On a cold night in Tallinn on November 11th 2011, there were jubilant scenes among a squad of players in white and green. Ireland had just defeated Estonia 4-0 in the first leg of their Euro 2012 qualification play-off tie, a Robbie Keane double doing most of the damage. Swathes of Irish supporters, who had packed in to the A. Le Coq Arena, serenaded their team with passionate renditions of The Fields of Athenry, revelling in the fact that their team had all but qualified for their first major international tournament in almost 10 years.
The return leg at the Aviva Stadium was a procession, a 1-1 draw to seal a 5-1 aggregate win and complete the job. It was relief more than anything which defined that night. After 10 years of toil and nights of disappointment, Ireland’s supporters would be heading to Poland and Ukraine for another major finals.
Of course, Euro 2012 ended in disaster for Ireland as they lost all three group games, but they made amends somewhat four years later, with a spirited showing at Euro 2016, qualifying for the knockout stages and only narrowly losing out to hosts France in the last 16.
Now, with the next European Championship on the horizon, Ireland face yet more play-off drama if they’re to secure their place at a third successive Euros. Of course, the whole competition is up in the air slightly, having been postponed by a year as a result of the coronavirus outbreak which has forced football all over the world to be put on hold temporarily.
When the whole crisis blows over, Ireland face a tricky play-off pathway if they’re to make it to the finals. Standing in their way of making the finals is a play-off semi-final away at Slovakia, and then a final away at either Northern Ireland or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It’s going to be a difficult task for Mick McCarthy’s men, and the lack of goals Ireland were able to score in qualifying doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their abilities. They found the net only seven times in eight games in Group D, a measly total when compared to automatic qualifiers from the group Denmark and Switzerland, who managed 23 and 19 goals respectively. But Ireland have always thrived in the role of underdogs, and those who bet on football may just fancy Ireland’s chances of summoning a couple of strong performances to reach the finals.
The challenge facing McCarthy is to get his team playing more fluid football. To get two good results away from home will be tremendously difficult, and it will require players to be bold on the ball and to get at defenders. For the Estonia tie all those years ago, Ireland had a squad full of experience and international knowhow, featuring players like Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given.
This team lacks perhaps lacks that experience, but sometimes hunger and desire can make all the difference. If McCarthy can motivate his troops and summon a strength of the character required to overcome the odds, then Ireland fans may be able to look forward to another European Championship.