Now that the dust has well and truly settled on the Republic of Ireland’s heroics at the European Championships in France and Robbie Brady can be content in the knowledge that he has earned himself a ‘Reeling in the Years’ clip to rival Ray Houghton’s and David O’Leary’s, it’s interesting to look back on the six major tournaments that the country have been represented at and attempt to pick the best starting eleven from the players involved.
While some player’s heroics at major tournaments make them automatic choices for such a selection, there is plenty of debate to be had on which players should occupy certain positions and who wouldn’t warrant a plane ticket for such a team.
So here’s what the Republic of Ireland’s greatest tournament team would look like in my own humble view:
- Shay Given (Caps – 134, World Cup 02, Euro 12, 16)
The debate for the goalkeeper position is immediately a fierce one with both Donegal custodians Shay Given and Packie Bonner well and truly regarded as legends of the Irish game and top class stoppers to boot. Many would feel clean sheets in Stuttgart against the English and again in the Giant’s Stadium versus Italy along with THAT penalty save in the shoot out against the Romanians would make Bonner an automatic choice in such a selection but, overall, Given at his imperious best has to be regarded as the greatest number 1 the Republic has ever had. Solid displays at World Cup 2002 were his crowning achievement for the Boys in Green before a patchy Euro 2012 was followed up as being back up to Darren Randolph at this summer’s European Championship in France.
- Denis Irwin (Caps – 56, World Cup 94)
Alex Ferguson has remarked that if he was to select a best eleven from his time at Old Trafford then Corkman Irwin would be the first name on the team sheet every time. At club level Irwin amassed every trophy that the domestic game had to offer while playing for Manchester United and was invaluable due to the fact that he could be utilised at left or right back. He was a calming influence in defence when Ireland toppled Italy in 1994 and many observers speculate that had Irwin still been on the scene come 2002, he would have been exactly the voice of reason to keep his old buddy Roy Keane on the island of Saipan. Oh well. Not bad from a free kick too.
- Steve Staunton (Caps – 102, World Cup 90, 94, 02)
Before Staunton was nationally lampooned during his catastrophic stint as the Republic of Ireland’s manger in 2006, he was once a highly regarded footballer that played for Aston Villa and Liverpool while representing his country at three World Cups. He was a key figure in the dispute that broke out between manager Mick McCarthy and captain Keane in 2002 and unequivocally backed McCarthy, taking the vacant arm band once Keane departed. Like Irwin, he was an extremely versatile operator and fancied himself in dead ball situations too. The fact he has played in every single one of Ireland’s World Cup matches makes him a bona-fide legend but the enduring image of Staunton at a major tournament will always be him lining out before the Mexico game in 1994, in the searing midday heat in Orlando, Florida wearing a white baseball cap looking as if he was fit to melt.
- Kevin Moran (Caps – 71, World Cup 90, 94, Euro 88)
When it comes to selecting Ireland’s greatest tournament centre halves, there truly is a deep pool of talent to choose from. It is also worth noting that Mick McCarthy was so dominant against England at Italia 90 that he actually made Gary Lineker excrete on the pitch. But instead of Big Mick marshalling the defence, it’s former Manchester United man Kevin Moran who gets the nod. Moran’s GAA background with Dublin gave him the physicality to be an imposing centre half with United for ten years and his natural football ability saw him often utilised in the middle of the field also. Moran suffered the indignity of being the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final in 1985.
- Paul McGrath (Caps – 83, World Cup 90, 94, Euro 88)
While leaving Richard Dunne out of such a team is extremely difficult given his one-man master class away to Russia en route to qualifying for Euro 2012, it was Paul McGrath who provided to be the blue print for such a performance with his tour de force versus the Roberto Baggio-spearheaded Italy at USA 94. Anyone who has read McGrath’s warts and all autobiography will know just how chaotic his life off the pitch has been but when stood on a football field, McGrath brought an air of calm to proceedings that no other Irish footballer before or after could ever claimed to have done. He won the PFA Player of the Year Award in 1993 and Alex Ferguson has since remarked he wished he’d had kept McGrath at Manchester Utd to save him from himself.
- Roy Keane (Caps – 67, World Cup 94)
Few individuals, never mind sports people, polarise opinion in Ireland as much as Roy Keane. There is no doubting that the fiercely competitive captain of Manchester United’s all-conquering sides of the late nineties and early noughties stood proudly amongst the great centre midfielders of the game during that period, but there always seemed to be an inner conflict bubbling under the surface with the Corkman. He courted controversy like no other whether it was the horrific incident with Alf Inge Haaland, his eventual departure from United – which was caused by an allegedly scathing critique of his team mates carried out on MUTV – or, of course, the moment that stopped a nation in its tracks when he left the Irish World Cup squad in 2002 after a bitter dispute with Mick McCarthy. Groucho Marx once commented “those are my principles and if you don’t like them… well I have others”. Unfortunately for Ireland Roy only had one set of principles and they were very much based around an international team needing footballs to train for a World Cup. Madness!!
- Ronnie Whelan ( Caps – 53, World Cup 90, 94, Euro 88)
Again, it’s hard to leave out the likes of Jason McAteer, who starred at USA 94 and did so much in qualifying for Ireland in the lead up to Korea and Japan in 2002, as well as Robbie Brady, who has consolidated his position as a Republic of Ireland cult hero with that glancing header versus Italy in Lille, but it must be argued that Ronnie Whelan is one of the most cultured midfielders that this country has ever produced. Whelan scored a spectacular goal against the Soviet Union at Euro 88 and won everything the club game had to offer with the iconic Liverpool side of the eighties.
- Ray Houghton (Caps – 73, World Cup 90, 94, Euro 88)
Born in Glasgow, no man’s goals in the green jersey of Ireland have been immortalised more than Ray Houghton’s. Arguably the most successful recruit under the ‘granny rule’, Houghton silenced the English with his looping header in Stuttgart 88 and followed up the feat by adding a goal of equal historical significance for Ireland versus Italy in 1994 when his long range effort left Gianluca Pagliuca stunned. His club career wasn’t too shabby either where he picked up two league titles and two FA cups with Liverpool.
- Niall Quinn (Caps – 92, World Cup 90, 02, Euro 88)
Having nudged in a vital goal against the Dutch at Italia 90, it was clear Niall Quinn would become an essential part of the Irish set up for years to come. The archetypal target man, he proved the perfect foil for smaller, craftier players at both club and international level. He missed USA 94 through injury but bounced back to set up Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany in 2002 and win a penalty versus Spain when Fernando Hierro prematurely decided to try and swap jerseys with him. Like Staunton he was in the pro-McCarthy camp during the Saipan debacle with him being labelled as ‘Mother Teresa’ in some quarters of the media. He and Roy Keane did mend fences, however, when he went onto hire him as manager of Sunderland during his capacity as chairman of the club.
- Robbie Keane (Caps – 145, World Cup 02, Euro 12, 16)
Arguably the most underappreciated individual in the history of Irish sport, Robbie Keane’s record of 67 international goals is astonishing in the fact that he completely blows away his closest rival Niall Quinn, who has notched 21. A jibe far too often levelled at Keane is that he doesn’t score enough against the bigger nations but goals against Germany and Spain at the 2002 World Cup as well as a decisive double against Iran in the first leg of the play-off would suggest Robbie had plenty of bottle on the big occasion. When you consider that Ireland’s other strikers have never particularly fired on all cylinders, fans should be even more grateful for Keane’s goals against the lesser lights also considering they’ve been so important in the Republic qualifying for the three major tournaments that Robbie has featured at. At club level, he’s played for everyone – and it’s always been a dream come true – but Robbie Keane undoubtedly stands alone as Ireland’s greatest ever striker.
- Damien Duff (Caps – 100, World Cup 02, Euro 12)
In Korea and Japan in 2002 Damien Duff, in tandem with Robbie Keane, introduced himself on the biggest stage of all with scintillating performances against Spain and Germany in particular and scoring against Saudi Arabia. The tricky winger/forward would make it onto the UEFA team of the year and eventually earn a big money move to Chelsea where he would go onto win the league twice. Duff was a winger in the old sense and could turn defenders inside-out. Despite his powers waning come the European Championships in 2012, he was still a vital part of that Irish side. Maybe he didn’t burn as brightly for as long as he could have at the very top of the club game but Duff surely has to be regarded as Ireland’s greatest ever wide man.
Not a bad side it must be said.
Eóin Kennedy, Pundit Arena