For the first time in his four-year reign as the manager of the Irish national team, fans are beginning to question whether or not Giovanni Trapattoni is the man to take the country forward.
Nobody, however, is criticising the remarkable job he has done in taking the national team back into the tournament scene. This summer, Ireland took part in it first international tournament since the 2002 World Cup and its first European Championships since 1988. The veteran Italian was tasked with the goal of taking the team back to a tournament amongst Europe’s elite and he duly delivered.
It was with great disappointment, then, that the nation’s expectations and belief in a side to be good enough to cause an unlikely upset came crashing back to Earth with a whimper. We undoubtedly set them too high, particularly in a group that included three of the top ten teams in the world. But the thud of disappointment came from not only the failure to get even a draw in any of the three games, but from the horrid performances from a team that fared so well in qualifying and, additionally, a manager’s refusal to change and dare I say it, experiment.
The harsh reality was we simply weren’t good enough. The margin in quality in all three of the games was tough to take, considering we got through quite a strong group by Irish standards in a very reasonable manner with just one loss from ten games.
The qualifying campaign was ridden on the back of the bitter French pill the players swallowed after handball-gate. The incentive to go out and qualify for Euro 2012 was incredible, to right the injustice that had taken place and deliver passage to a tournament the players and the fans deserved. Although Estonia are nowhere near as strong as France, this time there was going to be no mistakes.
What happened the past few weeks then, to a certain extent, is a bit of a mystery. The players were unfocused, nervous and horribly out of their depth. But in the past the players have managed to limit their weaknesses and at the very least deliver a passionate, determined performance. The brand of football might not have been pretty, but it was all they knew and it was built on a defensive discipline that just wasn’t there. The manager, in turn, had no plan b. We were void of the three characteristics his system could rely on – concentration, commitment and determination.
There was no Russia-esque passion in Poland, and it’s difficult to see why. Perhaps the occasion simply got to them. Maybe the prospect of facing such strong opposition put them off their game and they felt defeated before they took a step onto the pitch. Or maybe everything they put into qualifying emptied the tank. Having craved it so badly, to ultimately achieve it, there was little left to accomplish other than to acquit themselves respectively against world class players and enjoy being on the world stage.
Maybe some of the Irish fans knee-deep in empty beer cans will prefer this analogy: the serious business of buying the drink was done – session on.
We had done the job of qualifying; anything more was going to be a bonus. Unsurprisingly in Irish sport, the hype machine took off and the expectations rose to a level the players were never going to achieve. Some fans likened this Irish side to that of Greece in 2004, which went all the way in one of greatest shocks in the history of football. The likelihood of that happening twice in three tournaments – with a team that includes players out of contract and, er, Paul Green – was improbable to say the least. There was more chance of each and every one of the Irish fans that had flocked to Poland staying sober for the three weeks.
As Trapattoni said after the Croatia loss, he couldn’t quite understand why the players failed to replicate one of their qualifying performances. He found it strange that the players, in a way, choked. He responded to the Croatian game by replacing Kevin Doyle with Simon Cox, a player who had been placed out on the left hand side in the final moments of that game to very little effect. Cox did his best but the whole Irish team looked out of their depth in a 4-0 defeat. Ireland were out after two games, two average performances and were 90 minutes away from probably becoming one of the worst teams statistically in the history of the competition.
From that point, with progress impossible, people began to look at the manager. His tactics, or lack thereof, were proven to be outdated in a group that featured a three-man backline and a team without a striker. He was posed with questions on starting some different players for the Italy game, but said he had an obligation to Croatia and Italy by playing his strongest team. That was probably a hindrance rather than a help to Slavan Bilic and Vicente Del Bosque. He ended up reverting to the side that lost to Croatia for the Italy game.
Bizarrely, Darron Gibson – despite his flaws – didn’t play a single minute of action. James McClean was benched in a dead rubber game, while the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Foley, Marc Wilson and Seamus Coleman sat watching at home.
We have a manager so set in his ways that it’s suitable he’s set in a contract for another two years, which means termination is unlikely. Fans, pundits and former players have already began calling for change to Trapattoni’s approach, but it’d be quite the surprise to see any sort of a variation from his 4-4-2 that relies on a defensive discipline that was M.I.A in Poland. RTE’s Bill O’ Herlihy posed a question to the panel asking should the FAI speak to Trapattoni about changing his ways. It was quickly rebuffed, with thoughts of a hungover John Delaney trying to coax tactical change from the 73-year-old Italian.
If Ireland is to step closer to the quality that Spain, Italy and Croatia ooze, change needs to happen in a lot of areas of Irish soccer. From infrastructure, to coaching, to the League of Ireland, the list goes on. One of those areas should be the stepping down of Trapattoni, in place of a manager who will implement change that attempts to reflect a brand of football that plays to the strengths of our most talented players, rather than rely on the defensive and target man capabilities of our more limited ones. Heck, even acknowledging the existence of some of those talented players would be a start.
Trapattoni will undoubtedly look to new names and faces for World Cup qualification, if he’s still around, but that may be forced rather than embraced with the stepping aside of some of the senior players. Sure, Shane Long might finally get an opportunity to start and maybe James McClean might get more than five minutes, but the chances of that being in anything other than a defensive setup with hoof-ball tendencies is slim.
Trapattoni has done a lot of good for Irish soccer, but the next move for him should be stepping aside happy in the knowledge that he took Ireland to an international tournament. It’s time to move forward. This time, something we can’t rely on Il Trap to achieve.