Now that a place in Euro 2012 has been secured, it really is possible to look forward to a summer of international football with Irish involvement for the first time in a decade. The already famous reference to the Estonian cat in the sack has provided an early taster of what should be a momentous few weeks for Irish soccer fans and non-fans alike.
As would be expected, the Irish ‘victory’ (well, in Estonia at least…) was the main topic of conversation for the primary school boys of my class today, all of whom would have been far too young to have any memories of Ireland’s last exploits in a summer of international football, the 2002 World Cup.
Slugger’s football fraternity will fondly remember the now legendary row between Roy Keane and then manager, Mick McCarthy, which resulted in the former quitting the team before the first ball had been kicked.
The subsequent television rows, radio sketches and column inches devoted to the Keane departure and gallant performances of a Robbie Keane-led Irish team would live long in the memory, though the excruciating loss to the Spanish in a penalty shoot out would at least give us a taste of the pain inflicted more regularly on our English neighbours at such tournaments.
That appearance bridged the gap to the earlier halcyon period of Irish international football (1982-94) when both international teams made appearances at two World Cups between 1982 and 1994, with their respective appearances sandwiched by the Republic’s debut showing at the European Championships in what still remains my most cherished soccer memories: Stuttgart, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan and a wicked Dutch bounce that ended dreams of a semi-final appearance. In many ways, Euro ’88 marked the passing of a baton in terms of Irish international football, with the fortunes of the Republic and Northern Ireland contrasting sharply since, with the former now securing a place at five international tournaments since the North’s last showing at Mexico 1986.
With Eamon Dunphy and Johnny Giles still accompanying Bill O’Herlihy on RTE (and hopefully to be joined by Grame Sounness) it promises to be another summer in which the headlines are made in the studios as much as on the pitch. The draw is set for December 2nd and, intriguingly or ominously (take your pick), an Ireland-England contest remains a real possibility due to seeding arrangements which have Ireland in the fourth pot and England in the second pot.
Roll on the summer!