FOUR DAYS from now the Republic of Ireland begins its Euro 2016 campaign against Sweden, followed five days later by an encounter against the world No 1 Belgium. By the time the 'boys in green' face Italy on Wednesday June 22, all - or maybe nothing - will hinge on this match.
For Après Match's Risteárd Cooper, RoI v Italy "could be the match everything depends on, that our progress in the tournament depends on", and he tells me he is "hopeful" for the team's chances, despite being drawn in Euro 2016's 'group of death'.
"'The luck of the Irish' is something you often hear, particularly from commentators across channel, but it's 'unlucky for the Irish' more like," Risteárd tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. "We've never had any luck in the draws for soccer. The No1 ranked team in the world is Belgium; Sweden have a star player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Italy are always hard. There'll be a lot of work for us to do."
So what are the reasons to be hopeful then? "I think there's something in the Irish squad this time," he says, "a positivity. We are a little bit limited, there is a conservatism to Martin O'Neill, but he's not as conservative as Trappatoni. And O'Neill has a major advantage in that we can actually understand what he's saying.
"Also, with Roy Keane on board there will always be a bit of merriment. He's 'great copy' from our point of view. We have a tendency to gain in confidence and momentum as we go along, and as long as we don't get beaten by Sweden, I'm hopeful that by the time we get to the Italy match, there'll be something resting on it."
Galway will get a unique experience of the RoI v Italy game as, not only will it be screened in Seapoint, Salthill, but Après Match - Risteárd, Barry Murphy, and Gary Cooke - will provide the build-up, half-time analysis, and post-match commentary, live on stage. So what can we expect?
"During the punditry, we'll turn down the sound and replicate, not what's actually being said by the pundits, but saying what we think matches the images that will be on the screen" says Risteárd. "When there is a commercial break, we'll put on the BBC and it could be Rio Ferdinand or Gary Lineker on, to take the mickey out of what they might be saying. This will not be the same as any of our other shows, because the material we will be creating is specifically for that match…and even if there isn't anything riding on the game, we'll still take the mickey out of it."
The pathological analysis of Kenny Cunningham
This 'loive' show, as well as Après Match's RTÉ slots, will see the trio introduce a host of new characters alongside their much loved takes on Eamon Dunphy, Johnny Giles, and Liam Brady. Chief among them will be that most scientific, indeed pathological, of soccer analysts, Kenny Cunningham.
"Pathological is the word!" declares Risteárd. "It's like he's done a major study on it. His analysis is deep, it has meaning for him that he is imparting this knowledge. He's an interesting one when juxtaposed with Eamon Dunphy, there has been tension between them before but I do hope RTÉ bring them together again. Kenny doesn't bow down to Eamon, which is quite unusual, as a lot of people just let him talk but Kenny's not afraid to go [suddenly it's Kenny Cunningham on the line] 'No I wouldn't agree with that, I would't agree with that at this moment in toime!" It's actually very beautifully dismissive."
Another character to look forward to will be AM's take on the soon to be everywhere Kevin Kilbane, who will be doing commentary for TV3, analysis for BBC, updates on BBC Radio 5 Live, and summation on Today FM.
"He's almost like the new Mark Lawrenson, he's omnipresent," says Risteárd. "He toes the line, doesn't say anything out of turn, almost apologising for it, but he still seems to get all those gigs. I do salute him for being one of the few footballers who kew all the words to 'Amhrán na bhFiann', because Irish is not something he would have grown up with, but I would love to hear him singing it on his own."
Of course Risteárd and friends must have been rubbing their hands in glee when TV3 announced that controversial and outspoken footballer Joey Barton would be among the station's anchors. "Yes, particularly as he's signed for Rangers, and he will be on the same panel as [the former, and perhaps soon to be again Celtic manager] Neil Lennon. That will be just box office."
'Bill was very good at taking the mickey out of the panelists'
Risteárd's most celebrated character, though, is his take on the late Bill O'Herlihy, but understandably 'Billo' will not feature as much in either the Galway show or the Après Match TV slots.
"You can't continue to do him on TV as you are relating to what's current and Bill, obviously, isn't, but we will have a couple of sketches that will be looking back. We don't do him live unless there is a clear context for it. He has been a favorite character to do, so it's been very strange, very strange over the last year, when I was taking off that grey wig and thinking, 'I'm not going to be wearing that again."
However the O'Herlihy family have given their blessing for Risteárd to continue impersonating Bill. "His family have been magnificent, so warm and lovely about it," he says. "They said 'Don't not do him because you think it might be causing offence'. They were at pains to say they love to see him."
A question, though, that will be around for some time yet is, did Bill O'Herlihy ever say "Okey doke!" or was it only Risteárd's impersonation of him? "I remember Bill and I were on The Late Late Show and backstage Bill said to me, 'I've never said "Okey Doke", and that it was just me who said that, so it's me who should get all the credit. He eventually did say it…"
That came at the the last World Cup where Bill, about to go for a commercial break, uttered the immortal "Okey doke" words, before pausing, then breaking into laughter, as if as much to say "I've just become my own caricature!"
"From the outset Bill always saw it as a good thing and he could see it for what it was," says Risteárd. "It wasn't a savage attack I was doing. Bill was himself very good at taking the mickey out of the panelists, he knew how to wind them up, what buttons to push. I had huge respect for him."
Après Match présents Italy v Ireland is on Wednesday June 22 from 7pm. This is a 'Róisín Dubh presents…' event. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.