Industrious Ire­land get ready to face ‘the leg­end’

Scots watch on as Martin O’Neill’s men take on Ibrahi­movic and co in opener

The Herald - Herald Sport - - EURO 2016 - SCOTT MULLEN

LET’S be hon­est. The last three days haven’t ex­actly been a bar­rel of laughs for any­one with a See-You-Jimmy hat in their pos­ses­sion.

Like the un­pop­u­lar kid who is the only one in school not in­vited to Char­lene McClatchy’s epic 16th birth­day house party, Scot­land have been left watch­ing on from afar nurs­ing a bruised ego while Gla­dys Knight’s It Should Have Been Me plays like some soul-crush­ing lament in the back­ground.

As we all sit about won­der­ing why does it al­ways rain on us, Day No.4 of this sum­mer’s Euro 2016 tour­na­ment of­fers the sharpest dunt yet to the Scots home guard. In their first match of Group E, the Repub­lic of Ire­land kick off their cam­paign tak­ing on Swe­den.

Not enough days have trun­dled by that will make the sight of Martin O’Neill’s team stride out at the Stade de France. In­deed, it was ex­actly one year ago to the day that Scot­land faced up to the Ir­ish at the Aviva Sta­dium, tak­ing home a point that many thought at the time would be enough to put the Scots half­way to the fi­nals.

In hind­sight, that re­sult and a de­feat to Ge­or­gia proved our un­do­ing as the Repub­lic did enough to squeeze through with Poland. Now they are there, O’Neill is keen to take a prag­matic ap­proach to pro­ceed­ings. Hav­ing seen off one home nation in qual­i­fy­ing, the Repub­lic of Ire­land man­ager is happy to take in­spi­ra­tion from an­other.

“It was in­ter­est­ing to hear com­ments com­ing from the Welsh camp,” said the former Celtic man­ager. “They thought that if they didn’t win the first game they weren’t out of it. They’ve given them­selves a great chance but they’re also saying they still have work to do and that’s ex­actly the way I would feel about it. I’m sure that Swe­den will be tar­get­ing us in the sense that they feel that if they could win this game against us it gives them a great chance, but we must feel the same way.”

As Scot­land saw for them­selves, the Ir­ish are not blessed with a Gareth Bale but their longevity, fit­ness and abil­ity to grind out re­sults was the key char­ac­ter­is­tic to their qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign. Their abil­ity to do that is founded upon a solid base of their de­fence, which is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing mar­shalled by former Mother­well goal­keeper Dar­ren Ran­dolph.

Now at West Ham, the 29-year-old has not only filled the breach by an in­jured Shay Given but has shown just why he is one of the most promis­ing keep­ers in the Pre­mier League. In­deed, it was his clean sheet – and as­sist through a long hoof up the park – that helped the Repub­lic claim a 1-0 win over Ger­many back in Oc­to­ber to all but put them through.

The man whose fa­ther Ed was a pro­fes­sional basketball player is now ready to catch the op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish him­self as his coun­try’s first choice.

“When I left Charl­ton for Mother­well in 2010 it was be­cause I had to get my name out there again. You have to push your­self to im­prove,” said the man who spent three sea­son at Fir Park. “Had I stayed at Charl­ton, I would have coasted along. As it was, I stayed there too long. You learn les­sons from life and the les­son I dis­cov­ered was that you have to leave your com­fort zone if you want to progress.”

On the other side of the camp, it is per­haps not much of a sur­prise that there is an air of bullish­ness about Swe­den’s chances of pro­gres­sion from a Group E also con­tain­ing Italy and Bel­gium.

It may have taken a play-off de­cider against Den­mark for the Swedes to be in France, but with Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic at the apex of their at­tack the sense of self-con­fi­dence cours­ing through the team is un­der­stand­ably high.

At the cen­tre of that is the man him­self. He may be 34-years-old but Ibrahi­movic has just brought the cur­tain down on a sen­sa­tional fi­nal sea­son with PSG by se­cur­ing the league ti­tle, scor­ing 38 goals al­low­ing the way. He has been even more for­mi­da­ble in the yel­low of his coun­try, scor­ing in nine of his last 11 out­ings.

“I feel re­ally strong. I’m get­ting bet­ter with ev­ery year that passes,” said the man who is ru­moured to be on his way to Manch­ester United af­ter the sum­mer. “I feel re­ally good. It’s all about learn­ing and de­vel­op­ing new things. I have the hunger to be­come a bet­ter player.

“That’s when I feel I have ac­com­plished some­thing when I learn new things. I have worked hard on the pitch and didn’t just sit down and do noth­ing.

“The leg­end can still deliver.”

LES­SONS: Ire­land keeper Dar­ren Ran­dolph says move to Mother­well from Charl­ton helped his ca­reer

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