Four years ago I attracted a massive amount of Irish opprobrium by bemoaning the increase of teams at the European Championship on the back of watching Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland get destroyed 3-1, 4-0 and then 2-0 at Euro 2012. I feared more of the same when the tournament was expanded to 24 teams, more achingly average sides with limited ambitions diluting a wonderfully streamlined competition.
How wrong I was. It seems that the introduction of eight more teams has bizarrely created a more level playing field, with only one of the first nine games being won by more than a one-goal margin. The 1-1 result between Ireland and Sweden is entirely in keeping with the tightest of tournaments but a scoreline that would have been greeted with unbridled joy in 2012 should be the cause of regret in 2016.
Such is the progress under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane that Ireland eyed a meeting with Sweden as a clash of equals, though the first 45 minutes told us that the men in green were actually superior in their energy and movement. The sleepy Scandinavians allowed Robbie Brady to advance on the left while the elusive Wes Hoolahan and the impressive Jeff Hendrick found pockets of space in the easiest of treasure hunts. The legend Zlatan? Like so many strikers at this European Championship, he was anonymous and isolated.
There were only two surviving starters from the Irish side that lost their opening game of Euro 2012 to Croatia – John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan – but more than personnel had changed. No more defeatist, underdog tactics, no more ‘just here for the craic’ attitude, this is now an Irish side that oozes professionalism and boasts just enough guile to hurt a steady side like Sweden. They may not have a Zlatan but they do have a Brady, a Hoolahan, a Hendrick.
The fear now is that their moment has gone. In a group with Belgium and Italy, the winner of this clash would have given themselves a chance of advancing even without picking up another point. While Sweden did not manage a single shot on target, O’Shea came within inches of a goal without making contact and Hendrick did the same with a stunning strike that left Swedish defenders and goalkeeper standing.
The goal was deserved – and aptly scored by a man who was cast aside by a suspicious Trapattoni for five years – but it also had the effect of slowing down Ireland while Sweden finally found some urgency. That Ciaran Clark was the only player to test Darren Randolph before beating him with his head feels kind of apt; Ireland had shot themselves in the foot, having started the game with all the bullets.
Roy Keane famously said that he was sick of the ‘win, lose, we’re on the booze’ mentality of the Irish at major tournaments. There is nothing in that mantra about drawing, but drinks taken in France by the Irish this week should have a bitter taste of ‘what if’. Though it will still taste sweeter than abject defeat, a 1-1 draw for the much-improved Ireland of 2016 should spark no jubilation.