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Opinion: Trapattoni's legacy and the trauma of Cyprus still hampering the Irish team

Martin O’Neill’s side suffered a setback last night following an uninspired display.

Ireland’s Jeff Hendrick, Richard Keogh and John O’Shea dejected after Scotland score.
Ireland’s Jeff Hendrick, Richard Keogh and John O’Shea dejected after Scotland score.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT’S NOT THE despair, it’s the hope that kills you as an Irish fan. And hope unexpectedly arrived last month in the form of an unlikely 1-1 draw with world champions Germany.

Yet now that performance in Gelsenkirchen looks more like an anomaly than a sign of change for the better, as the Irish team failed to build on the momentum created by that improbable and encouraging outcome, last night delivering a tame, toothless display as they were beaten 1-0 by qualification rivals Scotland at Celtic Park.

Moreover, the mitigating factors from last month’s difficult fixture seem accentuated suddenly — granted, it was a draw against the world champions, but it was an under-strength and out-of-sorts incarnation of the side that thrilled us in the summer, and even still, they probably would have left the stadium feeling hard done by not to have claimed all three points.

And while Scotland failed to emulate Martin O’Neill’s side’s feat in Germany, perhaps last night’s outcome was not such a surprise when viewed within the context of Irish footballing history. Although it’s rare enough for Ireland to earn a positive result against a top-tier nation, it’s even rarer for such a triumph to be followed up with a second consecutive success story, even when faced with comparatively weaker opposition.

After the Irish team overcame the might of England at Euro 88, for instance, they were disappointed to only draw 1-1 with the Soviet Union in their next tournament match. Following the perfectly respectable 1-1 draw — again with the English team — at Italia 90, they suffered the infamous slip-up against Egypt. And the high of beating Italy at USA 94 was quickly followed by a below-par 2-1 loss to Mexico.

Furthermore, sometimes it’s not just one bad result but a series of poor performances that follows one outstanding display. Ireland had seemingly put themselves in pole position for Euro 96 qualification after beating Portugal at Lansdowne Road, only for the Liechtenstein debacle to occur just over a month later, while the situation did not get much better thereafter. In addition, after the emphatic Euro 2012 playoff win over Estonia came the disaster of the tournament itself.

And last night had a distinct sense of déjà vu as well. Martin O’Neill may have made the brave call to drop Robbie Keane, yet the players on the field were not nearly as bold as their manager.

In fact, the style of play employed was barely distinguishable from the Giovanni Trapattoni era, as the Irish instinctively went long when put under the slightest bit of pressure from the opposition.

Of course, whether the players are capable of successfully implementing a more attractive style remains a point of contention, and without James McCarthy and Wes Hoolahan — two of the team’s most creative players — regularly keeping possession of the ball was always going to be a big ask, even against a team with similar technical limitations such as Scotland.

Yet the sheer disinterest in even attempting to play the ball to feet for the most part remains a depressing reminder of the Irish team’s in-built inferiority complex. Notwithstanding the shock Keane omission and the ostensibly attack-minded decision to play two wingers, Ireland delivered the type of lifeless, inept and creatively deficient performance that invariably characterised the darker days of the Trap regime. Consequently, the visitors seldom threatened in the final third, as the Scots controlled the game for the vast majority of the 90 minutes.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

So why, therefore, do Ireland insist on adopting such a pragmatic approach, even on the biggest of occasions against eminently beatable opposition? Under Trap, there was usually an excuse — the other team were considered either vastly superior (Germany), or they supposedly had one world-class player who made the difference (Austria: David Alaba, Sweden: Zlatan Ibrahimović). On this occasion however, Scotland had no such world-class star. At a stretch, you could argue that seven of the players to feature for the hosts — Shaun Maloney, Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Steven Whittaker, Steven Naismith, David Marshall and Darren Fletcher — have (admittedly very limited in most cases) Champions League experience. But then the same could be said for four of Ireland’s contingent — Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson, John O’Shea and Robbie Keane.

Whatever way you assess it, there is no escaping the issue that Martin O’Neill picked a team that, as he said afterwards himself, was good enough to win the game. Yet the old familiar sense of Irish inferiority proceeded to rear its ugly head once more. While the Boys in Green were not shy about committing tackles over the course of an often quite heated contest, this conspicuous level of aggression and conviction was barely evident when possession came their way.

Perhaps therefore, Ireland are still, in some ways, exorcising the ghosts of the 5-2 loss against Cyprus in 2006 and the shambolic nature of the Steve Staunton era in general. Amid their nightmare in Nicosia, Ireland’s midfield comprised of Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Ireland and Kevin Kilbane. In other words, they tried to play football in an adventurous manner away from home and were subsequently badly humiliated for their efforts.

The team never really recovered until after Staunton left, and since then, solid, unspectacular defensive players such as Glenn Whelan and — to a lesser extent — Darron Gibson have been favoured ahead of the Wes Hoolahans of this world. The Cyprus result, of course, had an obvious influence on Giovanni Trapattoni’s perennially pragmatic thinking and on the evidence of last night, the same could be true of Martin O’Neill.

Yet Ireland didn’t always play negative football at the height of their success as assistant boss Roy Keane intimates in his latest autobiography. Under Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup, they bettered teams such as Germany and Spain in the possession stakes, if not on the scoreboard. Granted, they probably had better individuals at the time compared with the current outfit, but they also accommodated a number of Championship players and were hardly world beaters by any means.

Yet should O’Neill suddenly encourage the Irish team to play in a more open fashion as the RTÉ panel and so many others seem to be imploring, there is always a much greater risk that a Cyprus-style catastrophe could shatter the team’s confidence irrevocably. Critics may be less than enamoured with the team’s current strategy, but O’Neill will be acutely aware that Staunton, a rare footballing idealist, left the Irish job with his reputation in tatters. So to avoid the same unenviable fate, the Derry native surely feels he must resist the much-discussed temptation to go similarly gung ho.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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