Ireland’s Rocky Road to Poland

In May, ‘the Rocky Road to Poland’, Ireland’s official song for the European Championships, debuted at number one in the Irish singles chart. A rather cumbersome 9/8 beat aside, the Rocky Road to Poland is standard team song fare: a mix of famous faces (the Dubliners), folksy humour (rhyming ‘Opel Corsa’ with ‘Warsaw’) and winsome, if misplaced, hope (‘we can win the trophy’). The video closes with shots of a smiling Ireland squad bawling along to a refrain of ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish’.

Led by Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland entered the Euros with a reputation as a well-drilled, no-frills outfit. A parsimonious defence conceded just three goals in a 14-game unbeaten streak leading up to the tournament, a run which included a vital goalless draw with Russia in a qualifier in Moscow and a friendly win over Italy.

But on a wet night in Poznan it took Croatia just three minutes to open the scoring. Worse was to follow against Spain. Again Ireland conceded early, failed to string more than half a dozen passes in succession and were scythed open with alarming regularity. The singing inside Gdansk’s PGE Arena – which seemed to ring louder as each Spanish goal went in – was a credit to Ireland’s fantastic travelling support. The 4-0 score line was anything but.

Ireland’s first European championship finals campaign in 24 years was effectively over after just five days. In the final group game, back in Poznan, the Boys in Green were improved but overwhelmed by an Italian team playing well within themselves.

That Ireland would struggle to qualify from such a testing group was accepted beforehand, but the manner of the team’s exit stung. From the kick off against Croatia, Ireland looked tired and off the pace, bereft of a game plan and unable to retain possession. It fast became a familiar pattern.

Trapattoni showed no inclination to alter a rigid 4-4-2 system that had served Ireland well in qualifying but was ruthlessly exposed by superior opponents. The Italian made just one change during the whole tournament: replacing Kevin Doyle with West Brom reserve Simon Cox ahead of the Spain game. Cox, a player most generously described as ‘honest’, made no impact and was hauled off at halftime.

Having forced his way into the squad late, exciting Sunderland prospect James McClean was left on the bench when his trickery was required most, to provide some creativity against Croatia. Some Irish fans expect too much of McClean – his arrival, as a substitute against Spain, was greeted as if Messi himself had donned the green jersey – but the manager’s handling of the youthful winger was misjudged.

Asked about McClean in the wake of the Croatia defeat, Trapattoni lamented that the white heat of an international tournament was no place to blood novice players. Five days later McClean was given his Euros bow — with Ireland three goals down against the reigning World and European champions.

Trapattoni’s commitment to the players that got Ireland to Poland was unwavering to the point of sentimentality. The workmanlike Paul Green was singled out for fans’ abuse, but the Irish squad was peppered with mediocrity, while two players that might have made a difference – Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman – were left at home. Hoolahan has played for Ireland just once, as a substitute against Serbia back in 2008; Coleman has only played five times and wasn’t a regular in the Euro qualifying team.

The vastly experienced trio of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne all had poor tournaments. If their international future is uncertain, Trapattoni seems set to carry on, having reiterated his determination to lead Ireland into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Ireland’s failings in Poland raise awkward questions about inequity in Irish football, and beyond. On June 18, Monaghan United withdrew from the Airtricity League, the top flight of Irish football, citing financial pressures. That same day Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who stands accused of failing to pay a €1.4m VAT bill, attended the Italy clash in Poznan. Former Anglo-Irish Bank chairman, Seanie Fitzpatrick, one of the main architects of Ireland’s financial meltdown, reportedly spent most of the Euros in a €550 a night hotel in the same city.

FAI Chief Executive John Delaney faced calls for his resignation after footage emerged of his slurred, late-night address to Irish fans on the streets of Sopot, the resort town north of Gdansk where the Ireland team were based for the tournament. Delaney enjoys an annual salary of €400,000.

In June, Dutchman Wim Koevermans announced he was leaving his post as FAI performance director to manage India. Ireland’s cash-strapped governing body have no plans to replace him. Half of Trapattoni’s salary – around €1.5m-a-year – is paid by Irish billionaire and tax exile Denis O’Brien.

This piece appeared in the August edition of When Saturday Comes magazine.