It’s almost a quarter of a century since the Republic of Ireland made their debut in international tournament football, when a first round exit in the European Championships was ameliorated somewhat by the pleasure of beating England in the group stages. Since then Ireland have reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup finals twice, but 1988 has proved to be the country’s sole appearance in the finals of the European Championships until this time around. This summer, however, they are back but the scale of the task ahead of the team is massive, with both Spain and Italy in the same group as them. All, however, is not lost, especially when we consider that they’ve never embarrassed themselves in the finals of a major tournament before – no matter who the opposition – and could face opposition with a history of occasionally stumbling when expected to do better.

The History: So, were Ireland under-achievers who found their level after 1986, or a relatively small nation (and one in which football was not, historically, the national game) that has made huge strides forward in recent years, particularly in the World Cup finals since the start of the 1990s? The answer to this question is probably a little from column A and a little from column B. Prior to 1988, despite occasionally generous sprinklings of very talented players, Ireland couldn’t get past the qualifying stages of the World Cup or European Championships. The arrival of Jack Charlton in 1986, however, changed everything and Ireland would go on to qualify for three of the next four tournaments that they entered. At the 1988 European Championships, they beat England and drew with the Soviet Union, results which left them needing just a point from their final match against the Netherlands to edge through to the semi-finals. They were eight minutes from managing this, before a Ronald Koeman volley went straight into the ground and bounced up for Wim Kieft to flick the ball past Pat Bonner to send the Dutch through and Ireland out.

Two years later, the party turned up in Italy for the World Cup finals. They edged through a tough group with three draws and then drew again in the second round against Romania before winning on penalty kicks before losing narrowly to the hosts in the quarter-finals. Revenge would come against Italy in the Giants Stadium in New York four years later when a magnificent goal from Ray Houghton beat them in a group match, but both teams qualified for the second round and Ireland ran out of steam in the second round and were beaten by two goals to nil by the Netherlands. Eight years later came Irelands final tournament appearance until this year, again in the World Cup. Their tournament threatened to be over-shadowed before it even began following an all-too-public row between coach Mick McCarthy and captain Roy Keane over McCarthy’s managerial abilities and the conditions at their pre-tournament base on the island of Saipan. Keane ended up returning home before a ball had been kicked, but Ireland again performed with enormous credit, drawing with Cameroon and Germany and beating Saudi Arabia before losing in the second round again, this time on penalty kicks against Spain.

The Team: Greater than the sum of its parts? Probably, but Ireland have a system which has worked for them in recent years and the experience of Shay Given, Damien Duff  and Robbie Keane – the stand-out players of the 2002 World Cup finals – gives this team a level of experience which some other nations perhaps lack. This holy trinity, though, is probably past its best and Irelands likely tactical decisions will be centred around conservatism and pragmatism. None of this is to say that they will be invoking the kick and rush spirit of the Jack Charlton years, but the likelihood of Ireland dominating possession in their matches seems remote and Ireland supporters that are tuning into this tournament without having seen too much of them in qualifying may have to be patient in order to see the best of their team.

The Coach: In a tournament at which the coaching roster is starting to resemble the animatronic cast of Jurassic Park, Giovanni Trappatoni may just be the most experienced of the lot. His managerial career at club level reads like a who’s who of European club football, including spells at Milan, Juventus, Internazionale,  Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Stuttgart and Benfica amongst others, and he has won the Italian league seven times, the Bundesliga, the Portuguese league and the Austrian league, as well as all three of the major European club competitions – including the UEFA Cup three times – and the Intercontinental Cup. There have been concerns over his health over the last couple of years, but his four years in charge of the Ireland team have seen a marked upturn in its fortunes, with qualification for this tournament preceded by a desperately unlucky defeat at the hands of France (and the hand of Thierry Henry) in a play-off match for the 2010 World Cup finals. He’s not done after this tournament, either, having signed a two year extension to his contract with the Football Association of Ireland following the teams qualification for this summers jamboree.

The Kit: Ireland have one habit which is almost unique amongst national teams, and it is not a particularly endearing one – the application of sponsors names to replica shirts, even though they can’t be used for tournament football. Other than this, Ireland have gone back to the 1980s for this tournament with a home shirt which mixes two of the major football fashion statements of the era – both shadow-stripes and pinstripes, with a collar which adds to the sense of nostalgia that hangs over Umbro’s effort.

The Prospects: If there is one thing that Ireland are good at – really good at – it is getting through the group stages of major tournaments. In fact, they’ve not failed to get through the group stages of a tournament that they have entered since that first one in 1988 – and elimination at the first hurdle was tight, even that time. The other thing acting in their favour is that the first of their three group matches is their most winnable one, against Croatia. Should they win this and there be a winner in the other group match between Italy and Spain they could find themselves three points clear of third place with just two matches left to play, and that – even if those two matches are against Italy and Spain – would be a great position to be in. Moreover, Ireland are traditionally well-organised enough to avoid morale-sapping hammerings, and as if that isn’t enough they also took Spain to a penalty shoot-out in 2002 and beat Italy in 1994, so they have a little historical reason to be optimistic as well. Should they get through, they would face one of England, France, Ukraine and Sweden in the quarter-finals, and they are certainly capable of beating three of those four teams, with only France offering what looks like a potentially debilitatingly serious test. Ireland are travelling to the finals with low expectations, but there is a possibility that they could be one of the surprise teams of the tournament, and the European Championships do often throw up one or two of those, don’t they?

The National Anthem: “Amhrán na bhFiann”  (“The Soldiers Song”, in English) was written in 1907 and was popularised when sung as a marching song during the Easter Uprising of 1916. Following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, it was used as an unofficial national anthem until 1926, when growing concerns at Unionists continuing to sing “God Save The King” led to its adoption as the official national anthem of the new country. Although the original song consists of three verses and a chorus, only the chorus is used for the national anthem. One other curio of this particular song is that it is still copyrighted, although this is due to expire at the end of this year.

The British Press Will Say: As anybody that has seen a major tournament in Britain will already be aware, there is a tendency on the part of the British press to treat The Republic Of Ireland as a de facto home nation. It isn’t of course. It’s part of the British Isles (as in, the geographical feature), but is emphatically not part of Britain. But you knew that already, didn’t you? We’ll have to wait and see whether any of the pundits slip up in their over-excitement. Clichés such as “When Irish eyes are smiling” (in the event of success) may well get an outing, but these have become a little out-moded recently, whilst the peace process in Northern Ireland may have diffused some tension on both sides of the Irish Sea. Ultimately, the British press will likely be supportive of the Irish team – the size of the diaspora in the United Kingdom makes it commercially prudent for them to be, after all – but any meeting between The Republic of Ireland and England (which is possible, if not necessarily likely, in the quarter-finals) may lead to the worst tendencies of the fourth estate becoming more prevalent. Anyone caught using the phrase “plastic paddies” should be quickly and firmly shown the error of their ways.

Don’t forget that with Euro 2012 approaching you can download the Twohundredpercent Euro 2012 spreadsheet here (for Excel 2007), whilst a version that will be compatible with older versions of Excel is available here.

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