DUBLIN (Reuters) - A stunning home victory over world champions Germany in qualifying suggested a rejuvenated Ireland side could cause the sort of upset in France that would banish memories of their woeful Euro 2012 campaign.
Drawn with Sweden, Belgium and Italy in Group E this time, the Irish will be confident of containing Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their opening game and giving themselves a good shot at making the knockout stages.
A stuttering qualifying campaign exploded into life when striker Shane Long latched on to a long ball in the home game against Germany and smashed in an unstoppable swerving shot, reigniting Irish hopes.
That goal went a long way to restoring the wounded pride of Irish football after a disastrous Euro 2012 in which Giovanni Trapattoni’s team scored once and conceded nine goals as they were humiliated by Croatia, Spain and Italy.
In 2016 qualifying, Ireland took four points off the Germans but defeat by Poland in their final group game sent them to the playoffs, where they comfortably beat Bosnia 3-1 over two legs.
It was all so different from the failed 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign under Trapattoni which heralded the end of the Italian’s reign.
He was replaced by Northern Irishman Martin O’Neill who, together with former Ireland international Roy Keane, was brought in to breathe fire into the side.
Trapattoni’s ultra-defensive tactics were replaced with a more forceful, pragmatic style in which opponents are harried all over the pitch to grind out results.
Keane, one of Ireland’s greatest players whose demands for the highest standards led to a bust-up and a missed World Cup in 2002, helped O’Neill to recreate the Irish in the image of the tough, battling sides of old.
The rediscovery of the fighting Irish spirit was epitomised by the energy of bustling forward Jonathan Walters but the duo also found room for the creative spark provided by Norwich midfielder Wes Hoolahan, who was marginalised under Trapattoni.
Despite being some of the loudest, most passionate fans in Poland in 2012 the Irish had little to cheer but Euro 2016 will give the side a chance to restore their reputation as a team full of strength, spirit and surprises.
Editing by Neil Robinson