The eleventh of February 2008 was the dawn of new era in Irish football. After countless failures under Brian Kerr and Steve Stauton, Ireland appointed Italian legend Giovanni Trapattoni as manager. It coincided with another Italian appointment across the water in England with Fabio Capello.
This was the fresh start for the ‘Boys in green’ were in desperate need of, as it had been over seven years since they had qualified for a major tournament. Both Stauton and Kerr lacked real leadership and for the most part failed miserably at delivering any sort of stability. During this time Ireland suffered a 5-2 loss at the hand of minnows Cyprus, one of the worst defeats in their history.
Despite only boasting a population of over four million, Ireland has been a nation with a proud footballing history. Especially during the Nineties, when under the guidance of honorary Irishman Jack Charlton, they qualified for Italia 90’ and USA 94’. Impressing in both tournaments, and beating the likes of Italy along the way. You simply cannot put into words what Ireland was like during both tournaments. Every pub, up and down the country, was packed to the brim during matches. Streets were lined with green, white and gold. The pure euphoria felt has not returned since.
It was this sort of success that the Irish public yearned for once again, and it was Trapattoni they eventually but their faith in after sacking Staunton in 2008. In with ‘Trap’ came another Italian world cup legend Marco Tardelli and former Juventus playmaker and Irish legend Liam Brady. It was a dream team never seen before on the Irish bench, packed with experience and a great depth of knowledge. You could finally sense, for the first time in several years, a small sense of hope.
Fast forward to 2012, and Trapattoni has brought a newfound stability into the Irish dressing room, but in his own questionable style. Following the hapless hand of Henry in the World Cup 2010 play-off, Ireland has qualified for the 2012 European Championships. To a certain extent Trap has brought back optimism to the Irish setup. Back-to-back play-offs are considered successful in Irish eyes, and thrashing Estonia in the most recent one was a huge surprise.
Throughout both qualifiers Trap has stuck with the same core of experienced players. Ever-faithful captain Robbie Keane has cemented his place in the side. So too have centre backs Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger. While goalkeeper Shay Given is irreplaceable and at times holds the entire team together.
However the rest of the team has continued to look unimpressive, especially the midfield pairing of Keith Andrews and Glen Whelan. Both have struggled for club form over the last few years, yet they still manage to always make the Irish team. They are both seen as defensive midfielders, but they go missing in every game. Neither bring any creativity whatsoever, as that generally falls to the wingers. Combined they have managed a measly one goal in Euro 2012 qualifying. Nobody would mind if they were just destroyers of play, but neither throw themselves into tackles or display any sort of ‘grinta’ (true grit). Trapattoni appears to be alone in seeing something in these two players who have been anonymous in many games. It is not as though Ireland are without options in midfield, with many Irish playmakers playing at the highest level.
James McCarthy has been carrying the Wigan team at times this season, with a great work rate and passing ability. Trap has continually claimed he’s not ‘fully committed’ to the team. It’s become very apparent however, that McCarthy is passionate about playing for Ireland, as he has rejected overtures from Scotland several times. Darren Gibson has found a new lease of life at Everton after leaving Manchester United in January. He’s been a crucial part of Everton beating Manchester City and Chelsea. In his three appearances in 2011 for Ireland he’s scored once and is undoubtedly better player than Whelan or Andrews
Finally Keith Fahey has looked bright when given the chance for Ireland. Scoring twice in 2011 and was key in winning the Nation Cup in Dublin. He’s been left out of the squad for the most part following the 2010 World Cup. Wes Hoolahan has been thriving as the playmaker at Norwich. Setting up and scoring goals that have brought the Canaries up to mid-table in the Premiership in their first season. Yet the only chance Trap has given him is in a friendly against Serbia.
Slightly less realistically Ireland have the likes of Steven Ireland and Andy Reid who have both been getting regular first team football again. They are both unlikely to even be considered however, as they both have fallen out with Trapattoni. Trap has a history of playing very defensive oriented football, but also falling out with players. At Stuttgart in 2005 former Danish internationals Jon Dahl Tomasson and Jesper Gronkjaer openly criticised the coach, claiming he was afraid to attack. Trapattoni immediately responded by dropping both players and issuing a warning to any other players that feel that way to talk directly to him. Trap was sacked as coach several months later having lost the dressing room and faith of the players.
Many Irish fans will admit that Whelan and Andrews and very weak and will not stand a chance against the likes of Spain and Italy at the Euros this summer. Yet Trapattoni is a very loyalty focussed manager, and will no doubt stick to his guns. Trap will reward players he feels are loyal to him however mediocre they are. He has stuck with twenty-nine year old midfielder Paul Green for the Irish squad. Despite the fact that his performance for his fifth cap, a 3–2 defeat to Russia, saw him earn a place in Goal.com’s Worst Team of the Round team. Who said he “did absolutely nothing to help put pressure on the haemorrhaging wound that was Ireland’s central midfield. Failed to sufficiently close down Russia’s full-backs who were allowed to whip in crosses at their leisure.”
Trapattoni was very unwilling to call up both Seamus Coleman and James McClean. After intense pressure from the media he eventually gave in. Both players were scoring vital goals for their respective clubs and supplying a lot of creativity. Trap even announced recently that after calling up McClean he still thinks he will not bring him to the Euros. As he says there are ‘several players infront of him’. Damien Duff has been a loyal servant to Ireland, but the cheer McClean got when he came on against the Czech Republic is a sign of the times.
Liam Brady vacated his post as assistant manager after the World Cup, as he had commitments at Arsenal’s youth academy. Brady was crucial to the setup as he watched most of the games involving Irish players and reported back to Trapattoni. He was also the only one who could speak fluent English and Italian in the dressing room, thus acting as a link between the players and the manager. Now that he’s gone Trap has been criticised for not attending matches. This has made the media really question his commitment to the job. Considering the fact he is earning over a million a year to manage Ireland. His weak English has meant he’s not really able to defend his decisions in press conferences, leaving fans and the media without answers.
At times Trap has frustrated fans with his selection process and style of play. By sticking to a core group of generally below-par players and increasingly using the ‘long-ball’ tactic. Overall though there is no doubt Giovanni Trapattoni has brought success to the Irish national team. However it’s not in a style that brings much optimism. It’s very unfair to judge Trap in such a way, as Charlton was almost a carbon copy of the Italian. Ireland have the players to play beautiful football, it’s just a matter of using them.