“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”
So said Robert Louis Stevenson, but then he never had to write about a European Championship qualification campaign.
And he might have felt very differently if his specialist subject matter had been an Irish football team looking to go where no Irish football team had gone for 24 years.
Of course, Irish sides had given us summers to remember since that miracle breakthrough year of 1988 but even the glorious and bittersweet memories of World Cups ’90, ’94 and 2002 are almost sepia-tinted by now and have scarcely provided compensation for Ireland missing out on Portugal ’04, Germany ’06, Austria-Switzerland ’08 and South Africa 2010. Through all those summers, as football’s big and sometimes little guns prepared to do battle on the highest stages, Irish football’s role was reduced to providing warm-up games for some of the participants or escaping to training camps in places like the US and Portugal, far from the madding crowd.
So the first thing to say about Euro 2012 is that, after 10 years out on the margins, it is only right and proper to celebrate Ireland’s return to centre-stage and to enjoy to the maximum the sense of excitement and anticipation attending these final days in the run-up to the big kick off. Ireland did indeed travel hopefully but also sometimes pessimistically on the rocky road to Poland, and merely to have arrived is one of the better things to have happened to this country in a long, long time. But, like the team which successfully negotiates a cup semi-final, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men now find themselves in a place where the possibility of glory is matched and maybe even exceeded by the potential for disappointment on a grand scale. The higher you climb, the greater the risk of a rapid and ignominious descent should you lose your footing, and if it is to be the case that Ireland can’t rise above their billing as rank outsiders in Poland, then the painful reality of their predicament will quickly sweep away those still glowing memories of their heroic resistance in Moscow, of that fantasy football night in Tallinn and of the jubilant party atmosphere in Dublin when long-awaited qualification was finally confirmed at the Aviva Stadium.
Which is just another way of saying that, with all that hard work done, the even harder work begins now. That was always likely to be the case at a big tournament, but the scale of the challenge was made even more explicit by a perilous draw which pits Ireland against the reigning world and European champions Spain, the previous world champions Italy and a side of proven pedigree in Croatia.
If Ireland are to buck the odds, then all agree that it is imperative they extend their excellent habit of never having lost an opening game in the finals of the European Championship or World Cup. Giovanni Trapattoni seems to have placed a priority on actually beating Croatia but, given defeat in that game on June 10 could threaten to end Irish interest in the tournament before it has barely begun, I doubt I would be alone in accepting a draw in that fixture right now.
Assuming that Spain beat all around them in the group, a plausible path for Ireland to progress would see Group C resolve itself into a decisive game for second place against the Italians in Poznan on June 18 — and, in such a one-off, high-stakes contest, there are solid grounds for hoping the Irish could extend their other excellent habit of confounding the Azzurri more often than not.
But that, of course, is the optimistic scenario. Logic and the bookies will tell you that Ireland and Croatia will be the ones left behind, as Spain and Italy advance to the quarter-finals. If that is to be so, then the least we can expect of Trapattoni’s team is that it won’t go down without a fight. Spirited, well-organised, battle-hardened and with the manager’s famous attention to detail underpinning all their endeavours, Ireland will let every team they play know that they’ve been in a game.
And, who knows, maybe when the chips are down, they might even rediscover the essence of Paris or the magic of Giants Stadium or the glory that was Stuttgart. Shay Given might do what Packie Bonner did that day or perhaps Robbie Keane will give us another moment like the one in Ibaraki or maybe even James McClean will be sprung from the bench to turn a game on its head and become a hero.
Given the quality of the opposition, it’s by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that a nightmare scenario will unfold in which the Boys in Green are sent packing after three defeats. But nor does it require a massive leap of the imagination to see them rising to the occasion and, with a bit of luck thrown in, gate-crashing the quarter-finals.
My head tells me that they won’t quite make it — even as my heart protests otherwise. But the beauty of this moment, a couple of days before Euro 2012 kicks off — and the true measure of what they have achieved in getting this far — is that Giovanni Trapattoni and his players have given the nation reason to believe. And the right to dream.