A Golden Age for the Celtic nations?

Monday’s update to the FIFA world rankings has seen all four Celtic nations (Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) climb inside the world’s top 30 for the first time since the inception of the rankings.

Scotland’s victory against Slovakia and subsequent draw in Slovenia propelled them inside the World’s top 30 for the first time since July 2015, while Ireland’s victory in Cardiff saw them move up eight places to 26.

England (12) are the highest ranked nation from these islands and leapfrogged Wales (14) following qualification for next summer’s World Cup. Northern Ireland occupy the middle ground at 23, having fallen three places following defeats to Germany and Norway.

Importantly for Ireland, Monday’s ranking means they will be in pot three in the World Cup should they qualify in next month’s play-offs.

The rankings represent a stark contrast to those of October 2012, which saw only the Republic of Ireland inside the top 30, the Irish occupying 28th in the world at the time. Remarkably, Ireland are the closest to their 2012 position despite falling to 70th in the world within two years of 2012’s rankings.

Wales and Scotland were ranked side by side five years ago, with the Scots edging their Celtic rivals in 56th. Northern Ireland were ranked outside the top 100 in 117th place.

Northern Ireland’s dramatic rise in the past five years comes after impressive qualifying campaigns for both Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018, coupled with an impressive showing at Euro 2016 which saw them narrowly edged out by Wales in the round of 16.

The rankings are a reflection of a major improvement in results across the board for the Celtic nations.

Scotland were the only home nation not to qualify for Euro 2016 and all of those who qualified made it through their respective groups, with Wales progressing as far as the semi-finals.

In contrast, Ireland were the only Celtic nation to qualify for the previous championships in Poland and the Ukraine and produced the joint worst display in the history of the European championships.

Wales and Northern Ireland both finished second from bottom in their qualifying groups while Scotland finished in third.

Qualification for the World Cup in 2014 saw an even worse showing from the home nations, with Ireland and Scotland both finishing in fourth and Wales and Northern Ireland both finishing in fifth in their respective groups.

Qualification for Euro 2016 saw a marked change in each of the home nation’s fortunes. Northern Ireland, guided by new manager Michael O’Neill, topped their group to qualify for their first European championship, while Wales also qualified automatically, beating Belgium in the process.

Ireland, under Martin O’Neill, scraped through via a play off, but beat world champions Germany along the way. It was this victory that proved the difference between Ireland qualifying and the Scots qualifying who ultimately finished three points behind the Republic.

The extension of the European Championships into a 24 team tournament undoubtedly helped each of the home nations to qualify for it, but each team had also become decidedly harder to beat throughout their campaigns, taking major scalps along the way.

This current World Cup campaign has seen each nation continue on an upward curve and although England are the only home nation to have qualified for the World Cup, Ireland and Northern Ireland will fancy their chances in November’s play-offs, while both Scotland and Wales narrowly missed out on a play-off berth.

Each nation has been resilient in big games for the past three years and the days of the Celtic nations surrendering meekly to Europe’s big boys are long gone.

With qualification for the Euros being that bit easier, it would be unsurprising to see all four nations in the upcoming European Championships in 2020.

By: Shane O’Brien

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