The vast majority of the nation finally got what they wanted last Wednesday – Giovanni Trapattoni left his role as manager of the Republic of Ireland, by mutual consent apparently. It had been coming. He’s been on borrowed time since the shambolic display at the European Championship’s.
In a sense it’s a shame the way this has played out. Here is a great football man, with an immense CV, run out of little old Ireland. The groundswell of ill feeling towards him meant that there was little choice for the FAI. He had lost the public, a public that always struggled to back a manager so regimented in archaic tactics and style.
But is hasn’t been all bad under Trapattoni, and it would be wrong to ignore the good work that he contributed. Objectively, merely looking at the campaign results of his tenure you might even suggest that he did quite well. Ireland narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in his first campaign. His second resulted in the first tournament participation by an Irish team since the 2002 World Cup. The third, we can all agree, has been far more disappointing with an uncharacteristically low fourth place finish a distinct possibility.
For Trapattoni, the end clearly justified the means. For all the goodwill that European qualification brought, the discussion on the style of football endorsed by Trapattoni was never too far away. It was old fashioned, lump it forward football with no plan B. Regardless of opposition, the tactics and rigid 4-4-2 system remained. For a manager with a wealth of knowledge it almost seemed bizarre that he was so committed to this one approach, that he was so unwilling to alternate. Before a ball was kicked under his command he had decided this was the only way for Ireland to play, and it was hard to take for the supporters. But, in the first two campaigns at least, it yielded results.
However, there were just too many negatives throughout his tenure. The aforementioned rigidity in tactics, a failure to blood new players, a lack of communication with the squad, a ‘loose’ handle on the English language. Arguably worst of all, he had to be forced to attend Premier League matches to keep tabs on his players. For a man paid €1.5 million a year, it was farcical to think that he couldn’t do the basics like get a handle on the language or summon the motivation required to attend matches until the FAI finally coerced him into doing so.
Now that Trapattoni is gone, there is a sense that the shackles are free, that the nation can embrace the national team again in a new era. I believe we need a reality check. Let me make this clear: I’m happy Trap is gone, but it does not necessarily mean a brighter future is in the offing.
Martin O’ Neill is the heavy favourite to take the reins. For his motivational strength alone, you get the sense it would be a good appointment. He has a track record of getting the best from an average group of players, and that’s exactly what this squad is. It is average. Good enough to play better football than demonstrated by the outgoing manager and good enough to compete with the likes of Sweden and Austria, but that is their level. To think anything else is fairytale stuff.
Trapattoni rightly got criticised for his misuse of players (Cox is not a winger) and his criminal reluctance to freshen up the squad prior to this qualifying campaign. However, the outrage that greeted the omission of some players from his starting XI’s became almost laughable. The country became fixated on it. The player in question was almost held up as the answer to all of Ireland’s problems. It has happened time and time again. Andy Reid, Steven Ireland, Wes Hoolahan, Darron Gibson, Shane Long, James McClean. The harsh truth is that while obviously talented, these players are far from world class. Andy Reid has spent more time in the Championship than the Premier League. Ireland had one good season and has barely kicked a ball since. Hoolahan has blossomed late, and to use him would have meant deploying only one forward (a role that doesn’t suit Keane). Gibson is yet to prove himself at Everton. Long is not a natural goalscorer. McClean has time on his side but is now playing in the Championship. All these players have at one time or another been held up as our great hope and as a stick to beat Trapattoni with. There is absolutely an argument that they should have been used more frequently but it’s not like we’re talking about world beaters here. They have all played for Ireland to varying degrees of success and it is hard to argue that any, besides perhaps Gibson, would have been a significant improvement on the players being used in their absence. There are times when Hoolahan should have been played, but to play him consistently would have seriously curbed our goalscoring potential (and that’s limited enough as it is).
The fact is once the new manager takes over, he’ll be left with a team that is still coming to terms with the loss of Duff and Given, a defence that relies upon the dwindling powers of Richard Dunne, and an attack devoid of any semblance of goalscoring threat save for the fading Robbie Keane. Indeed, take Keane out of the team and for all the criticism of him over the last number of years, not only would we struggle to qualify for a tournament, one wonders how we would even score a goal in our attempts to qualify. Duff, Keane, Given, Dunne – all leaders, all players looked to in times of desperation over the last 10 years, now all gone or on their way out. Even when we had them at their peak we still struggled to qualify. And the flow of talent to replace them simply isn’t there.
There is some room for optimism: Coleman and McCarthy are fine players, though McCarthy still has a lot to learn. Beyond that, a bleak future may await. Liam Brady mentioned in the post match analysis of the Austria game that he fears we are headed the way of Scotland and Wales due to a dearth of talent. He may be right. The nation might be delighted that Trap is gone for now, but maybe a time will come when we’ll look back and wonder why we didn’t appreciate what we had a little more.