By Brendan Boylan,
I recently made a first, treasured, trip of the season to a certain beloved farm. The place farming has in my life is immeasurable and, to many people, inexplicable. Simply because they cannot fathom how someone in a wheelchair can be so enamoured by the sights, sounds and, more pointedly, scents, of a farm.
Where is this going in the context of a sports column, you ask. Stay with me here. As ever after a day on the land, there was a bit of a pong off these wheels. Time has proven, however, that it was nothing compared to the whiff of bovine emanating from the Trap’ during Euro 2012! As, frankly, some of the statements made by Giovanni Trapattoni in the wake of Ireland’s defeat by Croatia were beyond ridiculous.
Now, our qualification for the European Championships has – in some way at least – given this country a much needed boost. Even if the inevitable hysteria did lead to unrealistic expectations in the build up to the first match. An honest appraisal, though, said that, once pitted with the Croats, Spain and Italy, a struggle was on.
We simply don’t have the quality of player that was available when we qualified for major Championships in the past. It seems that a few top class performers like Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane – even though the latter is nowhere near as good as he once was – are carrying a lot more that could be described as average at best.
For all that, this team doesn’t lack for effort, determination or work rate. And, for a few brief moments after Sean St Ledger showed admirable guts to head in an equaliser after the Croats had, very softly, gone in front after three minutes, dreams of days like those in Stuttgart, Genoa and New Jersey abounded.
What was, realistically, a gulf in class eventually told. Yes, there was bad luck from an Irish perspective as Croatia’s second goal was definitely scored from an offside position and Keane was definitely done out of a clear penalty. But, in the overall context of the game, they were out thought, out played and outclassed.
Perhaps, however, the most disappointing aspect of the evening was the performance of our manager. This corner has, since his appointment, been a Trapattoni fan and impressed by what he’s achieved with those at his disposal. It’d be hard not to be when you consider that – were it not for Thierry Henry’s blatant cheating – Ireland would’ve qualified for two Championships under his stewardship.
His way of doing things has two major flaws though and they’re the same as those which inhibit our rugby players under Declan Kidney – conservatism and predictability. Right, so Trap has to cut the cloth according to measure, but surely there has to be a Plan B. Well, there was, but the manner in which it was executed and the reasons given for doing so were daft.
Regarding the players, the biggest disappointment would have to be their inability to retain possession. There were options available to the manager to counteract this but gut feeling is that the resources at his disposal weren’t utilised to optimum value. Now read on…
Jon Walters had a very good season in the Premiership with Stoke City, operating either in central midfield or up front. To my mind, the latter role suits him best of all, Walters is in the Mark Hughes mould of centre forward who can hold the ball up and let those in the vicinity feed off him. That is exactly what this Irish team requires. So it might be a hark back to the Charlton days but it worked then and – against top notch opposition – the current method isn’t.
Yet, to the detriment of Stephen Hunt and, in particular, James McLean, the elderly Italian chose to deploy Walters on the wing. It was, however, his explanation for doing so that was most mind boggling. He said, more or less, that he didn’t engage the services of the Sunderland player as it would be too much of a high pressure situation to throw the Derry man into.
All of which makes you wonder why he included him in the squad in the first place. Then, to make the situation even worse, he throws on the lad when the team are being demoralised and outclassed – admittedly by the best team in the world. You wonder, though, was it a case of ‘ye wanted him on, I put him on, now look!’
Going forward, something has to change. Like Kidney, with the Italian already contracted up to the next World Cup, it’s unlikely to be the manager. Whether he likes it or not, he’s going to have to change his approach and, more importantly, the vast majority of the squad. The reinforcements are already there in the shape of Walters, McLean, Kieren Westwood, Seamus Coleman, Wes Houlihan, Simon Cox and James McCarthy to name but a few.