Friday 28 October 2016

Taylor grand plan worked for Ireland and the minnows

Iceland and Albania both pulled groups Martin O'Neill would have snapped up.
Iceland and Albania both pulled groups Martin O'Neill would have snapped up.

It was good to be a minnow swimming around in UEFA's goldfish bowl when the draw for Euro 2016 was made in Paris.

Iceland and Albania both pulled groups Martin O'Neill would have snapped up.

This time of year in far North, football fans need to be made of stern stuff to consider the notion of dancing in the street but when they saw the Euro 2016 draw they might just have done a lap or two around Reykjavik to celebrate. Portugal, Austria, Hungary. Not bad at all.

Down in Tirana, it was a nice sunny day on Saturday and it got better for the other tournament débutantes when they found their way into the top group, the one the cynics would say is designed to make sure the hosts don't crash out of the event early. France, Romania and Switzerland. Not bad at all.

Michel Platini's grand experiment has worked and nations usually making up the scrag end of qualifying tables had more to play for this time around. They were shooting for third place.

It made for an ultra-competitive qualifying environment and some very odd results. Casualties too. Holland won't be there but new faces will be and that was the plan.

It worked for Ireland too. In the old format, O'Neill's goose would have been cooked the moment the final whistle sounded in Warsaw in October and Poland clinched the runner-up spot in the group.

Four years back, that would have only got you a play-off and third-place the dunce's cap.

So, we should raise a glass to Platini or more accurately, to David Taylor, the former Scottish Football Association chief who became the General Secretary of UEFA and passed away 18 months ago before his idea of an expanded finals tournament could blossom fully.

Critics of the move to widen the competition's scale suggest that the addition of some smaller nations to the finals will dilute the quality but that remains to be seen.

If you're neutral and have time to occupy your mind with such esoteric subjects, fair play to you but for those with emotions invested in the finals, it won't matter what's going on in the other games until they are directly relevant.

Ask any journalist who has covered the World Cup or Euro finals and he or she will tell you that you are locked into your parochial cocoon. It's all about Ireland. Full on immersion. Wayne who?

The whole of Albania and Iceland will stop when their players are active in France and those old enough to remember the extraordinary joy of just being there when Ireland first qualified in 1988 will envy them the coming months.

It marks a significant point, however, in the development of both nations. They lost the minnow tag the moment they qualified and nobody will underestimate them ever again.

Nobody has viewed Ireland as a small fish since '88 and that brings pressure.

Each qualification since has chipped a bit of the lustre off the achievement. and we have long since moved from just enjoying being there to wanting to stay there for as long as possible.

So the minnows should savour the moment. It will be over in a flash

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