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El Salvador. Albania. The mighty Trinidad & Tobago. These were the powerhouses Ireland looked up at enviously in their lowest ever position in FIFA’s rankings. The year was 2014 and by God Irish soccer had been through the ringer. Ever since the brutalising experience of EURO 2012 Ireland had been on a steep decline. Prior to that tournament expectations and excitement were at a level that only the Irish could build, starved of tournament football for ten years. Drawn with Croatia, Italy & Spain. Shite. No, it’s grand, we’ll get a result against the Croatians and be on our way, and sure the Italians are nothing to fear anyway, the nation collectively decided.
3-1 to Croatia. Bollocks anyway. Then 4-0 to the Spanish. Finished off with a comprehensive 2-0 loss to Italy. 9 goals conceded. Yes, Italy and Spain would make the final. Yes, the Irish fans were utterly magnificent. But by God was it a chastening experience for Irish soccer. Giving Trapattoni a shiny new contract prior to the tournament wasn’t the brightest idea either. The World Cup qualifiers were an utter disaster. 6-1 defeat to the Germans at home, followed by losses to Sweden & Austria. Let’s move on.
Back to the good times
Martin O Neill and Roy Keane in and the ship was steadied. Then came the results against Germany. We were back in a major tournament, four years on. Several key players had established them, and we’d greatly improved in those FIFA rankings, up to 33. Irish soccer was in a better place. Yet still there was trepidation in the air. We were excited for France, sure, but those mental scars were still fresh. Another tough group, Sweden, Belgium and Italy, again. Christ.
Looking back excitement only started to get going when the boys landed over, and then we hit our stride, we’ve all seen it a hundred times over. Nuns, babies, no one was safe from the craic of the Irish. But what happened on the pitch, that’s what we’ll really remember. In that opening half against Sweden we saw an Irish soccer team play fearlessly. They dictated the game, pressed the Swedish and then, there was that goal by Wes Hoolahan. No scrappy header or tap-in from a corner. A lovely lofted cross into space from Coleman, Hoolahan meets it on the half volley, curling it into the net. Unreal.
The Belgian result brought back that feeling of trepidation. But it wasn’t over just yet. Looking back on that Italian game, you could nearly get that feeling of nostalgia already. We were going to do it, and we’d remember it. Yes, the Italian’s put out a second string. But we’ll forget that. When Robbie Brady headed that ball over Sirigu, and guaranteed himself free pints back for home life, you instantly knew how iconic it was. Reeling in the years stuff. And then onto France. For 50-60 odd minutes, depending on your optimism, you could really believe that we were going to do it. It might have been a step too far, but it doesn’t matter. It gave the Irish people that sense of unity and camaraderie that only sport can bring.
Looking closer to home
But now the dust has settled. Irish soccer had a memorable summer, and the boys are all heading back to their respective clubs over the pond. But what about the game back here? The sheer fever of the EURO’s proved that the love of the game and the importance of our national standing in it is still very important to us, but once again that old chestnut, what about our own league? We know the argument well at this stage. On one hand you’ve the supporters, proud to follow their local side and not take part in the classic Irish contradiction of cheering when England lose, yet supporting an English team week in/week out. On the other hand, you’ve the football fan who’ll support their national team to the hilt, yet seem to greet the League of Ireland with derision at its supposed lack of quality.
But maybe we could be at a turning point. One of the FAI’s better ideas during the EURO’s was to have the eight Irish player who started their careers in the League of Ireland to don their old jerseys. It was a nice touch but underlined the importance of the league to Irish soccer. The likes of Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan Seamus Coleman and James McClean have proved it a wise career move. As more and more Irish lads are being chewed up and spat out by the English system, the decision to stay at home should be a lot easier The introduction of U17 and U19 leagues will only make the decision for young lads even easier.
Let’s keep the good times going for Irish soccer
While it’d be great to see more young players choosing to play soccer at home, they need to be playing in front of crowds. Right now European qualifiers are in full swing for the Irish teams and Cork City and St. Pats both stand a great chance of going through in the Europa League while Dundalk are still in the hunt for a Champions League place. European nights are some of the best for supporters and if you have even an inkling of interest get yourself to one of the games. And if not Europe, check out the league. Just Friday gone Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians offered pretty much everything you can get out of a game. 3-1, a missed penalty, a red card, and a cracking goal for a young Sean Boyd, making his professional debut no less.
Irish soccer is at long last enjoying an upturn in fortune after a rough time. But let’s not look back on this in nostalgia twenty years down the line. Let’s build on it. Save yourself the hundreds spent on flights, tickets and hotels to get across the Irish sea. Get down to your local league of Ireland club. Take in that atmosphere and experience the game how it’s meant to be. And make sure to take a look at http://leagueofireland.ie/ for the latest news, results and fixtures on Irish football. That’s an order from TwoTon Murphy.