Despite the Republic of Ireland scoring four goals in their away victory against Estonia in the first leg of their Euro 2012 play-off, the most ambitious Irish performance of the night was from fan Conor Cunningham. He managed to sneak past security into the stadium and make it onto the pitch, disguised in an Estonian team tracksuit top. Cunningham sat in the home team dugout and celebrated with the Irish players after their victory. He became an overnight media sensation and made several appearances on radio explaining he was as surprised as anyone that he wasn't found out until after the final whistle.
The Ireland team's similar fear of being found out on the major stage has contributed to a qualification campaign that has not occupied the same space in the popular imagination as ones in the past. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni's insistence on playing a rigid 4-4-2, with midfielders and defenders lying extremely deep, has lead to some anxious moments for supporters. The game against Russia in Moscow, where they gave away 26 shots on goal – eight of which were on target – and still emerged with a goalless draw was seen as the nadir.
In truth, the margins have been razor thin against middling and even low-quality opposition. Without slender away victories in Armenia and Macedonia, qualification would have been difficult. The poor performances of second seeds Slovakia, who beat Russia away from home but lost to Armenia twice, saved the day.
Sceptics in the media argue that a small increase in ball retention and passing would have left the Republic out of sight in the group. Trapattoni has replied with subtle and not so subtle statements that indicate he feels his squad are not up to more ambitious gameplans. He does not scout players in England, has been slow to change his team regardless of club form and has given the cold shoulder to anyone whose commitment he doubts.
Trapattoni has placed his trust in a core group of senior players – Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane – and has surrounded them with mid-career professionals such as Ipswich's Keith Andrews or Stoke's Glen Whelan. Discipline and effort have been the key attributes for Ireland as they have looked to keep it tight at that back, defend deep and take advantage of a set-piece, mistake or a fortuitous long ball.
A similar approach delivered serious results in the World Cup and European Championship campaigns of the late 1980s and early 1990s. So revered was manager Jack Charlton that songs such as Give It A Lash Jack and Put em Under Pressure celebrated his dour but successful philosophy of long balls and pressing.
Things have changed since then. A comparatively low-key 2002 World Cup was overshadowed by a very public row between captain Roy Keane and the manager Mick McCarthy. The early morning kick-off times also meant that scenes of public revelling were not repeated to the same extent. A period in the international wilderness under the stewardship of Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton meant that only the most dedicated fans continued to follow the team. Each of the three campaigns between 2002 and 2008 ended in disappointment. Reaching a World Cup play-off in 2009 raised hopes only for them to be dashed by Thierry Henry's blatant handball in the lead up to France's winner in Paris.
Two years on and the team is back firmly within the public consciousness. Trapattoni's contract has been extended by two years to include the 2014 World Cup. The Italian stands every chance of becoming as big an Irish folk hero as Jack Charlton before him. Trapattoni promised to walk up Croagh Patrick, a sacred hill which Catholic pilgrims often ascend barefoot, if the team qualified. Never one to miss an opportunity, like any good politician, the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has offered to join him.
Not everyone is fully convinced. The infamously outspoken Irish TV analysts Liam Brady, Johnny Giles and Eamon Dunphy expressed their hope that Trapattoni takes the opportunity to blood new talent such as Wigan's James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman of Everton. Just getting the team to a major tournament after ten years of waiting probably means Trap can take his time and prioritise a creditable performance at Euro 2012 as his real legacy to the Irish squad.
From WSC 299 January 2012