While immensely proud of their nation’s performances at Euro 2016, many Irish fans were also overcome with jealousy while observing Wales’ extraordinary accomplishment. After all, this is a nation with a smaller population and a less lucrative football history than ours. How have they done so well?
Is it all down to Gareth Bale? We have Jeff Hendrick, and we all know that he’s better. Just less decorated. Is it down to their team spirit? We have that in spades. I suppose we will find out soon in our upcoming World Cup qualifying clashes. Watching Wales dismantle the same Belgian team that obliterated us may fill us with apprehension, but it need not. Why not? Because history is bound to repeat itself.
Let’s go back to the qualifiers for USA ’94. We drew Denmark. Nobody panicked. They were an average side that had failed to qualify for Euro ’92. However, due to some Yugoslav shenanigans, they were disqualified and the Danish players (except Michael Laudrup) cancelled their summer holidays and replaced them. Then, to everyone’s dismay, they won the damn thing. Suddenly we were faced with the daunting prospect of battling with European champions for a trip to America.
However, due to team spirit (and an implausible amount of good fortune), we sneaked past the giant killers and qualified. Croatia made their World Cup debut in France ’98. Everybody knew they had a substantial mass of talent in their ranks, but nobody predicted a 3rd place finish.
So when it came to qualifying for the following European championship, it was up to Ireland to stop them. Not a problem. A 2-0 win in the opening game helped the Irish finish ahead of the Croats and would have qualified if it wasn’t for a cruel Macedonian goal very deep into injury time in our concluding match. So, Wales should be fearing us. Not the other way around; for we are the giant-killers killers.
This doesn’t just happen with Ireland. Greece astonished the world by winning Euro 2004 yet subsequently failed to qualify for the following World Cup. Sweden failed to make it to Euro 1996 despite a surprising 3rd place finish at the preceding tournament. The Czech Republic did likewise; making the final of Euro ’96 but they stayed at home in the summer of 1998.
Turkey: 3rd in 2002 but absent in 2004. Perhaps pressure gets to a team when the weight of expectation is suddenly thrust upon them. And although what has been written here may seem like a hopeful theory, there is no better team than Ireland to rattle a side like Wales, currently engrossed in euphoria, but quite beatable, if handled correctly.
Ireland faced an endless barrage of quality opponents in qualifying and in the tournament itself. Perhaps this is our opportunity to shed our ‘underdog’ title and grab this group by the scruff of the neck.
Robbie Ryan, Pundit Arena