In the often surreal word of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland set up, this week has been right up there on the surreality scale.
Following Monday’s training session at Malahide’s Gannon Park, Irish assistant manager – and one of Trapattoni’s most trusted lieutenants – Marco Tardelli stated: “It’s been a fantastic year for Irish international football.”
Tardelli’s statement is one where the facts (in direct contrast to the 58 year old’s ‘interesting’ statement) don’t lie. From six competitive games played this year, the Republic of Ireland have won two and lost (or more accurately – been outplayed and hammered in) four. In those six games; the Boys in Green scored eight times and conceded no fewer than 17 times.
Win number one came thanks to two goals in the last two minutes against a Kazakhstan side ranked 143rd in the world – a side who had outplayed the Irish for almost the entire game up until those final two minutes. Win number two came against a Faroe Islands side with a population of less than half that of the “Wee County” (Louth) – and a ‘nation’ the majority of whom play part-time, with a kindergarten teacher named Arnbjørn Hansen scoring their goal against Ireland in Tórshavn.
Ireland’s defeats this year have of course been well documented. While the Euro 2012 group was undoubtedly a very difficult one (and Spain are possibly the strongest national team ever to play the game); the abject performance of the Irish players and the fear with which almost every one of them played, combined with the number of goals conceded together with the lack of a Plan B from the manager, was something deeply concerning for those with an interest in Irish football. And therein lies the nub – does Trapattoni have an interest in Irish football or is he merely a geriatric chancer happy to cash in his pension from the FAI and Denis O’Brien?
The fact that the Republic had the joint worst record of any nation ever to compete at the European Championships – is another telling statistic.
Then onto the Germany debacle in Dublin last month and yet more undesirable records created by the Boys in Green. Whilst the Germans are a side who would surely have won at least one of the last three major international tournaments were it not for the magnificent Spanish, for the Republic of Ireland to succumb to a record breaking home competitive defeat – and even more so the abject manner of the display – is something which should have seen Giovanni Trapattoni and his merry band of Italian assistants being issued with their P45 – irrespective of the 4-1 defeat of the ‘mighty’ Faroe Islands four days later.
For Marco Tardelli to refer to 2012 as being a ‘fantastic’ year for Irish senior international football, given the aforementioned facts, shows that he is either seriously deluded or has a terribly worryingly low expectation of Irish international football.
Onto Tuesday’s eve-of-match press conference. Trapattoni’s press conferences as Irish manager have almost always been interspersed with varying levels of difficult/frustrating/impossible to understand language and phrases, with Tuesday’s interaction of the 73 year-old with Irish media fitting under all three headings (i.e. difficult, frustrating and impossible to understand) at various stages of proceedings.
Trapattoni began by announcing his starting XI for the game against Greece before going on to discuss the formation – which the Italian said would be played with three up front. When it was brought to his attention that many of the players (and the formation) were in fact incorrect, the former Juventus manager proceeded to reveal the correct names and formation – though insisting that he intended to play two up top all along. Ironically enough, speaking as an observer who has been frequently infuriated by the Italian, his selection of some exciting emerging talent for the clash with the Greeks – and for that talent to quite incredibly be selected in their correct position – was, for me, a refreshing change from previous Trapattoni farces which have also masqueraded as press conferences/team selections.
At long last, Trapattoni has seen what everyone else has known for several months – that Shane Long is in the form of his life and the West Brom front man will lead the line against the 2004 European champions. Whether Long would have started were Robbie Keane and Jonathan Walters present though is another matter entirely. A further positive though is that in this youthful starting XI, there are places for Séamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, James McClean and James McCarthy.
There was no starting place though for the often heralded Wesley Hoolahan. The Norwich City man has been hailed by critics, as the possible vital link between midfield and attack for Ireland, but the manager obviously believes that Brady is the man for the future for the role. Trapattoni did state however that Hoolahan would play the second half against Greece.
After announcing his starting XI, Trapattoni reverted to type with barely comprehensible (if comprehensible at all) ramblings. This observer has often wondered how often does Trapattoni attempt to get the media “off his back” by playing the “language barrier” card and Tuesday’s press conference was a classic case in point.
Trapattoni started by giving his reasons for choosing Robbie Brady: “Robbie is one of the best, he is one of the players with creative fantasia. Until this we did not have players with this creative situation.”
While the meaning of “creative fantasia” is (as has so often been the case with Trapattoni’s use of the English language) not 100% clear – what he appears to mean (following numerous animated repetitions of the phrase) is that Robbie Brady is the first creative player of his tenure as Republic of Ireland manager! One presumes that Damien Duff, James McClean, Aiden McGeady and Séamus Coleman et al, would be more than a little disappointed with such an assertion.
Trapattoni went on to state that he wished for Shane Long to “drop a little deeper” and to “work harder” for the team. This point was made in spite of the fact that the Tipperary native has scored five times and contributed four assists in the Premier League this season, which is more than Luis Suarez, Dimitar Berbatov and Jermain Defoe.
Following on from the formation gaffe, Trapattoni once again insisted: “The formation is 4-4-2. We change only the players [and not the formation],” - despite having minutes earlier stated that there would be three up front. He went on to speak of the dangers for teams in getting outflanked with just three in midfield, and having asked Peter Sherrard (the FAI’s communications director – a man who is fluent in Italian) for the correct term in English, stated: “near the line the winger, many players, many black players . . . they are very fast.”
One imagines Trapattoni had a specific point in mind, but a follow-up question from the assembled press corps yielded only another rambling reply which, no one present could make head nor tail of. By the end of the rant, Trapattoni’s original statement regarding black players, had been forgotten, such was the confusion prevalent in the room.
What was (fairly) clear was that Trapattoni intended to give Hoolahan 45 minutes of playing time and that Ireland will start the game with a side, and formation, that he believes is better equipped to win.
David Forde replaced Keiren Westwood in goal shortly before kick off after the Sunderland man suffered a groin strain. Séamus Coleman also retained his place at right back. Stephen Ward came in for Marc Wilson on the other defensive flank. Ciaran Clark joined John O’Shea at the heart of the defence, with the Waterford man captaining the side for a second consecutive game in the absence of Robbie Keane.
In midfield, the inclusion of the attack minded McCarthy, McClean and Brady ensured that the home side was more entertaining to watch than had previously been seen this year, while Shane Long’s presence up front will go some way towards putting into practice another of the alternative approaches most commonly put forward by the manager’s staunchest critics.
On the night, the Irish were unlucky to lose 1-0 thanks to an excellent finish from Holebas just before the half hour mark. The Republic should have had at least two penalties (one for a handball inside the opening minute and the other spot kick should have been awarded when substitute Kevin Doyle was unceremoniously dragged to the ground when he looked certain to score early in the second half); but the referee wasn’t a ‘homer’ and on each occasion he waved play on.
The final whistle was greeted with mild booing by the 12,000 ‘strong’ crowd – though those boos were more related to what had happened over the duration of this year rather than anything on show from the Greek game. Either way, the boos weren’t loud enough (partly because the crowd was so dispersed) to register much and they were quite quickly drowned out by a booming PA announcement over the tannoy at the Aviva Stadium.
The positives on the night for Ireland were mainly individual performances, with Everton’s Séamus Coleman particularly outstanding and new man Hoolahan also doing well and showing football intelligence when he came in at half time. Coleman should be Ireland’s first choice right back for the World Cup qualifiers in the spring, but whether that happens is another matter. Coleman’s performance against Greece (along with numerous other performances) have risen the issue of why oh why has the Donegal man not been first choice right back for his country for many, many months. To a lesser extent, the same could also be said of Hoolahan further up the pitch, a man whose Premier League performances have been crying out for international recognition.
Back in the early 1990s, if a fan of the Irish international football team had been told that within 20 years the Boys in Green would play in front of a less than quarter full Lansdowne Road, with a manager who can’t speak Englsih and a team, who, for almost all the competitive fixtures of the year just gone had played with almost overwhelming fear and little or no heart – that fan would have said you were an idiot.
The year 2012 is one which Irish football fans will want to quickly forget, but it has ended with some hope for the future with a possé of youngsters – including Robbie Brady, David Meyler and Coleman – and some not so young (for example Hoolahan) coming through the ranks. Whether those emerging players are employed when the serious international business resumes in March, remains to be seen, but from the smallest acorns – such as a performance like that against Greece – do mighty oaks grow.