Legendary Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner tells Adam Shaw he believes the Republic of Ireland have a fighting chance of progressing at Euro 2016
Acknowledging the daunting task facing the Boys in Green, who join Belgium, Italy and Sweden in Group E, the ex-Celtic stopper is quietly confident that they will be able to spring a surprise.
Martin O’Neill’s men take on Sweden in their opening match at the Stade de France in Paris on June 13 and Bonner said it is vital that they make a positive start.
“I think the first game is crucial, they have to get a result, and by that I mean they can’t afford to get beat,” he told The Irish World. “Sweden are a good side but I think they can do it.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man who makes them tick, so they’ve got to look at how to manage him. If they can keep him quiet for the 90 minutes then they definitely have a chance.”
The Donegal native, who made 80 appearances for the national side, was less optimistic about their chances for the clash with Belgium. He said: “I picked them as one of the favourites to go and win the whole thing.
“They’re on the border, they’ll have a lot of support coming over and they’ve got good players, all the way from the goalkeeper to the centre forwards.
“That’s going to be a very tough game and if we get anything out of that it’ll be a bonus.”
Ireland face Italy in their final group match, a team Bonner has mixed feelings towards. During his most famous tournament, Italia 90, when his penalty save helped Ireland beat Romania in the second round, a Salvatore Schillaci goal ended their dream at the quarter-final stage.
Four years later, however, he was part of the side that beat the Azzurri 1-0 in New Jersey thanks to a stunning effort from Ray Houghton.
Regarding this year’s match up, Bonner admitted that he sees Italy’s class of 2016 as a bit of an unknown, but he backs Ireland to prevail if their tournament hopes are still alive going into the match.
“If we’re still in with a shout by the time we face the Italians, I think we’ve got every chance of getting through,” he said. “To tell you the truth I don’t know too much about this Italy side; I know Buffon’s still playing and he’s a quality goalkeeper so they’ll always be tough to score against.”
The 56-year-old, who now has a role at UEFA, made no bones about what is required of Ireland if they are to meet their targets at the tournament. He explained that it is vital for them to work hard for each other, and channel the fighting spirit that led to their underdog successes at previous finals.
He said: “It’s all about team spirit. For the Irish national side it’s always a collective effort. “We might not have the world class players that some of the other teams have but we do have some very good players. Sadly we don’t have enough of them, but if we don’t get the effort part right then we’ve got no chance.
“We’ve shown it in qualifying that we were willing to grind it out and scrap for results, and we’ve shown it in the past.
“Way back at the European Championships in 1988 and at World Cups in the 1990s, our success was built on team effort, getting the basics right and fighting for one another.
“And I know these boys have it, and I have no doubt that Martin and Roy [Keane] will bring it out of them.”
Bonner hopes that Ireland can use some of the fairytale stories that have emerged in football in recent years, such as Greece winning Euro 2004 and Leicester City’s Premier League title triumph this season, as motivation for success.
He approves of UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament, with 24 teams competing this year, and feels that a traditionally smaller footballing nation could make a significant impact in France. He said there was no reason why it couldn’t be Wales or Northern Ireland, who will both be playing in their first European Championships, while he championed the achievements of countries like Iceland and Albania.
As regards, England, the Burtonport man was quick to dismiss any claims that he wouldn’t want them to succeed – so long as they weren’t playing Ireland.
“If they get further than our lot or reach the final, of course I’d want them to win,” he said. “I think the days of supporting anyone but them have gone and I want to see all the home nations do well. All we ask, if they were to win it, is that they show a little humility.”
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A distinguished sports career taught Packie Bonner that football is like business and requires the same qualities such as dealing with confrontation.