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Monday, July 30, 2012


For Ireland's footballers, Euro 2012 was not a tournament which will be looked back on with any great deal of fondness. Although they gave it their all in the team's first final tournament for ten years, they suffered three defeats - against Croatia, Spain and Italy - scored a solitary goal while conceding nine, and were the first team to be eliminated from the tournament. Off the pitch, meanwhile, the Irish fans were attracting headlines and plaudits from all over Europe and beyond. So much so, in fact, that UEFA decided in Kiev on 30/6/12 to sanction an award for the fans in recognition of their behaviour and sportsmanship during Euro 2012.

Michel Platini, who gave the green light for the award, will travel to Dublin in the near future to present the award to the FAI, presumably to association president Paddy McCaul and CEO John Delaney. UEFA's secretary-general Gianni Infantino was quoted on Irish state broadcaster RTÉ's website as saying: "Everyone was very impressed by the Ireland fans. The team's results were mitigated by the fans. UEFA president Michel Platini will go to Ireland to give the award."

In an admirable gesture on behalf of the FAI, Delaney apparently suggested that the award be dedicated to the memory of 21-year-old Irish supporter and native of Blessington James Nolan, who tragically drowned in the River Brda in the central Polish city of Bydgoszcz the weekend before Ireland's 2:0 defeat against Italy. Estimates differ as to how many Irish fans made the journey to Poland for Euro 2012; depending on which publication/website you read, somewhere between 25000-45000 supporters migrated to Eastern Europe to cheer on the Boys in Green. It was good to see them getting an award for their support; it was an equally nice touch to see it dedicated to one of their number who never made it home.

While the Irish support made an indelible impression and won the hearts of their Polish hosts (and the rest of Europe) off the pitch, Euro 2012 was to prove a traumatic experience for the Irish team on it, and it all began within the first 4 minutes of their first game, which took place against Croatia in Poznań on 10/6/12

As the Irish fans were busying themselves with "doing 'the Poznan'/'la Grècque,'" Darijo Srna crossed from the right, the ball was half-cleared but it fell to Mario Mandzukić, whose rather soft header from 15 yards out seemed to wrongfoot Shay Given in the Irish goal; Given got a hand to the ball, but it still managed to sneak inside his left-hand post. Was Given wrongfooted? Was he unsighted? Was he too slow in getting down to the ball? Was he fit enough to play, taking into account the knee-injury problems latterly suffered by the Irish 'keeper? You could have given any reason you liked; the end result was that Croatia were in front, and early on at that.

Irish manager Giovanni Trappationi had hoped for a solid start from his charges, but the goal unsettled his charges for a time. Despite conceding the fewest number of goals of any nation (excepting the hosts , of course) during the entire Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Ireland were looking anything but the defensively-astute side they had been touted as.

They were back on level terms before the first 20 minutes were up, when Aiden McGeady's free-kick from the left-hand side was nodded home by Seán St. Ledger, who nipped in behind and goalside of Vedran Corluka before heading low past Stipe Pletikosa and in. Cue wild celebrations on and off the pitch, and cameramen busying themselves with looking for attractive Irish colleens among the ecstatic throng in Poznań's Municipal Stadion Miejski. To be fair, they didn't have to look very far, but the state of contentment among the Green Army would not last for much longer.

Three minutes before half-time, and not for the first time in the history of football, a Dutchman would steal the show, but this time for all the wrong reasons. In the 43rd minute, Nikica Jelavić restored Croatia's lead, but it was a goal that would start a hundred thousand arguments. A shot by Luka Modrić was blocked by Stephen Ward, but what looked like an attempted clearance merely ricocheted into the path of a clearly offside Jelavić, who controlled the ball and floated it over a flailing Given. (Just for the record, Ognen Vukojević was also offside when Modrić attempted to drive his shot through the Irish defence.)

Given and his defenders appealed - a little bit of understatement goes a long way, dear reader - but Dutch referee Björn Kuypers dismissed allcomers with a wave of his hand. Kuypers seemed to have judged that Jelavić, although in an offside position, was not interfering with play when the hapless Ward's clearance went horribly wrong.

Half-time arrived soon after, with Kuypers receiving a well-intentioned critique of his performance in the first half from Trappatoni and his otherwise anonymous skipper Robbie Keane as they walked up the players' tunnel.

Time for the Irish team to take stock, you might think. If they did so, it all went horribly wrong once again shortly after the restart; in the 49th minute, in fact. Ivan Perisić's cross was met by Mandzukić, who saw his glancing header hit the bottom of Shay Given's left-hand, come off the back of Given's head and cross the line for his second, and Croatia's third, goal of the evening. Given was criticised for the third goal just as much as he had been for the first; rather unjustly, going by television replays, at least, which showed that the ball was going in after hitting the post anyway. A fine third goal, and there was nothing Given could have done to prevent it.

Croatia had deserved their lead, having played some fine football and leaving the Boys In Green in their wake, regardless of Kuyper's contribution, though the referee was to find himself thrust into the spotlight once again just after the hour mark, when he turned down a penalty appeal for Ireland after Keane was upended from behind by Gordon Schildenfeld just inside the Croatian penalty-area. It was, to employ a scarce-used phrase (irony, dear reader), "a stonewall penalty."

On the other hand, Kuypers also missed Keane elbowing an opponent later in the game, but it wouldn't have mattered much if he had seen it and sent Keane off; the LA Galaxy man had done little of note before he was put out of his misery and substituted by Shane Long after 75 minutes. Aidan McGeady had not had a good game - not many of his team-mates could say the opposite - but he had, at least, given it his best shot before he and an enthusiastic but ineffective Kevin Doyle were substituted earlier in the half by Simon Cox and Jon Walters respectively.

Cox and Walters huffed and puffed, but the closest Ireland came to reducing the deficit and preserving their 14-match unbeaten run was a header from Keith Andrews - who had earlier come close on a couple of occasions - which flashed just wide of Pietikosa's goal in the first minute of injury-time. And so ended Ireland's first game in defeat to a Croatia side which many thought would be there for the taking; it was the Croatians who took the points and, after Spain's 1:1 draw with Italy earlier in the evening, top spot in the group after the first round of matches. What hope for Ireland with Spain being their next opponents?

None, as it turned out. Ireland needed to avoid defeat against Spain in Gdańsk to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Euros, and the Irish support were in bullish form and in fine voice as the game began. After Simon Cox stretched Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas to the limit with a second-minute effort, however, a night of horror for Irish players and fans alike ensued, and the torment wasn't long in coming.

Less than two minutes later, Xabi Alonso rampaged forward and his wondrous through-ball found David Silva. A superb sliding-tackle from Richard Dunne deserved better fortune than to find the feet of Fernando Torres, who floated past both Dunne and Stephen Ward and smashed the ball over Shay Given's head and into the roof of the net. The shot had bewildering pace, though questions could be asked whether Given had anticipated a low shot from the Chelsea man and was too slow to react. Spain were up and running, and Ireland were undone again by an early goal.

Anyone who says that Spain are boring really should have been taking a better look at the first half; Vicente del Bosque's team attacked incessantly, but were kept at bay only by Given - on at least three different occasions - a dogged Richard Dunne and their own wayward finishing. The unfortunate Simon Cox, who had a thankless task marking Xavi during the first half, was substituted by Jon Walters. Cox's inclusion in the starting line-up was controversial, but Spain were still only a goal up at the break. It could be argued, rather cheekily, that Ireland did better with Cox in the team than without him.

Forty-eight minutes were on the clock when first Arbeloa, then Torres, were foiled by two fine saves from Given in immediate succession before Silva bamboozled half of the Irish defence with a subtle hipsway and stroked the ball through Richard Dunne's legs and just of of reach of Given into the corner of the net.

The Spanish onslaught continued, with Given and Dunne especially stoic, but the defence was breached again in the 71st minute when Siva confused the Irish defence, leaving most of them on the seat of their pants before passing to Torres, who took advantage of all the confusion and empty space to run on and fire the ball past Given.

Spain could breathe easily at last, even though they were scarcely threatened up to that point, and Torres was immediately substituted by Cesc Fabregas. Trappatoni belatedly decided to allow Sunderland's much-vaunted young star-in-the-making James Mc Clean enter the fray in place of Damien Duff with a quarter of an hour to go, McClean coming on to a rapturous reception from the Green Army, and a few minutes later, also gave Derby County midfielder Paul Green (he has since joined Leeds United) his bow in the tournament, coming on for Glenn Whelan. Neither change made any real difference.

Fabregas completed the misery of the Boys in Green with seven minutes to go, when he fired in Spain's fourth with a low shot which fizzed across the Irish six-yard box and in off Given's right-hand post, a goal which confirmed Ireland's elimination from Euro 2012 with a game to play.

With Spain finally taking their collective foot off the gas, Robbie Keane finally showed he was alive by forcing Casillas into his second save of the night, and McClean and Aidan McGeady at last showed what they could do, but it was all far too little, too late. As the Irish fans found their voices at the end of the match, Ireland were out, the first team to be eliminated from the Euros, defeated by Croatia, but outclassed and steamrollered by Spain, who, UEFA's website stated, had 20 shots on target and 26 in all. It certainly seemed like it as well.

Pride was all that Ireland had at stake against their final opponents, Italy, and Trappatoni was adamant that his team would not roll over meekly against his countrymen. It was back to Poznań for Trapp's lads, and the game fell on a poignant anniversary.

The date of the game, 18/6/12, was exactly 18 years to the day when six Catholic men were murdered and five others injured as they sat watching the 2004 World Cup match between Ireland and Italy on television in The Heights bar in the tiny village of Loughinisland, in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. The attack was believed to have been carried out by members of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), though no-one has ever been brought to book for the atrocity.

UEFA agreed to a request by the FAI that the Ireland players wear black armbands during the match, a gesture attacked by some Loyalists, one of who said that this would be "bringing politics into sport." (Tell that to the section of Northern Ireland supporters who routinely belt out sectarian numbers at Belfast's Windsor Park..) However, Niall Murphy, solicitor for the families of the bereaved and injured, applauded the initiative from both footballing bodies, describing it as "providing a forum to recall the awful event that took place on that fateful day when Ireland played Italy."

Ireland certainly started off the game full of intent, none more so than Keith Doyle, who had Italian manager Cesare Pirandelli's defence on red alert within seconds of the kick-off, and again a few minutes later. Italy needed to win the game and hope that the result in the group's other match, played between Croatia and Spain, would go their way, and, stirred by Ireland's early ebbulience, finally started to make their mark on the game, with Antonio Cassano and then Antonio Di Natale being denied by Seán St. Ledger blocking their goalbound efforts within the space of a few seconds some ten minutes before half-time, before Given made a mess of dealing with Cassano's rebounder from Di Natale's shot. However, it was immediately back to the same old same old, as Cassano headed in Andrea Pirlo's corner, beating Given and, despite his best efforts, Damien Duff, Ireland's captain for the day in honour of his reaching the 100-cap mark, who couldn't manage to hook the ball off the line.

Although Italy went in deserving their half-time lead, Ireland were looking dangerous at times, especially on the break and when employing crosses into the Azzurri box. The second half, though, began with Italy on the attack, with St. Ledger blocking Di Natale's shot from close range, and seconds later, Dunne saved Ireland's bacon for the umpteenth time with a timely block of Cassano's shot.

Keith Andrews tested Buffon after an hour with a long-range effort, which began a period of Irish domination without too many shots on Buffon's goal to show for it. Aiden McGeady was substituted by Shane Long in the 65th minute, which was a little mystifying as the Spartak Moscow midfielder had been having a good game. A little over ten minutes later, Kevin Doyle joined McGeady on the bench after being replaced by Jon Walters, who immediately set about creating havoc in the Italian defence. A foul on the Stoke City man led to Keith Andrews striking the ball low and hard through a melée of players, which Buffon punched away.

Italy's Mario Ballotelli had been making headlines all the way through the tournament up to this match, which he started on the bench, but he replaced Di Natale moments before Ireland's second substitution, much to the delight of the more mischievous sections of the media and watching public. His moment would yet come. Meanwhile, Robbie Keane was finally, belatedly, put out of his Euro 2012 misery when Simon Cox took his place with just a few minutes left.

Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakir had been blowing up more often than Al-Qaeda during this particular encounter, and he decided to give Keith Andrews a red card in the last minute of normal time after Andrews had shown a little dissent, which was a venting of some frustration and, coming as it did with moments to go in normal-time, was maybe a little ill-advised given Çakir's propensity to stick his hand in his pocket (wonder if the referee's like that on a night out?), but, taking into account Ireland's tournament up to that juncture, hardly surprising. Andrews, who had already been booked in the first-half, booted the match-ball into the stand for good measure. It was a sad, and premature, end to Andrews' tournament, but the misery for Ireland was not yet complete.

Ballotelli made sure of that around a minute after Andrews' dismissal. A corner, taken by Pirlo, had been awarded to Italy, and in the time that the ball had been swung over towards the middle of the six-yard-area, Ballotelli and Irish defender John O'Shea had taken turns to manhandle each other, but Ballotelli got to the ball first, swivelling to volley it spectacularly past O'Shea and Given. A few minutes of injury-time later, Ireland's Euro 2012 odyssey had reached the end of the road to the strains of "Fields of Athenry," which was being sung with gusto by the Irish support.

Trappatoni was reported as saying that his players showed "fear" during the early stages of both of their first two games of Euro 2012; one would say that that was not entirely true. Ireland showed positive signs after going behind against Croatia, equalising before the midway point of the first half, and Simon Cox, of course, had an early shot saved by Iker Casillas before Spain scored. There was a lot more to Ireland's performance in both games, and, indeed, against Italy than just the fear factor.
Ireland, on the whole, disappointed, though the spirit the team showed was commendable. The Irish fans and media seemed to underestimate Croatia somewhat, but the team were second-best for long periods of the game. The game against Spain was almost as one-sided as one will ever see, while, although enjoying much more possession - and showing a vastly-improved performance - against Italy, still didn't do enough with it, and Italy actually ended their game against Ireland having had more shots on Shay Given's goal than Spain did in their 4:0 victory against those wearing the green.

To be brutally frank, the Irish team, as a whole, were just not good enough, and are just not good enough. Remember, folks, that Ireland finished second, well behind Russia, in a qualifying group that also contained Slovakia (who had qualified for the 2010 World Cup Finals), surprise packages Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra, and that they had qualified for Euro 2012 after coming up against, and defeating, over two legs, the team that everybody wanted in the play-offs, Estonia. The 5:1 aggregate score also flattered Ireland somewhat, but it confirmed Ireland's place at a major tournament for the first time in 10 years.

It may be another 10 years before Ireland qualify for another major tournament. Ireland's forthcoming 2014 World Cup qualifiying group also features Germany and Sweden, and the chances that the Boys in Green will qualify for a play-off place, let alone directly for the final tournament in Brazil, although not non-existent, are pretty small.

Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane are surely on their last legs, Kevin Kilbane missed Euro 2012 due to injury, and seems to have retired from international duty, though, contrary to reports suggesting otherwise, 100-cap Damien Duff has not thrown in the towel with regard to playing for his country.

Given suffered various injury problems last season, and these seem to have slowed him up. He has consistently been one of the Ireland team's mainstays down the years, but he - uncharacteristically, admittedly - made several errors during Euro 2012 which proved costly. Dunne, in spite of all his courage and the fact that he was one of Ireland's best players at the Euros, is also past his best, and Keane is increasingly becoming invisible up front, especially against quality opposition, and appears only in flashes. He had a disastrous Euro 2012, contributing little. He will doubtless figure very heavily in Giovanni Trappatoni's plans, but he is increasingly becoming Ireland's very own "rabbit killer."

Ireland undoubtedly missed the injured Kevin Foley and Keith Fahey, and Trappatoni made a mistake in not including young Séamus Coleman in his final squad. He also should have started James McClean at some stage during the tournament, instead of limiting him to a cameo role against Spain. Why not start Jon Walters against Croatia? Stephen Hunt surely deserved a run out as some stage and would have added some grit and guile to midfield. No sign, either, of the much-vaunted Darron Gibson.

It could also be argued that the tactical system that Trappatoni and his assistant Mario Tardelli decided to employ gave precious little scope for getting the ball up to the forwards. It was not always pretty to watch, being used to stifle the opposition, but the system also rather stifled his own team; it was just too defensive.

Then again, you can only really work with what you have, and this has been the curse of Irish managers down the ages, from Éoin Hand and Liam Tuohy to Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton. Keith Andrews, Aiden McGeady, Richard Dunne and Seán St. Ledger were the pick of the bunch; a very, very average bunch, it has to be said. There has been a lot of discussion about the standard of the players in the Irish squad, but that is hardly a shock when you list the clubs they play for.

There are no Irish senior players plying their trade at any of the top four clubs in the Premier League, let alone in Seria A or La Liga. At the time of Euro 2012, St. Ledger, Paul McShane, Paul Green and reserve 'keeper David Forde were all on the books of Championship sides. Keith Andrews also became a Championship player at the end of last month when he signed for newly-relegated Bolton Wanderers from West Bromwich Albion. 

All of this, of course, seems to point to an over-reliance by Trappatoni on the old-guard at the expense of youth, and also to what many observers claim to be a total lack of investment by the FAI in Irish football at the grassroots level, possibly due in part to the fact that the FAI are still tens of millions of Euros in debt following the building of the Aviva Stadium on the site of the old Landsdowne Road stadium in Dublin.

It is all very worrying when the rest of Europe admire the Irish supporters while summarily dismissing the national side. On the other hand, Roy Keane summarily dismissed both the national team and its supporters (some observers may argue with this assessment), claiming that it wasn't right that Irish fans were singing while the team were getting rolled over by their opponents in Group C. Other commentators in the media and on fora have criticised the Irish supporters who made the journey to Poland for having too much of a "party, party" attitude, and that they weren't real supporters who regularly attend League of Ireland matches.

Why shouldn't they have a good time? They were probably using up all of their holiday allowance to be at Euro 2012, so it was extremely churlish to admonish them for having a good time on holiday, and supporting the Boys in Green at the same time. Would it be beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that those doing the admonishing do not live particularly austere lives themselves? In passing, not every Dutch, German or Swedish fan who attended Euro 2012 regularly goes to an Eredivisie, Bundesliga or Allsvenskan match. (Most probably don't.) 

It was difficult to know who Keane was getting at: the players, or the supporters. Well, one could say that, unlike Roy, the Irish supporters didn't walk away, start sniping or retreat into their shell when the going got tough, and, for all their limitations, neither did the players.

The question remains: What will the future hold for the Irish national team and Giovanni Trappatoni? It is perhaps time for Trap to begin phasing out the older players; he should now look increasingly to the future and give Forde or the other reserve goalkeeper, Keiren Westwood, a run-out against Serbia in Ireland's friendly on 15/8/12. It is time to make use of Séamus Coleman and James McClean, time to make more use of Jon Walters, and time for one and all to have more faith in Aiden McGeady. It is, perhaps, time for McGeady to have more faith in himself and stop hiding his light under a bushel.

Time, too, for some of the other fringe players to get their fingers out at club level, and also high time for the FAI to invest more at grassroots level, and for League of Ireland clubs to widen their nets. There have been many complaints about the standard of domestic football in Ireland, that no-one goes to watch domestic football in Ireland, that the best young players will always go to England to try their luck (this is, however, no longer a given) and about the fact that Gaelic games and rugby union have long been vying for the attention of young Irish sportsmen and women.

Perhaps, it is time for people to stop complaining and start doing something to improve matters from the bottom up instead of from the top down. Without a stable and sustainable base, the future of club and international football in Ireland will be a bleak one. People much better placed and informed than your correspondent can see that. Before all that, however, it is time for Trappatoni to revamp the national team (as well as keep an eye on the League of Ireland) by letting the young guns loose on an unsuspecting European public during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers; the kick-off in September approaches, and a trip to Kazakhstan is first up on the Irish agenda, and this is followed up by a visit from Germany in mid-October. Will Trappatoni play it safe, or will he shake things up a bit? Hmmm..



DEFENDERS: 2 Seán ST. LEDGER; 3 Stephen WARD; 4 John O'SHEA; 5 Richard DUNNE; 12 Stephen KELLY; 13 Paul McSHANE; 18 Darren O'DEA; 21 Paul GREEN; 22 James McCLEAN

MIDFIELDERS: 6 Glenn WHELAN; 7 Aiden McGEADY; 8 Keith ANDREWS; 11 Damien DUFF; 15 Darron GIBSON; 17 Stephen HUNT

FORWARDS: 9 Keith DOYLE; 10 Robbie KEANE; 14 Jon WALTERS; 19 Shane LONG; 20 Simon COX




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  3. My opinion is that development needs to come from the top down, people at the strategic level of development need to ensure that grass roots is the core for bringing fresh new countrymen through, youngsters need the facilities, the funding and inspired motivation in order to do well in football.