The Italian, with his conservative brand of football, might never have been to everyone’s taste as manager of Ireland, but I don’t recall that there were too many complaints when his team were putting Estonia to the sword in
Tallinn and effectively sealing their place in the finals after only the first leg of the Euro 2012 qualification play-off.
The second leg, as expected, proved to be nothing more than a formality but any lingering euphoria was rudely punctured when the draw for the finals pitted Ireland against Croatia, Italy and, just for good measure, world and European champions Spain.
I recall having a lively debate with a colleague in the excited run-up to Euro 2012. His view was that in steering the team to Poland (but, eh, not Ukraine) — especially after the cruel and heartbreaking way Ireland had missed out on going to the World Cup in South Africa — Giovanni Trapattoni had rendered himself virtually bullet-proof. My argument was that, au contraire, a manager is only as good as his next game. To be fair, no-one has ever accused me of staggering originality — and since it was my considered opinion that the next games for the Italian were likely to prove pretty unrewarding, I thought the glow of a successful qualification campaign would very quickly dim.
And so it transpired, albeit that with Ireland conceding nine goals in three games and mustering just the one by way of reply, the reality was even more painful than I’d imagined when predicting in these pages before the tournament that our boys would fail to get out of their group.
For Trap, it was a case of paying a heavy price for the success of qualification. The challenge to ‘folly dat’ was simply beyond him and his team and, with little better emerging from the subsequent World Cup campaign, it made his eventual departure — early one morning, with criticism ringing in his ears and not even a chance to say a proper farewell — an inevitability.
Martin O’Neill will know the score. Out here in Copenhagen, I’ve been doing some preliminary dipping into Michael Walker’s Green Shoots — Irish Football Histories, a compelling new book to which I intend to return in more depth when space and time allows. But, with these play-offs uppermost in all our minds, I’ve been initially drawn to the book’s more contemporary stuff, including a rare public outing in print for Wes Hoolahan who speaks eloquently about that magical night in Lille two summers ago when, in the space of a couple of minutes, he went from villain to hero and, in that stunning act of redemption, helped create one of the landmark results of this or any other Irish football era.
“At the time I thought, I’ve just got to get on with this,” he says of The One That Got Away.
“There’s three minutes to go. Maybe I’ll get another chance, to redeem this. If we didn’t score and it’s 0-0 and we’re out of the tournament, I think it would have haunted me forever.”
Ah, those fine, fine margins — with Irish football, it seems to be forever thus.
gain, Martin O’Neill will need no telling. (And after the other night at Windsor, nor will the other managerial O’Neill). In Green Shoots, the Derry O’Neill offers the view from the dugout of how everything changed in almost the blink of an eye against Italy.
“Honestly, did I think we’d get another chance? No, I thought we might get the ball in the box, but another clear-cut chance? Very doubtful. Then Brady makes the run, the cross comes in and you’re thinking: ‘Can he get there? Can he get there?’
“And he does. There was euphoria. There was a great story with the travelling fans and I knew it would have an effect in Ireland. There was the credibility that comes with victory, as (Brian) Clough had demonstrated.”
The credibility that comes with victory — it’s an intriguing phrase and one loaded with meaning for an Irish team for whom the divide between agony and ecstasy, as encapsulated in that three minutes in Lille, is a familiar one.
I don’t expect it to be much different tonight, except that, barring an unlikely collapse by either side, the tension can merely be expected to roll on to Dublin on Tuesday and materialise again in even more heightened, nerve-shredding form.
At times like this, with so much at stake, the eternal debate about style versus result temporarily goes on the backburner, even as some of us continue to hope against hope that we will see the name of Wes Hoolahan when the team sheet is released an hour before kick off this evening.
Under O’Neill, as was the case under Trapattoni and, under the manager who first established the blueprint, Jack Charlton, Ireland are rarely easy on the eye. They can be hard on the heart too but, when the final whistle blows and the required point or points are in the bag, undeniably good for the soul.
We’ve already had our share of such moments to cherish on the rocky road to Russia: Daryl Murphy’s equaliser in Belgrade, Jon Walters’ bailout goal at home to Austria and, of course, those crucial wins in Vienna and Cardiff.
But they might as well be ancient history now. As Roy Keane acknowledged this week, they’ll count for nothing if Ireland don’t prevail against the Danes.
Still, what Slaven Bilic wouldn’t give to have these sorts of problems, eh?