Consistency in a world gone mad
Published 08/09/2011 | 05:00
Somewhere between fable and farce. Ireland could easily have lost 4-0 against Russia in Moscow on Tuesday night and few of the shell-shocked visiting supporters would have demurred in the slightest.
Ultimately, we got a fable of incredulous proportions.
"How did we get that result?" asked a bemused taxi driver as he whisked us from the airport yesterday, as if requiring confirmation from a valid witness that the final reckoning had indeed been 0-0.
Unlike the 2010 World Cup play-off in Paris, where they received significantly less than they deserved despite their solitary devotion to expressionism, Ireland arguably deserved nothing from this match but ended up with a much more bountiful harvest.
Within that paradox lies the justification of the manager's ascetic convictions. Paris was a flawed flight of fancy; Moscow was rooted in cold certainty.
As the manager boarded the chartered flight home from Moscow, the Group B landscape had been extraordinarily transformed in his side's favour, so much so that his Ireland side were better placed at the end of the remarkable day than they had been when Trapattoni had sprung from his hotel bed that morning.
Given the torrid happenings in the Luzhniki, that represented some achievement. As he flew over Polish and Ukrainian air space, the Italian recognised that a return to this neck of the woods next summer is no longer such a long shot.
Lucky general ain't the half of it.
But, then, such is the often strange beauty of this sport. Even when pock-marked with the ugly imprint of an inflexible utilitarian like Trapattoni, there's always a chance for those who don't want to play the game.
The Rugby World Cup will not allow such a mismatch to be unrepresentative on the scoreboard. Nor would hurling. Nor any field sport for that matter.
Soccer is the only field game where one can get absolutely battered for 90 minutes, cede twice as much possession to the opposition, lose the corner count 12-1, conceded 28 attempts on goal, and still blithely skip away beneath the cover of darkness with a 0-0 draw.
There are no pictures on the historical scoreboard; merely a black and white record of 0-0. Just as the austere Signor Trapattoni would like it.
Oliver Kahn commentated on the game for German TV and recalled how his old Bayern Munich boss would be livid if his side drew a game 2-2 but sanguine if it finished 0-0. Preventing goals has always been uppermost in Trapattoni's mindset.
Tuesday night presented the apogee of the thesis but acclaiming the manager would be to ignore the reality that it was the heroics of individuals that saved his precious system from imploding.
His system was never going to save his players from the Red Army advance.
Instead, Richard Dunne's heroism will rightfully be acclaimed for years to come, even if Ireland fail to secure qualification for next year's Euro 2012 championships; so too Shay Given's brave defiance of crippling injury.
The defensive resolve was necessary because Ireland submitted meekly to Trapattoni's craven commitment in ensuring that his players would not be allowed to create any foothold in the match at any stage.
His utter control of his team has extended to all reaches of his squad, with captain Robbie Keane the chief cheerleader for his leader's soulless approach to the game.
An interesting vignette before Tuesday's game reflects the vast gulf that exists between the players and management.
Kevin Doyle (pictured below) and Stephen Hunt were walking from the plastic pitch after a little stroll some 90 minutes before kick-off. Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli were standing in congress at the side of the pitch. Doyle and Hunt walked past the Italian duo, heads bowed, not even inviting a greeting or deigning to offer the briefest word.
The context of this (non) exchange came later. Doyle was withdrawn -- Trapattoni had bizarrely replaced him with another striker -- and the Wexford man afterwards spoke in clipped, disconsolate tones to the radio reporters in the mixed zone.
That Trapattoni has managed to dishearten one of his most loyal and honest servants is quite a feat and reflective of a harsh man-management style which continues to achieve limited results despite itself.
"You could see the camaraderie," said Stephen Kelly of the element of togetherness that exists amongst the players, at least. "Everyone's in it together.
"When the ball came into the box, there were three or four players throwing themselves in front of it and that just shows the attitude we have. We're really fighting to qualify for this tournament."
The nagging feeling is that they are doing do so without any meaningful, constructive direction, other than the limited gameplan currently on offer from a coach getting the princely sum of €1.7m a year for the pleasure of denying Irish football supporters pleasure.
Even Kelly was bearing more than a little grudge against the manager after being left out of the team for last Friday's grim exercise in wilful submission against Slovakia, despite his prominence during Ireland's record 679 minutes without conceding a goal.
"It surprised me as well," he said in the aftermath of Tuesday's audacious retreat from Moscow.
"I didn't see it coming. I was extremely disappointed not to be involved last week. We'd had five clean sheets and I'd been part of every one of them. I think I was the only defender to have been part of those five clean sheets so I didn't see it coming.
"And I was captain of the team and we won a tournament in the process. But that's football. You take it on the chin. Strange things happen. I was thrown into the limelight again. I had to play and do my best for the team.
"Another clean sheet is fantastic for me. Every time I've played lately we haven't conceded! I think I've done myself a favour and given myself a chance of playing again."
Dunne's absence against Andorra makes that scenario more than likely, although Doyle and others may advise him not to hold his breath. Few players are immune to the curious man-management skills of the Italian.
As long as qualification beckons, the cracks will be covered. But, notwithstanding Jack Charlton's historic difficulty with a mountain-top in the Euro 1996 campaign, Ireland will have to score goals against Andorra and Armenia to press home their qualification hopes.
On the tortuous evidence presented recently, that looks much more difficult in practice than in theory.
"If I knew the answer to that, I would be standing on the touchline being a manager," was Aiden McGeady's withering response to Ireland's recent difficulty in the goal-scoring department. A lop-sided commitment to defence could be the answer he was desperately searching for.
The emperor Trapattoni retains his clothes -- for now -- even if his employers' chief executive continues to shed ties and scarves with a lack of dignity that is unbecoming in one of this country's most influential sports administrators.
Tuesday night was not about Trapattoni, who yesterday continued to titillate with tales of how his prowess in promulgating 4-4-2 is being actively sought in some war-torn region or other.
And it was not about John Delaney, either. For it is the players who will bravely drag Ireland to the brink of qualification.
This Ireland team remains an affront to those of us who appreciate freedom of expression in our sport, but there is still time for some of its leading characters to help us enjoy the ride a little more.
If this past week represents the future of Irish football, it seems like a pretty dull place. Sport isn't always about fables, it is true. But does the real world have to be so pallid?