So, the great Polish adventure is finally at an end. As the last of the weary and bleary Irish fans trickle back home from Prague, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and beyond, they can look back at an incredible few weeks where they have done themselves and their country proud.
The football may not have been pretty but the Irish didn't let it get in their way of having a great time. I think it has been well documented how brilliant the Irish fans have been and whether or not you agree with the 'singing at any cost' approach or who the some of the chants were aimed at, there was not one hint of trouble from any Irish fan over in Poland. I think the majority of Irish fans over in Poland will say that they had a great time regardless of the results. It is a testament to the Irish spirit that the reaction to losing and playing badly is not to go out and be aggressive and make trouble but to look for positives and try and enjoy yourself regardless. It makes for an incredibly relaxed environment where all fans don't have to worry about any threat of violence.
It never fails to amaze me the lengths that some people went to to be at Poland. It was remarkable. I heard about and met some Irish fans travelling from Tasmania, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Nigeria and New Zealand just to be there to see the Irish team and to enjoy the experience of being at the tournament.
Italy 2 - 0 Ireland
Despite the scoreline, Ireland gave a better account of themselves against Italy on Monday evening. Beforehand, I never really felt that Ireland would get anything out of the match but it was good to see us have a go and give the Italians a bit of a scare. Again, silly mistakes cost us dearly and it was only a sublime finish by Mario Balotelli in the dying minutes that sealed Italy's win. I think that if Ireland had gone into that match with something more than pride to play for we could have taken something from the match. The Italians were good on the ball, passed it around very well but lacked the cutting edge of Spain. Ireland certainly rattled the Italians in the second half as we pushed for an equaliser but we just didn't get a break. Tired minds and bodies perhaps. Overall, I feel that it was the Italian's determination and their greater need for a victory that saw them through in the end. I can see better teams than Ireland having more success against the Italians in the latter stages of the tournament.
It's a pity that the match will probably be the last time we see the likes of Damien Duff, Shay Given and possibly Richard Dunne line out in green (or white as it was on this occasion). They have all given so much for Ireland over the past 10-15 years and will be rightly remembered as legends of the Irish game for generations to come.
Change. A favourite word of politicians during election time. Change is good. Change is needed. Change for the better. As the dust settles on our campaign and thoughts turn to the World Cup qualifiers, Giovanni Trapattoni will have a big job on his hands to lift morale and get Ireland back to winning (or more likely drawing) ways. Inevitably, there has been a lot of talk about this word change. Changing formations, freshening up the squad and playing a more attractive, modern style of football seemingly is what is needed.
Trapattoni has talked about some of the senior players staying on to help with this transition and ease the fringe players into a central role. As we do not have an immediate replacement for Richard Dunne it would be a big loss if he was to hang up his international boots. Whatever happens over the next few weeks one thing is certain, Ireland need to bring in younger, fresher players. Ireland had the oldest squad at these European Championships and Trapattoni has stuck with his core 11 which started against Croatia and Italy for far too long. I personally think this Irish team peaked against France in the World Cup playoff in November 2009. More than 2 and a half years on it is almost the same starting 11 lining out.
This has to, er, change. Players like James McClean, James McCarthy, Anthony Pilkington, Marc Wilson, Seamus Coleman, Greg Cunningham, Wes Hoolahan, and Robbie Brady need to be introduced or given a bigger role over the next 12 months. Current squad regulars like Shane Long, Jon Walters, Darron Gibson and Keith Fahey should be promoted to more senior positions in the squad. We need to start building a new generation of players and Trapattoni has to trust these young players. Whether or not he will bring them in, or indeed trust them, is another matter. We have only one friendly against Serbia in August before our World Cup qualifying campaign kicks off in Kazakhstan on the 7th September. The work should start now.
Trap has experimented before with a young team and a different formation in an entertaining 3-2 friendly loss to Uruguay in March 2011. This was done through a combination of injuries and player departures, with Stephen Kelly captaining the side as he was the most experienced Irish player available at 27. James McCarthy started in behind the lone forward man, Shane Long, in a 5 man midfield, and was seen as the creative force to make things happen. After the match this style of play was quickly abandoned, seemingly confirming Trapattoni's opinion that he did not have the players at his disposal to play a more creative, possession based game. Whether or not he will revisit this playing style for our next campaign remains to be seen.
This tournament has been a wake-up call for many people, myself included, as to how good this Irish team really is and how far behind other European teams we are. We were by some distance the poorest team in this competition. Despite the Irish fans' singing that the table is upside-down, it most certainly told us the cold, hard truth, we just weren't good enough. We have never been amongst the best technically so it was no surprise to be out-passed in all our matches, but we usually have more team spirit, more physicality, more of a go and more fight than the opposition.
The fact that all of these attributes were sorely lacking for most of our participation was probably the most disappointing thing. Ireland limped out, scoring just a solitary goal and conceding 9. We just didn't seem up for it. Maybe it was nerves, pressure, lack of experience, only the players and management knows what really went wrong. It seems a long time ago that we were banging on about unbeaten streaks and clean sheets. The simple fact of the matter is that under Trap we have not beaten teams ranked above us in competitive games.
The Lads on tour
Despite the Irish performance and results, the group of us that went over to Poland - Baz, Jimbo, Bleeksy and myself - had an amazing time. It was a pretty intense experience, being on the move every few days; Frankfurt, Berlin, Poznan, Gdansk, Poznan, Berlin, Frankfurt. In some ways it is good to be home! The Irish may be the best fans in the world but we are also probably the dirtiest and smelliest. It was a less than joyous experience sharing communal bathrooms with a hostel full of Irish men.
Despite this it was still great craic, and meeting all the Irish fans as well as the Croatian, Spanish, Italian and Polish fans was brilliant. Everybody we met was always in good humour and up for a laugh and all the fans mixed well. Our group had some pretty funny and ridiculous conversations, as well as some outlandish statements made. Most of these aren't suitable for print but some of the more 'PC' highlights include an in-depth conversation on the merits of Immac as well as Baz exclaiming on the train from Poznan to Gdansk that he would stay off the 'wets' for our 4 days in Gdansk. He lasted less than 5 hours.
Most of the Irish fans' moods remained fairly buoyant and positive in the hours and days after the defeats. Our group tried to believe we could pull off the miraculous result against Spain, but in reality I think we all knew it was over after Croatia, even if we couldn't admit it to ourselves at the time.
Despite being so close to the action we were in many ways more distant than the watching public back in Ireland as to what was really going on. We were living in one big bubble, disconnected from the world of internet, newspapers and TV for most of the trip. We didn't know what was happening with the Irish team and the reaction of the people back home. But we didn't really care. Most days consisted of doing a bit of walking around whatever city we were in, but, whatever token efforts of tourism we attempted, we always finished up in time to watch that day's football offering. We mostly tore the arse off it when it came to drinking. The daily diet consisted of kebabs, Subway, baguettes, KFC or whatever quick and easy fast food was available. All washed down with glass upon glass of Poland's finest beer. Bars stayed open all night and drink was cheap. A winning combination for the Irish!
Gdansk is definitely worth a trip back, it is a really beautiful town, laid back, historic and close to the Baltic Sea. Sopot, a few kilometres from Gdansk and where the Irish team were based for most of the tournament, is another stunning place, with white sandy beaches, a lovely promenade and a whole host of bars, restaurants and nightclubs on offer.
It is weird writing this final blog in a quiet house on a farm in Co. Tipperary, far removed from masses of Irish people wandering around outside, or from a dark internet café listening to Irish lads trying to remember where their hostel/hotel/apartment/tent/campsite was or trying to find their friends they may have separated from the night before. On our first night in Poznan Bleeksy met an Irish fan who had just arrived but his friends apparently thought he was due to arrive the following day. He couldn't get in contact with any of them and didn't know where he was staying so he slept on the floor of our room that night. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip. Another thing we found out to our delight is that Bleeksy snores like a horse. A giant, drunk horse with a heavy cold.
Most nights we would take turns waking him up and politely ask him to sleep on his stomach or to just simply shut up. Many nights' sleep was ruined by the loudest snorer known to man. By the time we arrived in Gdansk, about 4/5 days into the trip, Baz had had enough and checked himself into a hotel just so he could get a proper night's sleep. It was great to be finally arrive back to my own room and enjoy the blissful sound of uninterrupted silence. All in all though, we got on really well, had some great laughs, and will definitely consider a similar trip to Brazil in two years time if we get there - only as long as Bleeksy gets his own room!
Anyway, I think that just about wraps things up from me. I hope all 7 of you enjoyed reading my blogs as much as I enjoyed writing them - mostly hungover in a dark internet cafe I may have previously mentioned. I hope you were able to get some insight into what it was like as an Irish fan out in the thick of things 'researching' on your behalf. Enjoy the rest of the tournament and see you in Brazil!! Oh, since you ask, Spain.
Unsurprisingly, the Spanish team put this weakest of Irish teams to the sword, without as much as breaking a sweat. Spain were absolutley class and if there is any small consolation for Ireland is that this Spanish team in that kind of mood will beat just about anyone. But we didn't help ourselves did we? Ireland have conceded a goal in less than 4 minutes in each half of football we have played at these championships. That is 4 goals down, without even having settled into the game. It is amazing that a team built on a rock solid defence has been so pourous, even against the calibre of team we have been playing against. It makes it virtually impossible to have any chance if you leak goals so quickly and easily. 4-0 may have looked harsh but it was completely deserved and could have been even more. I hope Spain can go on and win the Euros now and I can see them doing it, they look really up for it and I don't think 'hunger' or 'tiredness' will be issues for this team.
Stand up for the Boys in Green?
There has been a really positive reaction to how the Irish fans outsang their Spanish counterparts last Thursday. The atmosphere in Gdansk was, again, unbelievable. For the last few minutes of the match and beyond the final whistle all of the Irish fans were on their feet singing The Fields' of Athenry. Even though I didn't sing along, I thought it was amazing that the Irish fans were showing their support and devotion to the Irish team in this most trying of circumstances. There is however, a feeling amongst some that it was unneccesary and over-the-top and that it almost justified the performance and the loss. Nobody in Poland, fans as well as players, are happy just to 'be' here. We know our limitations but we still thought we could do ourselves proud and cause a few surprises and maybe scrape through to the quarter finals, a bit like what Greece have done (yet again!). The fact that the Irish fans were singing was to get behind the team, to say that we are with you through good times as well as bad.
Ireland go into tomorrow's match with nothing to play for except pride. Italy, on the other hand, need a win (and other results to go their way) to ensure their place in the last eight. For this reason alone, I don't think Ireland have any chance of getting anything out of the match. I can only see an Italian victory and, unfortunately, it could be 2 or 3 nil. The Italians will be up for it, they know what they have to do, they will have seen how Croatia and Spain have opened us up and they won't fear a thing. The Italians have looked surprisingly good and with Pirlo orchestrating everything for the Italians it could be another long 90 minutes for Irish fans. It would be great if Ireland could restore some pride but I have a feeling that that will have to wait until the World Cup Qualifiers in September.
Back to Poznan
We all arrived back in Poznan yesterday afternoon from Gdansk. There was a great atmosphere here last night for the Poland Czech Republic showdown. There were thousands of Polish people out on the streets of Poznan, despite the torrential downpours, and they were confident they could get the win they so badly needed. Many Irish fans were wearing Polish t-shirts and flags and wanted to get behind their second team. Unfortunately Poland didn't get the result they needed and the Czech Republic and Greece are the first teams into the quarter finals.
Throughout our time in Poznan there have been a number of incidents involving Polish and Irish fans. A few thugs from Poznan enjoy nothing more than attacking unsuspecting Irish and even Polish fans, during the day as well as at night in the city centre. We have met a few Irish and Polish people (including some people staying at our hostel) who have said they have been attacked by groups a guys from Poznan. The vast majority of Poles have been brilliant, really friendly, up for having the craic with the Irish, but it is a pity that this dangerous element exists here in Poznan. In Gdansk there wasn't a hint of trouble, but that town is far more tourist-minded whereas Poznan wouldn't as much of a tourist town. There are big groups of riot police in Poznan, watching on always, ready at a moment's notice to step in if something starts up. Let's hope they won't be needed.
Spain. What can be said about this Spanish team that has not been said before. Quite simply, Spain are a world-class team, boasting what seems like an unlimited stream of talent. They are on course for doing what no other international team has done before: winning three consecutive major championships. Not only are they a technically brilliant team, superior to any other in international football, but Spain also play a style of football that looks deceptively simple and is a joy to watch. Ireland have their system – hit and hope, containment, whatever you want to call it – and Spain have theirs – tiki taka.
Opportunity for greatness
Ireland's task is massive and, if we managed to win, it would rank as the best victory by an Irish team ever. The stakes could not be higher: win/draw or go home. Irish teams tend to perform better when their backs are to the wall, when the chips are down and when they have to come out fighting. I think Ireland were, understandably, tense for the Croatia match. We didn't settle very well. That could have been down to the fans, the weight of expectation and the enormity of the occasion. It was only when we went a goal down that we really started to get into the match, knowing that we had no other option but to go at them.
The mentality of the Irish team should be to go at them from the very first whistle. Let the Spanish know they are in a game and go at them hard. Remember Roy Keane's tackle on Marc Overmars in 2001? Whelan and Andrews should be like Rottweilers, chasing and pressing the Spanish all over the pitch. It doesn't matter if they get booked – go out and put down a marker. I watched the Czechs and Polish performances during the week and they played that way. High intensity from the start, tough, physical football and a hunger to win. Both teams knew they had to get a result and were determined to go and get it. Ireland should take inspiration from those performances.
It is hard to know what tactics Trapattoni will adopt for this match. There have been many rumours here in Gdansk that Trap is going to drop Keane and Doyle, go with Jon Walters on his own up front and have a five-man midfield including Darron Gibson. Many fans seem to have heard this from 'reliable sources', but it will hard to know whether Trap will go ahead with this or stick with his tried and trusted formation. Personally, I think it would be a better to go with the former option. We need more men in midfield to smother the Spanish waves of attack, and Walters is excellent at winning balls in the air and holding it up. He is a big, strong, physical presence and the Spanish won't like dealing with him. If Gibson plays he will need to play his best game by a Swedish mile for Ireland. Gibson can play a nice pass and is good on the ball but far too often he drifts in and out of games. If Trap sticks with his usual system I think Spain will have done their homework on us and they will find it all too easy. I have a feeling Trap won't change from his usual tactics.
Today is our third day in Gdansk and we have all been very impressed so far with the city. It is situated on the Baltic coast and has, so far, catered for the massive influx of Irish fans very well. It is a touch more expensive than Poznan but I suppose that is to be expected, with it being a tourist town. I highly recommend visiting Gdansk if you get the chance. Yesterday was the sunniest day so far in our time in Poland and we decided to head out to the seaside town of Sopot, where the Irish team is based. Sopot is about a 20-minute taxi drive from Gdansk and overlooks a beautiful white sandy beach. The Irish team is based in the Sopot Sheraton Hotel, which is right by the sea, and it appears they lack for nothing by way of facilities. It seems like a quiet little town and is an ideal spot to take it easy away from the madness of Poznan and Gdansk. There were, however, thousands of Irish knocking around Sopot on Wednesday, the vast majority taking advantage of the great weather and heading out from Gdansk for the day.
McClean down the pecking order
I was talking to an Irish fan in Sopot on Wednesday who has been camping there since Monday. I asked him if he had seen any of the Irish team around the town and he said he was talking to James McClean for a few minutes. Apparently McClean said that Trapattoni told him he was behind Stephen Hunt in the pecking order and that he didn't expect to see any game-time during the Euros. McClean said he was disappointed but that he accepted the manager's decision, and was hopeful that he might get on if he was lucky. If McClean doesn't play at all during these championships then it will be a pity because it would be great to see him running fearlessly at defences. At the very least he is gaining good experience for future campaigns and hopefully for future tournaments.
Win, draw or lose... booze
The Irish fans have arrived again in huge numbers for the match. Tickets are noticeably harder to find than they were for the Croatia match, and there are also a lot of Spanish around as well – looking very confident, might I add. The Irish fans are all still in great form, drinking and singing late into the night. We are still in the tournament and anything can happen. The weather in Gdansk is a lot cooler than Wednesday and is actually a bit on the chilly side. There is every chance it could be raining again by kick-off time, just like our match against Croatia. In the hostel where I'm writing this, an Irish fan just came back in from the town centre and stuck on six hot whiskeys. Just enough to wet his beak, as such. I don't know what his other five friends are having though...
Can we do it?
Getting something out of the Spain match will take a monumental effort, a large amount of luck, good tactics and self-belief. As usual where Ireland are concerned, my heart says that we can beat Spain, that the lads will have a serious point to prove and that we can really put it up to them. However, my head says that we just don't have the players, the technical gifts that the Spanish possess, the experience in big game situations, and a squad full of World Cup, European Cup, and Champions League winners. Spain have seen it all and done it all before. They should just have too much for us to cope and I can see them winning easily enough. I really hope I'm wrong.
Well that did not turn out too well.
After all that build up and all the excitement the Irish team failed to deliver on the biggest stage. To say that the fans were disappointed would be an understatement. So where did it all go wrong? I think Slaven Bilic really had his homework done on the Irish team. Croatia certainly had the measure of us. They scored from two corners - it’s unusual for an Irish team under Trapattoni to concede goals like this. Ireland were sloppy on the ball and individual mistakes were punished badly. Despite the element of luck with Croatia's first and second goals, and the performance of the match officials (how they didn't give offside to Jelavic's goal and Robbie Keane's penalty claim is beyond me), I think they fully deserved the win and I felt they had another goal in them if they required it. Luka Modric pulled the strings in midfield, and it was a pleasure to see him play. He is such an intelligent player off the ball and links everything together. He often dropped deep last night to receive the ball and was always at the heart of Croatia's attacks. He is able to beat a man, has great balance, a good strike and is a fine passer of the ball. He looked sharp and hungry. At least the Irish team have got some practice for what they can expect against Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas, Silva et al this Thursday!
Ireland's play was all too predictable, launching long balls up to the forward players with very little in terms of creative play. Croatia looked comfortable for most of the game and dominated possession. The Irish never gave up and, if we had made it 3-2 with 10 or 15 minutes to play, it would have been an interesting conclusion to the match, but Croatia always seemed in full control from 3-1 up.
The Boys in Green
Walking into the stadium in Poznan was an amazing experience. We have waited so long to see Ireland on this stage again. To see and hear 25,000 Irish fans that had made the trip over was incredible. The atmosphere was electric. The fans were in full voice and, despite the performance and result, we roared on the team for the 90 minutes. I've been to a lot of Ireland games over the years and the atmosphere before the match was the best I have ever seen. To be fair to the Croatians, they travelled in big numbers as well and certainly made their presence felt. There was good craic between both sets of fans before the game. There was such a sense of optimism throughout the day and it was heartbreaking that things didn't work out as well all hoped they would. Walking around Poznan today, there were many Irish fans departing for Gdansk or back home to Ireland and spirits were noticeably muted. Croatia was the match we had to get something out of. Saying that, I have no doubt that we will all start to believe again over the next few days that we can get four points from the next two matches and get through to the quarter-finals! We're nothing if not optimistic!
Onwards and upwards
We have to put the Croatia match behind us and look ahead to the next game. There is no use in being negative. We have to believe that we can get something out of the Spain game. It will be a minor miracle if we do of course. Having read about the Spain v Italy match (I missed it due to travelling to the stadium in Poznan) it seemed that it was match of the highest quality: two technically brilliant footballing powerhouses coming together with two distinctive styles. Both goals were fantastic and, despite Italy's domestic football problems, they seem well up for this tournament. It could make for very grim viewing over the next week but we have to believe that we can achieve the impossible. What good is it to admit defeat? That would be as good as throwing in the towel and going home. I wrote on this blog before that, if we lost to Croatia, we may as well pack our bags. We may not get anything out of the next two games but we have to try. Positives must be found from the first match and built on and I think Trap should (and I believe will) shake up the team. We might play against Spain with a five-man midfield and with one or two changes in personnel. Aiden McGeady and Kevin Doyle seem the most likely to be replaced. I think Jon Walters should start the next game as I thought he did okay when he came on last night. He is strong and fast, and has good feet and could unsettle the Spanish defence. Trapattoni will have a job on his hands in trying to raise his team's spirits, but it has been done before. We went to Paris in November 2009 needing to win and the team put in the performance of their lives and played France off the park for most of the match. We need to recreate that same belief, that same hunger, that same desire that we can go out and compete against the best and beat the best.
So the big day is finally here. It has been a long, long time coming. The eyes of the football world will all be on Ireland and Croatia tonight. Ireland's biggest football match in 10 years is only hours away. The scene is set. Bring it on!
Lets get one thing straight, the Irish team are not here to make up the numbers. We are here to win and the team firmly believe they can go far in this tournament. And why can't they? That is the mentality that Trapattoni has instilled into the team.
There is no doubting the size of the task that awaits Ireland tonight. Croatia's key man is, of course, Luka Modric. He pulls the strings for the team and scores more than his fair share of goals. If he is afforded the same time and space on the ball that the Hungarians were last week then there is no doubt he will score. The key to getting something out of tonight will be making sure that he is not allowed to play his natural game. Pressing and pressuring the opposition and unsettling them will be the main task of the midfield duo of Andrews and Whelan. Keane and Doyle will be required to drop deeper to help out the midfield with this task as well. Another towering performace from the Iron Curtain Richard Dunne won't hurt Ireland's chances either.
Croatia appear to be vulnerable in defence and finished second in their qualifying group behind Greece. Croatia have conceded more goals than Ireland in recent months and I think that Ireland will get a few chances against them. Our set-pieces will be crucial in creating most of our scoring chances.
Doyle v Long
Barring a last minute change by Trap it seems certain that Doyle will start up front against Croatia along with Robbie Keane. Doyle is just off the back of a poor season and despite appearing to be showing better form for Ireland than for Wolves in the recent warm-up matches, there is a feeling amongst many fans that Long should start instead of him. Long has looked very sharp lately and it seems the injury he sustained in the early part of the season is well behind him now. The Irish squad contains probably the strongest set of forwards that I can remember. Trap has very good options to bring on and I expect Long or Walters to come off the bench tonight and make a significant impact when they do.
I believe that if Ireland can contain the midfield, and learn the lessons from the last Monday's match against Hungary, we can have a real chance of beating Croatia. I think that we will create chances, and we will have a few set-piece routines kept up our sleeve, especially for tonight. The big fear is that if we let Croatia, and Modric, get a grip of the game they could run riot. The Irish team will be fresh and focussed and will all know their task. I don't think that they will let Croatia settle and I predict that we will win 1-0.
As usual the Irish fans have turned out in massive numbers and it will be a sight to behold in the stadium tonight before kick off. It really is incredible how many Irish people travel to major football tournaments. We will turn tonight's match into a home game, which should be a big boost to the team. Everyone will be getting behind the lads tonight and we will be making our presence felt. There have been a good few Croatian fans around Poznan but they are outnumbered by at least 10-1 by the Irish. There are Irish absolutely everywhere and everyone was is in great form last night in Poznan. The main square in Poznan, Stare Miasto was like something out of Oxegen and drinking went on until the early hours of the morning.
We travel in hope more than expectation. Most fans I've been talking to understand the limitations of our squad and are happy to have a good time despite what happens over the next ten days. However, I think that Ireland have it in them to win tonight and take a giant step towards the quarter-finals. It's time to believe!
In the latest installment of Irish football songs I have chosen probably the most famous song of them all. I think the occasion warrent's it. This will be sung into the wee small hours if we can do the business tonight. Enjoy.
No Glove, No Love
The Irish team arrived at their Polish training base in the small seaside town of Sopot in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The players were welcomed by the locals in an open training session on Tuesday and the team then had the day off on Wednesday. All week, and indeed, since the squad assembled, rumours abounded over the fitness of goalkeeper Shay Given.
He was taken off at half time in the friendly against Hungary on Monday evening and visited a specialist in London last week to assess the condition of his knee. The management have said that he will be fine even despite taking a limited part in training yesterday. Marco Tardelli said that Given just needed to rest and that only knows what he can and cannot put his body through. As the oldest member of the Irish squad, at 36, it appears Given needs to pace himself more than he used to.
It was reported that he took a full part in training today so let’s hope that he keeps fit and healthy for us throughout the next few weeks. It appears that no other members of the squad have any injury concerns so Trapattoni should have a full squad to pick from on Sunday.
Lads on tour
Wednesday evening, 20:15. My mate Baz and myself boarded a flight to Frankfurt-Hahn to kick off the first leg of our trip to Poland. When we booked the flight we initially thought we were flying to a different Frankfurt, one that is on the border of Germany and Poland, a few short hours from Poznan, but to our surprise and embarrassment we realised that we were flying to the Frankfurt that was 5 hours west of Berlin.
Geography has never been my strongest subject. Thankfully we have a few days to make it to Poznan without rushing. The flight was full of Irish and there was great buzz of excitement on the flight. We spent the night in a hotel at the airport and caught a train to Berlin yesterday morning.
We have seen loads of Irish fans around the city centre, all proudly wearing Irish jerseys. More friends are arriving into Berlin tonight and tomorrow and we will meet a lot more in Poznan in the next few days. I imagine Poznan must be getting pretty lively and we can't wait until we arrive there tomorrow evening. Tomorrow will be some night!
With a little over 5 days to go until Ireland kick off against Croatia I think it's time we look a bit more closely at current state of the Irish squad. After the shambolic reign of our previous manager Steve Staunton, the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni was nothing short of a Godsend. He quickly restored order, and imbued a sense of purpose, cohesion and discipline. He has also increased the depth of the squad and given Ireland good options off the bench. Trapattoni has not been without his critics - there are many who see his approach as one-dimensional, questioning his exclusion of some of the more creative players in pursuit of the players who follow and fit the 'system'. The system in question is a rigid 4-4-2 with a flat back four and two midfielders playing in a defensive role, breaking up play and hitting it up-field to a target man, usually Kevin Doyle, trying to win free kicks and throw-ins in attacking positions and nicking the odd goal from well-practised set-pieces. The wide players, usually Duff and McGeady, are the attacking threats but also cover the full backs when the opposition have possession, which is almost all of the time.
Trap does not do change (in tactics or in personnel) unless it is forced upon him and we can expect more of the same over the coming weeks. Given, Ward, Dunne, St. Ledger, O'Shea, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Doyle, Keane will most likely start for Ireland on Sunday, employing the Jack Charlton tactic of hoofing it long and putting the opposition under pressure. What is somewhat heartening to see is that Trap is willing to change his mind and accept that he might have been wrong on the rare occasion. James McClean is a case in point. Initially Trap said he is one for the future but on further viewings Trap decided that he is also one for the present and has taken him to Poland. Trap's loyalty has gone only so far and he is not afraid to make the tough decisions. Leaving Kevin Foley out of squad was a disappointing affair but he didn't shirk the call and it made sense logically. He is still a pragmatist and these are just rare glimpses of a change of mind.
He doesn't do change, or lack of it, for no reason. The decisions he makes are not to spite the fans or the media who criticise his methods, they are done in order to get the most he can out of small pool of players. It is worth remembering that we don't have 1 player playing for a top 4 Premier League team. The only player we have playing somewhat regularly in the top 5 is Leon Best for Newcastle, and he isn't even in the Ireland squad. Darron Gibson for Everton (who finished 7th) is the highest Irish player from the PL in the Irish squad and - yes, you guessed it - he doesn't start for Ireland. Long gone are the days when half the Irish team played for Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal and Spurs. It is easy to forget that Trap is working with a limited squad. And yet, expectations are high, as they should be because when everyone plays to the system Ireland are very hard to beat and collectively are worth more than the sum of their parts.
The Little Details
Creativity has not been a watchword of Trapattoni's with this Irish team and, quite frankly, we have not been easy on the eye over the past two campaigns. Tiki-taka it most certainly ain't. But, and nobody can dispute this, it has been effective. We were within touching (quite literally in Thierry Henry's case) of qualifying for the World Cup two years ago, and played France off the park in the second leg of our playoff. What ultimately cost Ireland was our profligacy in front of goal. We could, and should have scored more goals in the 90 minutes but we failed to do so and, that ultimately, set the scene for what followed in extra time. Never have I felt so gutted after a football match and it was hard to stomach Henry's 'contrition' towards the Irish team afterwards. The deathly silence that descended over everyone leaving the stadium that night was palpable. The French fans felt they had been lucky and, to be fair to 99% of them, they didn't celebrate out in the streets of St.Denis and rub the Irish fans' faces in it.
We have gone one better this time around and the 'little details' and 'mentalita' that Trap likes to mention have become more ingrained into the minds of the squad. Ireland are currently on an unbeaten run of 14 games, stretching back to March of last year, 11 of which have been clean sheets, with only 3 goals conceded. Grit, discipline, heroism, and the odd slice of luck have all contributed to that impressive run. Under Trap we have climbed up to our current position of 18th in the world rankings, from a position in the high 30s when he took over. Worryingly though, Trap's Ireland have failed to beat a team ranked ahead of them in a competitive game (France playoff apart), and in Poland we face teams ranked 1st (Spain), 8th (Croatia) and 12th (Italy) in the world. Major trends will have to be bucked in order to make it out of the group.
What I'm hoping for is that Ireland can rise to the big occasion, when it really matters, like we did in Paris and Moscow when our backs were to the wall. We usually do well in the group stages - we won our opening games against England in Euro 88 and Italy in WC 94. Nobody is in any doubt as to the importance of our first match. We have to go out and take the game to Croatia and leave the pitch with no regrets. We need a bit more adventure in our play. A conservative approach might prove disastrous. A win, or draw, against Croatia will set us up nicely for the showdown against Italy on June 18th. A loss and we can start packing our bags.
Hungary 0-0 Ireland
The morning after the night before. Just like the weather last night, dark clouds hang over the Irish squad as they make their way to their base in Poland. Ireland were below par in their final warm-up match last night. Maybe we didn't give it 100%, maybe the weather affected the 'mentalita', maybe the team were tired, as Aiden McGeady claimed this morning. Whatever the reasons, we didn't look sharp. How Hungary did not score is beyond belief. They should have scored 3 last night. We had a few chances ourselves but we played in fits and starts. It was backs to the wall stuff from Ireland last night and there was a looseness and sloppiness to our play which was worrying. We didn't close down the opposition and they were allowed shoot almost at will. Given, Westwood and Hunt all made vital saves to keep Hungary at bay. Our midfield was typically overrun and if we play like that against the other teams in our group we'll be hammered.
Thankfully this performance came in a friendly. It should be a bit of a reality check from the sound-bites of the lads in training who are 'flying' or 'buzzing' and it might make a few players realise that they have to raise their games. Whelan, Andrews, Doyle, I'm looking at you. At least the unbeaten run continues and expect the '14 games unbeaten' line to be trotted out several more times before Sunday's opener.
Interestingly, Trap mentioned, or at least I think he did, that he might change his formation to a 4-5-1, in order cope with Croatia's style of play. Hungary play in a similar fashion to Croatia so Trap presumably saw that we couldn't cope so will have to change. Is it a ruse? A bit of gamesmanship from the wily Italian fox? We shall see. Trap is no fool. It would be very unlike him to change his 4 years of a 4-4-2 philosophy with the Irish team 5 days before the start of a major tournament. If he had felt this way then surely he would have tried this out at some stage of the match. Slaven Bilic was in attendance last night and will not have been to concerned with what he saw. Let's hope the problems's are ironed out by Sunday.
In the second instalment of famous Irish football songs, I take you back to where it all began with Joxer goes to Stuttgart. It is the granddaddy of them all, written and sung by Christy Moore and it summed up what it meant to Irish people to be appearing at major tournament for the first time.
Next week Ireland kick off their European campaign against Croatia. Things are starting to get serious now. The Irish team left their base in Montecatini on Sunday and travelled to Budapest for their friendly against Hungary on Monday. The team who play on Monday night should be the team that starts against Croatia next Sunday, barring injuries of course. Below I have included some of the things we can expect for the tournament.
Star of tournament: Joe Lapira. Irish-American one-cap wonder Lapira is reportedly on Trapattoni's standby list waiting for a phone call. Rumours that Terry Dixon might get a call-up are unfounded.
Bet of tournament: England to make the final. No seriously. No expectation, no Rooney for their two most difficult group games, a raft of injuries, and Stewart Downing as the secret weapon. And with Time Magazine Man of the Year John Terry as the defensive cock rock upon which the team is built upon, opposition strikers won't get a sniff chance against him. How can they fail to do well.
Match of the Tournament: Germany v Holland. To be fair, this one could go either way. It will either be a classic or entirely forgettable. However, there is a long and unfriendly rivalry between these two, which always spices things up, and I think this has all the potential to live up to it's billing. Both teams cruised through qualification and appear to be in great form. With the likes of Robben, Van Persie, Huntellaar, Gomez, Ozil, Podolski all featuring it promises to be a thriller. Prediction: 0-0.
Role model of the tournament: Mario Balotelli. Always a class act.
The 'No Pressure, but...' Award: Russia. Should Russia finish second in their group and Germany win theirs then they will meet each other in the quarter finals on the 22nd June. On the 22nd June 1941, the Second World War started for the Soviet Union as Germany launched Operation Barborossa. 3.9 million German troops marched into the Soviet Union, the largest invasion in the history of warfare (thanks Wikipedia). The eyes of a nation and, more importantly, Vladimir Putin will be expecting victory. Prediction: Russia 0 - 2 Germany.
Winners: Polish bar owners. With large numbers of Irish fans expected to travel to Poland, reports vary between 10,000 and 20,000, you can be sure that the bars in Poznan and Gdansk will be drunk dry. Friends who have recently been to Poland say that the local brew costs between €1.50 - €2.00 in local currency. Fans should not expect those prices this summer.
Biggest disappointment: Polish bar owners. If Ireland somehow make it out of the group and continue the party in the Ukraine then all the Polish bar owners will have to remember the Irish by will be the Tyskie fuelled vomit-stained bar stools, green plastic hammers, and all the sweet sweet zloty they are missing out on.
In the first of a series of memorable Irish football songs we look no further than this Euro 2012 attempt. It features Damien Dempsey, Danny O'Reilly (?), The Dubliners and somebody who calls himself 'Bressie' (no, me neither). Click here to enjoy.
Welcome one and all
Hello. This is my first post on the ESPN Euro 2012 Blog. If you have made it this far then a big thank you (except for friends and family who have probably felt some sense of obligation due to payment of pints, cups of tea or just sheer bribery). I'm new to this whole blog thing so I suppose I'll start with a brief introduction. My name is Padraic Nugent and I will be travelling to Poland with a group of friends to follow the Irish team. I've been following the Eire for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest football memories is 'Irish' Ray Houghton's chipper against Italy in USA 94. Funnily enough I don't remember much more from Ireland in that tournament. Fast forward 8 years to the Saipan affair and it caused a major divide in our house. I was firmly in camp Keane and my dad was in Mick McCarthy's tent, pissing out, as it were. Many words like facilities, bibs, respect, car parks, r & r, take me back, traitor, fake injury, were all traded as reasons the other person was right or wrong. The country was torn, and like Keane and McCarthy, nobody could see the logic of the other person's argument. After many tense, uncertain days, when it finally became clear that Keane wasn't coming back, we finally remembered that there were actually football matches to play and we didn't do too badly in the end. And yes, I promise this is the last time I'll mention Saipan.
It has been 10 long years since we have qualified for a major tournament. There have been many near and not so near misses along the way. We are appearing in only our second European Championships. The last time we made it to the Euros was in 1988. I was 3 and have no recollection of that crazy summer in Germany. It's going to be an amazing few weeks, both in Ireland and Poland, and I have a funny feeling I won't have much of a recollection of this tournament either. If you are interested in reading about my views of the Irish team as well as getting the low down on how the Irish fans are enjoying themselves then look no further than here. My opinions might not always be conventional and maybe sometimes I will focus on matters off the pitch but at the end of the day it's just a bit of craic. Over the course of the week I will fill you in on the Irish squad, the tactics, the atmosphere in Poland as well as the odd attempt at humour.
The nitty gritty stuff
After a bit of chopping and changing, accusations of betrayal, and an earthquake things finally seem to be settling down in the Irish training camp. Hopefully.
Shay Given and John O'Shea, the main injury concerns since the squad assembled a week and a half ago, came through a training session today. It was the first time that all players took a full part in training. However, Giovanni Trapattoni suggested that there is still a cause for some concern over the condition of O'Shea's ankle injury. In the Republic of Ireland's last warm up match against Hungary next Monday evening it will up to O'Shea to prove his fitness. "For him it is still a test" said the manager earlier today. Should O'Shea fail to make the grade, the recently exiled Kevin Foley could find himself re-drafted into the squad. Seamus Coleman or Marc Wilson could also find themselves in contention should Trapattoni need some defensive cover.
It goes without saying that losing O'Shea would be a massive blow to the Irish squad. Often derided in the past campaigns for Ireland, O'Shea has been a very important figure in Trap's regime. He has matured his Irish performances under Trap, and is a calming presence in the back-line, something nobody can say for Paul McShane's more, ahem, swashbuckling style of play.
With the exception of John O'Shea, the squad seems to be in rude health. Apart from O'Shea and Given, who will be certain to play next Monday, all members of the squad have got some game time from the recent friendlies in the past week. Our human brick wall, Richard Dunne, seems to be well on the way to regaining full fitness. Having been at the last Saturday's match against Bosnia and Herzegovina I can say that the Irish team looked sharp. It was very positive performance, despite the intensity of the opposition, and there were several players who caught the eye. James McClean looked lively on the ball and this should give him a bit more confidence. After a difficult season, Kevin Doyle looked good as well. He won a lot of ball, held it up well and brought others into play. All four forwards who played (Keane, Doyle, Long, Walters) all did well and will certainly have given Trap something to mull over his post-match glass of chianti. Keane apart, the other forward position is by no means nailed down by anybody. Long is making a strong case for inclusion but I fancy Trap to stick with Kevin Doyle for our opening match on June 10th. The real bright spark of that match was Aiden McGeady. He hit the post, set up several very good chances and crossed for the goal. He won man of the match coming on as a second half substitute. If he felt he had a point to prove he certainly proved it and has cemented his spot on one of the wings for the tournament. If he can recreate that form when it really matters he'll be one of the stars of the tournament.
On a personal note, all my Euro preparations are going according to plan. I applied to get my passport renewed the other day as it runs out at the end of July. Now, some might say that this shouldn't matter as the Euros will be well over by then, but Ukrainian immigration state that anybody entering the country must have a minimum of 6 months left on their passport from the time they leave. What's that I hear? Ireland aren't based in the Ukraine and Poland don't have this law so why worry? Well, one can never be too careful and should Ireland make it out of the group our potential quarter final will be in the Ukraine. Call me optimistic, call me foolish (I've been called worse), but should the unlikely become likely I don't want to hear Roy Keane's words echoing in my ears - Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail.