers of the Boys in Green. Ireland lost two matches in the group, both away to Balkan opposition in the shape of Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia and Montenegro) and Croatia. The Croatian winner was scored in the 94th minute when Dario Suker latched onto a long through ball and threaded it past the onrushing Shay Given. Having beaten Malta away, perhaps the cruellest blow of all was to take place in Skopje, in Ireland's final group gameagainst Macedonia. The Irish took the lead in the 18th minute thanks to an almost impossibly acrobatic effort from Niall Quinn, and, by all accounts, looked fairly in control for most of the remainder of the match. However, with just seconds of the match to go, Goran Stavrevski equalised for Macedonia after heading in a corner-kick. Nine seconds after the ball hit the back of the net, the referee blew for full-time. 

Nine seconds. That was the difference between direct qualification for Ireland for Euro 2000, and having to go into the hat for the play-offs. It would almost take someone that long just to read out the previous sentence. Nine seconds. Yugoslavia qualified for Euro 2000, with Holland and Belgium being co-hosts of the tournament. For Ireland to get there, they would have to get past Turkey in the play-offs. Once again, it was to prove a mountain which was just too big for the Ireland team to climb, despite having taken the lead, thanks to Robbie Keane, with ten minutes to go in the first-leg, which, yet again, was played at Lansdowne Road. Hayutuc equalised for Turkey four minutes later from the penalty-spot.

The second-leg was played four days later, on 17/11/99, in Bursa. For the previous three months, football had almost taken a back-seat in Turkey due to the Izmit earthquake, which happened three months earlier, in which 19000 people were killed. The Irish team had to travel by bus through the affected area, and this was mentioned briefly in Tony Cascarino's excellent book, Full Time, along with an account of what was to prove his eighty-eighth, and final, appearance for Ireland. It ended 0:0, a tense, edgy, stalemate of a match and Ireland found themselves, once again, on the outside looking in, eliminated on away goals, while the Turks celebrated. And all because of a goal scored with nine seconds to go in Skopje..

And then there was the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup, another co-hosting affair, this time with Japan and South Korea opening their doors to football's most fanatical. Ireland were up against their old foes Holland, who, along with Portugal, were expected to qualify. The Dutch press had labelled Ireland as a "Roy Keane and that's about it, folks" sort of team and the Irish support as being great for a party; they had, in short, written Ireland off. The group also contained Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra, who were patronisingly described, again in the Dutch press, as being a team of players who were only interested in whose shirt they could get at the end of a game.

Ireland started the group off well, drawing away in both Amsterdam and Lisbon, and the unbeaten run kept on going. Ireland had to face off against Holland at Landsdowne Road in their penultimate game to put one foot in the play-offs. Holland had 2 games to go, both at home against Estonia and Andorra, and if they won in Dublin, would most probably have finished second and progressed to the play-offs. As it was, Jason McAteer's strike with just over 20 minutes to go of a pulsating encounter put Ireland in front and untimately earned them a famous victory. Portugal had beaten Ireland to automatic qualification on goal difference, both teams finishing on 24 points, with the Dutch ending up in third place on 20 points, and their media ending up with egg on their faces. Holland would not be going to the 2002 World Cup; Ireland were still in the running.

There was yet another play-off scenario to get through before Ireland could count themselves as being home and dry, and it would be against the rather unlikely opposition of Iran, as the play-off draw had paired the eventual runners-up in the UEFA Group 2 (Ireland's group) against the fifth-best AFC team in what was billed as the UEFA-AFC Intercontinental Play-Off. Once more, the first leg was played in Dublin on 10/11/01, and the home crowd lifted the team, who responded to the "Lansdowne Roar" and beat their Iranian counterparts thanks to a first-half penalty from Ian Harte and a 50th-minute goal from Robbie Keane.

It was then off to Tehran's Azadi Stadium, where the second leg took place in front of 100000 people, including an estimated 1000 Irish supporters..20 or so of whom were women, who were only allowed to attend the match under strict supervision and after being kept cordonned-off from male supporters. Iran dominated from the start, but Shay Given kept Ireland ahead in the tie, making several important saves, as he had done during the first game in Dublin, and the defence held firm. Large sections of the ground were empty as the end of the game approached, but seconds into injury-time Yahya Golhohammadi scored for Iran with a header that left Given flat-footed and which led to a stampede of Iranian fans back into the stadium for the remainder of added-time. However, no further goals were to follow, and Ireland were through, having qualified via a play-off for the first time in six (if one includes the two games against Norway back in 1937) attempts.

The tournament should have been national team manager Mick McCarthy's finest hour, but everybody remembers Ireland's participation in the 2002 World Cup for all the wrong reasons (and this is cutting a long story very short indeed); captain Roy Keane walked out of the team's training-camp in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, after complaining about the training facilties on offer to the squad, but relented. The next day, however, Keane gave an interview to an Irish journalist and lambasted the facilities once again, which led to a very public bust-up between Keane and McCarthy, in which Keane basically called McCarthy everything under the sun apart from being a haemarrhoid in Satan's backside.

Keane eventually got sent home in disgrace, and the Irish squad made it through their first-round group, which contained Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia, unbeaten, but only got as far as the second round, where they lost to Spain on penalties after the game finished 1:1 after extra-time. Mick McCarthy stayed on as Ireland manager until the end of 2002, when he resigned two games into Euro 2004 qualifying action. Irish youth team coach Brian Kerr took over, where his new charges finished a rather disappointing third. 

Kerr resigned after the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, which saw Ireland finish fourth in a very tight group, behind France, Switzerland and Israel, with a late, late Israeli equaliser in Tel Aviv costing Ireland dear. Former international player Steve Staunton took his place for the Euro 2008 preliminaries, but he probably now wishes he hadn't. This time round, Ireland were up against Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, San Marino and Cyprus, and hopes were high of getting through to the play-off stages once again. Not this time.

A shock 5:2 defeat at the hands of a rampant Cyprus in Nicosia was one of the low points of the campaign; a 2:1 away victory against San Marino courtesy of Stephen Ireland's winner with the last kick of the ball sparked calls for Staunton's dismissal. There was, of course, the by now obligatory conceding of an injury-time goal; this time, Slovakia were the beneficiaries of Irish generosity at the back in Bratislava in a game which finished two apiece. Despite brave displays against Germany and the Czechs, Ireland ended the qualifiers a full 10 points behind the group runners-up, the Czech Republic (Germany finished on 29 points), on 17 points, after finishing off with a dismal 1:1 draw at home to Cyprus in October 2007.

Staunton was dismissed 10 days later, and Don Givens stepped in briefly as caretaker manager before Giovanni Trappatoni took over in February 2008, in time for the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds, and steered Ireland to the runners-up spot in UEFA Group 8, and yet another play-off, after finishing behind Trappatoni's native Italy. Behind Ireland came Bulgaria, Cyprus (Ireland beat them home and away, revenge for the previous campaign), Montenegro and Georgia. Though Ireland had plenty of spirit, finished the group unbeaten and weren't conceding many goals, they weren't scoring very many, either; alongside Montenegro, they were the group's draw specialists drawing 6 out of their 10 games, while scoring just 12 goals in the process. Even Cyprus, who finished in fourth place, had scored more goals than Ireland. Not the sort of form a team due to face France in the play-offs would need to progress, one would have thought.

Whatever the goalscoring problems Ireland faced, it was off to Dublin's Croke Park (headquarters of the GAA - the Gaelic Athletic Association) this time for another dose of play-off action for the Boys in Green, and the French were in town. The visitors took the game by the scruff of the neck, and, it should be said, deserved the 1:0 win they came away with, Nicolas Anelka scoring the winner in the 72nd minute.

So, Paris was the next port of call and everybody knows what happened next at the Stade de France. It was Ireland who came out fighting this time round, and "bossed" the first-half; Ireland could have had scored three, but only had Robbie Keane's 32nd-minute goal to show for all their domination. It remained 1:0 to Ireland for the remainder of the 90 minutes, but the French began to look more threatening side the longer the game went on.

Two minutes before the end of the first period of extra-time, an incident which led to William Gallas' equaliser for the French took place, one which brought howls of protest from all over the world. It was, of course, the Thierry Henri double-handball, which happened as a result of a free-kick taken by Florent Malouda. Irish defender Richard Dunne and goalkeeper Shay Given immediately put their hands up, appealing for a free-kick, but to no avail. Henri took advantage of the momentary inertia in the Irish defence, flicked the ball to William Gallas, who nodded the ball into the empty net as Given, Dunne and most of the Irish players appealed. The goal stood, and Ireland were done for, deflated, as France took control and could eventually have won on the night as well as on aggregate. The final score was 1:1 on the night, but 2:1 to France on aggregate. It was a hollow victory, to say the least.

An oft overlooked detail regarding the now infamous Thierry Henri handball incident which led to William Gallas' winner for France that evening at the Stade de France: Sébastien Squillaci was offside when the free-kick which led to the handball was taken (not only that, but he also fouled defender Richard Dunne after the free-kick was taken), but this wasn't spotted by the Swedish linesman. Martin Hansson, the unfortunate Swede who officiated in the second-leg, was pilloried by all and sundry for missing the handball incident; in truth, he had refereed the match superbly up to that point, and what happened should not take away from the fact that, at the time, he was one of the best referees in Europe.

Public opinion, not just in Ireland but worldwide, turned almost immediately after the game against the French, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, against Henri especially, and there were calls for a replay and also for Ireland to be accepted into the tournament as a 33rd qualifier, which Sepp Blatter contemptuously swept aside; his attitude ensured that he wouldn't be receiving too many Christmas cards from Irish supporters. An emotional George Hamilton ( commentator for Irish TV station RTÉ) described Henri as a "cheat" and "the thief of Saint-Dénis", and spoke of the "treachery of Paris." (Eighteen months later, FAI officials voted for Sepp Blatter's retention as FIFA president. In the words of Jimmy Greaves: "Football, it's a funny old game..")

So, to the latest attempt to qualify for a major tournament. Ireland competed in group action against Russia, Slovakia (who featured at the last World Cup), Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra for a place at Euro 2012. Ireland's Group B campaign started off last September with a hard-fought 1:0 victory away to Armenia in Yerevan courtesy of a Keith Fahey goal in the last 15 minutes of the match. It was back to Dublin a few days later, to the all-new, recently opened Aviva Stadium (also known as the Dublin Arena, but still called Lansdowne Road by the traditionalists), where the home fans saw Ireland beat Andorra by 3 goals to 1 thanks to goals from Kevin Kilbane, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane.

Six points out of six, and things were progressing nicely; however, the visit of Russia to the Aviva saw Ireland forced to take a reality check; the visitors were 3:0 to the good with 20 minutes to go before Robbie Keane scored from the spot and Shane Long added a second to fray Russian nerves somewhat, but the visitors held on. Russia had lost their previous game on home soil, Slovakia surprising them by winning 1:0 in Moscow. Ireland then travelled to Slovakia and came away with a precious point after a 1:1 draw, but it could have been more. The important action took place in the first-half, Seán St. Ledger putting the Irish in front with Slovakia equalising 20 minutes later. Sadly for Ireland, Robbie Keane missed a penalty towards the end of the half, and the game finished all-square.

Aidan McGeady put the Boys in Green ahead against Macedonia, the goal coming after only 2 minutes, and Robbie Keane netted yet again to double the advantage. Macedonia netted on the half-time whistle, and this spurred them on in the second-half, which they dominated. Fortunately for the hosts, Macedonia couldn't find a way through a sometimes frantic Irish defence, and Ireland scraped through by 2 goals to 1.

Before the summer break in June, Skopje, Macedonia was next on the travel agenda for many Irish supporters, who saw their team do the double over the Macedonians, and it that man Robbie Keane who claimed the points for Ireland, scoring his 50th and 51st goals for his country in the first-half. Macedonia also missed a penalty late on in the half, but rarely threatened in the second-half, and Ireland netted all three points. They only netted a solitary point in their next game, a dour 0:0 draw in Dublin at the beginning of September.

Another 0:0 draw was to come a few days later, and it was maybe Ireland's best performance out of all of the group games this time round. Not too many teams come away from Moscow with anything, but Ireland managed it after a superb defensive display against the Russians ensured a scoreless draw. Ireland managed only 2 shots on Russia's goal in the entire match, but Giovanni Trappatoni and his squad were not complaining at the end of the 90 minutes. The point kept them just ahead of both Armenia and Slovakia.

On 7/10/11, while Slovakia were finding themselves at the wrong end of a 1:0 scoreline at home against the Russians, a result that more or less guaranteed Russian qualification for Euro 2012, and Armenia were superb at home, winning 4:1 in a result which flattered their Macedonian visitors, Ireland strolled to a 2:0 win in Andorra courtesy of two goals in the first 20 minutes from Kevin Doyle and Aidan McGeady.

A point last week against the Armenians in Dublin would have been enough to guarantee Ireland at least a play-off place, and they got all three. Valery Aleksanyan put Ireland ahead thanks to his getting his bearings wrong and turning the ball into his own net, and, on the hour, that rarest of occurrences, a Richard Dunne goal for his country, put Ireland 2-up. Henrik Mkhitaryan didn't waste much time pulling one back for the Armenians, who went on the offensive and might well have come away with at least a point, and with Keith Doyle's red card in the last ten minutes (which leaves him suspended for the first-leg of the play-offs), it was a nervous finale for Ireland, but they held out and found themselves in the play-offs once again. 

In reality, it was probably as much as Ireland could have hoped for, with Russia the best team in the group, both on paper and on the field. Slovakia were expected to make much more of a challenge, especially after defeating Russia 1:0 away early on in the campaign, but ultimately disappointed in finishing fourth. Macedonia were very in-and-out, and also maybe played beneath their potential by finishing fifth. Armenia were probably expected by many to finish fifth in the group, but performed with passion and no little skill, and were formidable opposition, especially at home, eventually in a creditable third place. Their performance this time round augurs well for the future. Andorra finished bottom of the pile, as expected, but although they finished pointless, the 6:0 thrashing in their last game in Moscow was the only really scoreline which reflected at all badly on them.

So, Estonia stand between Ireland and a place at Euro 2012. The Estonians were the team against which every seeded team hoped to have been drawn, while the unseeded teams would probable have looked upon Ireland as their dream draw. Estonia cartainly do, and their manager Tarmo Rüütli said that his team "wanted to face Ireland more than the others." The Estonians twice defeated Northern Ireland in their group, the second time in Belfast by 2:1. However, the Estonians were beaten 2:0 at home by Ukraine at Tallinn's A. Le Coq Staudium in a friendly last Tuesday.

With Italy already comfortably qualified from Group C, where everybody seemed to be taking points off each other, and beating Northern Ireland 3:0 in their last game for good measure, Estonia found themselves ten points behind in second place without kicking a ball, a point ahead of Serbia. Slovenia finished fourth, Northern Ireland fifth and the Faroe Islands brought up the rear, but still managed to win 2:0 against the Estonians and drew against Northern Ireland for good measure.

It will be Estonia's first-ever play-off, and like Ireland, the first international tournament in which they participated was the 1924 Olympic Games, when they lost 1:0 to the United States. They haven't come anywhere near as close to qualification since then, though it must be remembered that Estonia and the other Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) were under occupation, first under Nazi Germany and then under the Soviet Union from 1940-91. Before being occupied, the Estonian national team also took part in qualifying for both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. Since Estonia regained independence in 1991, they have participated in every qualification tournament for the European Championship since that for Euro 1996 and  first re-entered for the World Cup for the 1994 edition. Ireland defeated Estonia both home and away, by a score of 2:0 in both cases, during the qualifying round for the 2002 World Cup. That was then..

Both the Irish and the Estonians will be fancying their chances of coming through the play-offs and entering the promised land of the final tournament of Euro 2012; both teams and sets of supporters will view their pairing as their country's best chance of qualifying for a major tournament for some time to come. Ireland should be just too strong for Estonia in what may well be a low-scoring series with the first leg due to take place in Tallinn on 11/11/11 and the decider in Dublin on 15/11/11, but it will be close, and very nervy. It's definitely up for grabs, and glory awaits.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the above information has been taken from, which is mostly concerned with football on the southern side of the Irish border, but is extremely informative and a high-quality starting-off point for anyone wishing to find out more about the game in Ireland. History, Saipan and all that and the statistical side of things are more than adequately covered on the website. Many thanks go to John Hogan for granting permission on behalf of the good people at Soccer-Ireland to include said info. Wikipedia was also plundered in the course of creating this blog.

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