In the Republic of Ireland, where the quality of top tier football is arguably worse than the very bottom of the English football league, and with only a handful of international class footballers playing in England, the likelihood of any success on the international stage is slim to none. The Republic of Ireland (ROI), almost a cult nation for neutrals, are perennial plucky underdogs, fighting ‘The Man’ at every corner, none more so than during their run to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup.
For the Northern Irish (NI), the outlook was even bleaker. A tiny country with only six players in their most recent squad playing regularly in the Premier League, the aim for the national team was always to simply not be embarrassed, with the days of qualifying for major tournaments over. This is no longer the case; changes made to both the management of each country and to the format of Euro 2016 have galvanized the nations into some storming form.
The changes to the format of Euro 2016, including expanding the competition to 24 teams from 16 has created an atmosphere of hope for the smaller nations within UEFA. For the first time in the competition’s history, there will be third placed teams in the quarter finals of the championships, a change that could quite easily lead to a team like Ireland reaching the quarter finals. Couple this with an expanded qualifying system where the winners, runners-up and the best third-placed team in the groups qualify, with the rest of the third-place teams fighting for the last four spots in the finals, and you have an exceptionally open qualifying campaign.
In a lucky twist of fate, both countries have in recent years made sweeping changes to their management. The ROI ended last year with the resignation of Giovanni Trapattoni after a reign that brought an odd modern form of ‘Catenaccio’ back onto the international scene, almost 20 years after its rightful consignment into the history books.
His replacement, Martin O’Neill, regarded as one of the best man-managers and motivators in football, flanked by the tenacious and temperamental Roy Keane, have turned a mediocre squad into a good one, giving the ROI a fighting chance of qualifying for Euro 2016. Currently sitting pretty in second place, only behind Poland on goal difference and three points ahead of Germany and Scotland, the signs are positive for a play-off spot at the very least.
For Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland manager since 2012, this is his first European Championship qualifying campaign. After an underwhelming World Cup qualifying campaign which brought only one win in ten matches, the possibility of winning their first three qualifiers against Hungary, the Faroe Islands and Greece seemed utterly ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what happened. Beating Hungary 2-1 and Greece 2-0 away from home, and beating the Faroe Islands 2-0 at Windsor Park has set NI up for a real push for automatic qualification. The revitalization of Kyle Lafferty and an improved defensive shape that contributed to the upturn in form is all down to O’Neill. With the team currently top of their group and in the form of their life, qualification looks a real possibility for the first time since the halcyon days of George Best.
While the criticisms about qualifying becoming obsolete from the top nations about the switch from 16 to 24 have some merit. Especially when you consider groups such as England’s where the only real competition is Switzerland. The reality is that the changes have not only rejuvenated the system, but they have actually created a competitive edge that simply wasn’t there before. There is no denying there were shocks, notably England’s failure to qualify in 2008, but qualifying for teams like Italy, Germany and Spain has always felt like an annoyance.
This is no longer the case. Teams like Ireland and Iceland suddenly have hope of qualifying, while even smaller teams like Northern Ireland and Wales have something to fight for the first time in history. Historically defensively-minded teams like Greece, Bosnia and Switzerland are struggling with the increased level of competitiveness and adventure from smaller teams. Problems remain with the minnows of groups however. Gibraltar, San Marino and Andorra’s presence still seems pointless and a hassle, but the switches have so far been positive
For Euro 2016 itself this is a good omen. It promises to be one of the most competitive and intriguing European Championships in a long time, only positive for what was becoming a stale competition.