It's been a long time coming. Slovakia vs. Ireland will finally take place tonight. The game is seven months late, there's a new manager, there will be no crowd in the stadium, and we're in the middle of a global pandemic, attempting to qualify for Euro 2020, which will be played in 2021.
In many ways though, Ireland couldn't be in more familiar territory. The Playoffs are where Ireland are at home. Direct qualification hasn't been achieved since the 1994 World Cup. Since then, we've managed to make the playoffs in eight out of 12 qualifying campaigns. Even in these unique times, we know the terrain.
And yet there is also new. In many ways, Ireland have never faced such a daunting task in the playoffs. Yes, there are no Spanish, French or Dutch hurldes to cross, but tonight is but leg one of the task. For the first time, Ireland will need to win two playoffs to get through to the major tournament at the end of the rainbow, and neither game will take place in Dublin.
Bosnia or Northern Ireland away awaits us if we can overcome a depleted Slovakia in Bratislava tonight, but will we even make it that far? It falls on us to study our history so we may learn from it. Ireland's playoff record has not been a good one. Heartbreak has followed the excitement of the occasion more often than not. From our nine attempts at qualifications through playoffs, only three have been successful. We've been outclassed and we've been robbed, and we've fallen somehwere in between.
Conditioned as we are to misery and lament, we tend to remember the heartache more than the jubilation. But there was also some great nights. Here we take you on a brief journey through the wonderful and the horrible - Ireland's nine previous trips down Playoff Lane.
1. 1966 World Cup - Spain 1-0 Ireland, Paris
Long before the modern playoff era which began in Anfield 30 years later, Ireland were involved in another one-legged, neutral venue affair in Paris. Hoping to qualify for the 1966 World Cup in England, Ireland and Spain found themselves in a qualifying group alone when Syria pulled out. Having beaten the Spaniards 1-0 in Dalymount Park, Ireland were beaten 4-1 in Seville. As there was no goal difference or aggregate scores at the time, a playoff was needed.
Neither team could agree on a venue at first. Eventually, the FAI agreed a deal to take Spain's share of the gate receipts to play the game in Paris, much to the fury of the Irish players who believed it robbed them of their best chance of winning. You can read more about that whole sorry affair here.
The game was Eamon Dunphy's debut for Ireland. The team played well, and held out until a Spanish goal eleven minutes from time. It was to be another 24 years before Ireland would qualify for a World Cup, and Dunphy still laments the missed chance.
It was a very, very gallant effort on the night. It was a great opportunity to get to the 1966 World Cup final. Clearly, we'd have had a much better chance in London, because of all the Irish in London.
It was just that old inferiority complex. We had some great players. I mean, John Giles, Tony Dunne, Charlie Hurley and Noel Cantwell would rank up there as some of the greatest players to ever play in England, never mind being the greatest Irish players. It's a very sad story really.
2. Euro '96 - Netherlands 2-0 Ireland, Anfield
30 years later and another tournament in England beckoned. This time, there was no issue with the venue as the Mecca of Anfield was flooded with Irish supporters. Unfortunately, they were there to witness the end of the most glorious of eras. After almost ten years in charge, Jack Charlton would step away after this game.
The qualfying campaign had started so brightly for Ireland. After the 1994 World Cup, there still seemed to be legs in Jack's Army when they beat Portugal in Lansdowne Road and hammered Northern Irleand in Windsor Park. It quickly went downhill though with a humiliating draw in Liechtenstein, a home draw with the North, and two 3-1 defeats to Austria.
Strangely, the group around us was just as weird, and going into the last game in Lisbon, Ireland could still top the group. Unfortunately, injury had ravaged Ireland so badly that they could barely field a team in the Stadium of Light. In a monsoon, Ireland were hammered 3-0.
And yet somehow, we found ourselves in a playoff with the Dutch, and filled with unfounded optimisim. A young Dutch team full of players who had won the Champions League for Ajax just a few months before made some great Irish players look very, very old all of a sudden.
The game was up. It was time for a rebuild, and Jack said goodbye on the Anfield turf, with "You'll Never Walk Alone" being bellowed from The Kop. In the end, it was a sad but beautiful night for Irish football.
3. World Cup '98 - Belgium 3-2 Ireland (Aggregate)
The first of the two legged playoffs took place in 1997, but it was same old, same old for Ireland.
Mick McCarthy took over from Jack Charlton and had an easy enough World Cup group to tackle, but a horroble job of rebuilding an old team. Romania topped the group easily, while Ireland struggled to come out best of the rest in a campaign that included an embarassing loss to Macedonia.
A Denis Irwin free kick in Lansdowne Road helped Ireland to a 1-1 draw in the first leg, but in the second leg in Heysel, we would go down 2-1, and narrowly miss out on a World Cup we never looked likely to qualify for.
4. Euro 2000 - Turkey 1-1 Ireland (Turkey qualify on Away Goals)
Four playoffs, four defeats.
If Ireland never looked like qualifying for France 98, the same can't be said about Euro 2000. It was a competition in which the concession of four late goals murdered Mick McCarthy's men. Home wins over Croatia and Yugoslavia were undone by last minute winners for the Balkan sides in the reverse fixtures. In the end, Ireland needed a win in Macedonia to qualify automatically. Of course, deep into injury time, Macedonia, our old friend, equalised. It was off the playoffs again.
Ireland met a Turkey team on the up, one that would go to the semi-finals of the World Cup two years later. In Dublin though, Ireland were the better team and should have taken a lead to Turkey. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Robbie Keane scored the lead goal late on, the home team conceded a penalty and Turkey got a huge away goal.
With a dispute over television coverage dominating much of the buildup to the second leg, Irish fans already seemed defeated ahead of the game in Bursa, and one of the most hostile atmospheres Irish players had ever witnessed. Robbie Keane was suspended and it was thought of as unlikely Ireland could get the away goal they needed.
In the end, they didn't, and Ireland missed out of a tournament they should have been at, and Tony Cascarino ended his international career in a scrap with a gaggle of Turks.
5. World Cup 2002 - Ireland 2-1 Iran (Aggregate)
Ireland qualified for the Playoffs for the fourth time in a row in 2001, but this time, it felt different.
After being drawn in a group of death, Ireland came into the playoff on a sourge of form and optimism, rather than the devastation of previous years. Undefeated in a group involving Holland and Portugal, the 1-0 over the Dutch in September set Ireland on a course that didn't seem to fit with more playoff heartache.
Also, instead of the usual European opponent, Ireland were to play Iran in a novel pairing. The trip to Tehran for the second leg certainly seemed like a daunting prospect, but luckily, a comfortable 2-0 victory in Lasdowne Road thanks to goals from Robbie Keane and Ian Harte meant more potential playoff disaster was averted.
The Irish players endured 90 minutes of hell in a hostile environment, but luckily, Iran's goal came with time basically up, so the fear of not qualifying never really materialised.
Ireland were going back to the World Cup, and just as importantly, the playoff hoodoo had finally been broken.
6. World Cup 2010 - France 2-1 Ireland (Aggregate)
Unfortunately, the trip to Tehran was to be it for Ireland for quite a while.
Three successive disastrous campaigns had seen us exit in the Group Stage before Giovanni Trappatoni tried to get Ireland to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
And how close they came. Not much needs to be written about Ireland's night in Paris 11 years ago. The rules were changed right before the Playoff draw to seed the stronger nations. After a poor display in Croke Park, Ireland's performance in Paris was one of the team's best ever, and then we know what happened. Two conpiracies wrapped into one. For the second time after Playoff defeat in Paris though, the FAI got an extra few quid out of it.
Sadly, the image of Richard Dunne disconsolate on the pitch in the Stade De France will be one of the abiding memories of Irish playoffs.
7. Euro 2012 - Ireland 5-1 Estonia (Aggregate)
After a qualfying campaign that is best remembered for Richard Dunne's heroic display in Moscow, Ireland couldn't believe their luck when they were drawn against Estonia in the Playoffs.
Even still, for an Ireland team who at the time were playing stodgy, dreary football, the 4-0 first leg win in Tallinn was scarsely believable. The Irish fans turned up the Aviva a few days later in borderline shock. The tense night most were expecting wasn't going to materialise. We had already qualified. Instead, there was the famed "party atmosphere", not seen at the ground since 1989's demolition of Northern Ireland. It wasn't supposed to be this way.
8. Euro 2016 - Ireland 3-1 Bosnia (Aggregate)
When Ireland qualified for Eur0 2016, we were in danger of going on a run of playoff wins. With the competition expanded to 24 teams, Ireland made a the Playoffs, despite finishing third in a seriously tough group behind Germany and Poland, and ahead of Scotland.
Like in 2001, Ireland went into the playoffs on a high after beating Germany in the Aviva Stadium.
The first leg was played in almost unplayable, and certainly unwatchable, fog. On a night overshadowed by terrorist attacks in Paris, Ireland put in one of the most professional performances of the Martin O'Neill era, taking the lead and ultimately drawing 1-1 with Bosnia in Sarajevo.
A few days later, Jon Walters scored two as Ireland again comfortably saw things through. It was all a bit un-Irish.
9. World Cup 2018 - Denmark 5-1 Ireland (Aggregate)
If Paris was heartbreak, and Anfield was emotional, and Bursa was anger, the best way to describe the emotion felt after the second leg against Denmark in 2017 was numb.
After a mad qualifying campaign of highs and lows, and including two huge away wins in Austria and Wales, Ireland were back in the familiar ground of playoff football for the ninth time. Talks of curses were long gone after the glories of the two previous ventures into this territory. Ireland also got what we perceived as the easiest available draw with Denmark came out of the hat. Martin O'Neill's men got the 0-0 draw they were after in Copenhagen, despite a poor performance. A few days later, Shane Duffy had us 1-0 up inside six mintues. We were going to Russia.
Except we weren't. A collapse of epic proportions ensued. Christian Eriksen made Ireland look like children playing an adult's game, and Denmark rattled off five goals to put pay to our delusions about an Irish team that had, in truth, struggled for a couple of years.
In nine attempts, heartbreak was a familiar friend in the Playoffs, but Ireland had never been trounced. Five previous defeats came by a combined five goals. For the first time in 2017 came humiliation.
After getting cocky after the Estonia and Bosnia victories, the 2017 Denmark fixture did one useful thing; it made us wary of the dreadful playoffs again. And for that we can at least be grateful.