Vincent Hogan: Exercise in optics fails to provide a clearer picture for Trapattoni
Published 15/11/2012 | 05:00
Wintry scowls and arctic murmurs on the balmiest of November nights as football failed the test of grand escape for Europe's over-leveraged children.
The Greeks are maybe marginally worse than us in matters of fiscal care, but palpably better at football. That was the groaning message rising up put of the silver bowl on Lansdowne Road. If fantasy is your thing, this was never going to be your destination.
Giovanni Trapattoni watched it in a charcoal suit, arms folded like an impatient banker. Occasionally, he railed at the mediocre yield, turning and gesturing with theatrical flair to Marco Tardelli, whose expressions suggested he might as well have been in a watchman's hut, facing out to sea.
Maybe the most striking realisation of last month's farrago was that Trap still wanted the job so badly he was willing to forego a little personal pride to keep it. For a man of his distinction to be called before his employers like an underachieving sales rep had to, on some level at least, offend the Italian's self-regard.
Yet he did it and has since been seen taking his seat in more Premier League grounds than he probably visited in the previous four years.
Why? Presumably, because he understands the market. He knows there are not many essentially part-time jobs left in football that pay €1.3m per annum. Certainly not for a man of 73. If a show of humility was the cost of staying viable to the FAI, Trap decided he was willing to pay.
So he flew in for what had the feel of a public execution and escaped with what fell some distance short of a pardon.
But it all begs a question about what exactly we were watching last night. Was this a tactician genuinely shuffling his deck or just an exercise in optics? Did Ciaran Clark and James McClean and Robbie Brady and Shane Long really take the field last night believing they had the attention of an open mind?
In his programme notes, the manager referenced Greece's remarkable triumph at the European Championships in 2004 as a result "achieved because they had the right combination of experience and discipline." Not the words of a dangerous revolutionary.
The oddity of Trap's behaviour at Tuesday's press conference, the confusion over systems and – in one instance – even personnel hinted at a man not exactly moving to a natural current. And that's a worry. Because like all great football man, a fundamental of Trapattoni's aura has always been the ability to eyeball any football audience and radiate superior knowledge.
Just now, there is the suspicion of a conductor answering to someone else's baton.
The chance to see McClean and Brady patrolling the Irish flanks and, indeed, even the corncrake moment of a cap for Wes Hoolahan would, in more optimistic times, have drawn an expectant crowd. But there was just the gentlest air of melancholy as UEFA boss Michel Platini lined up with the family of the late James Nolan behind a banner proclaiming "UEFA thanks the Irish fans for their passion."
For the passion seems spent just now. When Platini looked around, mostly he saw empty green seats.
And what followed never flew beyond the ordinary. The architecture of the Greek game is unpretentious, caution woven into the fabric of the team's personality. Everything starts with defence. McClean invariably found himself directed down a warren of cul-de-sacs, while Brady too seemed cursed with excessive scrutiny. Both tried too hard.
The latter did sting the hands of Orestis Karnezis just before half-time, but it was all that was asked of the Greek netminder in a turgid opening half. Ireland should have had a first-minute penalty when Kostas Stafylidis all but took a duster to Stephen Ward's cross, and Simon Cox should have scored in the 10th minute from a Seamus Coleman cross but couldn't quite get enough purchase on his header.
But they were hiccup chances, no more. As the Greeks went to tea, a Jose Holebas goal to the good, too many Irish faces betrayed the communal mindset. McClean seemed keen to touch noses with Alexandros Tziolis and Clark was still trying to feign indifference to a scything 43rd-minute tackle on the goalscorer that infuriated the entire Greek team.
The Aston Villa man had been lucky to escape with yellow, the same colour shown to Long for a late collision with Panagiotis Tachtsidis. For those hoping to stake a claim for the Sweden and Austria games in March, this was not a convincing recital.
Long and Brady were sacrificed at that mid-point, cursed you had to suspect with marginality in Trap's future considerations.
And the arrival of Hoolahan and Kevin Doyle did improve things, McClean finding more freedom on the right and the Norwich midfielder bringing more subtle movement to Ireland's play. Perhaps Doyle should even have had a penalty when Sokratis Papastathopoulos seemed to bring him down after McCarthy's shot was parried by Karnezis.
But the Greeks could live with our energy and our anger all night, if need be. An air of despondency italicised the green effort. Greece weren't anything beyond the ordinary, but they didn't have to be. Coleman was announced on the tannoy as Man of the Match and a gentle ripple ran through the stands. It was the only thing on offer.
When it ended, Trap had a cursory hand-shake with Fernando Santos and swept, stone-faced down the tunnel.
Ireland's final game of the year, intended as a sweet redemption song, had only hastened winter.