Il Trap and the Irish Question

The Irish are finally through to a big tournament. But the faithful are not really convinced. Eoghan McMonagle explains why. You may reach him on @eoghanmcmonagle

Il Trap

So Ireland (in FIFA speak, the Republic of Ireland) have qualified for a major international football tournament for the first time since the 2002 World Cup and the European Championships for the first time since 1988. Happy days are here! We are not a nation so blessed with footballing success that we can take qualification for granted or not appreciate it when it does happen. Appreciate it we do and happy we are; but some of us could be happier. The cause of this dissatisfaction is twofold: the first surrounds the tactics of the manager, the legendary Giovanni Trapattoni, and the second is the lack of opportunity being afforded to young footballers to break into the Irish squad. Both of these issues have been ignored to a certain extent as qualification was secured but they need to be addressed if the Irish are to compete, both in the immediate term, in this summer’s championship and in the future.

To those outside Ireland and indeed, to many followers of the team within the country, it may seem churlish in the extreme, to question Il Trap. He is, after all, one of the most successful football managers of all time with numerous title wins in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria as well as in every major European club trophy. His record at Juventus in particular was phenomenal with six Serie A titles, a European Cup, a UEFA Cup and a Cup Winners Cup (among other trophies) in two spells between 1976 and 1994. That is impressive, to say the very least. He has brought success to the Irish national team – we were only denied qualification for the 2010 World Cup by France in a play-off (including “that” incident with Thierry Henry) and have now reached the finals of the European Championships in Poland/Ukraine. So why question his methods or doubt his tactics? From my point of view, it is only because I believe this Ireland team actually has more to offer than Trapattoni has so far gotten out of them.

A case in point came in the aforementioned 2010 World Cup play-off tie against France. The first leg at Croke Park was won by France, courtesy of a Nicolas Anelka goal but the abiding memory I have of that game is the insipid Irish performance – the team was stifled by Trapattoni’s ultra-conservative tactics and fear of losing. They showed a complete lack of ambition which ultimately let France take the win. The second leg in the Stade de France was completely different – the Irish team played with intensity, passion and no little skill and their efforts on the night probably merited a victory.

The story in Ireland at the time was that it was the players themselves who had decided to abandon the conservative tactics of the manager and really go out to try and win the game. It is obviously impossible to say for certain if this was the case but even if it was not and Il Trap himself had engineered the display, it is all the more frustrating that they did not go out and play like that in the first leg; for had they done so it may have rendered Henry’s intervention irrelevant. Given France’s subsequent display at the World Cup, where they went out in the first round having failed to win a game, highlighted the great chance that Ireland let slip.

However, play-off games are always difficult to make definitive judgements on – the increased pressure and high stakes make it difficult to play anything even approaching expansive football, and Ireland’s record in play-offs even before Trapattoni’s reign was not good (defeats to Holland, Belgium and Turkey with a solitary win over Iran). So Trapattoni and Ireland had the chance to improve during the qualification campaign for Euro 2012. Those chances appeared to be good. Ireland had a pretty favourable qualification group containing Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra. Certainly against the lower seeded teams in the group, the chance to play to win, rather than just avoid defeat, was there. The criticism of Il Trap is that rarely, if ever, during qualification, did Ireland play anything approaching the good football that they can. Let me clarify something – I am under no illusions that Ireland have the capacity to play football like Spain but neither are we so limited that we should be content with narrow, controversial wins over teams like Armenia (FIFA ranked 44 against 19th ranked Irish) at home.

Luck, rather than any particular good play on Ireland’s part secured the win that night and luck had another huge impact when we secured a point in Russia. Only heroic performances from centre-back Richard Dunne and goalkeeper Shay Given, as well as some profligate Russian finishing prevented a heavy defeat. While every team needs a certain amount of good fortune from time to time, it cannot ever be the only thing to be relied upon. Certainly Il Trap has brought luck to the Irish side but this can’t go on forever – eventually we will have to rely on what we can do ourselves as a team. This will be brought into sharp focus by our group at the Euro 2012 championships this summer.

Ireland will have to face the World and European Champions Spain, Italy and Croatia. This would be a tough group for any team but it will be particularly difficult for Ireland if they continue to play as they have been playing under Trapattoni so far. Ireland, as they are now, do not hold onto the ball well enough and do not create enough chances to trouble any of these three teams. Though Ireland will be difficult to beat, as they are well organised and work hard, but this is not enough at the top level of international football. For example, it is certain that Spain will have over 60% of the possession against Ireland no matter how the boys in green play, but if we do not hold on to the ball and try and construct some chances and put the Spanish under pressure, then this could be as high as 75% – if that is the case, Ireland could be destroyed.

One theory is that Ireland doesn’t have the players to play possession-based football – it certainly appears at times that Il Trap believes this. I do not. While our current midfield of Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady lacks a world class player in the manner of Roy Keane, they are all experienced international footballers who are capable of passing a football – they just need to be encouraged to do so. It is not enough to continually hit long balls towards Kevin Doyle – certainly this is a tactic that can be used on occasions but it cannot be our only plan. It is too one-dimensional and too easy for top-class international defences to cope with. Our own defenders should also be encouraged to try and pick out a decent pass rather than just hitting hopeful 50 yard punts which 9 times out of 10 will only gift possession back to the opposition. Against teams with the quality that Croatia, Italy and especially Spain possess, this can and will prove fatal to Ireland’s chances.

The players Trapattoni actually picks for the European Championships will also be important but ultimately I fear it will be disappointing. I mean this in the sense that it now appears highly unlikely that Seamus Coleman, James McClean or James McCarthy will make the final squad, let alone the team. These are all young players who play regularly for their clubs in the English Premier League. Coleman was nominated for FA Young Player of the Year during the 2010/11 season and McClean has been one of the finds of the current season in England.

James McClean & Seamus Coleman are finds of the season
Trapattoni has regularly said that these players are “too young” – he is clearly unfamiliar with the maxim, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”. Selecting the likes of Coleman, McClean and McCarthy for the Euro 2012 squad would not be a foolish gamble like Sven Goran Eriksson taking a 17-year-old Theo Walcott to the 2006 World Cup – rather it would be an intelligent and progressive move which would add a new, and much needed, dimension to the Irish set-up. All three are extremely talented and given Ireland do not have anything like the resources of larger nations in terms of players, their exclusion is incomprehensible. A charitable interpretation of Il Trap’s behaviour in this regard is that he is showing loyalty to the players who got Ireland to the finals. Another view would suggest that he is acting in a stubborn and slightly arrogant fashion and will not be seen to “back down” by selecting these young players in the face of growing calls from certain sections of the fans and the media. It is likely to be a combination of both – but ultimately his decision could hamper Ireland’s chances of achieving anything this summer in Poland and the Ukraine.