For what seems like an eternity, the Republic of Ireland team have been derogatorily monikered as the ‘England B Team’. The most recent example being in the lead up to the ill-fated World Cup qualifying tie with France last November by Raymond Domenech, considerably ill-fated and ill of mind himself. His point was transparent, a collection of Irish players who had crossed the channel in hope of a professional platform on which to showcase their talents and more than a smattering of moderately talented English born players, digging up ancestral Irish roots in their bids to gain international recognition. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not the imbecilic France chief had intended the act of antagonism, it riled his opponents. As it stood, Ireland needed little provocation ahead of the tie cloaked by the enormousness of its prize.
Four friendly internationals have been navigated with varying degrees of success, two wins and two draws, since the failure to spot Theirry Henry’s handball had perhaps extinguished Ireland’s hopes of a welcomed extended summer prematurely. Ahead of the opening double header of qualifying matches for the 2012 European Championships, Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad bares a threadbare appearance. “Many players are injured, but we have many options in the squad. We have two players for each position. We don’t feel we need to call in anyone else”, confirmed assistant Marco Tardelli in a press briefing on Tuesday. The withdrawals are an unsettling development for the Italian management team, the decimation of options due to injury mirroring the recent sharp decrease in playing time afforded Ireland’s key international players, primarily at their Premier League abodes.
Contrasting the managerial fortunes of Trapattoni and his predecessor Steve Staunton may appear a mismatch, but a hark back to Stuttgart four years ago to the day, when Staunton made his competitive bow as national manager in a European Championship qualifier against a Germany side also under the guidance of a new man at the helm Joachim Loew. Disputably, the starting eleven Staunton had picked that night bore a true semblance to an ‘England B Team’, a moniker the current selection would struggle to justify, intended compliment or otherwise. Ten of the players (nineteen goal Championship striking sensation Kevin Doyle aside) in green that walked onto the field at the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion were Premier League regulars: Given, Carr, O’Brien, Dunne, O’Shea, Finnan, Steven Reid, Kilbane, Duff and Robbie Keane. Between them they amassed over four hundred top flight, FA and League cup and European appearances the previous season (2005-06) which included league and league cup triumphs for Damien Duff and John O’Shea respectively. Two thousand and ten, one manager and two futile qualifying attempts later, read a much direr situation for Ireland’s international core.
Only eight members of the team announced today for Friday afternoon’s opener with Armenia in the capital city of Yerevan plied their footballing trade in the Premier League last season, excluding Aiden McGeady who saw out his last year at Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish not-so equivalent, the SPL. Last season, tomorrow’s line up made a total of two hundred and forty eight appearances in the English top flight, a stark decrease in playing time and top level experience when compared to what Steve Staunton worked with on that Saturday night in Germany four years ago. The Dundalk man could even count on the mercurial talents of the maddening Manchester City midfielder Stephen Ireland, albeit for only four games. It is a testament to the capabilities of the wily Italian manager that the depletion in resources at his disposal has not stalled nor reversed the sides upturn in progress and fortunes. Ireland will enter the campaign with a renewed vigour and hunger, ditching their unadventurous and steady-does-it style in favour of a more rumbustious approach on that night in Paris proves that the potential of this team has not yet reached its peak. The willingness to recompense for that cruel exit indicates the desire to right the wrongs of those others will be undeniable.
Further bad news manifests itself for the Ireland set up when you consider that among the lessening numbers of senior international players securing regular top flight football in England are captain Robbie Keane and his fellow centurion Shay Given. Keane and Given’s benching at Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City are the two highest profile instances that are indicative of a wider problem throughout the squad. Only Richard Dunne, John O’Shea, Kevin Foley, Damien Duff and Doyle, from the twenty five man squad for this week’s matches, can claim with any assurance that they are key men for their Premier League clubs week in week out. Of that squad, just over half are contracted to clubs playing top level football, in England or in Aiden McGeady’s case Russia. These men are squad players in more ways than one. Injuries to wingers Duff and Keith Treacy along with Hull City defender Paul McShane have limited Trapattoni’s options somewhat but the manager is upbeat about the challenges that lie ahead in the wide ranging terrains of Group B. “I feel maybe we can win it”, the former Italy national coach declared this week. If Trapattoni can achieve his goal of leading Ireland to a major tournament, his senior players, first teamers at club level or not, can doff their not inconsiderable number of caps to Il Trap.
Confirmed Rep of Ireland team vs Armenia: Shay Given, John O’Shea, Sean St. Ledger, Richard Dunne, Kevin Kilbane, Liam Lawrence, Glen Whelan, Paul Green, Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle.
Barry Landy is the man behind the excellent Down In The Box.