18 November ~ For Ireland fans, Tuesday night was an utterly surreal occasion. It was a night the fitfully full Aviva Stadium finally sold out for a home game and provided an atmosphere to rival the great occasions in Irish football. It was a night the side qualified for a major tournament on home soil, another first. But, oddest of all, it was a night the Ireland fans could watch their side without experiencing the usual nerves that usually accompany following the team. Bizarrely, the feeling of serene calm manifested itself in the stands to the mass manufacture of paper airplanes made from large green cards placed on every seat before the game.
Shay Given and his opposite number Pavel Londak spent most of the first half assailed by these loudly cheered missiles. After last Friday's unexpected, almost unprecedented, 4-0 shellacking of forlorn Estonia, the game was merely a sideshow, a precursor to an ole-laden qualification party.
Rewind to just over two months ago and the Aviva, with thousands of empty seats, echoed with resounding boos as the team trudged off after a hairy 0-0 draw with group rivals Slovakia. Despite consistent results, this qualification campaign has been occasionally fraught for Giovanni Trapattoni and his management team, who have been criticised for conservative tactics and team selection.
Trapattoni’s preferred, almost anachronistic, 4-4-2, relies heavily on discipline and industry over individual talent. It also guarantees that the team go long stretches without possession. This has proved particularly frustrating at home, where Ireland have continually ceded the initiative to the opposition. More worryingly, given some of the potential opponents next summer, Ireland haven’t beaten a "big" international side in a competitive match since 2001.
Detractors insist the team have ridden their luck. It took heroics from Richard Dunne and Given to repel the Russians in Moscow. Against Armenia and Estonia we were awarded the "right" decisions by the referee. The lack of an apparent Plan B has added fuel to the critics, not to mention the perceived ignoring of Premier League talent (James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan) who could possibly enhance the side.
What Ireland lack in attack, they more than make up for in defence. This year they have conceded a meagre five goals in 14 games and embarked on a record run of eight clean sheets on the bounce. Trapattoni has successfully evolved his squad, slowly but surely, to include talent like Stephen Ward, Simon Cox, Jonathan Walters and the aforementioned McCarthy and Coleman. It remains to be seen whether these player will break into the first team for Euro 2012, but the manager clearly has no problem with new talent. Ireland have even developed a new ruthless streak under Trap. In this campaign they disposed of tricky opposition (Armenia, Macedonia, Estonia) with minimum fuss and maximum points, when previous Irish teams would have floundered.
When the 72-year-old Italian inherited the job, he took over a squad in total disarray after the disastrous reign of Steven Staunton. Ireland hadn’t even made a play-off in seven years and had slipped to 41st in the world. Now they have only been beaten competitively twice (against France and Russia), have risen to 25th in the world rankings and are going to the European Championships.
Trapattoni always maintained that results justified the means. He can rightfully reflect on a job well done and will now get his desired two-year contract to lead Ireland into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. For once, fans appear largely in approval. Even his biggest critics would have to admit that if you can spend an Ireland game gleefully throwing airplanes and planning a trip to a major tournament next June, the manager must be doing something right. Ciaran McCauley