Belief in their teacher convinces players to believe in themselves
It took a long time, during which results were mixed, games tedious and performances fairly rough.
But the eight clean sheets in a row between May and October of this year provided definitive proof that Giovanni Trapattoni's coaching principles had finally bedded down among his Irish players.
They had developed the habits he wanted. They had acquired the mindset he'd sought to impart from the day he first began working with them in May 2008.
That mindset was all about defence: building a defensive foundation that would withstand serious pressure. He was utterly clear in his mind about this strategy from the start.
The cause célèbre that was Andy Reid became a test case in the early months of his regime. But we didn't know Trapattoni as well then as we do now. It turned out that it wasn't a test case for him at all. No amount of public criticism was going to change his mind. We know in hindsight that a chubby midfielder with a sweet left foot but a suspect work-rate was never really going to stand a chance. Reid was the sort of player, he said in October 2008, that he could not "turn into a worker".
The message was there for all the other players to heed: sign up, or ship out. Together they got down to work. The World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria in June 2009 was his twelfth game in charge. They drew 1-1 in Sofia. They were unbeaten in 11 of those games. It was still early days but already they were responding to his authority and knowledge.
"I've learned a lot under the manager," said Stephen Hunt after the Bulgaria game, "different to what I've learned before."
They were also warming to him as a man as well as a coach. "He's a gentleman," added Hunt, "he talks to you with respect."
In his press conference the day after that game in Sofia, Trapattoni elaborated on his working methods. He came across as a teacher dedicated to the education of those in his charge. "I give them what I know," he said, "what I can teach them. There is a time for the team to learn and improve . . . Repeat, repeat, repeat . . . We're growing, I'm sure we can improve further."
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Say it over and over, practise it over and over, and finally it will sink in. As an international manager, his tutorials on the training field were always going to be short and sporadic. There would be plenty of frustrating results and performances. But within the camp the players were drawing strength and confidence from their manager.
After they beat Paraguay in a friendly in May 2010, Kevin Doyle gave a glimpse of the Trapattoni process, and reiterated the players' belief in his methods. "It becomes a habit. Every game we play it's another reinforcement of doing all the right things at set-pieces, throw-ins, learning all the time and reinforcing that. And at this stage it's a pretty settled team, we all seem to know where to be and what we're doing."
The following October they were torn apart by Russia in Dublin. There is only so much a manager can do to compensate for a basic gulf in class. Trapattoni's players did
their utmost, in Dublin and Moscow, to bridge that gap through immense physical effort and a strong team spirit. It proved, if nothing else, that they would hang tough in Group B and see where the chips fell in the finish.
But with a mixture of honest journeymen and ageing stars, the team could have faltered under a weaker manager. Trapattoni had complete faith in his methods, and never wavered. And still the team looked mentally fragile during periods of almost every game they played, up to and including the 4-0 win in Tallinn nine days ago. They needed every ounce of the conviction he'd instilled in them.
In his public utterances, rather than emphasising the nuts and bolts of his defensive philosophy, he always came back to more abstract concepts: "mentality", "personality", "attitude". Translated onto the field, it wasn't always obvious how this was working.
Ironically enough, it became clearer last Tuesday in Lansdowne Road when it actually stopped working. Estonia's consolation goal in the 57th minute came about because Ireland were 5-0 up on aggregate. The pressure was off, the crowd was in party mode, Ireland had qualified. So Glenn Whelan and Shay Given switched off for a moment and gave up a goal.
How many times more would that have happened throughout the campaign had Trapattoni not imposed, and reinforced, his methods upon them? We will never know; but once or twice more and it could've been lights out.
After Estonia, Trapattoni kept coming back to one theme: the players believed in him and Marco Tardelli, his assistant. "The team believe us and that is important." "After one year the team understood our philosophy, our game, our play, our system." "For us it is (great) satisfaction because they believed (in) our work, and what we said (and) asked them."
He is a implacable professional. But this sounded personal: hence perhaps the tears that welled up post-match in Tallinn. The players, some of them nearly 50 years younger, had believed in him. This is a relationship that cuts both ways. By believing in him, they managed to find enough belief in themselves too.
Sunday Indo Sport