The European Championships might have become more interesting from a Fulham perspective when Roy Hodgson’s appointment into the England hot seat just before the finals. The West Brom manager quickly added his trusted lieutenant and Craven Cottage stalwart Ray Lewington to his backroom staff, but a couple more regulars at Motspur Park have been pretty excited about events in the Ukraine and Poland since last autumn. Much of the commentary surrounding the Republic of Ireland’s chances in the finals has been couched the kind of lazy stereotypes of journeyman keen to make up the numbers (a la 1988 and 1994) but that’s to studiously ignore the quiet progress that they have made since Giovanni Trapattoni arrived as national team boss in 2008.
Widely considered the most successful Italian coach going there’s plenty of his compatriots who would like to see the 73 year-old reprise his role in charge of the Azzuri, where’s definitely some unfinished business. Trapattoni’s Italian side were beaten on penalties by South Korea in 2002 in a game where they controversially had a goal disallowed and saw Francesco Totti controversially sent off. In the following European Championships, the Italians were well below bar but didn’t lose a game and were only eliminated when Sweden and Denmark drew their final game – and both Scandinavian nations progressed. To this day, Trapattoni feels he has something to prove, despite a managerial career that saw him win ten league titles in four different countries and all three major European club competitions.
Ireland’s progression to these finals also feels like payback given the way Thierry Henry used his hand to settle their World Cup play-off tie in Paris three years ago. That might have been the end of the road for a number of senior players, but wily old Trapattoni kept his group together and convinced his key men that they could make Euro 2012. That they did, finishing second to Russia, who have already demonstrated their quality with that blistering opening night dismantling of the Czech Republic. Richard Dunne, the captain and commanding centre-half, might have had to endure barbs about his propensity to put through his own net during a difficult season at Villa Park, but his performance in a backs-to-the-wall goalless draw against the Russians was nothing short of flawless.
After a play-off success against Estonia, set up by a pulsating away win in the first leg, the relief at reaching these finals was tangible. Many see the Irish as the whipping boys in a group that rivals the official ‘Group of death’ for it’s toughness. Tonight’s opener against the talented Croatians will be pivotal, but the task doesn’t get any easier as Italy and Spain lie in wait. Trapattoni insists his side are ready and confident, claiming he wouldn’t have even come to the finals had he not believed his squad contained enough quality to make the last eight. So sure of his plans, Il Trap named his starting eleven more than a week ago and has repeated it obligingly at every press conference since.
The eleven have amassed nearly 700 international caps between them and contains top flight regulars in Shay Given, John O’Shea, Dunne, Glenn Whelan, Kevin Doyle and, of course, Damien Duff. The seemingly ageless winger, with an uncanny ability to manufacture half a yard when surrounded by a phalanx of opposition defenders, has benefited from Trapattoni’s confidence, even when he was struggling to get a game early in Martin Jol’s tenure at the Cottage. The 33 year-old should make his hundredth appearance for his country against the Italians in Poznan next Monday and is desperate to make up for lost time at a major championship, having had to wait more than a decade to build on his terrific campaign in Japan and South Korea at the 2002 World Cup:
It means more to me now than it did 10 years ago. A few of us are in our 30s now and I suppose we are on the home straight, so to speak. You never know, this could be our last tournament, so you have to savour it.
It’s a major tournament so you can’t help but get excited about it. It has been a long wait since 2002 for everybody, not just the players but the fans as well.
Trapattoni’s decision to play Stephen Ward, recently relegated with Wolves at right back, ahead of Stephen Kelly, who has made that berth his own at Fulham since the untimely injury to Zdenek Grygera in early autumn means the former Tottenham and Birmingham City full-back will start his first finals on the bench. But Kelly’s versatility – he operated at left back for a large part of the Whites’ memorable run to the Europa League final in 2010 and has filled in at centre back for his country – has kept him in Trapattoni’s plans and is a fitting reward for a fine campaign that saw him make 33 first-team appearances and establish himself as a regular for the first time since his arrival at the club in 2009.
The Irish believe that could cause a surprise. This side are certainly better than the mere names on paper might suggest and Trapattoni has been careful to avoid the mistakes that hastened the departure of his compatriot and good friend Fabio Capello in England. His side go into this evening’s clash with Croatia on the back of an impressive fourteen match unbeaten run and they’ve not lost a match on the European mainland in five years. They’ll combine organisation and industry with the guile of Robbie Keane, power of Kevin Doyle and the dangerous running of James McClean, likely to be used off the bench after flourishing under Martin O’Neill at Sunderland. You’d be very foolish to count them out.