Expectations are cruel.
They’re met with no batting of eyelids, but leave a wake of disappointment when they’re not reached.
In the realm of international football, the Republic of Ireland’s expectations have been caught up in delusional grandeur for far too long, leading to perpetual heartache.
It’s been twenty years since the heady days under Jack Charlton tutelage ended, and the expectations which his management brought have not ceased. Before his tenure began, Ireland had never qualified for a major international tournament. Upon his departure, he left a country with desires for competing in every tournament, not merely qualifying.
Of the nine major competitions since Charlton’s last match in a Euro 1996 play-off against the Netherlands, Ireland have only qualified for two. The last of these two campaigns was the ill-fated 2012 European Championships, a tournament which showcased just how far the gulf is between Ireland and Europe’s elite.
The Euro 2016 qualifying campaign has seen the biggest challenge to the Republic’s grandiose designs on international football.
Whereas previous qualifying campaigns and tournaments have seen Ireland’s shortcomings against major nations, this campaign has seen these shortcomings come to the surface against similar nations.
Before Group D got underway, it was expected that Germany would walk away in first place with machine-like efficiency, and that the remaining two places would be filled by one of Poland, Scotland or the Republic of Ireland.
It’s looking increasingly likely that Ireland will fall short in their attempts to qualify, despite rallying efforts in the final minutes to achieve results against Germany, Georgia and Poland.
Ireland have always used their tenacity and work ethic to achieve results against bigger teams. However, when managed by Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, or even Giovanni Trappatoni, these spirited performances were combined with a tactical aptitude.
In the two matches against their biggest group rivals, Ireland’s tactical makeup left a lot to be desired. The matches against Scotland and Poland both saw a first half which left Ireland floundering and feckless. Despite improved second half performances, Martin O’Neill’s charges found themselves aimless in their play, bar the performance of James McClean against Poland. His play gave Ireland’s attacking an impetus which it so sorely missed, eventually leading to Shane Long’s last minute equaliser.
Perhaps another reason why Ireland’s expectations need to be managed is due to the players that are available in the national pool.
Despite being Ireland’s catalyst against Poland, James McClean is plying his trade at lowly Wigan Athletic. The Irish team that night was chockfull of Championship footballers, with pundits waxing lyrically about Norwich City’s 32-year-old midfielder Wes Hoolahan. A team with designs on perennially qualifying for tournaments must have more about them than Championship players.
Considering Scotland’s squad contains experienced Premier League players like Darren Fletcher, coupled with raw Premier League starlets such as Hull City’s Andrew Robertson. Even the inclusion of Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie and Watford’s Ikechi Anya, elite Championship players with Premier League aspirations, it’s no wonder that they’re ahead of Ireland in Group D.
Poland’s team against Ireland was a predominantly second-string side, missing key players like Borussia Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek, Bayer Leverkusen’s Sebastian Boenisch, and Hoffenheim’s Eugen Polanski. Ireland simply doesn’t have an abundance of these players.
Old arguments surrounding the strength of the League of Ireland and sub-par schoolboy structures only lead to an environment where it is virtually impossible to achieve results internationally.
Despite the decline of Scottish domestic football, they’ve still managed to produce precocious young talents such as Andrew Robertson, Ryan Gauld, and Lewis MacLeod. This is due to the infrastructure put in place at all major Scottish football clubs, as well as the coaching these young players receive. This is also the case in Poland, and results will only improve in the wake of the structures put in place as co-hosts of Euro 2012.
Football clubs in Ireland face a meagre struggle to survive, so money accumulated is almost solely spent on running the club, rather than building solid foundations for growth. This leads to most clubs not even having schoolboy and youth teams. Young players must ply their trade at the major schoolboy clubs dotted around the country, where the coaching is good and winning is the mantra. Players, if they’ve got the requisite potential, are then thrown into the English academy structure en masse to finish their footballing education and earn their club some money.
These structures are not designed to educate and produce footballers – but merely to exploit young men.
Before the Football Association of Ireland and football fans throughout Ireland believe that the World Cup in Russia is a realistic goal, they must change the football culture which is embedded in the soil of the country. They must seek change, and only then will Ireland’s international future run smoothly alongside current expectations.