Archive for Sport

Putting your money where your mouth is

The worst thing I did in this World Cup was take your advice. Thanks for nothing. #bellend

Looks like Michael Bradley wasn’t the only one disappointed by his fatigued efforts to shield the ball that led to Portugal’s last-gasp equaliser on Sunday.

A day earlier I’d spoken to Dave O’Grady, an up-and-coming Irish sports journalist and excellent podcaster, to give him my tips for Sunday’s games. I boldly predicted that the USA would take Portugal and I was right.


But nearly doesn’t cut it in gambling. Bookies don’t pay out on “nearly”.

That’s why we know that predicting sports results is a mug’s game and best left to those with big brains and deep pockets.

But just as the second screen has become ubiquitous, so too has a punt on the result, and the World Cup brings daily doses of gambling flutters to us all.

I hardly ever make a bet, but when I do I consult with my brother, who is one of those mathematical geniuses that are both intriguing and scary.

So rather than risk the ire of gamblers on social media in the knockout stages, I’m going to turn the floor over to him to explain the science behind the penalty shootout.

It may not be jogo bonito but it’s probably more profitabel than listening to me.

O’Driscoll’s new gig tries the patience of professionals

So Brian O’Driscoll is to swap his muddy boots for the warmth of the Newstalk studio; as the national talk radio station announced today, he will co-present Off the Ball from this autumn.

And while the BOD Squad will lap up the news, it was treated with trepidation by some of the latest batch of journalism graduates, most succinctly by Pearse Corcoran:

Pearse is right to be concerned. O’Driscoll is many things – professional athlete and marketeer of energy drinks among them – but to the best of my knowledge he has no journalism qualifications.

That’s an important distinction, as O’Driscoll has been signed up as a co-presenter of the show, not as a pundit to speak on general sport or rugby-specific matters.

And what made Off the Ball such a great show to begin with was the delineation between journalism, fans, pundits and athletes. Those lines are now being blurred, which won’t help the listener.

You don’t think it matters? Ask yourself this – would any of you want Brian O’Driscoll to come to your house and fix the plumbing?

After all, he’s been taking showers and baths as part of his professional life for the last 15 years, surely that makes him the man to service your boiler?

What could possibly go wrong?

Or would you prefer someone who has studied and practiced the trade for four years to do it?

Great players do not automatically make great coaches.

Great players do not automatically make good pundits  (and, as we’ve seen with Jamie Redknapp, mediocre players make utterly awful ones).

Great players do not automatically make good presenters.

The Newstalk appointment of O’Driscoll has nothing to do with either his sporting or journalism skills – it has to do with his fame, and nothing more.

It’s name recognition to get more listeners. It’s Pat Kenny light.

Even if he turns out to be a combination of Paul Kimmage, Sid Lowe and Hunter S Thompson (which, given the way he avoided saying pretty much anything of note for his entire career, I would doubt), the decision has been made for all the wrong reasons and is, as Pearse says, a slap in the face to professional journalists, young and old.

Ironically, the only media training that O’Driscoll has had could well prove to be to his detriment.

Players and athletes are told to speak in general soundbytes, never say anything controversial, talk about the team first, never criticise openly, never leave a sentence open-ended to invite another question.

O’Driscoll was a master at it.

But if he is to master the art of radio presenting, he will have to forget all that and start again – asking probing questions, doing research, checking facts, hitting the phones, doing more research, looking at his former friends in a different light, probing their weaknesses, checking more facts, not contenting himself with “the lads done good innit” answers, making enemies and generally making a nuisance of himself so that Newstalk’s listeners get the kind of sports journalism they have come to expect from Off the Ball.

If he wants to I can strongly recommend a course in Rathmines or London that hundreds of young, talented journalists have done recently.

A shame their names won’t guarantee these graduates the same conversion rate as O’Driscoll’s when it comes to their job-hunting.

The pressing matter of access

As if it wasn’t bad enough that media training now removes every sliver of interest from the comments of most players and coaches, the increasing lack of access means we soon won’t be allowed to talk to them at all.

This week I decided that, rather than covering the Swedish team that was preparing for two vital World Cup qualifiers on my doorstep, I’d take an overnight train to Denmark.

The reason for doing so is simple – the Danish media setup gives me – and by extension everyone who reads what I write – better insight into their team.

That’s not to say I didn’t follow the Swedish team’s preparations closely. Having had an interview request turned down (again) by Zlatan’s agent, I watched the press conferences live online as the usual non-sequiturs were trotted out.

By not being there, I didn’t miss anything – but had I not gone to Helsingoer on the Danish coast I would have missed a whole lot.

In contrast to Sweden’s ridiculously anal attempts to control every utterance, the Danes are, as always, a breath of fresh air.

At precisely 0915 on Wednesday morning, every player in the squad made his way through the hotel lobby, where the press corps had assembled with their cameras and microphones.

There were no crash barriers, no ropes, no sinister men with earpieces wandering around.

“Just grab whoever you want and talk to them,” said Lars Berendt, press secretary to the Danish FA.

There were no subjects that were off-limits – the Danish FA seems to have taken a remarkable policy decision to let adults talk freely among themselves.

I took Lars at his word, and first up was Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s playmaker and a recent signing for Tottenham Hotspur.

Christian knows how to play the media game, mixing bland comments like “it’s all about the three points” with quips about Daniel Agger being top scorer only because he takes the penalties.

In amongst all this was some interesting things about how Denmark were actually creating a lot of chances, but not scoring, and that without rectifying this they wouldn’t be going to the World Cup.

Next up was Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark’s equivalent to Zlatan in terms of media profile and no stranger to both positive and negative headlines.

I’ve interviewed Nicklas before, but his first reaction when you speak English to him is to always expect a stitch-up. “Is this about the national team?” he asked as he trailed me across the lobby to where I had parked my camera. “Yes,” I answered, meaning it for once.

The mistake we often make as journalists is to treat the people we interview as demi-gods, putting them up on pedestals and then complaining when they behave like divas and refuse to lower themselves to speak to us.

To me they are no different (except perhaps in terms of bank balance) to someone you’d  do a vox pop on the street with.

Nicklas took the mickey out of my camera tripod being too small, and I hit back with it being big enough for Eriksen and Tom Cruise. The ice broken, we got on with our respective jobs.

What followed was an enjoyable interview that addressed his return to the national side after a six-month ban for drink-driving, Denmark’s problems scoring goals without him and whether or not he had anything to prove to Italian fans after a goalless loan spell of his own at Juventus.

Bendtner answered as he always does – confidently, clearly, sometimes deflecting the question but never backing down from it.

To cap it all off, I interviewed Daniel Agger, who was much the same as Bendtner – straight answers to straight questions, even about his club situation.

On the train back to Copenhagen I started transcribing the quotes into a Bendtner interview and a contribution for a preview of the Denmark-Italy game. A shorter piece based on an Eriksen anecdote will appear before the Malta game.

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, the reasons for Ibra’s media shyness became apparent. Zlatan has released an app, which promises to give a unique insight into his life.

That news was, of course, broken by a press release shortly before he was due to address a press conference. Needless to say, the app was brought up several times.

Having played their part in getting him to where he is, journalists are no longer needed in his world. He is now his own publisher.

Zlatan having his own channel to reach his fans is not an issue – he can do what he likes.

But what is a problem, and a serious one for the Swedish FA and Paris Saint Germain, is when he answers mixed zone questions after the 2-1 victory over Austria with the pithy response:

“Download the app.”

That the Swedish FA has slowly but surely throttled access to players – all the while producing more of its own material – is an adaptation of what club football has been doing since the start of the Premier League era.

The Swedish FA are not alone. The English and Irish FAs have been doing it for years, as controlling access is seen as a way of exerting control over journalists, and thus what they write.

Journalists are not innocent in all of this either. The press, in particular the more rabid commentators of the sports and tabloid press, have long made a blood sport of twisting quotes, bending them out of context and creating controversy where there is none, all for clicks and newspaper sales.

While the press corps has a lot to answer for, the solution is never to cut off access to those that fans want to hear from most – but nor is it to provide them with a stream of carefully-chosen content meticulously filtered to remove any semblance of objective journalism.

The future is to have a continued open dialogue, between journalists, fans, players and associations, to decide the ground rules and stick to them.

Only in an open society can we properly scrutinize and examine clubs, teams and players, but for that to be done we must have trust.

Both sides can start by examining themselves and seeing if they really are doing their utmost to objectively satisfy the needs of the people who are ultimately the only ones that matter – the fans.

Amo flicks the switch on GAA’s foreign future

This flick and score, in the most northerly game of Gaelic football ever played, is a seminal moment in the history of Gaelic games. It says little of where we have come from, but a whole lot about where we are going.

The first time I played with Amarilio Vasconcelos Mendonca – or Amo for short – was in Estonia this summer, as I made a guest appearance for his Oulu Elks side.

Having only played the game for four months his tactical understanding was a bit limited, but what wasn’t in doubt was his passion, skill and athleticism. Amo – like all the Elks – wants to win, and he wants to do it NOW.

He doesn’t want to hang around learning about blanket defences and tactical fouling. He wants to get the ball in his hands by any means possible, and fire points like this one – one of the most-watched GAA clips of the year.

Nor does Amo care that his kit doesn’t come out of the O’Neills catalogue, or that his team-mates haven’t got ten years of junior B football behind them. He is not weighed down by the burden of history and tradition that sometimes – often – holds us back.

All Amo wants to do is get on with it.

I wrote a book about starting a club here in Stockholm, but I’d almost be willing to bet that Oulu is an even more remarkable story. Not just for where they came from, but where they may take us.

European GAA is about to make another major step as Guernsey GAA take on a team from Carlow in the Leinster Intermediate club championship, but compared to the Elks, it leaves me cold.

It’s not that I don’t want Guernsey to succeed – I do.

But for those of us abroad, the future of Gaelic football and hurling is not in Ireland – it is in Europe, America, Asia, Africa.

It is wherever the Amos of this world allow their curiosity to be awakened, and they bring their skills to the game that used to be ours, but now belongs to the world.

Frankly, I don’t care if I never see a 15-a-side game in Europe. We have difficutly enough getting facilities and sponsorship as it is, so 15-a-side pitches with goals and nets are a long way off.

I’d much rather see the GAA and the rest of us accept that the way forward is the 11-a-side game that we currently play.

Amo and the Elks have shown us that it can be just as beautiful and passionate and enthralling as the 15-man game, and with four less players on the team it gives the likes of Amo more time on the ball.

And having seen what he can do in the few seconds of the above clip, who wouldn’t want to see more of that?

Ireland’s all-you-can-cheat attitude

There is a brilliant deflection going on in the wake of an outburst by Joe Brolly, the Gaelic football pundit, who let Seán Cavanagh have it with both barrels over an opportunist, cynical spot of cheating that arguably cost Monaghan a good crack at an All-Ireland semi-final.

Now the merits (such as they are) of the rules of Gaelic football can be debated elsewhere – the only point that interests me is the reaction to them, and what they say about the national psyche.

The first is that Seán Cavanagh is a good, sporting man of long standing, which may of course be true. What it ignores is that in this one instance he hauled a man down to ensure he wouldn’t score a goal.

The point is, as it is in many other areas of Irish life, that good people can do bad things fro good reasons. It’s neither an excuse for the bad behaviour, nor a shield to hide behind.

The wider issue is the idea that he did nothing wrong – if he did, the rules would be harsher. This, my sporting friends, is light-touch regulation in a nutshell.

Whole teams, seasons and eras are now being built upon the idea that a cynical foul is OK if the victory is achieved – that cheating is now somehow part of doing your best.

As the Anglo tapes show us, this extends from the practice fields of our GAA clubs to the boardrooms of our financial institutions, and indeed the corridors of Leinster House.

There is no longer any place for fair play or sportsmanship – all that matters is winning, getting your own way, and breaking (not bending – breaking) the rules is OK, as long as you get what you want.

It’s not. One of the major reasons sports exist is to teach morons like my good self to have some sort of a moral compass.

Sport has shown me that I can never be the best at anything, but within the rules and the spirit of fair play, I can be the best I can be.

That has on occasion brought medals and joy, more often than not it brings huge disappointment, but it has given me more throughout my life than I could ever possibly return.

And in particular I remember those times I cheated, got booked, played dirty, fought with my opponent, got sent off or otherwise let myself and my team down.

Those are among the most shameful moments in my life, but in and of themselves they do not make me a bad man – not least because I have tried to learn from them.

So in the debate that will rage over Brolly’s comments, it’s worth remembering – one honest victory is worth a thousand hollow wins achieved by cheating.

And whether the rules say that it was a yellow card or a red card or a black card makes no difference – Cavanagh could be Mahatma Gandhi, but what he did in that instance was wrong.

It was cheating, it was unsporting and whatever the rules say, he knew it.

Deep down, Seán Cavanagh, Joe Brolly and plenty of other great sportsmen and women can probably agree that in sport, as in life, the only real victory is to play fair.

Manager’s self-belief the undoing of Sweden and Ireland

Erik Hamrén – masterminded a 4-4 draw against Germany, without really being able to explain how.

Redemption is by no means given for the two football men who over-estimated themselves most in 2012.

In the end, their Euros ended a  lot quicker than expected. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were holed in the opening minutes by Croatia and never recovered.

Erik Hamren’s Sweden didn’t even last that long. The naming of Markus Rosenberg for their opener against Ukraine meant that the game was lost before it even began.

Whereas Ireland sank without a trace after the Croatia defeat, the Swedes struggled on manfully against England and even managed a hollow victory against France when it no longer mattered.

What both sides had in common, and what will come to a climax when the two sides meet in key World Cup qualifiers in 2013, is their managers; and more specifically, their massive over-confidence in their own ability.

Trappatoni – the grand master of footballing frustration.

Trapattoni arrived at the Euros convinced that it was he, not his players, who got Ireland there.

He remains convinced that it was his desperately negative tactics, rather than the skills of his XI, that ensured qualification.

Or the fact that the Irish got lucky, drawing a brave but limited Estonia side after barely surviving a perilous qualifying campaign.

It is worse for Sweden, because at least Trapattoni’s limits were shown up by subsequent results.

But when it comes to Erik Hamrén, the smoke and mirrors provided by the genius of Zlatan Ibrahimovic serves to disguise the tactical naivety of the national team coach.

Two incidents stood out this year that showed up his tactical shortcomings.

The first was the selection of Rosenberg – only in the squad due to an injury to John Guidetti and a domestic violence conviction for Alexander Gerndt – to start agaist Ukraine, and what it said about the coach’s mentality.

Despite taking the lead in that game, Sweden struggled, particularly inn the first half. The selection of Rosenberg skewed the balance of the team, forcing Toivonen onto the left wing where he was equally ineffective.

Hamrén later revealed at the post-game press conference that the tactical plan was to attack with long balls for the first 15 minutes, but that the Swedes then couldn’t break the pattern.

To think that raining a few high balls was going to disturb one of the host nations in their opening game in their capital city is breathtakingly naive.

The fact that Hamrén then couldn’t get his players to stop doing so is almost comically inept.

And as for Rosenberg? He played 71 minutes and was barely seen before being replaced by the injured Johan Elmander.

He played 11 more minutes against England, and was equally invisible. Anyone who has seen him play for West Bromwich Albion will know that he is a journeyman – talented, but limited.

And nowhere near good enough to start the opening game at a major tournament.

But for Erik Hamrén, he was the joker in the Euro pack, the man whose inclusion from the start would turn Sweden’s fortunes against the hosts.

What Oleh Blokhin thought of him has so far gone unrecorded, but I’d say if you were to ask him who Sweden’s number 22 was on that night, he wouldn’t remember. And Markus Rosenberg himself probably doesn’t want to.

Of course, the most telling comparison between Trapattoni and Hamrén can be gleaned from the respective qualifiers against Germany this autumn.

Ireland were disembowled 6-1 in front of their own fans, and yet somehow, despite massive internal and external opposition, Trapattoni survived.

His shameful blaming of the players, his claiming of credit where none was due, was one of the more bare-faced examples of his conviction that it is he, and not they, that is the ultimate architect of all success – and none of the failure.

Hamrén’s side fared much better against the Germans, fighting back miraculously from 4-0 down to snatch a point, but that result only tells part of the story – once again he appeared to pick the wrong team, and once again he very nearly left it too late to correct his mistake.

Samuel Holmén on the wing wasn’t much of an inspired choice, but it was the selection of Pontus Wernbloom in central midfield that betrayed Hamrén’s plan to contain, rather than attack, one of the best sides in the world.

It failed, dismally, and Sweden were torn apart. Wernbloom is an excellent player who has matured immensely (and a joy in press conferences and mixed zones), but if you invite a team like Germany to play football in front of you, they will – and then they’ll play through you, as Ireland had found out to their cost a few days previously.

For once it wasn’t the magisterial Ibrahimovic who turned the game, even if he did play a big part; it was the introduction of Kim Källström that turned the game on its head.

Several weeks later I cornered Erik Hamrén and asked him about the turnaround.

He had previously made much of the fact that eventually he got the balance right, and that the players that finish the game are almost more important than the ones that started it.

I pressed him on what Sweden managed to do that Ireland didn’t or couldn’t, and he became somewhat irritated.

“As I said before, it was attitude and commitment,” he told me, and I stopped listening.

Despite his stated penchant for watching games over and over again, he was unable or unwilling to offer a tactical explanation of what Sweden finally started to do right.

To Hamrén, the tactical details are seemingly unimportant, or at least not worth sharing with journalists and fans.

What is important is the triumph, the cigar, the collective effort. Not recognising the errors made when setting out the team, or trying not to repeat them.

It’s seldom profitable to extrapolate in this way, but ponder this fact: when Källström was on the pitch, Sweden beat Germany 4-1.

When Wernbloom was there, they lost 3-0.

Having seen virtually every game played under Hamrén, I doubt strongly that the tactical aspect of the game is his strong suit. He is an honset, decent, emotional man who is truly trying to do his best.

But his strength is in blending players together, motivating them, creating an atmosphere in which they can thrive and feel confident.

It’s not great, but it’s good enough to get results against some good teams.

It’s unlikely, however, to be good enough to fool Trapattoni, the grand master of footballing frustration.

Should the Italian – who celebrates his birthday on St Patrick’s Day, a week before the two teams clash in Stockholm – have Richard Dunne available, he will be confident of getting at least a point.

Trappatoni’s true gift is in gettign lesser minds like Hamren to reveal themselves and their weaknesses, and then punishing them accordingly.

Player for player, Sweden are superior to Ireland in most departments, and Trappatoni will use that knowledge to lure them out.

He will stop them playing balls up to Ibrahimovic (who has never played well against Ireland). They will kick and irritate him, and they will target the younger players for similar treatment.

THe Irish will target the Swedish full-backs, knowing them to be the weak links defensively, and that balls into the box are a lottery when Andreas Granqvist is in there defending.

And then, when they least expect it, Trapattoni will instruct his troops to exploit the tactical naivety of the Swedes at a corner or a set piece, and stage the Stockholm smash ‘n grab that England couldn’t manage.

Because ultimately, the difference in the two coaches is that one of them is more than aware of the limitations of his side and plays accordingly.

The other isn’t, and doesn’t.

This should be the beginning, not the end

So Cameron’s legacy will be as “the Prime Minister who said sorry” but we’ve all asked ourselves and our children the question- what does sorry really mean?

It won’t bring back the 96 dead whose memory was pissed on for 23 years by the police, successive governments and the Sun newspaper.

Given that 23 years have passed, it will hardly offer much comfort to those whose relatives were described as drunken, inhuman, thieving thugs by the police- an explanation swallowed hook line and sinker by Thatcher and her cabinet.

And it certainly won’t help the families of the 41 people whom the new report suggests could have been saved, had the police and health services there to protect them not been so inept.

Cameron has become the expert at apologising for the sins of the past, all the while trying to minimise their effect on his political future.

This is the second time he has told the world what it already knew (the first was Bloody Sunday); then, as now, he should get no credit for it.

In the case of Hillsborough it’s 23 years too late, and prolonging the wrong is almost as bad as doing it in the first place.

For today is not a day of “Justice for the 96,” and without any concrete action yet, Cameron’s sorry has no meaning.

There is no closure here. No redemption. No justice.

That justice can and will only come when those who desecrated the memories of the 96 people who died at Hillsborough by their lying testimony and their comprehensive 23-year cover-up are hauled before the courts and made to account for their actions.

And this includes the venerable Margaret Thatcher, whose hatred of Liverpool and its people was a barely-concealed secret during her time in office.

For once, society has to show that the ordinary working-class people, on whose backs the wealth of our nations is built, are also deserving of justice.

Throughout history, from Bloody Sunday to Bhopal, we have ignored their cries for justice until it was too late.

Britain can start now, by weeding out the liars in the police force, by turning its back on Thatcher, by condemning the Sun to the pages of history, and by putting them all on trial for their criminal acts.

Then, and only then, will we truly have Justice for the 96.

The fight goes on.

God Speed

Gary Speed, 1969 - 2011.

You may almost be feeling jealous this morning.

Gary Speed dies and the outpouring of grief and love and respect is enormous.

Imagine if that was you.

That would solve a few problems, wouldn’t it?

If you were to die today – like Gary did yesterday – your problems would be over and people would love and respect you the way you always wanted them to.

The way they love and respect Gary.

But the love and respect being poured out in print and on the airwaves this morning is masking something an awful lot bigger – sadness and anger and bitterness at Gary Speed’s passing.

You can be sure his wife and kids love him, but that’s probably not the primary emotion for them just now. They’re probably feeling confused and helpless and angry, consumed by the enormous emptiness left by the sudden death of someone close to them.

His team-mates and coaches who put so much trust in him will be feeling the same way. Shay Given’s tears yesterday were testament to that.

For all their money and fame, Shay and Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage would surely hand over every penny to have Gary back with them this morning on the training ground or in the café.

They will all be ransacking themselves this morning- was there something they could have said or done to make him change his mind? The vacuum left by his passing will be filled by countless “if onlys”.

However dark and cloying and suffocating, however hopeless it seems, suicide is not the answer. Your problems may cease in that awful, violent moment at your own hand, but the suffering of those around you would be only beginning.

But don’t do it for them. Do it for you- for your own good, pick up the phone and get professional help.

No-one is going to tell you that defeating depression will be easy, but at least it won’t be the end.

Most people were shocked by Speed’s death because the rest of his life looked so promising.

So is yours. Go live it.

Finding a light in the darkness

Welsh football legend Gary Speed, found dead today at age 42.

As I walked back from the shops with my seven-year-old an hour or two ago, I took a moment to think about how lucky I am.

Two children, a growing business, a new house and a book nominated for two prizes.

It doesn’t get much better.

My daughter was going through a list of animals to see if there was one I could consider getting her as a pet.

Despite the grey, blustery Stockholm weather, I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone else in the world at that moment.

Shortly afterwards, the news of the death of former Newcastle and Wales midfielder Gary Speed hit me like a punch in the stomach.

I met him briefly in Dublin once. He was different to most other footballers- self-assured but not arrogant, confident but not cocky. Intelligent, well-spoken, a gentleman.

There is nothing gentle about depression or suicide.

Depression doesn’t care about your skill, or your money, or how many medals you have.

Depression is not a passive lying-down in the face of the challenges of life.

It is a battle, a struggle. Sometimes it is a fight to the bitter end. Sometimes it doesn’t end well.

Just before I moved to Sweden a team-mate of mine took his own life. Few things have affected me as much as that did – he was a young man, a superb footballer with a beautiful young son. But none of this mattered in the end.

Aside for the grief and memories of his family and friends, all that is left is a fair play trophy named after him- ironic given that he was known as the hardest tackler on our team.

The coming days will see much written about what a great player Gary Speed was for his clubs and his country. Much will be written about depression and suicide, and a lot of it will be nonsense.

If you haven’t suffered it, you will find it hard to imagine just how suffocating and crushing it can be. It is not an illness that can be cured by simply talking to someone, or going for a walk or “copping yourself on”. It’s a lot more complex than that.

But one thing that is certain is that there are organisations who do great work in helping people who are depressed or suicidal. The likes of the Samaritans and Pieta House have a proven track record of helping people who suffer from depression to find a light in the darkness. They are deserving of your support.

As Swansea played at home to Aston Villa today, the minute’s silence was interrupted by spontaneous applause and the chant of “there’s only one Gary Speed”. It was a far more fitting tribute to a man whose goals and tackles often brought the crowds to their feet.

But it is a tragedy for the man, his family and for football that his undoubted skill and courage on the field wasn’t enough to help him defeat depression off it.

Rest in peace Gary. You were a great champion, and you will be missed.


Suicide won’t solve your problems, or make people love or respect you more.

Call the Samaritans or visit and get help. There is an answer, but suicide is not it. 

Ireland will have to raise their game to reach Poland/Ukraine

It wasn’t just Irish eyes that were smiling when the Euro 2012 playoff draw was made in Polish city of Krakow – some of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) delegation appeared to be laughing out loud when they were drawn to face Estonia, with the winner heading to next year’s finals.

But despite the protestations of coach Tarmo Ruutli, Ireland probably represents the best possible draw for the Estonians, given that the other alternatives were Portugal, Croatia or the Czech Republic.

“I don’t think the Republic of Ireland were the easiest of our potential opponents,” Ruutli said in a statement after the draw.

“All the teams at this stage are strong and they proved it during the group stage. However, I won’t deny the fact that we wanted to face Ireland more than the others.”

Former Ireland captain Kenny Cunningham didn’t mince his words, telling RTE TV that “everyone would have been leaning towards Estonia. They are the weakest of the teams we could have faced.”

But although they get the results, Ireland’s problem may be that they don’t tend to do well against “weak” teams, despite a plethora of players playing in the English Premiership

They struggled to beat lowly Andorra in their two qualifiers, and suffered the ignominy of conceding a goal to them at home.

Despite being able to field a strike force of Premiership stalwarts like Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane, Ireland still only managed 15 goals in qualifying – the same number as Estonia.

But even if they haven’t produced fireworks up front, Giovanni Trappatoni’s side are extremely hard to beat, especially on their travels. They were undefeated away from home in the qualifying campaign, picking up 11 points from a possible 15.

In contrast, the Estonians were a little more erratic, winning three and losing two of their five away games.

In a nightmare week in June they lost to both Italy and the Faroe Islands, but then bounced back to rattle off three straight victories and clinch second sport behind Italians.

Despite their remarkable fightback, Kenny Cunningham was clear about how the Irish team should be thinking.

“We should approach the game with real confidence. The players know we have a great chance of going through, but not to get carried away.”

If recent results are anything to go by, the same could be said for the Estonians, so here’s hoping Ireland don’t suffer from the same stage-fright that has afflicted them in many of the key ties in this campaign.