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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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We had nightmares & songs to sing

June 15, 2012 1 comment

It was all a bit humbling really. Spain came and reigned supreme as the limitations of Giovanni Trapattoni’s system and our playing squad against Spain’s fluid flowing football was visible for all to see. Ireland were torn apart 4-0 by the World and European Champions and dumped out of the Euro 2012 tournament after just two games.

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Our only consolation was the magnificent support given to the team from the stands. This wasn’t a ‘sing when your winning’ support like Spain seemed to have but the singing of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by the Irish fans at the games conclusion was simply incredible. Despite being 4-0 down and heading out of the tournament, it just got louder and louder. For me it will live long in the memory and it was an amazing experience to be part of.

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However, whilstwe sung about “dreams and sings to sing”, the players probably felt like it was a nightmare they were in as Spain took apart Ireland scoring three second half goals to go with their early first half strike. It was a very impressive performance by La Roja who were never really put under pressure by the boys in green. Torres (2), Silva and Fabergas did the damage for the defending champions.

The Simon Cox experiment didn’t really work and Plan B after half time involving Jonathan Walters wasn’t much better. Having said that whatever team or formation Ireland put out on a wet night on Gdansk, playing against opposition of this calibre was always going to a very difficult task.

The road down to the main square in Gdansk and around the Neptune fountain was full of Irish fans from lunchtime on match day. The trains, planes and camper vans had deposited the Green Army in the very north of Poland. Some Spanish fans wandered through the Square and supporters and locals alike were treated to a few Poznans as well as the full repertoire of Ireland songs from Trap’s Army. Whether a team of Gary Breens or one containing any of the 12 days of Christmas/Paul McGrath would have helped Ireland in the game is doubtful.

There was talk ahead of the game of whether the pitch would be watered and the weather gods conspired to make it wet. In the stands, the Green Army outnumbered the Spanish probably three to one. In excess of 25,000 were dressed in green and they were silenced once again like against Croatia by an early goal with Spain scoring in the opening four minutes.

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Spain passed and passed and passed while Ireland huffed and puffed but got nowhere near to blowing Spain’s defence down. It was a real master class in passing by Spain. They could afford to bring Cesc Fabergas off the bench where as we had Paul Green and that probably summed up the gulf in class between the teams. One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the introduction of young James McClean but even the young Derry man couldn’t influence the outcome of the game at that stage.

I’ve heard comment before about it would be better if we didn’t qualify for these things because once we are at a big tournament we would get hammered. I certainly didn’t think we would get hammered but after just two games conceeding seven goals and only scoring one, that has all the hall marks of a hammering. I’d much prefer for Ireland to be here though than being at home but these results have been hard to take after the long build up and sense of occasion about the Euros.

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It is better to be at the big boys table at these feasts of football than watching on the telly. The pity is that in Poland we were being served up as Spain’s starters to be consumed by their crisp passing football. What lessons can we learn from this I don’t know as we face into our final game of the tournament on Monday and the rocky road to Rio to come after. Ireland will be remembered by the fans off the pitch rather than the performances on it when this competition ends.

The final few minutes of the game were played out under the soundtrack, not of the celebrating Spanish fans, but to the Irish in the stands. It was a powerful rendition of “The Fields of Athenry”. The haunting mournful ballad echoed around the amber walls of the Gdansk arena. Ireland will be haunted by this result for a long time to come.

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League of Ireland opening weekend – the view from Italy

By the time February and March comes around for League of Ireland fans, we are rested and ready for the action of the new season, welcoming the return of football with relish. There is that sense of expectation, excitement and promise about the new season.

So on the first weekend of the season I was looking forward to watching Shamrock Rovers in their season opener against Drogheda. But instead of being in Hunky Dorys Park, I was in Milan following the game on Twitter and through extratime.ie match updates. Maybe I’m not getting much sympathy here though!

The previous Monday my boss had dropped by my desk and asked a leading question or two. “Do you like Italian food?” Yes, I replied, wondering where this was going. “Do you like Italian food in Italy?” I had a good idea where this was leading to and it wasn’t up the M1 to Drogheda on Friday but a trip to the airport and beyond.

So the end of week was spent working out of our company’s Milan office and having to follow the Drogheda v Rovers game online when my day’s work was done. I had naturally looked up the football fixture list to see if there was some live football I could see in Milan. However, with Milan away and Inter home but late on Sunday night, I took a trip to Turin on Saturday.

In the afternoon I took the number 15 tram towards Superga, the hill that rises above Turin to the north east. On a clear day you can see right across Turin but not today. Whilst it is unseasonably warm for early March at 18 degrees, there is also a haze that prevents me from seeing even the cathedral in the city centre that hosts the famous Shroud of Turin.

It isn’t just the view I’ve come up to try and see or the Basilica of Superga completed in 1731 but it is to pay homage to the death of il Grande Torino team. In 1949, this team was lost to the mountain when the plane carrying the team crashed into Superga when it was shrouded in low cloud. All 31 people on board were killed. Torino were reining Italian champions, having won four league titles in a row. Incredibly 10 Torino players started for the Italian national team in a game against Hungary the previous season.

Behind the Basilica, there is a simple monument to the team with the names of the Campioni d’Italia listed. Beside it is a photo of the team in their famous maroon jerseys and fans have placed on the monument a few mementoes. Sadly Torino as a club never seemed to recover from the loss of this famous team and since this tragedy have one only one further Serie A title.

It is hard not to think of similar sporting air crash tragedies like the infamous 1958 Munich air disaster or the loss in 1993 of the Zambian football team (the team talked about much recently following Zambia’s capture of the 2012 African Cup of Nations). It is so hard to fathom the loss of a complete team from incidents such as these.

That evening I head out to see Juventus, a team that at times has dominated Italian football as Torino did in the 1940s. They are playing in their new stadium completed last season on the site of their old 67,000 capacity stadium. First impressions are that it is small but that is no real surprise as it is only a 41,000 capacity arena and it is not quite full on the night. The aim of the new arena for Juve was to get a compact stadium unlike the unloved old Delli Alpi stadium. Gone is the running track and stands stepped back from the pitch. Instead there is a tight stadium with tiers close to the pitch rising steeply up from close to the sidelines.

Purchased online, €30 has got me a ticket in the second tier in the Curva Nord. The roof above has four elegant curved toblerone steel roof trusses around the perimeter. Four column ties mean that it is not quite an uninstructed view for some in the ground but there are great sight lines from where I am in the top tier. Pictures of Juventus legends adorn the stadium exterior and interior including one of current Ireland manager and former Juve coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Juventus, who are unbeaten in the league this season, are looking get a win to keep pace with Milan who won 4-0 earlier in the day. The small pocket of Chievo fans down below me to my right make themselves heard. They give it the “Juve Juve vafanculo” chant that seemed to offend the Juve fans when the Shamrock Rovers fans sung it at them when the clubs played in Europe in 2010!

The home side open the scoring after 17 minutes. Andrea Pirlo floats a free-in evading everyone but the post. The luck is with the bianconeri though as the ball bounces out to the unmarked Paulo De Ceglie who heads home unmarked. Chievo don’t really trouble Gianluigi Buffon’s goal in the second half. They force a couple of set pieces but it looks like they can’t break down the Juve defence marshalled by Giorgio Chiellini. Or so it seems until the team from Verona score on the break with fifteen minutes remaining. The ball comes to Boukary Drame outside the box and the Senegalese player’s shot is deflected into the net off a Juve defender for the equaliser.

To find the winner, manager Antonio Conte brings on Alessandro Del Piero, a player it seems who isn’t far off the age of that famous shroud housed in the Duomo. Juventus press forward during the five minutes of injury time and Pirlo gets a right foot shot away from 25 yards. The Chievo ‘keeper Sorrentino, who has got plenty of verbal abuse all night, dives full length to palm away Pirlo’s powerful shot. It is another draw for Juve, their 12th in 25 league games.

The home crowd voice their disapproval with a chorus of boos at the end. The Chievo players run to their supporters at the north-east end of the ground to celebrate. Jerseys are thrown into the away crowd as the crowd empties in the home end. I don’t understand Italian but I can comprehend the tone of the conversations on the tram back into Turin city centre. Two points dropped was the message I picked up anyway. Time to head home for me; some domestic football awaits back in Ireland!

Four Continent Football – Asia (Germany v Ireland)

February 10, 2012 1 comment

A recent discussion on the games that you would tell their children about got me thinking about, out of all the many matches I’ve attended, which were the stand out games? Well to help me choose I thought I’d pick a match from each continent I’ve attended games in. So here we go with this four in a row with a games chosen from Europe (a Shamrock Rovers match), South America (a Brazilian club game), Africa (a World Cup match) and one from Asia where we will start.

Germany 1 Ireland 1, Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Japan, 5 June 2002

I’ve been lucky to attend matches at seven international football tournaments but only once was I there to see Ireland play. Ten years ago was the last time Ireland qualified for such tournament. Minus their captain from the qualifying campaign (you may remember hearing about it!), Ireland travelled out to Japan for the group stages of the World Cup. In their opening game, Ireland drew 1-1 with Cameroon before facing Germany in the second group game. It is this match against Germany that will live long in my memory.

The game was played in Ibaraki, a two hour train ride from Tokyo where most of the Irish fans were based. Arriving on the afternoon of the game it was clear that the Irish fans were going to outnumber the German fans by about ten to one. The Japanese locals were much amused by the leprechaun hat wearing, infallible hammer brandishing and olé olé singing Irish fans. We even got them to join in singing “Oo-ah-konnichiwa” at the game!

The buses from the train station to the stadium were rammed with Irish and Simon Kuper, the Financial Times football correspondent, wedged beside me in the bus was trying to get opinions on Roy Keane amongst the chants of “You’ll never beat the Irish”. The chant would turn out to be correct for once as the Irish would claim one win and three draws in the tournament before elimination on penalties later in the competition.

Unlike the other Japanese venues that Ireland played in, the Kashima Soccer Stadium was an intimate enough football arena with no running track between the 35,000 in attendance and the players on the pitch. The stadium had Irish flags flying from every corner of the world and in everyone corner of the ground including at least four Shamrock Rovers flags that were there that evening. It was a sea of green behind the goal Shay Given defended in the first half and the players drew inspiration from the thousands of fans that had made the trip to Japan.

Niall Quinn: “I speak for all the players when I say that what’s really made the experience out here for us has been the supporters. They have been incredible. It really has been extraordinary. Take Ibaraki. We’re playing a world super-power in Germany, with its huge population and, yet, there just seemed to be sporadic little groups of fans wearing their colours. Then you go to the other end of the ground and there’s just this green and white all covering more than a third of the stadium. I can’t describe the boost it gives a team. If someone ever needed to measure the worth of playing for his country, it’s that kind of image that will tell him.”

Miroslav Klose put Germany 1-0 up just before the 20 minute mark with one of the five headed goals he scored in the tournament. Ireland had lots of possession in the game, close to 60%, but couldn’t break the Germans down within the 90 minutes. Ireland were facing elimination if they couldn’t salvage anything from the game, knowing realistically without a point in Ibaraki even a win against Saudi Arabia in the next game would not be enough to progress. It would have been a massive disappointment for everyone to head home without getting out of the group.

Like many Irish fans, I had put aside the horror talk of the expense of Japan to travel out to the World Cup. Tokyo with its bright lights, bullet train and sushi conveyor belt restaurants was just so different from Dublin. I remember being amazed that in Japan they had mobile phones that could take photos; this was obviously cutting edge technology back then! I’d flown out to the tournament with a certain level of expectation following qualification out of a group with Portugal and Holland. Roy Keane’s departure had soured the start of the tournament for Ireland and threatened to derail our chances of progression. My memory is that most of the fans who had travelled out would have sided with Mick McCarthy on the Roy Keane saga as they had made the effort to travel to the tournament and couldn’t understand why Keane wouldn’t just get on with it and see the “worth of playing for his country” as Quinn described earlier.

In the second half, the 7,000 or so Irish fans were in full voice willing their team on to find the equaliser. With time ticking away, I kept saying that Ireland would get one more chance and implored the team to stick it away when that opportunity arose. Style went out the window and it was a case of just calling for the ball to just go long. What happened in the 92nd minute made all the effort and cost of travelling to the Far East more than worthwhile.

A quick Gary Breen throw in is collected by Steve Finnan who pumps it long to Quinn. His flick on finds Robbie Keane who has left his marker Dietmar Hamann and burst by Carsten Ramelow to get his shot away. Would and could Oliver Kahn be beaten? Well, he gets a touch and then the ball glances the post. Time stands still in the away end until we see the net bulge. It is mayhem as the Irish fans go everywhere celebrating the goal. There is no time for Germany to find a winner and the Irish players celebrate down in front of us after the game as if they’ve won the World Cup. As Quinn said later, “The support of these people made it so much sweeter when we equalised.”


Nobody wants to leave the ground at the end. When we eventually leave, it seems we float out of the stadium propelled by the exhilaration of that injury time goal. There are hugs and high fives all around us and that is just me with any Japanese person I can see. The bus on the way back to the train station reverberates with the singing of “Who put the ball in the German net?…Robbie, Robbie”.

On the long train journey back to Tokyo, the adrenaline eventually subsides with the logistics of getting to Korea and the next round are talked through. We arrive back into Tokyo close to two in the morning. At our station about 7 or 8 fans get off the train. The Station Master has kept the station open for this incoming football special train. He bows to acknowledge us and probably the fact he can close up and go home. However, I’m thinking he has seen the game and is acknowledging the part Ireland have played in the World Cup, the exciting match finish and the fans who celebrated the draw as if it was a win.

This draw allowed us to go on to Seoul in the next round. I’d spend a week in Korea, attending three more games, watch the heartbreak of Ireland’s elimination on penalties, travel to the demilitarised zone and North Korea and spend an amazing night on the streets of Seoul with150,000 Koreans watching their team knock out the Giovanni Trapattoni led Italian team. But none of this would have happened without that late late goal in Ibaraki.

This June, Ireland get to play with the big boys once again in a major tournament after a decade looking at the party on the TV only. No doubt the country will descend into football madness. It is expected that there will be ten to fifteen thousand Irish fans travelling to Poland for the European Championships some of them veterans of Euro 88, Italia 90, USA 94 or Japan/Korea 2002. Most likely, only four players will have that big tournament experience; Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. Keane, like his team mates and the fans at home and those who will travel to Poland, will be hoping for another piece of magic like his 91 minute and 42 second strike all those years ago.

Next up in Four Continent Football will be South America and a game from the Brasileirao played in Rio de Janeiro.