Time We Sprung the Play-Off Trap

GIVEN the law of averages we’re due one, aren’t we? No, I’m not talking about a smile from Mick McCarthy, or an expression from Trap that doesn’t leave the nation baffled (cats in bags – what?), but a win in a play-off. It doesn’t have to be a nine-goal thriller. Or even a thriller, for that matter. At this stage there aren’t many people who wouldn’t take a scrappy affair as long as it ends with us packing our bags (without cats please, Giovanni) for Poland and the Ukraine next Summer.

The Euros will kick off on June 8, but who can believe it will be more than ten years since we featured in one of football’s big draws? It was June 1 when Matt Holland scored the equaliser against Cameroon in our first game at the 2002 World Cup. Fifteen days later we were heading for the exit door, having lost to Spain on penalties. And we haven’t been back at a major tournament since.

Contrast those fortunes with the Spaniards. They’ve won both the European and World Cup titles since. Admit it – we’d just have been happy to compete there.
I can remember being in Lansdowne Road for the last home friendly before we set off for the World Cup (that bloody ‘Sayonara Connemara’ song is still trapped in my head), watching Ireland and their opponents Nigeria lapping up the applause from the fans at the final whistle.

You’d never have believed that in a short space of time the same Irish fans would be calling for Mick McCarthy’s head, then doing the same when Brian Kerr and Stephen Staunton failed to get us to the promised lands of Portugal (2004), Germany (2006), Switzerland/Austria (2008) and South Africa (2010).

Of course there have been times when we just weren’t good enough to dominate our groups and qualify directly. No point denying it. But the real sickener is when you get through the groups and make play-offs. That little spark of hope flickers into a flame and you begin to think maybe, just maybe, that we might do it this time, only to end up with a kick in the unmentionables.

So where did this expectation come from? Well, it probably goes back to the days when we punched above our weight and followed up on our appearance at the 1988 European Championships in Germany with a place at Italia 90.

Although we went on to make yet another World Cup appearance in 1994, we had eight dismal years inbetween that and the 2002 World Cup. We were torn asunder by a top class Dutch team in Anfield in 1995, then swept away by the Belgians in a torrential downpour in 1997. We also lost on away goals to Turkey in 1999 – one of the most hostile atmospheres I’ve experienced at Lansdowne Road – but that appearance at Japan and Korea proved to be a timely anaesthetic.

Since then? Nothing. Paltry performances in various groups and successive defeats to Switzerland left us in something of a football freefall.
(Maybe it’s an Irish thing, but I have a photo at home of the night Alexander Frei celebrated scoring against Ireland in a Euro 2004 qualifier in Basle. Turning around for the kick-off Frei taunted the Irish bench. Mark Kinsella responded by aiming a bottle of water at the striker. A class photo – if you get the chance, look for it on the Inpho website – it sums up the frustration felt by the team and, ultimately, the supporters.)

Maybe that hurt was the reason for all the anger regarding the Thierry Henry handball in Paris in 2009. Nobody in the stadium knew that he had handled the ball until fans started getting phonecalls from pals at home. The real kick in the teeth was that the goal came when the French were struggling. It was a night when Trap threw caution to the wind – the Italy away game in the group stages had been another – and the team really looked like they could make it to another finals. We had given our all, and just when it looked like we’d make it, there was the kick in the arse that sent us spiralling into defeat.

Perhaps that’s the reason that since the night we got battered by the Russians – one of soccer’s most frustrating evenings in Dublin – we have focused our attentions on the play-offs with fear and dread. The threat of drawing a big name and experiencing the same rollercoaster of emotions would have been too much to bear, so when results and rankings gave us a seeding for the play-offs it was like someone had answered one of our prayers.

Getting Estonia was another huge coup – maybe a payback from God for the Irish team’s trip to see the Pope in 1990? Either way it has provided us with a golden chance to end ten barren years and give players like Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne one more appearance on the big stage – and us a chance to cheer them on.

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