After the shameful performance from the Irish football team at the 2012 European Championships in the Ukraine and Poland, the ‘Boys in Green’ took a bit of a verbal battering from myself and many of the country’s other football fans and writers alike. This criticism, in my eyes, was perfectly justified. The team simply did not perform in the manner which was expected from them. Expectations were not unrealistic, the team were never expected to beat sides like Spain, Italy and Croatia. The way in which they played these games, however, was nothing short of deplorable.
A lot of the blame was placed on the head of Giovanni Trapattoni, his tactical approach and team selection was thrown into question countless times. The Italian was criticised from almost every football fan in the country. It was evident to everybody that some sort of change was needed if the Italian was to remain in his post as Irish manager. Fortunately, that change has begun to occur.
Trapattoni seems to be, for the first time during his role as Irish manager, listening to the nation. For over a year now, there has been a demand for the likes of Séamus Coleman and James McClean to become regular starters for Ireland. They are now finally being given a chance on a regular basis and proving that they are more than deserving. Coleman has been brilliant at right back. Taking the step to being an international footballer in his stride, something that is not always easy for a young footballer to do with such comfort. McClean’s performances have shown that he is not making the transition to international football as convincingly as Coleman, but he is by no means doing a bad job. He has handed in some very respectable performances in an Irish shirt and has provided a good foundation on which he can look to build and improve. He has already become a very important part of this Irish side and his ability to be a match winner is clearly seen by his teammates. During the game against Austria it was visible that whenever James McCarthy had the ball in the middle of the park, the first place he looked was out to the left to see where McClean was and whether or not he was available. Nearly every time McCarthy received the ball into feet with the time and space to look up and pick out a pass, that pass was out to James McClean was more often than not met by more than one Austrian player, which in itself is a complement – it’s a sign that they were worried about him.
James McCarthy is stepping into the role of Ireland’s primary creative, passing midfielder. With Glenn Whelan or Paul Green alongside him to do the majority of the ‘dirty work’ McCarthy is allowed to find space and time when on the ball to allow for him to play important and potentially match winning passes. With the ever threatening James McClean to the left, the powerful Jonathan Walters to his right, and the clinical Shane Long in front of him, McCarthy is never found short of options and the movement of these three players will often open up space and an opportunity for the Wigan midfielder to play a killer ball into. McCarthy is going to play an even more integral part for this Ireland team in the coming years. As the side develops further and inevitably moves away from this ‘defend, defend, defend’ style, his role will become even more prominent. It appears to be unanimously accepted that Trapattoni’s contract will not be renewed again after this campaign, leaving the job vacant for a new manager with a perhaps more open mind to come in and allow the squad to play in a system most suited to the best players within it.
A man mentioned above whose reputation is growing is Paul Green. Green was torn apart in certain areas of the media during and after the European Championships. Since then, improvements have been made and Ireland are benefitting from this. For the first time in an Irish shirt, everybody who watched the game against Sweden had nothing but good things to say about his performance. In the following game against Austria as he prepared to come on, the usual groans and shouts of frustration were noticeably absent. The only criticism of this change was that he was brought on for the wrong player and then played out of position – neither of these are criticisms of Green. Trapattoni insisted on playing Green out on the right and pushing Jon Walters up front when it was felt that Green should have been brought on as an extra body to crowd out the Austrian midfield and attempt to reduce the threat posed by David Alaba who was pulling the strings for them. Paul Green is growing as a footballer, if his performances continue at this level he will almost certainly develop into an important player for his country.
Another key contributor to the Republic of Ireland side at the moment is Shane Long. Long is becoming, and already has become in my mind, Ireland’s best striker. The time has come for the team to be built around him and not Robbie Keane. I am extremely thankful and respectful towards everything that Keane has done for this nation during his career but his time has come and gone. He is no longer the striker he was, his goals are beginning to dry up for his country and at a time when the Tipperary man is playing better than ever and constantly improving, it makes sense for this transition to occur now.
So what lies ahead for Ireland, then? What more needs to be done and how can they continue to grow?
Ireland need time to blend and time to familiarise themselves with their fellow players. With only two of the eleven that started the opening game of the European Championships starting the game against Austria, it’s clear to see that the team is changing.
In the coming years we will more than likely see the introduction of Greg Cunningham at left back, who could well be the left hand side’s answer to Séamus Coleman on the right. This would give the team great balance to have a good, solid defensive full back who can also threaten when the team go forward. He could potentially provide support for James McClean and take advantage of any space occupied by the opposition doubling up on McClean.
The probable departure of Trapattoni after the World Cup Campaign will also open up the door for the reintroduction of Darron Gibson into the Irish set up. The Everton man would be a welcome addition to the side and would provide competition for Paul Green should he hold onto his place in the starting eleven.
I said before the campaign began that I would happily take not qualifying for Brazil 2014 if it meant the team was beginning to evolve and new players were introduced with the nation’s future in mind. This has absolutely been the case so although not qualifying might be painful for the immediate future, in the long term, this early stage of evolution could prove key to Ireland’s hopes for the next European Championships in France three years down the road.
To briefly summarise the message I’m trying to get across here: it’s not all doom and gloom for Ireland. Small steps are being taken, improvements in performances and results are imminent.