What a year it’s been for Irish football, both at home and at international level. The Boys in Green united the nation at Euro 2016, Dundalk raised the profile of our own league like never before, and individual players lit up the stage. Here’s ten of the best moments of the last year.
Robbie’s final game
With the crowd willing him on, Robbie Keane did what he has always done in an Irish shirt, by finding the net against Oman, his 68th international goal. But this was the final game of Ireland’s record goalscorer, record appearance holder, captain, and the highest scorer in European Championship qualifying history. Withdrawn from the field after 56 minutes, the Aviva Stadium rose to acclaim one of our greatest ever.
Whole new world for Dundalk
— Dundalk FC (@DundalkFC) December 8, 2016
Irish football might never be the same. Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk side sealed a third title in a row on the domestic front but it was their escapades on foreign fields that has made everyone sit up and take notice. The Lilywhites’ qualifying and subsequently winning in the group stages of the Europa League has put the League of Ireland in the limelight like never before. But apart from their stunning performances on the pitch, the most remarkable thing is the determination of Kenny. Truth be told, he and his players were gutted not to make the Champions League, which speaks volumes. Despite the loss of key squad members, ‘The Town’ have set their sights just as high next season.
They pushed Dundalk all the way in 2016 and had their own commendable European adventure. Cork City’s last-gasp FAI Cup victory over the Louth side was just reward for a club whose own supporters rescued them from beyond the brink in recent years to make them title challengers. With the league’s top scorer Sean Maguire signed on for next season, the Rebels will be hoping to topple Dundalk, as both these sides continue to raise the standard of the domestic game.
Wes’s Swede strike
Four years on from the Euro 2012 disaster, we weren’t quite sure how the Boys in Green would perform when they reached France last summer. Under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, the shackles came off at the finals as we took the game to Sweden in our opening encounter. Shortly after half-time, Seamus Coleman’s jinking run led to the cross for Wes Hoolahan, our diminutive wizard, to smash home on the half volley. Cue delirium in the Stade de France for Irish fans, exorcising the demons of the last time we visited the stadium, and setting us up for a memorable summer.
Shake it up Brady
Tears on the players’ faces and tears in the crowd, will we ever forget Robbie Brady’s winner against Italy and the scenes inside the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille? With the roof closed, the Green Army created a phenomenal atmosphere as the Irish team gave them a performance for the ages. Of course, Italy made multiple changes to their side but as BBC’s Mark Lawrenson pointed out, Ireland too made four changes to the team which lost to Belgium. Again, it was Wes Hoolahan who provided the sublime assist but the pictures of Brady with his family at the final whistle will live as long in the memory as the goal itself.
Prior to the game in Lille, with John O’Shea replaced in the starting XI, Martin O’Neill handed Seamus Coleman the captain’s armband and it has proved an inspirational and transformative move. The Everton full-back is revelling in the role, epitomised in his slow-motion motivating roar to James McCarthy in the defeat of the Azzuri. It seemed to have a galvanising effect too as Shane Long replicated it against the Italian goalkeeper Sirigu. The win put Ireland into the European Championship second round for the very first time. Coleman has kept hold of the armband as the Boys in Green strive to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The Jeff Hendrick experience
Having played with Robbie Brady as a schoolboy, Jeff Hendrick and his fellow Dubliner became the poster boys for Ireland’s Euro odyssey. The midfielder grew in stature in France, with commanding performances against Sweden and Italy. Unlucky not to score at the finals, Hendrick grabbed his first international goal in a vital away draw with Serbia in September and is becoming a key figure in the team. Ireland’s next qualifier with Wales is headed for a sell-out with fans scouring sites for tickets for what could be a pivotal game on the road to Russia. With a big-money move to the Premier League with Burley, Hendrick has again caught the eye with two spectacular strikes, the most recent of which could be a contender for goal of the season.
John Giles’ farewell
He’s been a part of the furniture at RTE but 2016 saw John Giles depart the famous football panel. By all accounts, it was not a move of his choosing but with Damien Duff joining the team, it was felt the time was right to break up the holy trinity of Gilesy, Dunphy, and Brady. Always a rock of sense compared to Dunphy’s more emotional outbursts, Giles was as much a part of the big football occasions as the players themselves. His leaving did afford RTE the opportunity to play him a heartfelt tribute.
Conor McGregor, Michael D Higgins dancing, and the Irish fans
Qualifying for major tournaments means RTE montages and their first featuring Conor McGregor was goosebumps stuff. “The Notorious” is not known for his diplomacy as it requires a certain amount of restraint but for a true football-loving first citizen, Ireland’s president Michael D. Higgins epitomised the joy we all felt when Robbie Brady’s header hit the net against Italy. As the representative of the nation, President Higgins was also swelled with pride by the behaviour of the Irish fans at Euro 2016. By now you’ll all know the videos which have gone viral, from serenading nuns to changing tyres, but while the bandwagon has long since pulled out of France, the goodwill left behind with the French people might never diminish.
James McClean puts us top
Ireland started the World Cup qualifying campaign in less than convincing fashion, and most would have deemed a point from the trip to Austria as satisfactory. Instead Ireland took the game to their opponents, who were guilty of a few glaring misses, but when David Meyler found Wes Hoolahan in midfield, he made it a League of Ireland triple by feeding James McClean for a brilliant finish. In a rich vein of form for the national team, it added to the two goals he scored against Moldova. The 1-0 win represents our most significant away qualifying victory since Scotland in 1987, but more importantly, Ireland sit top of the group going into a huge 2017.