There are no easy draws for Irish football

Somewhere back in the mists, around about the time Giovanni Trapattoni was finally hitting the wall as Ireland manager, a cosy consensus took hold that whoever replaced the Italian was bound to have not just a better time of it, but an easier time of it.
There are no easy draws for Irish football

After all, it was long since known that Euro 2016 would be an expanded tournament of 24 teams, meaning that the qualification process would allow countries finishing third a back-door chance to still make the promised land of France.

So when a fourth-place finish to qualifying for the last World Cup meant that both Brazil and Trap were finally off the agenda, all thoughts promptly turned to the sunnier uplands which would surely lie in wait for his successor. And when he/they turned out to be the box office superstar double act of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, why, optimism levels practically hit the stratosphere, the camper vans already being oiled and the sat nav set for the green fields of France.

But that was barely four months before O’Neill found himself in Nice, in February of 2014, for the qualification draw for France 2016, a chastening experience which threw Ireland in with the newly crowned world champions Germany, a side of real European pedigree in Poland, feisty near neighbours Scotland, the mandatory east European dark horses in Georgia and, as if to make up for the punitive nature of the rest of the group, the definitive whipping boys of neophytes Gibraltar.

So we were all a bit wiser after that event, and a whole lot wiser again after the qualification campaign itself proved to be every bit as testing in reality as it had looked on paper. Or, rather, we should have been. But no sooner had Ireland done it the hard way, by beating Bosnia in the play-offs than the old wishful thinking reemerged, with even Martin O’Neill giving the kind of chirpy soundbites before Saturday’s finals draw in Paris which half suggested he expected himself and Keano to emerge from the main hall of the Palais de Congres dancing the can-can.

Again, it seemed many had been lulled into a false sense of complacency by interpreting the expansion of the finals as a kind of one-size-fits-all panacea when, in fact, it should have been obvious from the start that the extra eight teams could only be accommodated by a seeding system which ensured the weakest links would all face an early cull by having to share the roughest end of the draw.

Consequently, as one of the designated lesser lights, Ireland were never going to be coming up against their own kind in the group draw, something which fellow bottom seeds like Northern Ireland and Albania would also learn to their cost when the balls finally came out of the pot on Saturday evening.

For the Albanians, fate decreed that they would end up a group which could hardly have been more favourable to the prospects of the host nation progressing with relative ease, while Northern Ireland were landed with something uncannily like a carbon copy of the Republic’s unforgiving qualification group — except that, after Germany and Poland, Ukraine probably pose Michael O’Neill an even trickier test than Scotland did Martin O’Neill. And, as you might remember, Gordon Strachan’s boys didn’t do too badly in those two games, at least.

Generally speaking, if there are no easy groups in the 2016 finals, there are certainly one or two especially hard ones, with the obligatory role of ‘Group of Death’ probably being filled by Group D, which contains Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia. (By contrast, Michael O’Neill could be forgiven if, in his darkest moments, he thinks of Group C as the group of certain death).

So perhaps we in the south shouldn’t complain too much, even if drawing Italy as nominal second seeds, to go alongside Belgium and Sweden, turned what had been an intriguing group into an altogether more scary prospect.

Not that Martin O’Neill was the only one feeling a touch gloomy at the outcome. In the absence from Saturday’s draw of Belgium manager Marc Wilmots — who, sadly, had to attend the funeral of his stepfather — assistant manager Vital Borkelmans did the honours. And when Belgian FA president Francois De Keersmaeker saw the outcome of the draw, his immediate reaction was: “Maybe Marc Wilmots forgot to give his rabbit’s foot to Vital Borkelmans?”

And, so, what of the games to come? One of the biggest lessons from Ireland’s bitter experience at Euro 2012 was that a team simply cannot afford to find itself snookered after the first fixture, especially not when — as will happen again next summer — the matches against the group’s two top seeds are still to come.

Already, you will hear talk that the opening game against Sweden is a must-win for the Irish but, for once, that could be erring on the side of undue pessimism since, with the four best third-placed teams set to survive the group stages, it could be that even three draws will be enough to see a team through to the knockout round.

Of course, like every other manager, Martin O’Neill will say he wants to win every game but, as he learns to look on the brighter side of a dour draw in Paris, he’ll surely find some consolation in the knowledge that a different kind of draw on June 13 would be altogether more rewarding.

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