A week in the world of football can feel like a long time, so when I look back at all that’s happened in the last year, it feels like an eternity.
As another January looms, I find myself in a Bolton team in the Championship hoping that the new year starts to bring the consistency we’ll need over the second half of the season to mount a push for the play-offs and promotion.
But last January saw me back at Blackburn Rovers after my enjoyable loan spell at Ipswich had come to an end. When I arrived back at Ewood, the club hinted that they wanted me to stay and be involved with the first team but after the way I had been treated there my mind was made up that I wanted and needed to move on, especially with the personnel that were still involved at the club.
It was a tough month in which I trained daily with the young professionals and youth team to maintain my fitness as I awaited the right move. As so often in cases like this, it went all the way to the last hours of the last day of the transfer window. It was a move to West Brom to work under Roy Hodgson that I had been waiting on and thankfully it came to fruition.
To ensure I was in the best possible shape and form for the Euros, I felt this was the right move, even though West Brom could only offer me a contract until the end of the season. That meant I had to walk away from a deal at Blackburn which still had 18 months left to run, but such was my desire to get out of there and work with Roy Hodgson — and prepare for the Euros — it was actually an easy decision for me, even if some people thought I was crazy to give up that type of security.
For the first few months of the year everybody was eagerly anticipating the Euros in Poland and Ukraine. It was a fantastic achievement to qualify and I think that is often overlooked. The manager moulded a squad that had come ever so close to qualifying for the World Cup, and to bounce back from that bitter disappointment and qualify for this tournament showed a lot of character.
Now, looking back, last summer still has a bittersweet feeling for me. There’s no getting away from the disappointment in our performances over there. We all knew it was going to be tough after the draw had pitted us against three teams in the top 10 in the world but it was the manner of our defeats which hurt then and still hurts now.
On one level, there was no shame at all in losing to those top teams who were blessed with some of the finest players on the planet — the regret stems from the fact that, apart from a fairly spirited performance against the Italians, we never really gave a good account of ourselves. In truth, we never recovered after that early goal conceded against Croatia and were constantly facing an uphill battle. Individually and, more importantly, collectively we didn’t reach the levels we were capable of and which we’d demonstrated over the majority of the two previous qualifying campaigns.
Still, there was one real plus to the whole experience for me — as I’ve said before, our fans were simply unbelievable over in Poland. The memories they have given me will stay with me forever. They were constantly singing and dancing around our hotel base in Sopot, where we would throw some training gear down to them out of our hotel room windows, much to the dismay of our kit men Dick Redmond and Mick Lawlor. The noise and passion with which The Fields Of Athenry was sung by all our fans when we were losing 4-0 gave me goosebumps all over and was probably the only reason I was still running around after the Spanish right up to the finalwhistle.
There were obviously going to be questions asked about the manager’s future after such a disappointing tournament, and the way we started the new qualifying campaign probably didn’t help, but I’m glad the powers that be have stuck with Mr Trapattoni.
At the time, everyone was expecting our first World Cup qualifier away to Kazakhstan to be something of a formality but in hindsight it was never going to be easy — just ask Sweden. The German game was a very tough evening and the clinical nature with which they went about their business was something we couldn’t deal with.
Inevitably, we got criticised a lot in the aftermath of that game but, for me, the manager showed all his class and dignity in public and more importantly behind the scenes in the build-up to the Faroes game. He was calmness personified in those few days and that spread throughout the camp and gave us the base on which to produce a performance and result to bounce back from the disaster against Germany.
It all means that the qualifying campaign for the World Cup is still there for us and after the double header against Austria and Sweden in March we will hopefully be in a better position. We need to produce big performances in those games and make sure that, unlike Poland, we don’t have any regrets.
The squad and team have evolved a lot over the last year, with the likes of Kieren Westwood taking over from Shay, and younger players like Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Ciaran Clarke impressing.
I’m sure with players like these becoming more prominent and playing regularly in the Premier League, the future of Irish football will be very bright — so roll on 2013 and hopefully qualification for the World Cup in Brazil.
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