There were times when it felt like Ireland’s players had a better chance of setting foot in Narnia than finding themselves in Poland and/or Ukraine next summer. Over the course of the campaign, fans experienced the entire see-saw of emotions – despair (and boredom), joy (and boredom) and gut-churning anxiety (and boredom) – you get the idea. At times it felt like a major international tournament was never further away, but to his eternal credit, through a combination of discipline, good luck and mangled proverbs the mad old Italian kept his team hanging in there throughout. The price didn’t fluctuate even after the comparatively low points, qualification wasn’t the outside shot it may have felt like. Here’s how Ireland’s qualifying campaign went according to the betting.
7th February 2010: With the memory of Thierry Henry’s robbery still recent enough to make liking a Facebook petition furiously demanding a replay seem like a valid protest and not wallowing in self-pity, the draw is made. It looks good, but with the addition of one mainly stereotyped based caveat. Sure the group lacks the so-called ‘superpower’ who’s expected to dominate, but it’s high on technically strong eastern European teams that we don’t know a whole lot about. After weighing it up, our football stattos rate Ireland as an 11/8 chance to reach Euro 2012.
7th September 2010: As the saying nearly goes, the greatest journeys start with the first ball hoofed forward in the direction of a target man and Ireland begin their campaign. The performances aren’t perfect, but much like Andy Reid’s late night sing-songs, stupidly dropped points seem to be a thing of the past for Ireland. After two victories over Armenia and Andorra, Ireland hit the front of Group B. Added to Russia losing at home to Slovakia, the early exchanges have gone Ireland’s way and they’re now 6/5 to have something to do in the summer of 2012.
8th October 2010: The early optimism comes crashing down like the FAI ticket revenues. Russia visit Dublin and hand their hosts the kind of ass-whupping that apparently goes far beyond losing ground to a rival. They rip Ireland apart with such ease it looks like Giovanni Trapattoni is going to need to uncover a whole new midfield and defence if his team are going to get anywhere near the Russians’ coat-tails. In the end, the 3-2 scoreline is more flattering than a gigolo cosying up to a wealthy widow. After the Russians defeat to Slovakia, it’s not as bad as it could have been, but Ireland are now 6/4 to reach Pokraine.
12th October 2010: There’s that familiar feeling of missed opportunity in Slovakia as Ireland take an early lead only for the opposition to equalise too early in the game for us to genuinely feel robbed and delude ourselves into thinking we actually deserved the win. Robbie Keane misses a penalty, but the fact ‘he’s still a Premier League player and not playing in some semi-retirement excuse for a league’ provides some consolation for fans. That said, qualification is looking a little less likely at 13/8.
26th March 2011: Thanks in large part to the comedy stylings of goalkeeper, Edin Nuredinovski, Ireland race into a 2-0 lead at home to Macedonia. The game briefly looks like descending into the type of blissfully boring win we’ve seen too little of in recent years, but a goal from Ivan Trickovski gets the visitors back into it and makes the 2nd half more uncomfortable for Ireland than a series of questions about who issued Tony Cascarino’s passport. Russia slip up away to Armenia and Slovakia just about beat the whipping boys of Andorra, so an unconvincing performance can be ignored in favour of pointing at the standings. Ireland to qualify is 11/8.
4th June 2011: Ireland again take an early lead away from home, but much to the surprise of all involved, don’t throw it away. Robbie Keane reaches and then passes his half century of both international goals and lame celebrations with a brace. The season comes to an end with Ireland looking good for qualification at 5/4.
2nd September 2011: The campaign reaches a crucial stage with a couple of key games. Doubts about Trapattoni’s future and the merits of playing two large chunks of dark matter in centre midfield seem to take their toll as Ireland are lucky to get a draw at home to Slovakia. Ireland really have no margin for error now and as more error is expected, they’re a campaign high 7/4 to qualify.
6th September 2011: In future this day will be known as St. Richard Dunne Day as Ireland claim a draw in Moscow that – were it not for the blood, sweat and skin of the heroic Dunne – not even the most deluded of fans could claim we deserved. Russia are repeatedly denied by Dunne, Shay Given and a strange force-field that seems to have taken up residence around the Irish goalmouth and the game ends in a draw. With two winnable games ahead, the task at hand is very straightforward and Ireland are evens to qualify – either automatically or via the play-offs.
11th October 2011: Ireland ride their luck, but hold up their end of the bargain and get the results they need. Sadly, Russia get the result they require to top the group, so Ireland will go into UEFA’s ‘tombola of jeopardy and unilateral decisions’ otherwise known as the play-offs. There’s some big names in there so depending on what side of the bed Michel Platini gets out of, Ireland could land a toughie. Still though, they’re 5/6 to qualify.
13th October 2011: UEFA don’t invent a last minute rule that says any team who wear green must start the play-offs with a two goal deficit and lady luck is pretty kind to Ireland as the name of Estonia comes out of the hat. They did pip the likes of Serbia and Slovenia to the runners-up spot in Group C so are worthy of respect, but equally lost to the Faroe Islands and lost more qualifying games than any other playoff team, so are worthy of a gentle mocking. Our football stattos price Ireland up as a 4/9 chance to advance.
11th November 2011: Everyone is urging caution and not to take the stereotypical eastern Europeans too lightly, but no-one’s really listening and in the build-up to the first leg, Ireland are trimmed to 4/11, a decision that looks incredibly wise after the flurry of goals, soft yellow cards and suspect facial hair in Tallinn. The cat isn’t quite in the bag yet, but he’s only a couple of whiskers short of being well and truly snared.