My first trip to Lansdowne Road (it’ll always be that to yours truly) was memorable. It was a wild, wet day twenty years ago. Michael Carruth – who the previous summer was crowned Olympic champion – was encountered before the game. As was Jack Charlton and the entire Irish squad of the day. Among them were Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer – all making their debut that murky March day. Their infusion to a squad that already contained stars such as Pat Bonner, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and John Aldridge ensured Ireland had a squad capable of competing with distinction at the 1994 World Cup.
Then, despite all the furore surrounding Saipan and all that, Mick McCarthy’s side performed admirably in the Far East in 2002. Backboned by men like Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Kevin Kilbane. Many of them were still in situ when Ireland were scandalously done out of a World Cup berth by France. Some even survived to Euro 2012.
From then, however, the team hasn’t seemed to have the same quality about it. Partly because some of those who departed were never going to be easily replaced. But also due to an overwhelming feeling that Giovanni Trapattoni – in attempting to do so – didn’t best utilise the talent available to him.
Outside of Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, there weren’t many names in the squad of late. Those that would weren’t picked by the manager. Kevin Doyle was jettisoned. Wes Hoolahan ignored. Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and James McLean only grudgingly picked, you sense. Paul Greene and Conor Sammon almost canonised.
Admittedly, the elderly Italian hadn’t the same quality of player at his disposal as some previous managers and, in such circumstances, cutting the cloth according to measure may leave a chill. There can be no excuse for being cold, however, when better material is left in the wardrobe!
It’s probably the case that Ireland weren’t as good as some of the other teams in their group in the most recent qualification campaign. Yet the feeling the added quality of those that weren’t in favour would have added could have enabled them to get something from some of the games is inescapable.
The style of play employed by the erstwhile coach didn’t do much to help matters either. Building a lead and then doing nothing but trying to sit on it is daft. Give top quality opposition the ball for long enough and they will pulverise you. Do it against two of the best teams in the world and it may get embarrassing. Against Spain and Germany, it did.
For all the negativity that surrounded the Trap’ era, the incoming coach – most likely Martin O’Neill – has some very talented individuals to work with. Mostly the ones his predecessor wouldn’t pick! How long more Keane will go on for is unknown. You suspect, however, that Richard Dunne may have more longevity in him.
New blood will have to be transfused to the setup. There’ll be plenty of the view that, at 31, Wes Hoolahan may be the wrong card to play. On the contrary, his is the creative expressiveness the team needs. Age shouldn’t come into it if a player is good enough. That said, some of the coming crop like Coleman, McLean, McCarthy, Robbie Brady, David Meyler and Ciaran Clark need to be let off the leash. Where exactly a future goalkeeper might emerge from could be a different thing.
Though it may not be fashionable, it must be acknowledging that there were positives to the previous era. Ireland qualified for their first major championship in a decade and would’ve made a second but for blatant French cheating. Even so, the more negative parts of Trap’s time will leave a sour taste that may take a while to wash away.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that, if things are considered to be at that low of an ebb, should the newcomer bring about any signs of improvement it will be considered progress from where things currently stand.