EURO 2016 Preview: Fighting Irish Raring to Go

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The Republic of Ireland are back on the European stage and ready to face Sweden, Belgium, and Italy at Euro 2016. We outline the reasons for their Green Army of fans to dream.

Spirit of the fans

Despite Ireland’s disastrous performance on the pitch at Euro 2012, the famous Irish fans – known as the Green Army – earned plaudits the world over for their spirit and support. They will be in full voice at Euro 2016 in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille and add to the incredible atmosphere of the competition in their own inimitable style. Since Ireland’s first appearance at a major tournament back at Euro 88 when Ray Houghton’s winner defeated England, the world has fallen in love with the Irish supporters. Rewarded by UEFA for their behaviour in Poland four years ago, there were 275,000 ticket applications made from the Emerald Isle to follow Martin O’Neill’s Boys in Green this summer. Nothing unites the country quite like the national team performing on a global stage. The streets will be deserted and the bars and pubs packed for Ireland’s three group games against Sweden, Belgium, and Italy. “Something collective is happening and the people of the country will be behind them.” Those were the words in 2012 of our footballing-loving president Michael D. Higgins and they will be echoed in France when tens of thousands swell the ranks of the Green Army.

The Irish management often bristle when the style of the team is reduced to simply our fighting spirit but it’s the togetherness of the team and supporters which is Ireland’s greatest asset. Determined to make up for their showing four years ago, the Irish go to France with something to prove.

League of Ireland

At Euro 2016 the squad will be made up of a number of players who graduated from the League of Ireland. The much-maligned domestic league provides Martin O’Neill with a growing list of players who cut their teeth at club level in Ireland before going over to make a name for themselves in the UK and beyond..

The squad that went into November’s play-off games against Bosnia & Herzegovina featured 9 former League of Ireland players, including Shane Long (Cork City) whose goal toppled World Champions Germany. Alongside him were Kevin Doyle and David Meyler (Cork City), Daryl Murphy (Waterford United), Wes Hoolahan (Shelbourne), Seamus Coleman (Sligo Rovers), James McClean (Derry City), Stephen Ward (Bohemians) and David Forde (Galway United and Derry City).

Wes Hoolahan

Proof that Ireland are more than brute-strength and aggression, diminutive Wes Hoolahan is the creative beat at the heart of the Irish midfield. Ignored by previous manager Giovanni Trapattoni, Hoolahan is an integral part of Martin O’Neill’s plans even if he doesn’t start every game. Though fresh-faced, Hoolahan turns 34 before the start of the tournament and his journey to the top has been a long one. A star with Shelbourne in the League of Ireland, the Dubliner then had spells in both Scotland and the lower English divisions before making it to the Premier League. At 5ft 6, what he lacks in size, Hoolahan makes up for with ability, earning the nickname from some Irish fans “Lionel Wessi.”

Shane Long

Ireland’s top scorer in the Premier League had to bide his time with Ireland but is now our chief goal threat. He’s scored against the old enemy England at Wembley but it was his winner against world champions Germany in Euro qualifying that made him an instant Irish hero. What’s more, defeating Die Mannschaft in Dublin means the Boys in Green go to France believing no one is unbeatable. Far from fearing Sweden, Belgium, and Italy, the Irish say ‘Bring em on’.

Jonathan Walters

Two-goal hero in the play-off, Jonathan Walters is pivotal to Ireland’s hopes in France. Usually utilised on the wing in a green shirt, the Stoke City man can also be switched up front should the need arise and scored five goals in qualifying. Walters – who qualifies for Ireland through his Dublin mother who passed away when he was just 11 – personifies the heart of this Irish team: “I’m incredibly proud every time I play for Ireland…Once I hear the national anthem, I always think of my mum and how proud she would be.”

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Defence

Ireland’s backline conceded just eight goals in qualifying. Injuries meant the Republic’s defence was chopped and changed throughout but a key feature of Martin O’Neill’s team has been a resolute discipline no matter the personnel. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph was thrust into the fray against Germany after injury to Shay Given, while full-back Cyrus Christie made just his second competitive appearance. In John O’Shea, a European Cup winner and five-time Premier League champion with Manchester United, Ireland possess a warrior defender who marked his 100th cap by scoring a 94th minute equaliser away to the Germans in qualifying..

Robbie Keane

Our captain, record caps holder, and top scorer of all time Robbie Keane may no longer have the legs which made him player of the year three times at Tottenham Hotspur but the Dubliner still has a vital role to play in the Irish squad. The highest scoring striker in European Championship qualifying history, and the top scoring active international, ‘Keano,’ now with LA Galaxy, was voted the 2014 MLS MVP and is consistently referred to as the best import ito the American game. His injury-time equaliser against Germany at the 2002 World Cup announced Keane’s arrival on the world stage and he’s been banging them in ever since. If Euro 2016 is to be his swansong don’t bet against the Irish legend going out with a bang.

Roy Keane

“Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail”
As a player Roy Keane was the snarling, dominating force of the all conquering Manchester United side of the mid 90’s and early 2000’s. As Martin O’Neill’s assistant manager, the Corkman is probably one of the most intriguing and captivating number twos that will be on show in France this summer.

Keane’s infamous bust up with the then manager of Ireland Mick McCarthy, on the island of Saipan in the build up to the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002 led to the Ireland captain leaving the squad before the tournament began. The nation was in turmoil with the Prime Minister of Ireland offering his private jet to fly him back to the World Cup. Keane’s immortal words have now taken on a life of their own and become a mantra for a new professional approach to football in the country.

Martin O’Neill

Ireland’s wily manager pulled off a masterstroke when appointing Keane as his assistant but the Derry native is his own man who has proved at club level with Leicester City, Celtic, Aston Villa, and Sunderland that he’s a superb man-manager capable of motivating players to punch above their weight, As a player, O’Neill studied under the great Brian Clough, winning the European Cup twice with Nottingham Forest and captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup. His finest hour in charge of the Republic? Outwitting Joachim Loew as the Boys in Green humbled Germany (whom they took four points off in qualifying.) The momentum of that victory carried Ireland through the play-offs and confidence is soaring going to France.

The Republic of Ireland will be among the smaller nations competing at Euro 2016 but with their fanatical supporters, the Boys in Green will be backed by one of the largest followings in France. The last time they came to Paris, the Irish suffered heartache at the hand of Thierry Henry but there has always been a great affection between the two countries. The Irish flag owes its origins to the tricolour of revolutionary France, when it was presented as a gift by a group of French women to Irish rebel Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848, and it will be flown in the thousands when the Green Army arrive in their droves in June.

Four years ago, the fans captured the hearts of Europe. Keen to be remembered for what happens on the pitch this time around, the Irish are back, and they’re raring to go.

Main image: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com

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