Ireland left Euro 2012 four years ago without having collected a single point – Now the Irish want to celebrate wins
Ireland main player profile: Darren Randolph
"Top debut, hope you have a top career" – Darren Randolph was pleasantly surprised by Steven Gerrard's impromptu comment to him after the goalkeeper's first Premier League match, which was on the final day of the 2006-07 season. Charlton Athletic had already been relegated and, because their usual goalkeeper Scott Carson was on loan from Liverpool, they decided to give Randolph his first taste of the top-flight the day after his 20th birthday. He performed well enough in a 2-2 draw at Anfield to earn praise from Gerrard. But his career did not exactly skyrocket after that. If he is going to Euro 2016 as the Republic of Ireland's No1 goalkeeper, it is only after years of watching matches as a frustrated reserve for various clubs as well as his country.
In one way it is fitting that Randolph has spent so long as a back-up, as he his now at West Ham United, because during his youth football was his second-choice sport. His first ambition was to be a professional basketball player like his father, Ed Randolph, an American who left Roger Williams University in Rhode Island to join Sporting Belfast back in 1982. Irish basketball was enjoying a relative boom time and had just introduced a rule permitting clubs to sign two foreign professionals. Ed, a Florida native who was deterred neither by the Irish weather nor the political violence in the country at the time, accepted the challenge. He has been in Ireland ever since, having played for and coached an array of basketball clubs and married an Irish woman, Anne. Their sons are gifted sportsmen, most obviously Darren, who represented Ireland at basketball as a 15-year-old while also playing football for the country and Gaelic football for the county of his birth, Wicklow. He has said that it was only when he realised that he was unlikely to be tall enough to make it in the NBA that he decided to invest most of his hope in becoming a full-time footballer.
He was 16 when he agreed to go to England with Charlton. After years with that club's youth teams and a couple of loan periods elsewhere, he made that debut at Anfield. But despite impressing Gerrard, Randolph's next league appearance for Charlton did not come until almost a year later – and he made a rather less favourable impression then, dropping the ball against a team-mate and compatriot, Paddy McCarthy, and watching it ricochet into the net to give Southampton a 1-1 draw.
Charlton loaned him out to Hereford the following season. Randolph began well for the League One side, memorably making 18 saves in a 1-0 defeat to Leeds United. But a few months later he rebelled when he discovered plans to make him a reserve even at Hereford: upon learning that the club was in talks to sign Matt Murray, Randolph refused to play in a FA Cup tie against Dagenham & Redbridge. He soon returned to Charlton. He eventually left the Valley on a free to join Motherwell in Scotland. At last his career as No1 took flight.
By setting a new clean sheet record for the Scottish club Randolph attracted the attention of the Republic's then-manager, Giovanni Trapattoni. He made his senior international debut in a friendly against Oman in September 2012, a 4-1 win. He played in another friendly nine months later, a 2-0 defeat to Spain. After that, nothing. Until, that is, he was suddenly thrust into the middle of a vital Euro 2016 qualifier against the world champions, no less.
Randolph's club career had progressed well – he left Motherwell for Birmingham City in 2013 and did well enough at the Championship club to earn a move to West Ham in 2015. But Martin O'Neill had still not given him an Ireland cap. When Germany rolled into Dublin last October intent on securing their ticket to France, O'Neill plumped for the big-match experience of Shay Given. But when Given injured a knee in the 44th minute, O'Neill made a radical decision: rather than replace Given with David Forde, who had excelled when Ireland drew 1-1 in Germany earlier in the group, the manager cast on Randolph. It is fair to say the 28-year-old's wait for his first competitive international was worth it: unperturbed by nerves he made a series of fine saves, particularly from JérIome Boateng and Thomas Müller, and even claimed an assist as Shane Long collected ons of his punts before firing into the net to give Ireland's a famous victory.
Randolph played again against Poland a few days later and then performed well in the playoff victory over Bosnia-Heregovina. He emerged, like midfielder Jeff Hendrick, as one of the finds of the Irish campaign. But the fact that he seldom plays for West Ham, where Adrian is No1, raised the possibility that he could lose his new-found starting place with Ireland to Rob Elliot, who used to get picked ahead of him at Charlton many years ago and was in outstanding form with Newcastle United this season – until tearing his knee ligaments in a friendly for Ireland against Slovakia in March. That was cruel on Elliot but the Newcastle player's absence at least makes O'Neill decision easier for the Euros. Randolph is the most agile and commanding goalkeeper available to Ireland and and the manager should have no reservations about making him No1.
Tactics and key questions
The key difference between this Ireland team and the one that lost all three of its matches at Euro 2012 relates to attitude. Four years ago Giovanni Trapattoni probably had a better bunch of players available to him but definitely stifled the side due to his conviction that Ireland were not good enough to aspire to being anything other than plucky sucker punchers.
Martin O'Neill has slightly more faith in the players' ability to fight on the front foot even if he, too, occasionally lapses into excessive caution or even slovenliness, as during the 1-0 defeat to Scotland in the group phase, when Ireland's long-ball approach met with predictably little success. Generally O'Neill's team have been enterprising, especially when he deploys Robbie Brady as a left-back. The Norwich City player is defensively vulnerable but his menace going forward – and his precious set-piece deliveries – make him as dangerous as Séamus Coleman is on the right. The width provided by those full-backs, in particular, often enable Ireland to beef up central midfield.
Trapattoni's decision not to take Coleman to Poland/Ukraine four years ago was decried at the time, as was the Italian's neglect of Wes Hoolahan, who has since become the team's chief creator under O'Neill. At 34 the Norwich City schemer finds it hard to last 90 minutes – and including him makes a 4-4-2 formation impossible, which is why O'Neill usually favours a 4-2-3-1 – but when he is on the pitch his wriggly runs and inventive passes give the Irish an element of surprise that they otherwise lack.
Shane Long's speed and aerial power are also crucial and give Ireland an essential counter-attacking threat against teams who have more possession than them, which could be everyone at Euro 2016, while the sheer dynamism and power of Jonathan Walters on the right mean Ireland would suffer both offensively and defensively if the Stoke City player were not fully fit following the knee injury he suffered in March.
James McCarthy will almost certainly anchor midfield but it remains to be seen who will partner him. Glenn Whelan looks the most likely but Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane are among interesting alternatives, in particular because they offer the mobility that is often sorely missed.
O'Neill's greatest area of concern is central defence, where it is difficult to predict which two players he will select and even more difficult to feel safe with whichever pairing he goes for. John O'Shea played every group game until being sent off in the last one in Poland. In his absence, Ciaran Clarke played well alongside Richard Keogh in the play-offs against Bosnia-Herzegovina. But neither player, nor Marc Wilson, go into the tournament with encouraging club form so there is cause for alarm at the prospect of any of them facing strikers such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku or Michy Batshuayi.
Probable starting XI: Randolph; Coleman, O'Shea, Keogh, Brady; McCarthy, Arter; Walters, Hoolahan, Hendrick; Long
- Which Ireland player is going to surprise everyone at the Euro 2016?
Jeff Hendrick was the biggest revelation of the qualifying campaign, along with goalkeeper Darren Randolph. Hendrick was not even a regular starter for Derby County when he made a decisive impact off the bench for Ireland in Germany, setting up a late equaliser for John O'Shea. He then earned a place in the first XI and his runs from midfield and composed distribution became a recurring feature of the campaign, whether he played centrally or on the left. His dribble and pass for Jonathan Walters' winning goal against Georgia was a work of beauty and he has a lovely understanding with Robbie Brady, with whom he has been playing since the pair were 10-year-olds at the Dublin junior club St Kevin's Boys.
- Which player is likely to disappoint?
James McCarthy. In a team with plenty of limitations but generally admirable spirit, the Everton midfielder is the one player who sometimes leaves on-lookers wondering whether he could have done more. Too often he is akin to the Irish Jon Obi Mikel, content to sit deep rather than assert the attacking quality that he does actually possess. Other than that, Shane Long's finishing can be sketchy and James McClean's tackling scary.
- What is the realistic aim for Sweden at the Euro 2016 and why?
Defensive weakness and a relative flair deficit make elimination in the group stage probable but progress beyond that is not unimaginable, as the team have inexhaustible energy and, in Shane Long and Jonathan Walters, forwards who can deck any rival who is not up for a fight, especially when Wes Hoolahan is at his mischievous best. If Ireland's central defenders have a good day against Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their first match, the rest of the team is at least the equal of Sweden and a win would give them a powerful boost before facing Italy and Belgium, who have more quality but will have to show similar endeavour.
Secrets behind the players
- Martin O'Neill
Manager Martin O'Neill studied law for a year at Queen's University Belfast before giving up to become a professional footballer. He was in the same class as Mary McAleese, who went on to become the president of Ireland. He remains keenly interested in criminology and the law and has attended trials of several infamous villains, including serial killers.
- Richard Keogh
Richard Keogh's first professional club in England was Stoke City but he never played for them, spending most of his time on loan in Iceland. He then moved to Bristol City, where his career took off in August 2006 after he was introduced as a substitute following a red card for the right-back Bradley Orr, who was sent off for headbutting his own team-mate, Louis Carey. A few days later Orr was one of three City players to be sent to prison following a fight outside a pub. Keogh kept his place in the team.
- Robbie Brady
The Dubliner’s brothers, Gareth and Liam, represented Ireland at underage level. Brady was brought to Manchester United as a teenager after impressing for his schoolboy club St Kevin’s Boys. Things did not work out as planned at Old Trafford and he joined Hull, following two loan spells on Humberside, in 2013 before joining Norwich last year. Recently he lost two front teeth after clashing heads with team-mate Gary O'Neil during Norwich City's 2-1 defeat by Chelsea in March.
- David Meyler
David Meyler's father, John, is a former Gaelic footballer and hurler and has managed Wexford and Kerry at hurling. Meyler was also a talented hurler growing up but was brought to Sunderland by Roy Keane after impressing for Cork City as a youngster. He has recovered from serious injuries to both knees. His partner gave birth to their first daughter a few months back but his manager at Hull, Steve Bruce, was concerned when the midfielder lost a stone in weight due to the stresses of parenthood.
- Jonathan Walters
Back in 2007 Walters was playing for Ipswich Town, who were then managed by current Ireland assistant Roy Keane. One day Walters phoned to say he was too ill to turn up for training and Keane expressed his doubts. So Walters responded with his customary directness, texting the manager a photo of his vomit. The two were also known to have heated arguments in the manager’s office at Portman Road but now get on quite well.
- Shane Long
He was about to focus on playing hurling for Tipperary when he got a call from Pat Dolan, who brought him to League of Ireland club Cork City as a teenager and "taught me how to play". Dolan is still Long’s advisor and helped manufacture his move to Reading while managing Cork in 2005, as part of the Berkshire club’s deal for Kevin Doyle. The Southampton attacker is well known for his musical abilities, regularly taking out his guitar and impressing team-mates with his performances. When he joined West Bromwich Albion five years ago he left his team-mates stunned when giving a rendition of My Girl during an initiation for new signings during pre-season. "I think it's just because I play football," the striker says, "and because of that people think I wouldn't be able to sing or play the guitar, so when I do they're a bit more amazed." He celebrated Ireland’s qualification for the tournament by leading a sing-song with his team-mates in a Dublin pub.
Darren Randolph (West Ham United)
Keiren Westwood (Blackburn Rovers)
Shay Given (Stoke City)
Cyrus Christie (Derby County)
Seamus Coleman (Everton)
Richard Keogh (Derby County)
Shane Duffy (Blackburn Rovers)
John O'Shea (Sunderland)
Ciaran Clarke (Aston Villa)
Stephen Ward (Burnley)
Robbie Brady (Norwich City)
Aiden McGeady (Everton)
David Meyler (Hull City)
Jeff Hendrick (Derby County)
Stephen Quinn (Reading)
James McCarthy (Everton)
Glenn Whelan (Stoke City)
Jonathan Walters (Stoke City)
Wesley Hoolahan (Norwich City)
James McClean (West Bromwich Albion)
Shane Long (Southampton)
Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy)
Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town)