JUST as it did in 2002, the summer sun will rise in the East for Irish football supporters as the dedicated and the diaspora prepare to reunite in the Polish cities of Poznan and Gdansk. And Derry’s James McClean looks set to be our new star.
We’re still high on the euphoria. The play-off second leg against Estonia at Lansdowne Road was like a classroom full of 50,000 school-kids. Paper aeroplanes rained down from the upper tiers of the Aviva Stadium as the crowd waited for the final whistle and the ecstasy of celebrating qualification for a major tournament for the first time on home soil.
In truth, many fans are planning a trip to Poland planted firmly on the back of Joxer Junior’s bandwagon. No one can deny that Ireland’s qualification campaign wasn’t a trial of endurance at times. As recently as the final game against Armenia, in which the team secured a play-off berth, the Irish players were booed off at half-time by a section of the Aviva crowd.
And when the Czech Republic roll into Dublin later this month, a lifeless performance could do much to deflate the optimism that has surrounded the Irish team despite the anticipation of taking on the might of World Champions Spain in the summer.
There’s every possibility that in the battle for Premier League honours and survival, members of Trap’s Army will be left on the surgeon’s table and could miss out on the Polish adventure making way for new recruits.
Niall Quinn spent USA ’94 in an RTE commentary box while the ‘Three Amigo’s, Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb emerged in the time between qualification and the first tie against Italy at Giants Stadium.
Therefore, what can the Czech game mean for fringe players determined to gate-crash Trapattoni’s squad plans? The Italian has repeated that those who earned qualification deserve to appear in the European Championships. The likes of man-of-the-moment James McClean and Wes Hoolahan won’t fancy their chances of making the plane no matter how much they impress in the Premier League or even in the Aviva friendly with the Derry Die-Hard looking likely to earn-a call up.
And yet, friendlies have proven catalysts for seismic shifts in Trapattoni’s selection policy. Caleb Folan, who seems to have exiled himself in the MLS despite no such impediment affecting Robbie Keane, was parachuted into the squad after impressing in a Dalymount Park meeting with Notts Forest.
The friendly series, the Carling Nations Cup, was noteworthy for the black mark placed against the names of certain players, like Anthony Stokes, who missed the end of season games that also included a qualifier away to Macedonia.
Trapattoni could do worse than allow hungry form players a crack at the Czechs. Such a ‘weakened’ Irish side flourished against Uruguay last year while the 2-0 win over Italy in Liege will form the bedrock for genuine belief that we can turn over Trap’s homeland again in the white heat of Euro group battle.
On the other hand, the ghastly draw with fellow group opponents Croatia will surely have no bearing when the sides meet in Poznan on June 10. It was typical start-of-season shadow boxing. Picking a full-strength side against the Czech will only result in similarly tepid stuff.
McClean is earning rave-reviews for his performances for the Black Cats where manager Martin O’Neill has been championing his international cause. The 22-year-old’s goal last weekend in the snow against Stoke City has ensured the calls for his inclusion in Trap’s squad announcement this week can no longer be ignored.
McClean’s strike at the Brittania Stadium was his third in just eleven games in a clash that set the record for the most amount of Irish starters (seven) in a Premier League game.
More than one commentator has likened him to Damien Duff in his prime and the former Derry City star is just the latest in a quite extraordinary list to have emerged from the League of Ireland conveyor belt.
He is part of a new generation of Irish players who’s standout performances may be forcing Trapattoni’s hand no matter how much he protests that only those who helped Ireland qualify will board the plane to Poznan.
For this reason, unleashing the ravenous pairing of McClean and Wes Hoolahan and the likes of Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson on the Czechs could result in a frenzied showing from players desperate to give the manager food for thought and keep the public’s simmering anticipation bubbling over.