Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side can write their own history says Ray Houghton
“WHO put the ball in the England net?” Houghton, Houghton.
Ray Houghton famous header was enough to beat England in Ireland’s first game at Euro ’88 – the nation’s first at a major championship.
Since then things haven’t gone so well - there has been a draw and four consecutive defeats including three out-of-three at Euro 2012, but Houghton says this Ireland squad is equipped to right at least some of the wrong from four years ago.
He feels that Martin O’Neill has players capable of writing their own pieces of history.
“We’ve got one or two players who are in exciting form, Shane Long being one of them,” Houghton told The Irish News.
“He had a great season, particularly the end of it so he’ll be key for us and hopefully he can get the goals for us. I think set plays are going to be very important for us, we’ve got Robbie Brady who can put a brilliant ball into the box from a free-kick or a corner and I see that as being our best avenue for goals.”
The former Liverpool star also scored the winner in Ireland’s opening game against Italy at the World Cup in 1994. He says the first game of a tournament is “vital whoever you are”.
“It doesn’t matter what team you are, the first game is hugely important, if you lose it it puts you in a bit of a quandary because you have to get something out of the last two games,” said Houghton.
“You want to get off to the best possible start. If you get a win, great, if you get a draw, you’re still in it, if you lose it’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s important that we don’t get beat because we can finish third and still go through so there’s a bit less pressure to win it.
“Last time we were so conscious of beating Croatia that we forgot about the rest and we ended up losing all three because everyone was so down after that defeat.
“This time around we have to make sure that we’re hard to play against which we have been in qualifying – we only lost two games to Poland and to Scotland and we only lost them by the odd goal which shows that no-one has beaten us up, no-one has given us a bit of a going over and we have scored a lot of late goals.
“We didn’t always play well but we were hard to play against. In Germany we didn’t see much of the ball but we hung in there and John O’Shea came up with the equaliser in the 93rd minute and that shows you that we’re still attacking, we’re creating chances in games.
“We did that a few times (scored late goals). We did it against Georgia when Aiden McGeady came up with a goal to get us a win in the 90th minute. That shows you that we’re fit and there’s a lot of belief in the squad and we’re always in with a shout.”
In pre-tournament warm-up games Martin O’Neill experimented with players and formations. On the eve of the first game and with a full squad available to him after Jon Walters returned to training, Houghton predicts that O’Neill will play Shane Long as a lone striker.
“I would think it would be 4-5-1,” he said.
“Looking at the squad it’s top-heavy with midfielders. We’ve only got four forwards and one of them is Walters who has played more on the right-side of midfield so in essence we’ve only got three strikers.
“Jon can play up there if needed but predominantly he’s a right midfield player. I think he’ll play three in central midfield and play with two wide players and one striker. That’s how I see it.
“He has played different formations which fans always want to see. Fans are always asking: ‘Do you have a Plan B?’ Well, Martin has certainly showed that he’s been thinking things through. He has played with a diamond, he’s played with two up front, and he’s played with wingers.”
Tonight’s opponents Sweden are here principally because of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 11 goals in qualifying. Houghton sees the Manchester United target as the difference between the sides.
“If you look at our squad and you look at their squad they’re not much different apart from him – he is the stand-out player,” he said.
“If he turns up and he’s on form he’s pretty much unplayable because he’s so big and strong that when his mind is on it he can be a real handful.
“Fortunately, in games against Ireland he hasn’t played that well so lets hope that trend continues.”
But Houghton also feels out that several of Ireland’s players have the potential to catapult themselves into the public eye during this tournament.
“These tournaments can make players,” he said.
“Doing well can make your career, make you a big name.
“It’s a chance for a lot of players who have never been to a tournament before to go out and express themselves and show what they’re capable of.
“It’s up to the players to perform; it’s as simple as that. When you get your chance don’t let yourself down. Four years ago we did that – we lost all three games and it was a bit of a damp squib. Hopefully the players will have learned from that – there’s nothing better than getting back to the tournament again when you haven’t done well. You can put it right.
“It’s great for the youngsters too – they can just go out there and play with freedom.”