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Saturday 10 December 2016

FAI and Ireland needed a boost like this

Euro 2016 will give people all over this island the chance to hope and dream

Manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have successfully negotiated a tough qualifying campaign
Manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have successfully negotiated a tough qualifying campaign
Ireland players celebrate their side’s victory over Bosnia in front of a packed Aviva Stadium, resulting in qualification for Euro 2016 last Monday

Ireland. Martin O'Neill and the FAI have a lot to be thankful for after that wonderful play-off win. Success raises all boats and let's face it, we needed a good boost.

For the country, there is the tremendous feeling of inclusion that you can only find at a big tournament finals; the sense that we are mixing with the big boys and deserve to be there.

For O'Neill, there must be a huge personal satisfaction to be had from qualifying, all the more sweet because he was doubted along the road.

And for the FAI, the financial boost from making it to France cannot be underestimated. As a bonus, the Republic of Ireland football team is now front and centre again in the national consciousness.

Perhaps that is the big return from Ireland's composed and determined win over Bosnia. There was a moment a few months back when the Ireland rugby team had the entire country glued to their television sets and I was genuinely concerned.

Heroes are heroes and any kids watching the spectacle created at almost all of the RWC venues had to be impressed.

But there's always an asterisk with rugby. Without meaning to belittle Joe Schmidt's efforts or his team's commitment and professionalism, they didn't have to qualify for anything.

O'Neill's players had to fight against the World Champions and two or three difficult opponents just to get to a play-off nine months before the finals in France get under way.

It was a hard road to France and I readily admit that I was one of the doubters. I didn't doubt the players because I've never come across one yet who would not give everything he has to the green shirt.

Commitment

I knew as O'Neill knew that he would get total commitment and that he would not fail because his players lacked the will to compete.

The issues arose over team selection and approach but there is no point in dwelling on that right now. This is a moment to savour the win over Bosnia, to enjoy the fact that it was done relatively comfortably and to celebrate the one big area of progress we can all agree on. Ireland defend, very, very well.

Oddly enough, defence was the area which seemed to need to biggest reconstruction after the departure of Richard Dunne and for a while at least, Shay Given.

O'Neill didn't have too many options when he sat down first to look at his back four. He had Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea but after that, uncertainty filled two positions.

I must congratulate Richard Keogh in particular for solving at least one half of the problem. He is an old school, body on the line centre-back who can cover the ground when he has to and is one of those players who seem to grow much faster at international level than they do for their clubs.

O'Neill solved the other half by taking a punt on Robbie Brady at left-full and another one on Stephen Ward. The recruitment of Cyrus Christie added a new option and from what I have seen so far, an exciting one for the future.

The final piece of the jigsaw came from O'Neill's past. Ciaran Clark stepped up to a new level in the two play-off games and put his hand up for a more permanent presence.

In midfield, the evolution has been slow and not always positive but this is not a time to be negative so let's give credit where it's due. They hunted and harried Bosnia's best and provided a real and effective shield for the defence.

With Wes Hoolahan or Brady on the ball, Ireland carried a threat but the biggest danger for opposing teams and a man who will be well researched by which ever nations Ireland are drawn against for the finals was Jon Walters.

He's the type of footballer every manager wants to meet on the training ground each morning but in Walters's case, he is so driven to be as professional and as good as he can be that he has turned himself into one of the top names in the Premier League.

Now, he is known as a formidable international striker as well and without being corny, he's a nice lad too.

There will be some hard choices to make to find a 23-man squad for the finals but Walters will be first on the bus for France and first on the team sheet when O'Neill sits down to pick his first team in the finals.

But that's for another day. Success like this is rare enough and for a while at least, it will be nice to kick back and enjoy it.

In three weeks, we will have the draw and that will keep us talking until the big day next June. Roll on the summer.

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