McGrath: Ireland are a force to be reckoned with
UNDERESTIMATE us at your peril says the hero of Stuttgart, Genoa and the Giants Stadium, New York - Paul McGrath. His duel with Roberto Baggio in the heaving colosseum of the Giants Stadium in '94 has become the stuff of legend and McGrath knows better than most how Ireland can punch above their weight.
The Irish, led by Jack Charlton, brushed aside decades of underachievement and near-misses by beating England 1-0 at the European Championships 24 years ago, and the former Aston Villa and Manchester United legend believes the current crop can emulate the incredible feats of the Charlton era.
"Ireland seem to have this thing that when we do go to these big competitions that we do seem to gel as a team," he said. "We had a licence to bond, I don't think they can do that as much these days but they have to be given a little bit of leeway to bond.
"To get them as far as he (Trapattoni) has got, I think he's done brilliantly and they'll be a force to be reckoned with."
While Ireland's 4-4-2 system has seen us develop one of the most miserly defences in Europe, McGrath believes Trap possesses an ace in the hole in the form of James McClean.
"(James) is going to be blown away by playing against the best players in Europe," says McGrath. "It's another step up from the Premier League.
"Any time I've watched him - and I've watched him quite a bit for Sunderland - he doesn't seem to get fazed by anything.
"Most Irish people wanted him to get his debut against the Czechs and it's the first time I've ever seen a player getting a standing ovation on his debut. It was lovely to see. I don't know if his arm was twisted and if Trap had his squad picked but James seems to have thrown a spanner into the works.
"He's a class act, it would be brilliant if someone like that turned up on the biggest stage and performed in the way he can.
"We need new players coming in that the opposition don't know much about and that could help us."
For many players in the squad, this may be their final few weeks playing in an Ireland shirt, but there is one in particular Paul would like to see extend his Irish career beyond our Euro 2012 odyssey: Robbie Keane.
"I don't think Robbie owes the country anything, he's done everything," said McGrath. "The goals he's got, the enthusiasm he shows every time he turns up is great. He's been a great ambassador for Ireland.
"I hope he keeps playing but I think there's a point when you realise you can't contribute as much as you did when you were five or 10 years younger and it does get harder.
"He's been the best striker we've had but there are plenty of kids waiting in the wings."
Last December's draw pits Ireland against the last two World Cup winners in Spain and Italy, not to mention Croatia, arguably the most technically gifted side in the competition after the Spaniards.
While the bookies appear to be writing us off, McGrath believes that history proves we should not fear anyone. He said: "It worked out well for us (in 1988) probably because we got England in our group, we were getting so many jibes over how many we were going to get beaten by, I think because on paper they were probably the better team. They were the best in Europe at the time and we beat them.
"It was a great tournament. To beat England, play so well against the Russians and to just get beaten by the Dutch, who showed in the final what they could do."
As with most commentators and pundits, the former centre-half believes we must get a positive result in our opening fixture against Slaven Bilic's Croatia in Poznan on Sunday.
"I'm thinking we need a point at least out of the Croatian game, and I think that is going to be tough because they are quite a good passing side," he added.
"The Italians are obviously not the force they were. I hope we get a win in the first game and that would make things a lot easier and the Italians are not like the side we played years back."
If Paul McGrath says the Italians can be beaten, the Italians can be beaten.