By Damian Dolan
It’s hard to get too excited about 2018, even for the most diehard of Republic of Ireland fans, with no World Cup, but there are reasons to look forward to the New Year. You just need to search for them a little bit.
Speculation still surrounds the future of Martin O’Neill as Ireland boss, and with Ireland’s first game of 2018 being a friendly away to Turkey in Antalya on 23 March, it’s easy to see why excitement levels are low as we enter the New Year.
But Ireland follow that with an appealing friendly against France at the Stade de France stadium in Paris on 28 May 28. This will be the first meeting between the two teams at men’s senior level since their last-16 clash in Lyon at EURO 2016, where France went all the way to the final.
Both games will act as preparation for the new UEFA Nations League, which gets underway on 6 September. The draw for the group stages of which takes place on 24 January.
The Republic of Ireland will be one of 55 nations taking part in the UEFA Nations League, the purpose of which is to replace meaningless international friendlies with competitive fixtures and by allowing all nations to play against equally ranked teams.
The format will feature promotion and relegation and see the teams divided into four leagues in accordance with UEFA’s national association coefficient rankings on 11 October 2017.
League A will include the top-ranked sides and League D will include the lowest.
Each league will be sub-divided into four groups of three or four teams, and teams will play each other home and away between September and November 2018, thus playing four to six matches within the dates already foreseen by the international match calendar.
The group winners will gain promotion and those who finish bottom will be relegated.
The four group winners of League A will qualify for the UEFA Nations League Finals, to be played in June 2019, with two semi-finals, a third-place match and the final.
The host country will be appointed by the UEFA Executive Committee in December 2018 from among the finalist teams.
National teams will thus either be competing to become UEFA Nations League winners, or be fighting for promotion and to avoid relegation.
While the Nations League on its own may not be enough to get the blood boiling in 2018, the year promises to see the return to action of Seamus Coleman from the leg break he suffered against Wales at the Aviva Stadium in March.
Another thing Ireland supporters can look forward to in 2018 is the qualifying draw for UEFA 2020, which will take place on 2 December 2018 at the Convention Centre Dublin.
For the first time the tournament will be spread across 12 cities in 12 different European countries. A break from the traditional format of a single host nation.
Most significantly for Ireland, the changes to qualifying introduced for Euro 2016 remain, meaning there will once again be 24 nations taking part in the finals, as opposed to 16 at Euro 2012 and prior.
More teams equals a better chance of qualifying, and avoiding missing out on another finals tournament. So there’s some good news.
However, the European Qualifiers won’t commence until March 2019, so it’s quite a wait before Ireland’s next qualifier.
The teams will be split into ten groups of five or six, and the top two from each group will qualify for the final tournament, determining the first 20 places.
The last four EURO places will be won through the European Qualifiers play-offs, which will be contested by the 16 UEFA Nations League group winners. So doing well in the Nations League may offer a qualifying life-line for some.
Each league will have a path of its own and each path will feature two single-leg semi-finals and one single-leg final. The winner of each path will win a ticket to UEFA EURO 2020.
No World Cup and the Euro 2020 qualifiers not getting underway until March 2019, the spotlight should turn to Ireland’s Women’s team, who are firmly in the hunt for a place at the 2019 Women’s World Cup following a historic away draw in the Netherlands in November.
Next up for Colin Bell’s team, who currently sit second in Group 3 behind the Netherlands, is a home double-header against Slovakia and Netherlands in April at Tallaght Stadium.
They’ll warm up for these two crucial World Cup qualifiers with a friendly international double-header with Portugal on 18 and 21 January.
The Women’s team have made a good start to qualifying, having also beaten Northern Ireland and Slovakia, and hopes are high for 2018.
They then face Norway home and away in June, before ending their qualifying campaign at home to Northern Ireland on 31 August. It will be a night of some celebration should Ireland seal a World Cup place.
The Republic of Ireland Under 21s are also in good shape in their bid to qualify for the UEFA Under 21 European Championships, despite their unbeaten campaign coming to an end in Norway in November.
That run had included an impressive 4-0 win over Israel in which saw QPR striker Reece Grego-Cox scored a hat-trick.
Half way through qualifying, Noel King’s side are in second place in Group 5, two points behind leaders Germany and two points ahead of Norway.
There are some big games to come in 2018 which will decide the Under 19s European Championship hopes, beginning with a home game against Azerbaijan on 27 March.
The Republic of Ireland Under 19s know that they must overcome Kosovo, Portugal and Slovakia in order to qualify for next summer’s UEFA Under 19 European Championships in Finland.
Tom Mohan’s side will be aiming to build on the good performances produced by his team in the Qualifying Round, where they scored seven goals, recorded two clean sheets, and topped Group 7.
The Elite Round games will start on 21 March when Ireland take on Slovakia before coming up against Kosovo (24 March) and Portugal (27 March), with the latter hosting the mini tournament.
Colin O’Brien’s Republic of Ireland Under 17s also found out who they will be facing in their Elite Round games as they were drawn against FYR Macedonia (21 March), Georgia (24 March) and Poland (27 March). They will visit Poland for the three games.
The Qualifying Round went according to plan as the U17s finished in first place in Group 11 following victories over Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Ukraine – scoring 12 goals altogether.
So while there’s no World Cup to look forward to, 2018 still has the potential to be a huge year in Irish soccer.