On Our Way to Paradise?


Unless you’re counting the 90 minutes in Paris which took the infamous play-off to extra-time, Ireland haven’t beaten a direct qualification rival away from home since a trip to Glasgow in 1987. With the Republic and Scotland reunited in Celtic Park on Friday, can history repeat itself?

Former Scottish international Gary Mackay is a cult figure in Ireland. His goal away to Bulgaria secured an unlikely victory and in the process sent the Republic to their first ever finals, the European Championship in Germany in 1988. There, in Stuttgart, another Scot, an adopted Irishman Ray Houghton, scored the most famous header in Irish football history, the winner against England, to kickstart a revolution in Irish sport.

The draw for Euro 2016 paired the Boys in Green and the Scots together again, and while the Irish were placed in Group D as second seeds, the build-up in Scotland this week has Gordon Strachan’s side billed as favourites. Simply put, they think they’re better than us.

While we had success in reaching Euro 2012, Irish fans hated the style of football played under Giovanni Trapattoni and games were played in a half-empty Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

“John O’Shea’s last-gasp equaliser in Germany has given Irish football a massive shot in the arm. The buzz around the national team hasn’t been seen for years and anything up to 15,000 away supporters could be in Glasgow this week.”

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.

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. On that night, the Boys in Green enjoyed big support, but that’s likely to be dwarfed by the size of the Green Army on Friday. Packie Bonner has suggested this week that Scotland may have made a mistake by staging the game at Celtic Park. Gordon Strachan has also said the build-up to this game has overshadowed the Scots’ meeting with England next week.

The 2011 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.

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, especially with our free-fall in the FIFA rankings giving credence to Scotland’s confidence this week.

In Everton’s Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy – the latter’s allegiances still a contentious issue for some Scots as evidenced by the build-up to Friday night – Ireland have two of the most in-form players in the Premier League. McCarthy is struggling for fitness but in Coleman, Ireland have a formidable threat on the counter-attack, a tactic Martin O’Neill is likely to employ given how we frustrated the Germans.

Despite one Scottish paper’s assertion that Strachan’s team is superior in every position, Ireland will expect far more attacking opportunities than they enjoyed in Gelsenkirchen. Scotland are not Germany. O’Shea’s heroics have put a huge spring in the step of Irish football. On Friday, we could be in for another giant leap in expectation.

Upon his appointment as Scottish manager, Gordon Strachan stated:

I want to make the squad give something back to this country. The fans are probably more famous than the team right now.”

The Irish have stepped in for us but hopefully the Scottish and Irish can get together at a major tournament. It would make one hell of a party”

Unfortunately, there’s little room for sentiment in football. This weekend could go a long way to deciding if it’s one or the other who makes it to France in two years time.

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