Ireland's septuagenarian manager is the most-seasoned ever at a European championship and the Boys in Green have the oldest squad
It's been built on foundations of disappointment and failure, this Ireland squad, make no mistake about that. Robbie Keane played in Macedonia in 1999 when Stavrevski's late header snatched a place at Euro 2000 from the grasp of the Irish. Thwarted at the last. Words could try, but only fail, to capture the regret, the bitterness and the dread in what occurred three minutes into injury time in the last game of that cursed series. As close as that. As close as a few seconds from Euro 2000.
Shay Given and Damien Duff joined Keane for the 4-2 defeat against Russia in the 2004 qualifiers. John O'Shea played in the putrid 0-0 draw with Albania. Ireland were three points away from the Russians and a play-off place by the end of the campaign. They were a million miles from group winners Switzerland.
Euro 2008? A disaster. Richard Dunne, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Kelly and Aiden McGeady were part of the panel at that stage. Dunne and McGeady, along with Keane, Duff and O'Shea played in Nicosia in 2006 when Cyprus inflicted Ireland's most embarrassing defeat upon them. Sean St Ledger was on the bench. Lucky for him. It finished 5-2. The head shakes at the thought of it.
After the most embarrassing of defeats came the most embarrassing of wins. Two-one in the 94th minute in San Marino. Germany had scored 13 at Serravalle a few months before. A local cried beside me when Stephen Ireland scored. I felt bad; I almost begrudged us the win. Shane Long made his debut that night, Stephen Hunt and Paul McShane were there too.
And that was the nadir.
|Ireland's Golden Oldies
Players over 30 in Trap's squad
Always the underdogs. Always outside looking in. Always playing the patronising, poxy summer friendlies, sparring with tournament teams. Our caravan of woe and agonising proximity rumbled through the years. Huddled together in the warmth of prospective redemption though, they would surely get a chance. One chance. And now they have it.
Keane and the rest of them have waited a long time for this. So long, in fact, that now they have actually qualified, they will be part of the oldest squad in the tournament. For some of them, it could be an international farewell. They've suffered through a lot together. That they remain a close group is no surprise.
Giovanni Trapattoni has capitalised on their kinship, that inextricable bond, and helped to pick them up and make a competitive team out of them. A bedraggled group sometimes, admittedly. Substitutes at their clubs, half of them. Yet they've risen from 42 to 18 in the Fifa ranking during his tenure. They have lost two competitive matches under his tutelage.
He has been through twice as much as they have. He's twice as old as the oldest player and, at 73, the oldest man ever to coach at a European Championship. They needed someone like him. Trapattoni has an unwavering will of rule. He imposes ideas on people and makes them believe it's the right thing. That's what has happened with Ireland. He is taking, arguably, the most technically-limited side to this year's championships but presides over a team that has not been defeated in 14 attempts. They have kept 11 clean sheets in that space of time.
It took an old head to lead old heads. An old head to win trust from them. The players prostrate themselves for Trapattoni and adhere utterly to the template he has laid down. The results speak for themselves. The football? Less so. But time and again they are tipped to lose, or fall away; but time and again they don't.
They were within touching distance of the World Cup in 2010. They have claimed a place at the European Championship. Ireland are an improving team and Spain and Italy and Croatia will not be particularly enamoured with the battles ahead.
|"They deserve this. The people of Ireland deserve the right, after 24 years away from the Euros, to see tricolours there too and to hear the anthem in a big game again"|
Keane, Duff, Given and Dunne have been circuitous in answering questions on their international futures. It looks like the end of the road for one or more of them.
Just prior to departure, there were injury doubts over Keane, Given, Dunne and O'Shea. Four of the five most-capped players in the squad. Two centurions. Almost 400 caps and 50 years' accumulative experience. To contemplate their absence in an abrupt, sudden manner was unpalatable. But sadly inevitable.
Just, not now.
They deserve this. The people of Ireland deserve the right, after 24 years away from the Euros, to see tricolours there too and to hear the anthem in a big game again.
Come August, Trappattoni will still be there and he has spoken about introducing new blood in the ranks. That will surely come to pass. Approaching 74, he will have seen off yet another generation of players. Like a proud schoolmaster waving more leavers out the gate. He's done it before and he might do it again. But let's have this, first. One for the road. One for Skopje, for Moscow, for Nicosia, for Serravalle and for all in between.
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