Crunch Euro 2016 Games For Ireland

Robbie Keane

Robbie Keane

The life and times of being an Ireland fan is made up primarily of hope, with some dashes of optimism and a hefty dash of realism thrown in for good measure.

Two months ago, Ireland faced a pretty hefty struggle to get anywhere near qualification to Euro 2016. A draw and a loss to Scotland put them in fourth spot in the group, staring longingly up at the Scots occupying a play-off berth in third position.

But Football – as Jimmy Greaves used to say regularly on Saint and Greavsie (anyone under the age of about 28, ask your Dad!) – is a funny old game. And now, thanks to some generous results, Ireland have a real chance of securing a play-off spot in what was arguably the toughest Euro 2016 qualifying group of them all.

So how did we get here? Well, it was the small matter of Georgia producing a superb performance when they beat Scotland last month to blow the group wide open. Add to that two wins in five days for Ireland, it means that it’s now Martin O’Neill’s men who have their destiny in their own hands.

The Republic currently occupy third spot in the group on 15 points, four ahead of Scotland. In order to guarantee play-off entry, Ireland need three more points. This is easier said than done though, as their last two games are at home to Germany on 8th October and away to Poland on 11th October.

A play-off place will be guaranteed if Scotland lose to Poland in their penultimate game on the 8th. With Scotland due to face the group whipping boys Gibraltar in their last game, it heaps up the pressure on both teams to get a positive result before going into their last games.

If Ireland pull off a remarkable result and defeat Germany in Dublin (I’m still reeling at that 6-1 defeat back in 2012) and Poland draw or lose to Scotland, then a victory for the boys in green in Warsaw would see them qualify automatically.

The way that the results have gone in this group, anything is feasibly possible.

Ireland got themselves into this position after defeating Gibraltar 4-0 last month, before following this up with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Georgia, thanks to a solitary strike from Jonathan Walters. The Stoke City man bundled home the winner in 69th minute to ensure the group will have a barnstorming finish to it this month.

Speaking after the win, Walters said that Ireland were still ‘a million miles’ away from qualification and that there was a lot of work needed in order to try and claim a qualification spot.

He said: “We are a million miles away from qualifying yet. We have got a long way to go – two massive games next month. We’ll go back to our clubs and we’ll come back and approach them in the right way. It was obviously about getting the six points this week and that’s what we did. We were hoping other results went our way and they have, but we have still got a long way to go before qualifying.”

The deciding goal came when midfielder Jeff Hendrick tricked his way past three Georgian defenders before crossing for Walters to score his seventh goal for his country from close range to ensure the fight for qualification will go down to the wire.

Walters said: “Jeff is a top-quality player and he’s got that in the locker, breaking their lines and getting forward and supporting us. It was a great nutmeg by him and keeping it on the line, and he put it on a plate for me.”

Speaking about Hendrick’s run from the wing deep into the heart of the Georgian box, Boss Martin O’Neill said: “Magnificent, absolutely magnificent. He’s got that, he has the ability to do that, sometimes he just needs a wee bit more encouragement. But it was great to see, and Jon Walters who has had a fantastic tournament for us ends up scoring the goal.”

A happy Jeff Hendrick was humble about the chance he created for the team, saying: “Two of them were closing me down so I tried to go through them. The third player came out and thankfully I went past him. Jonny made a great run and got it in. Obviously they got out a bit easy in the first half and we struggled with the formation they played. In the second half we tried to get in their faces and not give them time. I thought we started the second half really brightly and obviously then we got the goal. We were more solid in the middle.”

As for Walters, O’Neill expressed his enthusiasm for the qualities that the powerful Stoke City front-man brings to the Irish set-up. He said: “He’s been absolutely fantastic for us. He’s got a great, great heart and everything else he brings to us, he’s the essence of our club…we have a sort of club mentality. Certainly the essence of our team.”

Ireland struggled in the first-half and O’Neill opted to withdraw team captain Robbie Keane at half-time in order to add some energy into the frontline. Although he’s the top scorer for his country, subtle management of Keane’s game time is going to prove invaluable in the forthcoming games.

O’Neill said: “He (Keane) is our natural goalscorer, you’re still looking for a goal. I just didn’t think he had the energy (against Georgia). Just my view. I thought Shane Long, buoyed by his goal against Gibraltar, would come on and maybe find a way for us but as it turns out Jon Walters and Jeff Hendrick have done it for us.

“It’s always been a fight. We’ve had to fight for every single particle that’s going. But we found a way tonight to win a match which was very, very important for us. Again, it gives us a lot of spirit to go into the Germany match. We still have to find some more points and it won’t be easy obviously.”

Ireland will have to plan for Ireland’s next fixture against Germany without Glenn Whelan or James McClean, both of whom picked up yellow cards that will result in one-match suspensions.

A philosophical O’Neill said: “That’s the nature of this. It’s very, very difficult to go through a ten-game programme and not find somebody on yellow cards.”

Whether Ireland qualify or not, O’Neill has been backed to stay in his role by FAI boss Martin Delaney. His current contract runs out at the end of this campaign and upon taking up the position, O’Neill had commented that his continuation would depend on qualification but that was before the draw was made.

Dismissing this comment, Delaney said: “I think Martin said that before the group draw. We got possibly, arguably, the most difficult group of all the groups, with Germany the world champions, Poland, and Scotland being resurgent.

“There is no doubt it is a very difficult group. So when Martin said what he said in terms of ‘if we don’t qualify, I should go’, or words to that effect, we had a discussion and I said, ‘there was really no need to say that’.

“And when the draw came out, I think he possibly regretted it. I really enjoy working with Martin O’Neill. He is a good guy to work with, a very straight guy, and my staff enjoy working with him. We really do. We will see how the games work out in October and November. And after that then we’ll sit down and talk to Martin.”

Ireland squad for games against Germany and Poland.

David Forde (Millwall), Shay Given (Stoke City), Darren Randolph (West Ham United) , Richard Keogh (Derby County), Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Derby County), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Alex Pearce (Derby County), Paul McShane (Reading), Stephen Ward (Burnley), Robbie Brady (Norwich City), Marc Wilson (Stoke City), James McCarthy (Everton), Jeff Hendrick (Derby County), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Aiden McGeady (Everton), James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), Alan Judge (Brentford), David Meyler (Hull City), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Eunan O’Kane (Bournemouth), Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Shane Long (Southampton), Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town), Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids), David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town)