Monday 23 April 2018

Boys in green no soft touch for away ties

Ireland have enviable record on the road under Trap and O'Neill

Ireland midfielder James McClean celebrates his winning goal after the World Cup 2018 qualifying victory over Austria in Vienna last November
Ireland midfielder James McClean celebrates his winning goal after the World Cup 2018 qualifying victory over Austria in Vienna last November

Before Ireland travelled to Georgia in 2014 for the first away game under Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane was in a positive state of mind.

"There's nothing to be frightened of," he declared. "We're ready to go."

Keane was irritated that the media seemed doubtful of Ireland's chances in the upcoming qualifying campaign.

"Everyone seems frightened to death in the media," he demurred. "There's a lot of negativity."

Never shy about calling it, Roy teased reporters after Ireland's final run-out at the Aviva Stadium (a friendly against Oman). "Strangely enough, if we qualify (for Euro 2016 in France), you'll be the first to celebrate and have a jolly-up over there."

Ireland duly qualified for the trip to France. One of a whopping 24 teams in an inflated competition.

Just eight teams were eliminated before the next round. Ireland progressed.

But the national jolly-up wasn't as feverish as the excitement that gripped the country when Jack Charlton's Ireland squad qualified for Euro 88 in Germany.

Unlike now, the tournament was an elite competition with eight teams in total across two groups.

Roy knows his onions. He was secure in his confidence in 2014.

He'd have taken a look at how Ireland had been performing in away matches in the years prior to joining Martin O'Neill to help steer a way forward.

And he'd have been impressed by the realisation that since defeating Georgia 1-2 away in September 2008, Ireland hadn't lost an away game.

The Boys in Green were no longer a soft touch away from home.

Instilling Italian discipline and the tactical nous of Serie A football, Giovanni Trapattoni buried Ireland's trepidatious mindset.

In his book, an away point was infinitely preferable to nessun punto. Whatever else, Trap showed Ireland how not to lose.

The era of "joke goals", the unforgettable phrase Damian Duff used after Ireland lost 5-2 to Cyprus in Nicosia in 2006 under Steve Staunton, was over.

Under Trapattoni, between September 2008 and March 2013, Ireland played 15 competitive matches in qualifying tournaments. They won eight and drew seven.

During those five years, Ireland got a monkey off its back.

But, once again, we face Georgia away, with points vital to our World Cup dream.

Ever astute, Martin O'Neill is poised between bullishness and caution, saying: "Considering they are down as the last seeded side, they are a strong team, stronger than every other one of the sixth seeded sides in Europe. They're definitely a talented side, one to be very concerned about."

The spectre of the shock away defeat has come back to haunt Ireland.

After years of rescuing a point against the top seeds, while putting ranked lower teams to the sword, Ireland shipped two away defeats under Martin O'Neill.

There was a 1-0 loss to Scotland and a 2-1 defeat to Poland in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, which thankfully didn't prevent Ireland's qualification for France last summer.

And, with Serbia (h), Moldova (h) and Wales (a) to play after Georgia, our fate remains in our own hands.

It's 20 years since 1997 when Mick McCarthy's Ireland blew their 1998 World Cup chances with a spectacular 3-2 defeat in Macedonia. That it was April Fool's Day is no excuse for the shock performance that became embedded in Ireland's footballing consciousness as "I had a Macedonia," the jokey slogan on bibs that poorly performing players were made wear in training for years afterwards.

There were no such Macedonia debacles under Trapattoni.

Ireland should believe they can win in Tbilisi. Or, at least, not lose.

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