Allez les Verts! Ireland set for Euro 2016

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For only the sixth time in history an Irish international football side has qualified for a major tournament, and as ever they did it in a way full of drama, tension and intrigue, putting long-suffering fans through the ringer time and time again. But without those ingredients, you don’t get the full experience of doing it the Irish way.

Less than six months ago, it looked pretty reasonable that Ireland wouldn’t be gracing the Euro 2016 Championships over the water in France. After a draw and a loss to Scotland, the prospects of digging out your French dictionary (or if you’re a modern young pup, the Google translate app) for a summer holiday to La France, were minimal.

But a seismic shift in the footballing Gods which saw Scotland fall out of the running and Ireland defeat Germany (all hail Shane Long) to cement a play-off place against Bosnia Herzegovina – not an easy tie, but certainly not the worst that Ireland could have got.

With the removal of seeding preferences which previously would have seen Ireland playing the first tie in Dublin, the first leg was away in Bosnia and with the likes of Shane Long, John O’Shea and Jon Walters not playing due to a mixture of injury and suspension, it was going to be a difficult task.

After a tight first-half, the whole outlook for the tie changed after a peasouper of a fog descended on the stadium in Zenica making it nigh on impossible to be able to view it properly. For those inside the ground, it wasn’t any better and there was a real risk of the game being abandoned and the remaining minutes being played the following day.

Although it looked bad on television, the referee said that he thought it was fine to continue playing, and it was a good job that he did as out of the murky fog, Robbie Brady gave Ireland the lead with a superb finish and celebrated with glee in front of the travelling fans whose visibility was probably about 30 yards.

The lead only lasted for three minutes before Edin Dzeko turned in from close range to equalise and leave the game evenly poised for the return leg in Dublin.

The second leg started in the same cagey manner as the first encounter, but it all changed after Ireland were awarded a dubious penalty and the man mountain himself, Jon Walters comfortably converted from 12 yards to put Martin O’Neill’s men ahead in the tie.

But only a resolute defence as well as a second goal would ensure Ireland’s passage to the finals – and with perfect timing, goal number two duly arrived as Walters turned in his second goal to send the Aviva Stadium into raptures and steer Ireland to their third European Championships.

Considering where Ireland had been in the group, added to the fact that the majority of the assembled squad ply their trade towards the foot of the Premier League and the Championship, this was probably a greater achievement than qualifying for the 2012 tournament under the guidance of Giovanni Trapattoni.

Four years later, Martin O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane managed to steer the team towards an unexpected qualification, but Ireland’s presence at Euro 2016 will certainly add much more fun, colour, vibrancy and an absolute rake of Euros being thrown into the ringing tills of hundreds of pubs, bars and street-chic cafes in France next summer.

Speaking after the game, an elated O’Neill was hopeful that he could bring back the glory days of Irish tournament football to the country. The Northern Ireland man will lead a team out next summer in his first experience as manager at a tournament and is determined to ensure that Ireland aren’t going there to make up the numbers.

He said: “This is a special night which cannot be taken away from us. Qualifying for a tournament is a major achievement and I’m proud of all of the players and everyone involved with the set-up we have here. We will have a massive contingent of fans going to France and I would like to emulate the days of Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy.

“The players have been superb right from the start when Aiden McGeady scored that late winner in the first qualifier in Georgia. We might be short on a few things, but courage and a determination to fight to the end have been in abundance and by having that desire and determination to succeed will put us in good stead for next year, where we’re not going to make up the numbers. We know it’ll be tough but we’ll be going over to give it a right good go.”

Much has been made of his appointment of Roy Keane as his assistant when he took up the role in 2013, but O’Neill said it’s been one of the best appointments he’s made.

“I think I’m the bad cop and he’s the bad, bad cop. Bringing Roy Keane in is as good a decision as I’ve made in quite some time. He’s been absolutely enormous for us. He’s not taking too many of the accolades, but he’s been fantastic for us, for myself, the backroom staff and the players.”

Assistant Manager Roy Keane was mutually glowing in his praise of O’Neill, and was equally as determined to ensure Ireland make an impact in France next year.

“We won’t want to go over there to make up the numbers. We want to go over to put up a good performance and make the country proud.

“The fight and determination we showed under lots of pressure, in terms of possession; we hung in there. All credit to the players – they did the country proud. Martin and all the backroom staff deserve praise too. It’s been a massive team effort from everyone. I’ve really enjoyed working and learning from Martin and I’m looking forward to putting our plans together for the tournament next summer.

“You need the ability to reach a very high level, but without hunger, desire and work rate you’ll come up short. We’d like a bit more quality and like to keep the ball better, but the players deserve massive credit.”

And he singled out striker Jonathan Walters for particular praise after he grabbed both of Ireland’s goals on Monday after returning from suspension.

“Jon, I have been fortunate to work with him at club level, and his leadership was there to see. His work rate is fantastic, we knew he’d be a bonus coming back in and his work rate was an example to the other players,” said Keane.

“They all deserve credit, Jonathan get the credit because the hardest part of football is putting ball in the next, but all the players behind him deserve credit.”

Double goal scorer, Jon Walters, felt the blend of experience in the squad ensured a togetherness that would lead Ireland through to qualification.

He said: “We got a very tough group. The mix between old and young in this team; we have a few exciting young players coming through and hopefully we can put right what went wrong in Poland. It’s been unbelievable. It has been a long two years, but we got there. That was the plan from the start and every single player has played a part in this.

“I’ve missed a few penalties in my time, but when they’re there to be taken I’ll always put my hand up to take one and I’m always confidence. Thankfully it went in this time. For the second goal, Robbie Brady said he was going to put it in at the back post so I just made sure I was there to turn it past the keeper.”

Ireland will be in the fourth pot when the group draw for Euro 2016 is made on Saturday 12th December, leaving the mouth-watering prospect of being drawn in the same group as England a real possibility. ENDS WORDS: 1336