|'Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it'|
There’s a moment in Hunter Davies’ seminal 1972 classic ‘The Glory Game’ when Spurs are in France for a UEFA Cup clash with Nantes. The game ends scoreless and the visitors troop off the pitch frustrated at full-time. They were better than this. A sullen Martin Chivers, who was well-marshalled, mutters to himself as he slumps to his seat in the dressing-room. He’s venting. He knows both he and his team didn’t perform. ‘A poor team’, a poor team’. Bill Nicholson mis-interprets what’s been said. The boss starts to tremble a little. He stares straight into the Big Fellow’s eyes. ‘You mean we had some poor players’. Chivers’ mood changes. ‘What do you mean?’ He was animated now. ‘What do you know about it? You never praise us when we do well. Never. You never do. What do you know about it? You weren’t out there. You didn’t have to do it. It’s easy to say we didn’t do well, bloody easy’.
Two weeks ago, Giovanni Trapattoni gave an interview to Italian national broadcaster RAI. Looking back on his managerial career, he gushed that he’d had ‘five beautiful girls’ in Milan, Inter, Juventus, Bayern and Benfica. When asked if Ireland was a beautiful girl, he replied, ‘She is nice. She needs small surgery, a retouch’. A delicious line, one he couldn’t resist. The playful smile. The twinkle in the eye. Everyone knew the situation. Everyone was in on the joke. Ireland was the joke.
The oft-used excuse does carry some weight. During Steve Staunton’s reign as Ireland boss – the lowest ebb in recent memory – the players were better. Even on that fateful night in Nicosia just over six years ago, the Irish back-four included one Champions League winner, one soon-to-be Champions League winner and the then club-captain of Manchester City. But, it’s worth pointing out that when the Trapattoni era began in Mainz with a World Cup qualifier against Georgia in September 2008, those three players also started. Two of those players remain critical members of the current squad. And as much as Trapattoni feels this Irish team are a limited group, he has had ample opportunity to refresh, to ‘retouch’. He’s ignored the numbers, the data, the forward-thinking. And through his stubborn resiliance, he’s lost a valuable buffer.
Over the last three full seasons, Marc Wilson has started 84 Premier League games yet he’s still to make a competitive start for his country. Instead, Stephen Ward cemented a starting place in Trapattoni’s team in the same season that his Wolves side were relegated. He featured in a defence that leaked the second highest amount of goals in any Premier League season.
Against Germany, Darren O’Dea partnered John O’Shea in the centre of defence. The 25 year-old moved to Major League Soccer in August where he plays for the worst team in the league – Toronto FC. He’s featured in 10 games for them so far – losing 8. In fact, he’s still to win a game in TFC colours. In fact, outside of the victory in Kazakhstan, you have to go back to April to find the last time O’Dea featured in a competitive victory. Meanwhile, former England Under-18 captain Ciaran Clark, who has steadily impressed for Aston Villa in a multitude of different positions (under a multitude of different managers) was only sitting on the Irish bench last weekend because of Sean St. Ledger’s withdrawal. Otherwise, just like the trip to Kazakhstan, he would’ve been left out.
Plenty of other examples abound – Gibson, Coleman, Hoolahan, McClean, Pilkington. Ultimately however, just like the seeds of Mick McCarthy’s eventual exit were sewn in Saipan, Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it. Unconvincing against the minnows, embarrassed by the Russians, a sterile system being adhered to by disinterested and bored players, luck came in the form of a play-off meeting with Estonia. Suddenly, the growing discontent with the style of play, the approach to games, the lack of exciting and fresh faces was gone. As Euro 2012 got closer, the blind optimism, the giddiness took control. That optimism was washed away five minutes into the second half of the first group game. But according to Trap, ‘fear’ is what cost them in the end.
The fear has been perpetuated from the top down. Through the snide comments, the relentless focus on the players’ inability to do things right, Trapattoni’s belief that this group will never be good enough, the basic strategy/formation/tactics – it has all fed into the current malaise sweeping across the camp. Following Saturday’s humiliation, there was no apology from the Italian. There was a shrug of the shoulders, an acceptance of sorts. There was nothing to be ashamed about. Trap told reporters after the game, ‘Realistically, we were never going to compete with Germany for first place in the group’. He had prepared for a defeat and as a result, the players were already beaten when they stepped onto that pitch, whether they liked it or not.
In-game management decisions were lazy. Before his first goal, Marco Reus had already been roaming, cutting into central areas and popping up as a spare man. There was no subtle change, no message to the Irish midfield and centre-backs about the threat. No urgency, no energy. Slow, disinterested. Though it mattered little because, well, we were going to lose anyway, weren’t we?
Upon the inspection of the damage, there wasn’t anything to worry about, according to Trap – just a few scratches on the surface, nothing serious. There wasn’t even the faintest pang of anger or frustration. That came only when quizzed on whether he’ll still have a job by the end of the week. When his performance is brought into question, when he’s told he hasn’t been good enough, he snaps.
October seems to be a sorry time for Irish football, certainly in recent years. In 2009, the team led Italy 2-1 at Croke Park in their penultimate World Cup qualifier. An 87th-minute header from Sean St. Ledger had seemingly given the team not just a famous victory but possible automatic qualification for South Africa. Three minutes later, Alberto Gilardino equalised and Ireland were in the play-offs. A furious Trapattoni bounded down the tunnel, screaming and swearing in his native language. Yet, according to Liam Lawrence, he never showed any anger in the dressing room. Afterwards, he spoke of players being nervous, not being experienced enough with winding down the clock. If it was a boxing match, he said, Italy would’ve won on points.
So, there has always been a dis-connect. The World Cup qualification campaign was different however – there was a hunger, a passion. There were new faces. There was an iconic football man in charge whose approach made sense. He spoke of ‘poetry and novels’ (far cry from Stan) and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Trapattoni’s Irish team wasn’t interesed in aesthetics. They were interested in results. This was a new Ireland. Determined, professional, borderline boring. With the team’s best players at their peak, the strategy worked a treat and, in many ways, elimination in the play-offs was undeserved.
There needed to be freshening up but some call-ups, particularly in light of what’s been happening recently, lacked any sort of method. Greg Cunningham had made three substitute appearances for Manchester City but was in the squad. Jonathan Walters meanwhile, hadn’t even received a call-up to the senior team before November 2010, despite impressing consistently for Ipswich over the previous three seasons.
Trapattoni has found it far too easy to blame the quality of the Irish players when his selection policy is a flawed one. If there is a lack of natural talent, surely players who are consistently proving their worth at club level need to be handed opportunities in an Irish jersey? James McClean hasn’t made a competitive start for his country, despite illuminating the Premier League last term and subsequently being voted Sunderland’s Young Player of the Year. He had been at the club for nine months. Robbie Brady, who has been handed a start against the Faroes, has played five competitive minutes for Manchester United. With Shane Long cutting a disconsolate figure on the bench, with Darron Gibson fed up and in self-imposed exile, with Ciaran Clark admitting he doesn’t know how to get back in contention, the atmosphere is toxic.
All of the players mentioned above need to feature prominently for Ireland. They are the future. They are also the present. Unfortunately, Trapattoni is the past.
Spurs did ultimately do quite well come season’s end, of course, beating Wolves in the UEFA Cup final to become the first British team to win two European competitions. But even still, Nicholson was reluctant to indulge his players in hearty congratulations. ‘We still have problems. For such experienced players, a lot of them are not consistent. I can’t sit and watch them in comfort, not the way I’ve done with other teams I’ve had.’
Two years later, Nicholson stepped down as Spurs manager. He had difficulty in relating to the changes within the game. He had difficulty, perhaps, in having reached the peak many years before. He had difficulty, perhaps, in adapting to something new when he’d already achieved so much with a tried and tested method.