As we move closer to the start of the 2017 SSE Airtricity League, it would not be correct of me to let last year disappear into memory without sharing a few thoughts on a year that was incredible in both domestic and International football for this little country of ours. At the start of the year a lot of people were so excited about a trip to France for the 2016 European Championships and many fans were visiting their local credit unions so they could get finance to go and enjoy the big party. It was also a time to look forward to the domestic clubs taking part in European competition. As the year closed out, everyone had to admit that 2016 would go down in history as a major leap forward in this country at all levels. It has been led by two managers who have had their sides focussed and well prepared. The two men in question are Irish boss Martin O'Neill and Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. These two guys have gone about their jobs with great passion and have taken their sides to the next level. They have both succeeded in their own different ways, so let us start the new year by looking back at the old one, a great year for Irish football.
At International level, in my opinion I am not sure what Martin O'Neill thought his squad could give him. By the end of the year he surely must have been delighted with the way things had gone. His teams magnificent performance in the European Championship must have given him great satisfaction and pleasure. The highlight of the tournament was the win over Italy and the last sixteen performance against hosts France. If I am to be totally honest, to lose to the hosts although disappointing, it was not a nightmare of a tournament as which the Irish had in 2012 when they did not win a match. As we came to the end of the year the squad kicked on and they now sit top of their group for qualification to the World Cup Finals in Russia next year. The highlight of the campaign so far was the one nil victory in Austria, a truly superb performance on the night. It was regarded here as the best away result for Ireland since Jack Charlton's squad went to Scotland in 1987 and beat the home side one nil. Three players have grown up at this level over the year and the boys who have become men are Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. To have one good player in your squad is great news but to have all three now playing comfortably at International level is a huge bonus for O'Neill. Next up for the Irish is a home game against Wales and if they can win that, they will not only strengthen their own position in the group but it could also eliminate the Welsh. Overall it was a brilliant year for Martin O' Neill and a lot of credit has to go to his back room staff made up of Roy Keane, Steve Walford and Steve Guppy as well. Let us all hope that this year ahead can be even more successful and the Irish fans can get their visa application forms in for a trip to Russia.
The domestic game here at times does not get a lot of positive publicity, that is a story for another day, but the season just finished has been an exception, due to one club's exploits in Europe. Dundalk FC took what can only be described as a major step forward in European football last season. Champions League qualifying games against FH Helsinki, Bate Borisov and Legia Warsaw saw the fans flock to stadiums in their thousand,s to get behind what was fast developing into a great story. They were unfortunately unable to qualify for the group stages of that competition but that was not the end of the story. Their performances in the Europa League have now gone down in Irish football history. Alkmaar, Zenith Saint Petersburg and Maccabi Tel Aviv stood in their way of qualification for the knockout stages and what an amazing effort Stephen Kenny and his squad put up. Although they failed to get out of the group the whole campaign was a success. In the FAI Cup Final it was Cork City who were victorious and by winning the cup it stopped Dundalk doing the double. It was a superb season overall and Cork City pushed Dundalk all the way in both the cup and league. It was fitting that the Cork won the cup as they stepped up to the plate to challenge Dundalk.
As we go into 2017 everything is going along nicely in Irish football. I have no doubt that this year Martin O'Neill and his squad will push on all the way in the hope of qualifying for next year,s World Cup Finals. I feel in the domestic game Dundalk will still be up there to be knocked off their perch. I expect them to go well again in Europe and fully expect Cork to join them with a bit of a run. Shamrock Rovers could be the big threat to the top two and at the moment are building a nice little squad in preparation for the challenge. No matter what happens it all starts again in February and I for one can not wait.