The draw for Euro 2016 has paired Ireland and Scotland together for the first time since 1986, and while the Irish are placed in Group D as second seeds, with Germany already installed as favourites for the tournament, and Poland and the Scots involved, new boss Martin O’Neill would have wished for a far easier road to France.
Former Scottish international Gary Mackay is a cult figure in Ireland. His goal away to Bulgaria in 1987 secured an unlikely victory and in the process sent the Republic to their first ever finals, the European Championship in Germany. There, in Stuttgart, another Scot, an adopted Irishman Ray Houghton, scored the most famous header in Irish football history, the winner against England.
This is a tough draw for Ireland. Republic fans have been boosted by the appointment of O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane as we feel certain we will see much better performances than under Giovanni Trapattoni. While we had success in reaching Euro 2012, Irish fans hated the style of football played under Trap and games were played in a half-empty Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Even before the draw, Irish fans were confident we could qualify for Euro 2016 because of the expanded format. But now, things are not so clear. Germany beat us 6-1 in Dublin in the World Cup 2014 campaign, our highest ever competitive defeat. They beat us again in Cologne, after Giovanni Trapattoni had already been shown the door.
Scotland represent a Celtic derby and while the atmosphere between the supporters will be incredible, the two qualifying games are likely to be thunderous encounters. Scotland have been improving under Gordon Strachan and while the Tartan Army have seen lean times in recent years, unable to grace the major finals, the Scots have managed to achieve what Ireland couldn’t. Wins against the likes of Holland, France, and Croatia represent victories over higher-ranked teams in qualifying. Year after year seems to pass when Irish fans still refer back to our 2001 triumph over Holland, the last time Ireland managed that feat (unless you count our 0-1 win in Paris to send that infamous play-off to extra-time).
In fact, we have to go back to a February night in Hampden Park in 1987 and a Mark Lawrenson goal for the last time Ireland defeated a main qualification rival away from home.
The best forgotten Nations Cup competition in Dublin was only memorable for two things, a trophy for Ireland and the galvanising effect it had on the squad, ultimately leading to Euro qualification, and the Tartan Army, who made the trip across the Irish sea in huge numbers and were a welcome sight in the pubs of Temple Bar. We can look forward to more of the same and repaying the favour in Glasgow.
Elsewhere in the group, there’s plenty of cause for concern for Mssrs O’Neill and Keane.
Georgia were involved in qualifying for World Cup 2010. Ireland were fortunate that our first game was played in the neutral venue of Mainz, Germany, where we secured a vital win. This time around, it will not be an easy place to go to.
Playing Poland will be massively popular among Irish fans. The chance to return to the country after Euro 2012 is likely to see huge interest among the Green Army. On the pitch, however, this is another tricky contest. In recent times, we have beaten Poland in Dublin, and drawn away in Martin O’Neill’s second game in charge. What is for certain is that Poland will enjoy huge support in Dublin. In our two most recent encounters at Croke Park, and the Aviva Stadium, Polish supporters outnumbered the home crowd.
On paper, as a second seed, Ireland would be expected to beat the lower ranked sides, both home and away in this qualifying campaign. That will be easier said than done against Georgia, Poland, and Scotland. With the greatest respect to Gibraltar, anything less than two wins would be seen as a disaster. In their first ever campaign, however, Gibraltar will play with massive pride, and sometimes even that can be enough to get a result against top sides. In the past Ireland have suffered embarrassments against the likes of Liechtenstein, Macedonia, San Marino and Cyprus.
Having said all that, under O’Neill and Keane, Ireland have a formidable new management team. Many are already saying Germany will win the group and the rest will battle it out for the second automatic qualifying spot. Don’t be so sure. Especially with Roy Keane as part of the set-up, Ireland will be 100% committed to trying to win every game, including against the Germans.
In the past, players who were not good enough still maintained the favour of Giovanni Trapattoni. That won’t be the case under our new management. Expect to see our best players picked in their best positions, something that didn’t always happen under Trap.
In Everton’s Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, perhaps still a contentious issue for the Scots, Ireland have two of the most in-form players in the Premier League.
For Irish fans, however, this group has some fantastic away trips to countries we already love, Germany, Scotland, and Poland. And it’s fair to say, those nations also love the Irish fans. It’s likely that Gibraltar will play their games in Portugal, an attractive proposition for the Green Army. Last time we never got to visit Georgia, so many will be keen to make that trip too.
The Germans, Scots, Polish and Irish all in one group? Apart from the games, which are likely to be massively competitive, the parties among the fans will be legendary. This could be the most fun qualifying campaign in world football.