Ireland look to reprise past heroics in fantastic Euro 2012
History suggests that playing in the finals of a major championship helps a team reach a peak of performance. This is certainly true for Irish teams of the recent past.
The first celebration of its kind for Ireland took place in the European Championship finals of 1988 in Germany. Who will forget the win over England in Stuttgart courtesy of Ray Houghton's headed goal ?
Houghton's successful strike is an enduring memory. Not so often recalled is the heroic performance of Packie Bonner in goal as England peppered the Irish goal afterwards !
That performance was surpassed in the next match when Ireland drew 1-1 with the Soviet Union. There are many shrewd judges who will argue that this was Ireland's finest performance as they produced fluid, dynamic football that was a testament to the pedigree of a superb team.
The manner of Ireland's departure from the tournament was heart-breaking as they lost to the Netherlands by a freak goal. Significantly Netherlands went on to win that Championship and they beat the Soviet Union in the final – testament to the quality of the group in which Ireland had performed with distinction.
This was followed by Italia 90, Ireland's first involvement in the finals of the World Cup. Ireland did not disappoint after emerging from a group that included Spain, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Malta to make it to Italy.
There they drew three matches with England, Egypt and Netherlands before beating Romania on penalties in Genoa in the Round of 16. The drama of the penalty shoot-out that featured a fantastic save by Packie Bonner from Romania's Timofte and David O'Leary's calm and accurate penalty to win it, was exceeded on a memorable night in Rome.
There Ireland played Italy in the grandeur of Rome's Olympic Stadium for a place in the semi-finals. A huge occasion delivered ultimate disappointment as a brave Ireland fell to an opportunist goal from Schillaci.
The World Cup finals of 1994 in the USA will always be recalled for the extravagance of the occasion when Ireland beat Italy in their opening match in the Giants Stadium, New Jersey. The huge bowl of an iconic stadium was enveloped in Irish colours as the travelling army, in an attendance of 75,000, paid tribute to a squad that responded in style to the exceptional atmosphere.
Again Ray Houghton was a goal-scoring hero, beating Pagliuca, with a shot from outside the penalty area that caught the goalkeeper off his goal-line. The goal came after just eleven minutes and, in stifling heat, Ireland defended heroically to triumph. Paul McGrath's performance at the heart of the defence, has been lauded in song and story ever since.
Ireland advanced to the Round of 16 where they were ambushed by a talented Dutch team in Orlando. And they also advanced out of a group that contained the champions of Africa, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia and mighty Germany in the World Cup finals of 2002 in South Korea/Japan.
The tournament represented the high point of Damien Duff's career for he produced a succession of performances that elevated him to the top rank of international footballers. His form, whether he played at centre-forward or on the wing, was dynamic and his partnership with Robbie Keane entirely fruitful.
Ireland came from behind to draw with Cameroon, drew with Germany with a late goal from Robbie Keane and beat Saudi Arabia to advance from the group. They lost a penalty shoot-out to Spain after dominating much of the match and they returned home without losing in regular time.
Now we wait to experience the thrills of seeing Giovanni Trapattoni's troops attempt to repeat, if not exceed, the achievements of the past.
Encouraging has been Ireland's form leading up to these finals. It is true they were out-played twice by Russia in the qualifiers but we have seen Russia's quality already in the finals by the manner of their 4-1 win over the Czech Republic on Friday.
Ireland showed how defiant they can be, even in such demanding surroundings and circumstances as they experienced in Moscow. Their reward was to go through a play-off with Estonia and arrive in Poland, unbeaten in 14 matches stretching back to March 2011.
Croatia tonight in Poznan represent the opening match of a sequence that could not have been more demanding for Ireland. They will play three teams who are ranked in the top ten in the World but it is clear from the mood and demeanour of the squad and the management team that this is a challenge that will embolden them.
World champions Spain and formidable Italy stand in the queue of opponents to be faced in Poland in the 2012 Euros. It is abundantly clear that this is the most challenging group of all four groups in the finals and who would want it otherwise ?
Three huge matches are in prospect for Ireland, three hugely significant dates in the history of Irish football, three landmark occasions in the careers of these players and we look ahead with ambition.
The optimism stems from the fact that the squad is patently united and driven and led astutely and inspiringly by the celebrated Trapattoni, his assistant Marco Tardelli and the talented hard core of Ireland's most experienced – team captain Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and Shay Given.
Bring it on !