Speculation and conjecture was brought to an abrupt end when Giovanni Trapattoni announced his 23 man squad for EURO 2012 on Monday at a press conference in the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland’s 23 man squad
Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, David Forde
Richard Dunne, John O'Shea, Sean St.Ledger, Darren O'Dea, Stephen Ward, Stephen Kelly, Paul McShane,
Glenn Whelan, Darron Gibson, Keith Andrews, Paul Green, Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt, James McClean,
Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle, Simon Cox, Shane Long, Jonathan Walters.
Ireland’s standby list
Darren Randolph, Paul McShane, Paul Green, Seamus Coleman, Andy Keogh
How they got here
Giovanni Trapattoni etched his name into Irish Folklore when he led Ireland to the “Promised Land” of the European Championships in Poland this summer. Having finished second in a Group B which comprised Russia (group winners), Armenia, Slovakia, Macedonia and Andorra, the Boys in Green were thrust into a two legged playoff against Group C’s surprise package Estonia.
Ireland haven’t had a lot of luck with playoffs for major tournaments historically. Their only success before was in 2001 when they won both legs over Iran to qualify for an Asian adventure in South Korea and Japan in 2002. Holland (’95), Belgium (’97), Turkey (’99) and most recently France (infamously in ’09) broke the Irish hearts at the final hurdle, but when Trap’s army descended on Tallinn, Estonia last November, few could have predicted what would happen.
Optimism rather than confidence or expectation was the prevailing mood in the A.Le Coq Arena amongst the travelling contingent on that faithful November night. Dreams soon turned to reality however as Andrews, Walters and Keane (twice) put the Estonian’s to the sword Ireland virtually assured their qualification.
“The cat is in the the sack, but the sack is not closed. The cat is in it, but it’s open – and it’s a wild cat.”
Those were the words of Trapattoni after the first leg. We had one foot in the finals, but a professional performance was required in the return leg in the Aviva.
“We have to have respect for our opponents for what they have achieved in this qualification campaign”, and respect was shown. Robbie Keane rebuffed LA Galaxy’s efforts to return early for an MLS Cup Final to lead a full strength out in the Aviva. Stephen Ward put sent the already jubilant full house into raptures when he put the home side ahead, as they knew that even it would take five goals to overturn the tie – something which was never going to happen against a well organised Trapattoni team. Estonian captain Vassiljev did pull one goal back with a speculative effort, but the drinks were already flowing in every bar in Ireland and the wily Italian joined Jack Charlton (Euro ’88 and World Cups ’90 and ’94) and Mick McCarthy (World Cup ’02) in masterminding an Irish qualification for a major tournament.
No doubt somewhere in Ireland, Christy Moore and other balladeers are already drawing up a list of words that rhyme with Trapattoni for their next sonnets, while inflatable hammers, shamrocked sunglasses and leprechaun hats are being produced frantically.
Key player to watch out for
Much of the Irish hopes and aspirations rest on the shoulders of Richard Dunne. Playing in a group that contains the previous two World Cup winners, as well as a fluid Croatia, “containment” will be a major part of the Irish gameplan. The Tallaght native put in what Paul McGrath called on Twitter as “The Best performance I have seen from any Irish centre half and that includes myself...” in the away nil all draw with Russia. A bloodied Dunne put his body on the line again and again as the Irish team somehow fended off the Russian onslaught, and more of the same will be required particularly when the Boys in Green come up against current World and European Champions Spain in Gdansk.
Dunne’s fitness has been of concern to the Irish camp of late, with the centre back having had a prolonged absence with a shoulder injury. However after almost eleven weeks out (not to mention countless texts from Trapattoni), Dunne returned to the Aston Villa side to keep a clean sheet against West Brom before again completing 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspurs. Having been confined to the bench in 2002, this tournament means a lot to the Aston Villa player, and his infectious passion and commitment will be to the fore.
Another who will be key to Ireland’s prospects this summer is record breaking captain Robbie Keane. The former Crumlin United has scored 53 goals for Ireland in 115 caps and has at times single handedly dragged Ireland through games and won points with these goals. Five goals in the group stage and another two in the playoffs silenced any doubters as to the worth of LA Galaxy striker and few will ever forget his injury time equaliser against Germany in Ibaraki in 2002.
A great goalscorer as well as a scorer of great goals, Trapattoni will be looking to his captain to lead by example and fire Ireland into the knockout phases with more memorable goals. At times Ireland have become over-dependant on Keane’s goals and alongside Dunne, Robbie is one player that Ireland can’t afford to do without in Poland.
With much of Ireland’s success owing to “the system” Trapattoni has deployed, it is somewhat unusual that there can be so much hype over a player that hasn’t featured in the qualifying campaign. After lighting up the Airtricity League with Derry City, James McClean is one such player having exploded onto the Premier League scene since his move to Sunderland last summer. Trapattoni has always been loyal to the squad that has been successful for him, but scintillating display after scintillating display from the Derry winger left him with no alternative other than handing him debut off the bench against Czech Republic in the Aviva in February to a tremendous fanfare.
Many had thought that McClean’s rise to prominence had come too late for inclusion in Trap’s 23 man squad, however today’s announcement of McClean’s inclusion gives Ireland an extra spark and an extra option – much to the delight of the Irish fans. He may not feature heavily in Poland, however McClean possesses something that we otherwise wouldn’t have and is a game changer. Potentially a big player for Ireland this summer, but nonetheless a fitting reward for his meteoric rise this season.
Where they are staying, where they are playing
Ireland will play all three of their group games in Poland and will be based in the Sheraton Sopot Hotel in Gdynia. Gdynia can be found in the Pomeranian region of Poland and is part of Tricity – a metropolitan area around the city of Gdansk.
Ireland will play their ties against Croatia and Italy in the Stadion Miejski in Poznan, either side of the clash against Spain in the PGE Arena Gdansk in Gda?sk. A virtual tour of the stadium in Poznan is available here :http://bilety.lechpoznan.pl/info/13/.
Three interesting facts about the team
Ireland have not participated in the European Championships since 1988.
Ireland last played against Spain in a competitive game in the World Cup in 2002. Ireland drew 1-1 on the night, and ultimately lost out on penalties, however enjoyed 55% possession and 18 attempts at goal against the Spaniards. Casillas, Puyol and Xavi were all in the matchday squad for Spain that day and are expected to feature in the same tie 10 years later, while Given, Duff, Keane and Dunne were in the Irish squad.
Giovanni Trapattoni has managed Ireland against his native Italy three times already and has not lost any of them, most recently Ireland beat Italy 2-0 in Liege last summer courtesy of goals from Keith Andrews and Simon Cox.
Their last five games form
Ireland have proven to be a formidable opponent for teams under Trapattoni who are hard to beat. Their last five matches have seen them win three and draw two. Having finished the group stage with wins over Andorra (away) and Armenia (home), Trap’s charges but even more telling is the fact the Boys in Green have not lost any of their last twelve games keeping clean sheets in nine of those games.
Brian Fitzgerald is a Dublin-based reporter who has followed Cork City since the mid 1990's. Brian can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on twitter @B_Twitzgerald