Blog Written by Joshua O'Byrne (@JobJobBinks):
Ireland qualified for the 2016 Euro's via the play-offs comfortably beating Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 at home following a 1-1 draw in Bosnia to go through 3-1 winners overall. It was not always plain sailing for O'Neill's men as finishing third spot in our qualifying group wasn't looking likely after draws with Poland and Scotland. However, after Scotland suffered a surprise defeat to Georgia and lost to Germany, Ireland took full advantage by picking up maximum points against Gibraltar and Georgia. Then came the famous 1-0 victory over Germany at the Aviva and second place looked a possibility however three days later Poland also defeated Germany. This meant Ireland would enter the play-offs, which Ireland sailed through to book a place at Euro 2016.
Martin O'Neill will lead Ireland into their third European Championship. The Euro's hold special memories for Irish fans as Euro ‘88 was the first finals for which Ireland qualified. However, there are no happy memories of four years ago at Euro 2012. Trapattoni's men were brushed aside by every team in the group in what was a pretty embarrassing showing from the boys in green. Fans will be hoping for a more adventurous approach under O'Neill's guidance. So far O'Neill has done an excellent job in qualifying for Euro 2016 with a team made up of mainly Championship players with some Premier League players in the squad. Ireland have no real star player and O'Neill will be relying on hard-work and team spirit if Ireland are to achieve anything in France this summer.
O'Neill's most difficult decision will be whether to play captain Robbie Keane at the tournament. There is a good chance Keane will not be fit for the first match. Many Irish fans would prefer to see Shane Long start upfront as Keane's age seems to be getting to him and let's be honest apart from a goal against Germany in the 2002 World Cup, Keane only scores against teams like Faroe Islands, San Marino and Luxembourg etc. I would be disappointed not to see Shane Long starting this summer in France as he's been in fine form for Southampton. Long's work rate and pace can trouble any team and as he showed against Germany he can take the big chance when it comes. Apart from the Keane or Long decision O'Neill's team selection will pretty much pick itself. O'Neill will likely play with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Darren Randolph is likely to start in goal with Shay Given struggling to stay fit. The back line should consist of Seamus Coleman, John O'Shea, Richard Kehoe with Ciaran Clark and Stephen Ward competing for the left back spot. Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy will occupy the holding midfield roles, Wes Hoolahan should start behind the striker and Jonathan Walters and Robbie Brady will be on the wings. If O'Neill decides to switch to a 4-4-2, Walters will be pushed upfront to play alongside Keane or Long.
Ireland is in a Group E with Sweden, Italy and Belgium and going through in third place is the best the Irish can hope for. The first match with Sweden on June 13 will be crucial, if Ireland can pick up a win then qualification to the last 16 is a real possibility. Belgium will more than likely defeat Ireland, however, taking points off an Italian team who struggle to score goals is a real possibility. Getting out of the group would be a success for O'Neill and anything else would be a bonus. One thing that Ireland can count on this summer in France is the support of the nation. Irish fans will be there in the thousands and no country has a better atmosphere than Ireland. The noise from The Green Army will give the players a real boost and often get the best out of the players inspiring them to achieve something special.
With fantastic support and a great team spirit there is real hope that perhaps The Boys in Green can provide Irish fans with memories to last a lifetime.