LIAM MACKEY: What a difference a year makes

For the Irish football fan, this time last year was full of dreams, songs to sing and camper vans to source.

Twelve months on, by contrast, the prevailing mood is one of pained regret tinged with a deep foreboding.

Yes, I know we don’t like to mention the war but I’m afraid there’s no getting away from the fact that 2012 was the year when one of the chestnut terrace chants of yesteryear finally and definitively passed its sell-by date, the spirited defiance of ‘You’ll never beat the Irish’ turned on its head to become a parody of itself.

After three successive defeats at the European Championship finals — not to mention that 1-6 thrashing by Germany — it’s a gormless Green Army footsoldier who will look to start that one up again in the stands any time soon.

Not that Irish football teams were ever even close to invincible, of course, but then the song was never meant to be taken literally anyway. Rather, it succeeded in capturing something of the essential fighting spirit of the succession of teams which finally took the country to world football’s promised lands, enchanted places where, even when things ultimately went wrong — as they always did — there was still enough of the right stuff left behind to merit a lasting place in song and story.

So in ’88 we had defeat to Holland but we also had Stuttgart; in ’90 we had the sadness of Rome but also the joy that was Genoa; in ’94 we suffered losses to both the Dutch and the Mexicans, not to mention a dreary draw with Norway, but still had Giants Stadium to remember forever; and in 2002, even though we had the heartache of a penalty shoot-out loss to Spain we were still able to cherish the jaw-dropping drama of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser against Germany.

But 2012? Nada. Nuffink. Zilch.

Which I guess is a bit hard on Sean St Ledger whose goal against Croatia has been virtually airbrushed out of Irish football history, even to the extent that you’ll often hear it said that Ireland’s European Championship ended almost before it began with the concession of that soft Mario Mandzukic goal after just three minutes of the opening game.

However, the Ledge equalised 15 minutes later and the Irish still were just two minutes away from the sanctuary of the dressing room when Jelavic put the Croatians back in front. Only when Ireland conceded again within just four minutes of the restart, was the game well and truly up.

And so, as it turned out, were the Euros for a side which subsequently couldn’t live with the brilliance of Spain and could only offer too little too late against Italy.

Ah, even at this remove, it still does your head in just thinking about it. The only consolation, perhaps, is that if and when we do qualify for another tournament, like battle-scarred veterans who’ve been to hell and back, we’ll already be hardened to the worst that can possibly happen.

Indeed, in retrospect, we can see now, more clearly than ever, that we enjoyed something of a charmed existence in our previous sorties at this kind of altitude.

Again, think of Stuttgart — can anyone recall even one other half-decent chance which Ireland created against an otherwise totally dominant England that day? Or consider Genoa and the minor miracle of how Tony Cascarino’s scuffed spot-kick somehow managed to find the back of the net. In the States, we enjoyed just the one glorious day in the sun — the rest of the time we slowly melted. World Cup 2002, admittedly, was different, in that Ireland played the most consistently high-quality football they’d ever exhibited at the very highest level, only to have no luck at all when it came to the crunch in a stupendous game against Spain.

And then, just when we thought we’d seen it all, we headed off to Poland with our heads full of crazy dreams this summer only to experience just about the worst kind of fall from grace imaginable: one goal scored, nine conceded, null points and home on the first plane out of Poznan, tails between legs.

The Euros of 2012 will haunt Irish football for a long time which, if it means expectation is in future tempered with a stiffening shot of reality, might actually be no bad thing. In the short-term, the most immediate impact of the Euros hangover — and of the jolting start to the World Cup qualifying campaign which has come in its wake — is that the idea has now taken firm root that, under Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland will never beat the Swedish in March. And maybe not the Austrians either.

In short, we began 2012 hoping for the best but go into 2013 fearing the worst.

At least this time around, if there are to be any surprises they can only be pleasant ones.


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