Friday, 29 June 2012

Caught in a Trapp

3 games.

3 defeats.

And a goal difference of minus 8.

Pretty conclusive reading.

A dream to get to the European Championships.

A nightmare at it.

However, Ireland were in a much worse place when Giovanni Trapattoni first took over.

Embarrassing defeats like the 5-2 hammering by Cyprus meant Steve Staunton didn’t last long.

And while the FAI chased Paul Jewell to become the man to lead Ireland back to where the nation craved - a wily old Italian was having ideas of his own.

With 26 major honours to his name, ‘Il Trap’ was about to step in and lead the nation forward.

Never in our history had this nation been managed by a man so successful.

Indeed, an FA cup was all that had been won by all previous Ireland managers combined.

And after 3 campaigns in which Ireland had failed to even make the play-offs - Giovanni’s task was simple.

So too was his plan.

At least it was simple on the eye.

Make ourselves as defensively tight as possible and adopt his 'Italian' approach.

Cyprus would not be scoring 5 goals against us again anytime soon.

In fact most teams would not be scoring against us at all.

Giovanni’s system has been in place 37 years now.

It’s not the same in 2012 as it was in 1975.

It has been tinkered with plus thought about and adjusted accordingly over the years to allow for all the gradual changes that occur over what is now 5 decades that the Italian has been managing in.

It is a system that has brought him Italian titles.

German titles.

Portuguese titles.

Even every major European title that was on offer.

It was a system intended to bring qualification to a major tournament to a squad of players who so desperately craved it.

And it worked.

After 2 years in charge, the Irish came within extra time of qualifying for a World Cup.

A far cry from that night in Nicosia.

Defence was tight.

The team remained undefeated in a group that contained Italy and Bulgaria.

And a limited squad of players had come to the brink.

Failure to qualify for the fourth campaign in a row was suddenly not as ghastly as before.

This time we came close.

Very close.

The system was working.

Fast forward 2 years and with largely the same squad of players, Giovanni had masterminded his team through the play-offs and straight to the promised land.

The system, with 2 more years of adjustments and a squad well rehearsed at it - had qualified.

It wasn’t very attacking.

But it was very effective.

Ireland had gone 14 games undefeated.

Conceding only 1 goal in 12 games.

The system behind it all, of course.

Until suddenly Croatia played us.

Then Spain.

Then Italy.

And the system crashed around our feet.

4 years hard work under the highly decorated Italian had suddenly gone to waste.

And the system was to blame.

What else could it be?

What had been good enough to get us to Euro 2012 was actually not good enough to allow us compete at it.

The tight defence on which it was built had collapsed.

It was Cyprus all over again.

Ireland were leaking goals at almost every attack.

And not even threatening the oppositions goal.

Giovanni had perfected his system after managing in so many of the top league teams around.

But there in may lye his problem.

Ireland are no top side.

In fact, Ireland are a very limited side.

Whereas he could call upon Michel Platini or Lothar Matthaus or Francisco Totti in the past, he was now relying on players who were playing for Stoke City, Wolves and West Brom.

Honest, hard working professionals.

But not world players of the year as before.

The system is only as good as the sum of it parts.

And while it may be world class - the players unfortunately, are not.

The system is great if you can rely on Francisco in the final third to get you the goal.

Or Lothar running from midfield putting the opposition on the back foot.

Ireland unfortunately, are reliant on players like Keith Andrews and Kevin Doyle to do this.

The team made up of the lower half of the Premier league and beyond had found themselves able to turn over the likes of Armenia, Montenegro and Estonia in this system.

Something they'd struggled with before.

But when they faced real competition like both games against Russia and the 3 group games in the tournament - it was a different story.

It appeared the system had failed.

In some ways it had.

Not because it couldn't work against other teams.

But perhaps because the players weren't good enough to make it work...

Friday, 22 June 2012

Best Fans in the World Maybe, But Not the Best Supporters

I took a considered moment out for myself as the fields of Athenry billowed around Arena Gdansk.

After due deliberation, I too, joined in for a chorus of one of Ireland’s most renowned football anthems.

I was gutted that we had just been thumped so convincingly.

But I felt the Irish players deserved something back for all the effort they’d put in over the previous 2 seasons.

If they had of performed as inadequately as they had against the Croats - it would have been a different story.

When outclassed by superior opponents yet willing to give their all, I decided to support them.

I was there as a supporter after all.

And they needed me.

Support can change a game.

Fortress Anfield became synonymous with their successful football club due to the vociferous crowd.

Roy Keane himself spoke of the respect he had for the Liverpool atmosphere.

How intelligent they were about football, respectfully applauding when the opposition had done something worthy of ardent praise.

However, this week was also the week in which Roy questioned the expectations of the Irish support.

In an opinion subjected mainly towards the players of the Irish squad, it was the supporters who took offence.

Or at this point, I’ll switch the expression to ‘fans’.

The supporters knew what he meant.

They know enough about football and enough about what they’d seen unfold in front of them in Poland to interpret Roy correctly.

Roy was right.

Ireland weren’t good enough.

And the supporters should demand more.

In fact, they deserved more.

Roy has no problem with fans and supporters singing throughout the build-up and throughout the match itself.

He’d already gone on record as saying how great the Irish support is.

He even went as far as clarifying his comments in his column the following Sunday to avoid confusion.

Yet come kick off in the next game, the ‘fans’ of Ireland had already created a song all for the great man himself.

“F**k you Roy Keane, we’ll sing when we want”

Roy had won his potential debate with the Irish fans, without a need for retort.

4 nil down and heading for our heaviest competitive defeat in over 50 years.

“We’ll sing when we want”

Heading out of the European Championships after only 4 days?

“We’ll sing when we want”

Losing to Italy on the way to equalling the worst ever record at a European Championship?

Well, you get the picture.

If that’s all that’s needed to get the fans singing - there clearly is no requisite for expectation.

Not from the fans anyway.

The supporters, well that’s a different matter.

For them, this hurt.

And hurt badly.

10 years is a long time not to feature at a major tournament.

To come and see our dreams turn quickly to nightmares was not a singing affair.

The supporters were too crestfallen to keep the songs going.

And they were too knowing about football to join in with the “F**k yous” directed at the greatest player ever to don the green jersey.

Roy had done too much for Ireland to warrant abuse like this.

Let alone warrant abuse for a justified attack on our underachieving players.

Yet it was the fans who took exception to these home truths.

These same fans who had the audacity to hurl abuse at their captain and record goalscorer when deployed in the thankless task of chasing down the possession obsessed Spanish defence - outnumbered 5 to 1.

If they got frustrated at a player not giving 100%, behaving selfishly, even arrogantly - they could be forgiven.

But when their team is quite simply outclassed by potentially one of the most successful sides ever seen, support was the answer.

Not jeers.

Or cheers.

But encouragement to push them on.

Give them the support to chase down one more lost cause.

Force one more corner.

Score one more goal.

But no, the same fans who had just jeered Aiden McGeady to stay off the pitch after his momentum had taken him over the touchline, had turned their backs to the action to ‘do the Poznan’ by the time he had returned to play.

The Poznan, reserved only for goals by Manchester City supporters, was been exercised whilst 1 down to the Italians.

What was Mario Balotelli figuring as he watched on from the bench?

Had his beloved Italian support all wore green that day or did this Irish crowd just not ‘get’ his club’s goal celebration?

Manchester United supporters didn’t do the Poznan when 1 nil down at the Etihad.

They expected more from their team.

As did Roy.

The Irish fans had different ideas though.

They were there to party.

The atmosphere they created was unbelievable.

Build-up to every game commenced hours before any ball was kicked.

And it was world class to experience.

Unless you were a supporter.

It just made it all the more difficult knowing the only time the Aviva had sold out since it opened was against Estonia.

Not when the team needed support.

They were already 4 nil up.

No, the return leg was going to be a party.

Armenia at home was when support was needed.

But the fans weren’t there.

Slovakia didn’t sell out either.

Not even Russia could.

When the team really needed support.

It was when 4 nil up against Estonia.

When the fans could party.

And they did.

Unsure as to whether they were so jubilant for the group of players who had finally qualified after so many years of heartbreak.

Or because they’d secured the biggest two week party of the year for themselves.

The fans will remember the European Championship for the sing songs, the beers and the ‘craic’ that occurred on every night.

And who can blame them?

The supporters however, will all meet up in a few months at the Kazakhstan game.

In hope.

Eternal optimism for Ireland’s next campaign.

Their dreams may having turned to nightmares.

But in Kazakhstan, at least they’ll be able to support each other...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Ireland Insured that it was Fully Comprehensive

The great adventure is over.

What started with a 1-0 win over Armenia almost 2 years ago - ended in defeat this week.

Not the heroic kind synonymous with Irish football over the years.

No, not at all.

No handballs from Frenchmen.

No last minute Macedonian headers.

No missed penalties.

Just defeat.

Comprehensive defeat.

The hopes and dreams of so many Irish fans were in full flow coming into the tournament.

14 games without loss.

Only 1 goal conceded in 10 games.

We had a manager who had given us a game plan.

Made us really tough to score against.

Even tougher to beat.

Oh how we had improved since the embarrassment of our last management team.

Heck, we were world beaters.

In the last 4 years we had done one on the French in Paris.

Until that ‘heroic defeat’ entered the fray again.

We had played Italy 3 times since they won the World Cup.

Masterminding 2 draws and a victory.

And the last competitive tie we played before our trip to Poland, saw us destroy Estonia in the Play-offs.


The belief was back.

And we were taking it to the Euros with us.

The fans sang songs.

Invaded the square.

Belief all over the stadium.

That is, until the officials kicked things off.

3 games later and Ireland had equalled the all time worst record of any team in a European Championship.

Our undefeated record was smashed with 3 straight losses.

Our defence caved in and conceded 9 goals.

Our attack replied with just the 1.

Our greatest ever goalkeeper, so long a hero, had proved culpable on more than 1 occasion.

That was more than 1 occasion in every game mind.

The leader of our defence, so masterful in Moscow, was playing desperately below his own high standards.

Our all time leading goalscorer, and Captain, had little or no impact.

The list goes on.

And on.

Each of our heros defeated.

Each so comprehensively.

Of course, effort was not an issue.

It never is with this squad.

It was just the harsh reality that this time, defeat came about because we were not good enough.




The belief that had returned to Ireland since the change in management had evaporated after just 3 minutes.

Replaced with this cold harsh reality.

The Ireland team were simply not good enough.

And unlike the heroic defeats, we now had nothing to hold on to this time.

The emptiness of being outclassed was a lot harder to stomach.

No Frenchman to direct our anger at.

No referee to curse through the next campaign.

No excuses.

Just comprehension.

That Ireland simply were not good enough...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Leagues of Opportunity

23 players will board the plane for Ireland’s first involvement in a major tournament in 10 years.

A squad with players plying their trade in England, Scotland, US of A and Russia.

A squad with Premiership experience - Champions League too.

And a squad with 610 games in the League of Ireland between them.

Of the group still in with a chance of starting the tournament, there are no fewer than 7 players who have strutted their stuff in this islands own League.

An absolute testament to how the standard of talent in the League of Ireland has risen in the last ten years.

Stephen Ward, James McClean, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, David Forde, Keith Fahey and Seamus Coleman.

All stand a chance of being in the final squad for Euro 2012.

All played in the League of Ireland at some stage in their career.

And the list doesn’t stop there.

Calls for Wes Hoolahan of Norwich have been loud.

Daryl Murphy at Celtic, Conor Sammon at Wigan, Noel Hunt at Reading, David Meyler at Sunderland and Brian Murphy at QPR were all on the periphery of the squad over the last season.

All together making 457 appearances in the League at home.

A League that has risen in stock.

And keeps rising.

Having knocked on the door of the group stages of Europe for a few years, it was Shamrock Rovers who finally made the break though only last season.

Aston Villa were the first to identify the talent from that pool of players.

And with our options at left back in the senior team limited - how long before we see Enda Stevens gain international recognition?

The standard of the English Premier League has of course risen in this time as well.

Pushing Ireland’s best - lower down the ranks.

The lower they fall, the more the League of Ireland presents it’s appeal.

In search of either redemption or simply a continuation of their craft, the option to return home is far more enticing of late compared to even the early ‘00’s.

Any young Irish player contemplating a return home need look no further than the success story of Keith Fahey.

Having spent 2 seasons at Arsenal and a further 2 at Aston Villa, Keith found himself playing for Bluebell United at the age of 20.

9 years on and he’s heading to Poland for a major championship.

Roy O’Donovan, Gary Deegan, Karl Sheppard to name but a few have all come home for a period and headed back over after very successful spells.

The League of Ireland also has great offerings on the pictch too, for players outside the Premier League.

Shamrock Rovers’ squad got to play in 12 European games this season.

Against some quality opposition.

Even lesser teams like St. Pats made it through 4 rounds of European competition when Keith was their talisman.

Sligo, Derry, Cork,
Bohemians and Shelbourne have all had great success in Europe too.

An unlikely occurrence for those plying their trade in the Championship or lower.

It can provide opportunities for players who can look beyond the Premier League bubble as well.

Padraig Amond, Dominic Foley and Shane Robinson all earned rewards to the top divisions of Portugal, Belgium and Finland respectively, after being spotted while playing in European competition.

Managers too.

Brian Kerr went from managing St. Pats to landing the biggest job in Ireland.

Lawrie Sanchez went from Sligo to the Premier League to the biggest job in Northern Ireland.

Michael O’Neill has that hotseat now.

And there was Sam Allardyce at Limerick too.

Stephen Kenny, Jim Gannon and now Pat Fenlon have all engineered moves to bigger clubs after successful periods managing at home.

But of course for every success story of players going back across to bigger clubs -  there are those who ended up in League 1, 2 or lower.

Roy O’Donovan, Joe Gamble, Dave Mooney and Alan Bennett were star players for Cork around the same time as Kevin and Shane.

But they couldn’t match the success they found.

Instead they found their level.

The league still granted them the opportunity to go higher, they just couldn’t find the path.

But it is giving the opportunities to these players.

No many had heard of James McClean at the start of the season.

But that’s because attendances are low in the league.

For those of us who did see him for the candystripes - we knew how good he was.

Good enough to have the whole nation demand he gets an opportunity against Spain.

Good enough to ensure a Derry City player gets the opportunity to finish a season at a European Championships.

Good enough to take his opportunity...