Please, Please, Can We Qualify for Euro 2012?

Malahide was beautifully resplendent on Tuesday afternoon as Ireland’s soccer heroes went through their paces on the perfectly manicured training pitch at Gannon Park.

Robbie Keane could have no excuses about the state of the surface as he fired shots at second choice ‘keeper Keiren Westwood.

Liam Lawrence had little cause for complaint as he put his injured groin to the test in the nine-a-side game that brought training to an end some 24 hours before the flight to Armenia and the start of the European Championship qualifying campaign.

The sun was shining and all was well with the world. It was what you might call an ice cream day as the waves crashed off the sparsely populated shoreline below us.

The heat was welcome. On Friday night local time, Friday morning your time, Ireland will play Armenia in Yerevan’s Republican Stadium and it will be hot. Very hot.

Temperatures are expected to hit 30-plus degrees on the pitch, and the reception may be hotter off it.

See, Ireland are back to business on Friday and back in search of retribution for the wrong that was served up in Paris last November.

So the Irish players keep telling us. Anywhere you turned in Malahide this week, it was hard not to witness another Irish player explain how they should have been at the World Cup in South Africa this summer.

To a man they retold the hard luck story that was Thierry Henry’s double handball and William Gallas’ match winner for France in the Stade de France playoff.

To a man they also told us that they have learned the lessons of that World Cup heartache, that the experience can only stand them well in the bid to qualify for a tournament that will be played in Poland and the Ukraine two summers from now.

We need to be there, by the way. We need to qualify for the next European Championship finals. Badly.

Even those who got their maths results from the Leaving Certificate last week and didn’t do so well will be able to tell you that by the summer of 2012 it will be 10 whole years since Ireland last played in a major finals.

There are all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t go into what happened before, during and after the 2002 World Cup in Japan, so we won’t.

What we can discuss is the dire need for an Irish team to qualify for a major finals again, for someone to stand up and show the world how proud, how competent and how good we are in Ireland.

We need success from any source, and soon. The country is ravaged by one crisis after another, and Anglo-Irish Bank seems hell bent on pouring all our money and all our will to live into a very large and bottomless pit.

Life is not pleasant for those of us still living in Ireland these days. The banks are as friendly as a crabby neighbor, the taxman is desperate to be our best friend, and the politicians are cheating us on their expenses and only just back from their extended summer holidays.

We need a good news story and we need it soon. So does the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) as they look to repay the ***38 million loan on the Aviva Stadium that we know about, and any other debt they may have accrued rebuilding Lansdowne Road that we have yet to hear about.

So where is this good news going to come from?

Well not so long ago -- if you’re middle-aged like me it seems like not so long ago -- the team that Jack Charlton built qualified for Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94 and the nation prospered.
We discovered how proud we were to be Irish in Germany and Italy and America.

We discovered how well we could celebrate our sporting heroes without causing trouble in places like Stuttgart and Rome and New Jersey.

We found ourselves just as the Irish football team finally found its feet on the world stage.
The men who got us there -- the Bonners, the Houghtons and the McGraths -- are still national heroes, but we badly need new heroes.

We need a new story, a new reason to be cheerful, and that can start in Yerevan on Friday night.
The players told us in Malahide on Monday and Tuesday that they want to take on that mantle, that they want to go one step further in this Euro campaign than they did in the last World Cup.
It’s time to prove it, time to put a smile back on our faces.
So how about it, lads? How about a Euro tonic against Armenia on Friday and Andorra next Tuesday? How about finally delivering on that promise?

Sideline Views

RACING: We can only hope that the Irish soccer team has better luck with their own sport than they had with the horses last weekend. On Sunday, the Manchester United defender John O’Shea and the Wolves winger Stephen Hunt travelled to the Galway racetrack to represent the “Dubs vs. Culchies” syndicate when their horse St. Devote ran in the big race of the day. The horse is owned by various Irish players including Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle, Hunt and O’Shea, but unfortunately it was beaten at the post by the wonderfully named Gudnis Gracious Me at the Ballybrit track. A better result is needed in Armenia on Friday night, but I suspect O’Shea et al know as much.

GAA: Sad to report the death of Glenroe acting legend Mick Lally after a short illness on Tuesday. I’m sure you’ll read more about the great Mayo man elsewhere in this edition of the Irish Voice, but he did have a part in more than one Irish play with a sports twist. I seem to remember watching him in action at the Gaiety in a John B. Keane play about Gaelic football, and I’m sure he was also in a Roddy Doyle production about a junior soccer team. Great actor and a great man by all accounts.

SOCCER: The Brazilian striker Robinho said he was proud to sign for AC Milan and really looking forward to winning things in Italy when he signed on at the San Siro on Tuesday afternoon. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what he said the day he signed for Manchester City not so long ago, yet he was gone back to Brazil on loan just over a year after he arrived at Eastlands. If I was an AC fan I wouldn’t be getting too excited about this over-paid prima donna. History suggests he won’t be around for long.

GAA: Fresh from putting a big fence up at the bottom of Hill 16, the GAA have now banned All-Ireland winning minor captains from making a speech after they have received their trophies at Croke Park. They claim the new move is being brought in because some captains get stuck for words, but I’ve never yet seen a winning captain stuck for words in any codes. More bureaucracy gone mad if you ask me.

SOCCER: Isn’t football ironic? Shay Given left Newcastle for Manchester City to win things, but now the City boss Roberto Mancini wants him to sit on the bench and act as understudy as new England ‘keeper Joe Hart wins things. Given resisted the chance to move before the transfer window shut on Tuesday, but he can’t be happy with this current situation in Manchester. The Donegal man needs regular football. And soon.

GAA: Controversial Leinster football final referee Martin Sludden returned to action at a club game in his native Tyrone last weekend complete with his linesmen and umpires from the Meath-Louth match when their decision to allow Joe Sheridan’s goal irked so many people. Sludden must be the only man in the country who still has faith in those linesmen and umpires.

GAA: Far from hitting the panic button after their dismal All-Ireland quarterfinal defeat to Down, Kerry officials have handed Jack O’Connor another three years as senior football team manager. They must know something the rest of the country don’t know because Kerry were woeful in that match.

HERO OF THE WEEK

DOWN striker Benny Coulter gets a real shot at All-Ireland glory against Cork later this month thanks to his brilliance in Sunday’s semifinal win over Kildare, but far more impressive was his honesty afterwards. Unlike some who have tried to hide behind woeful refereeing decisions at headquarters this summer, Coulter was man enough to admit he was in the square when he scored the all-important goal even if he didn’t go so far as to offer Kildare a replay. Honesty is always the best policy so well done Benny.

IDIOTS OF THE WEEK

THE referee, the linesman and the umpires all failed to spot that Benny Coulter was inside the square when he scored what turned out to be a decisive goal for Down against Kildare in Sunday’s riveting All-Ireland football semifinal. Coulter was honest enough to admit his indiscretion afterwards, but this was just the latest in a series of scandalous decisions at Croke Park this summer. How long more can the GAA allow human error to decide big games? We’d love to know.

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