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Euro success built from the League of Ireland

“In Ireland there is no league,” were the words uttered in 2013 by the then Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni but at EURO 2016 the League of Ireland was central to some magnificent Ireland performances in France. The results were very much built on the back of players who began their trade in the League of Ireland, with a certain former Shamrock Rovers manager leading Northern Ireland’s success.

 

When Trapattoni’s two former international teams came up against one another last week in the group stage of the Euros, it was the Republic of Ireland team who emerged on top – in a game that had seven former League of Ireland players contribute to that famous 1-0 win over Italy. Robbie Brady’s winning goal in Lille coming off a Wes Hoolahan cross will be one of the sporting highlights of not just the year but the decade!

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Players who were on the pitch for the famous win over the Italians had previously lined out in our league for Shelbourne (Wes Hoolahan), St. Patrick’s Athletic (Stephen Quinn), Cork City (Shane Long), Waterford United (Daryl Murphy), Bohemians (Stephen Ward), Derry City (James McLean) and Sligo Rovers (Seamus Coleman), with former Cork City player David Meyler also named on the bench.

 

In the days following the win over Sweden, the FAI organised a photoshoot with all eight ex-League of Ireland players in the Euro squad wearing the jerseys of their former Irish clubs. Of course, the Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane also played in the league with Cobh Ramblers.

I was lucky enough to be out in France for the tournament, sitting in the stands supporting the boys in green, and with a press pass for a few other matches as I was doing some work with extratime.ie. The day after that photocall, I went out to the Ireland training camp in Versailles.

With Roy Keane up for media duties, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him about the photo and was he tempted to pull on a Cobh Ramblers jersey and join in?

 

He smiled and gave a quick “no” but went on to elaborate with great enthusiasm about the crucial contribution of the league in both his own career and the careers of more than a third of the Ireland squad at the Euros.

 

“Over the years people have been quick to criticise League of Ireland football but it played a huge part in my career,” said Keane. “You saw yesterday with those lads that was brilliant, a really nice photograph.

 

“No Ramblers player there” said Keane and I thought in my own mind a pity that there were no Shamrock Rovers players in it but hopefully in years to come! “With the criticism that the League of Ireland gets, it has played a big part in these lads having a very good career, so it was nice to see.”IMG_2017

 

There were a few League of Ireland flags flown at the games during the tournament. Both the Lynch Family flag ‘Hooping since 1984’ and the ‘London Hoops’ flag were visible at the Belgium and Italy games respectively. During Iceland’s battling draw with Portugal, a Galway United Football Club flag was hung down near the cornerflag visible to everyone watching the game.

 

These flags almost seemed a novelty with their support of League of Ireland clubs rather than the novelty ‘whack a funny Father Ted slogan’ on a flag that seems to have become the norm.

 

I was on press duty in the Parc des Princes for the Germany and Northern Ireland game. Former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill has done a superb job with his national team. O’Neill took up the role as the boss with the North soon after leaving the Hoops at the conclusion of our remarkable run in the Europa League – the competition we are back in the qualifying rounds of today.

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It is five years since we had that famous 20,000km journey through Europe from Tallinn to Copenhagen, London, Thessaloniki and Kazan. It was Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That first single step was taken against Estonian team Flora Tallinn and crucial to that was goalkeeper Alan Mannus.

In the first leg against the Estonian champions in Tallaght, Mannus saved a penalty minutes before Chris Turner would score the only goal of the tie and set us on our way. Those early games would be Mannus’ last for the Hoops as he made the move soon after to join St. Johnstone.

Mannus was part of Michael O’Neill’s squad at the Euros, which also qualified for the knock out stages of the competition earned by their 2-0 win over Ukraine. I got the chance to talk to Mannus after his side’s battling 1-0 defeat to World Champions Germany, on a night in Paris when the North were grateful for a brilliant performance by their number one goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

 

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Mannus has been a regular in O’Neill’s ‘Norn Iron’ squads. The former Rovers boss had a tough opening campaign in a failed attempt to get to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That meant Northern Ireland were fifth seeds in the qualification campaign for France. However, Michael O’Neill led his team to top spot in their qualifying group – the first team ever to do so from Pot 5 of the draw.

“We worked together at Shamrock and he did very well there,” said Mannus discussing his time with the Hoops under Michael O’Neill. “I’m delighted that he has done so well with Northern Ireland as I knew he was capable of that.

“The first campaign we probably played better than the results showed and in this qualifying campaign we played well and got the results we deserved and got through. I’m sure a number of clubs will be looking at him with a view maybe to take him on as manager.

“I’m delighted for him. He is a brilliant manager and understands football and that has been shown in the way we’ve played and the results we’ve got.”

Going into the last group game, the permutations were very clear for the Republic of Ireland. Beat Italy and qualify or else it was time to go home. The stadium in Lille was a sea of green with Ireland fans taking almost three sides of the stadium. With the roof of the venue closed, the atmosphere was incredible and the tension (and heat!) almost unbearable.

 

In the run up to the match, former Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli commented in La Gazzetta dello Sport that Irish players had “trouble handling the game tactically. They don’t get that football is also an intellectual matter, and not just about attacking and going forward.”

 

Seamus Coleman dismissed those comments ahead of the game – “I’m not really bothered what Marco thinks” – and the Irish team dismissed the Italian side with a tactical, hard pressing and physical performance against Italy. Martin O’Neill had made four changes to his starting XI, dropping Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, Ciaran Clarke and captain John O’Shea. Handed the armband was Donegal man Seamus Coleman.

 

O’Neill brought Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy into the centre of defence and they successfully marshalled the Italian attack. Ireland had left a win behind them against Sweden in Paris and it seemed the same would happen in Lille; Particularly after Hoolahan, on as second half substitute, missed a great chance in the closing minutes.

 

However, he picked up the ball moments later and delivered as good a cross as you will see onto the head of Robbie Brady. 1-0. ‘Who put the ball in the Italian net? Brady, Brady. Who put the ball in the Italian net? Robbie Robbie Brady.’

 

There were emotional scenes after the final whistle on the pitch – have we seen a happier Roy Keane – and in the stands. Speaking after the final whistle, the players were still coming to terms with the win that set up last Sunday’s game in Lyon against France. Coleman spoke about all those hours his father had driven him down to train and play with Sligo Rovers and how they are paying off now.

 

I bumped into the Cork City manager John Caulfield in the hotel I was staying in after the game and the City boss agreed that it was great to see big managerial decisions rewarded with a win! Both Martin and Michael O’Neill had made significant switches to their starting teams, against Ukraine for the North and Italy for our Boys in Green, and these were central to the success of both teams in the group stages of the competition.

 

Article published in Shamrock Rovers match day programme Hoops Scene Issue 10 – Shamrock Rovers v RoPS Rovaniemen  – Thursday 30 June 2016

 

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