The devil we know

by Kevin Christie

While many beleaguered Ireland fans may currently be calling for his head, the history books will no doubt be kind to Giovanni Trapattoni. In years to come, his tenure will surely be heralded as a great success and rightly so. It doesn’t really feel that way at the moment though as dissenting voices in the media and in the stands were left feeling disillusioned and frustrated by John Delaney’s decision to grant Trapattoni a stay of execution following the pair’s meeting last month.

For a man of his standing in the game, it is remarkable that he is held in such disdain by the very supporters who jubilantly sang his name and proclaimed him an honorary Irishman prior to the demoralising capitulation at Euro 2012, which saw public opinion turn against him.

There is no denying that Trapattoni has heaped a lot of misery on himself during his time as Ireland manager. His man management style is caustic and abrasive, his tactics are stagnant and inflexible, his devotion to the job has often been negligent and inattentive and, most disheartening of all, the team’s performances have frequently generally been insipid, lacklustre and devoid of imagination and creativity. In spite of that, however, he remains the only man for the job.

Changing manager during a qualifying campaign smacks of change for change’s sake. Fans grow bored and weary – it’s human nature. However, we must be careful what we wish for. New beginnings, blurbs, flashing lights and sound bites all help to get people on-side, to stir up excitement and get the fans dreaming again but it’s all cyclical. The tidal wave of goodwill subsides after a while and we are left in the same situation again.

The FAI were somewhat over-zealous and hasty in tying Trapattoni to a new deal prior to our trip to Poland and now must stick by him. Not simply because they are hamstrung by the financial implications of dispensing with the Italian but also because, as Liam Brady pointed out, it would be a PR disaster to oust him – as he has arguably over-achieved during his time in charge of Ireland.

A hasty and populist sacking to appease the media and fans could do untold damage. While many may doubt whether Trapattoni is the right man to take us forward, it is worth remembering that in tough times, standing still must be regarded as a success – it would be disappointing but far from disastrous. After all, we failed to qualify for four successive tournaments after 2002 and the world didn’t stop turning. Life goes on. You acknowledge the disappointment and hope to learn from it. Not that we shouldn’t aim to qualify, rather that we should not necessarily expect it. As Brady said, we were in the wilderness for 10 years. Also, as depressing as it was, the Germany defeat was only cosmetic and has not really damaged our chances of qualifying. So, why are people baying for blood as if we have shot ourselves in the foot or somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? We are precisely where we imagined we might be at this stage. Germany were always going to win the group at a canter, while Sweden are a formidable opponent and certainly better than us on paper, boasting many established Premiership players as well as the brilliant Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

It has also been quickly forgotten that drab and unimaginative performances during our last qualifying campaign nearly cost us dearly and only some unexpected results turned the tide in our favour again. We did not mastermind our own success. We performed solidly and, for once, the planets aligned for us. Curiously, if we had met a more formidable opponent than Estonia in the play-offs and had another glorious failure like in Paris in 2009, Trapattoni’s standing might be higher. He has become a victim of his own success. Qualification raised hopes and fans dared to dream that this team could replicate the success of Jack Charlton’s spirited sides in the 1990s. Unfortunately, those dreams were cruelly crushed and we were brutally exposed under the full glare of the media. However, as clinical and unimaginative as it may be, Trapattoni’s game plan is at least just that: a plan. It might not be pretty but, on the whole, it is relatively effective and despite 2012 being a dispiriting year, the national team stands in good stead. 

Also, there is no outstanding candidate to become Trapattoni’s successor. Any manager that is out of work, is generally out of work for a good reason. The best-equipped replacement recently sauntered down Portman Road and signed on the dotted line with Ipswich Town. Ironically, he will replace Paul Jewell – a man who Eamon Dunphy and John Giles fervently backed to become Steve Staunton’s successor at the time. Jewell himself was hired to revive the once great club’s flagging fortunes – ironically, the very thing that Roy Keane before him was unable to do. Keane has been out of work since, while Jewell may find himself on the scrapheap for a while until a lower league club comes calling. David O’Leary’s name will surely arise but his career remains on a downward spiral having been sacked by Al Alhi in 2011. The idea of replacing a European Cup winning, serial achiever like Trapattoni with candidates such as these is ludicrous. 

Fans are disappointed and dispirited at the moment but we have a vastly experienced manager with a glittering CV who has, on the whole, performed very well with a shallow pool of resources. Of course, we are entitled to wonder whether trusting the likes of Long, Coleman, and McCarthy at an earlier date may have had a telling impact on our performances and results but we must let bygones be bygones. Now is the time to wipe the slate clean and afford Trapattoni some much-needed breathing space to overhaul the team and implement the necessary changes now that some of the old guard are hobbling off the stage and the understudies are shuffling in to take their places. Duff and Given are gone. Keane and Dunne may soon follow. It’s the end of an era but it need not be the end of Trapattoni’s tenure

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