Wednesday 24 May 2017

Dion Fanning: Make qualification a beginning, not the end

Ireland should not wait until next summer to think about the future

Jon Walters
Jon Walters
'Ireland hadn’t retreated when facing a superior team like Germany. Under O’Neill (pictured) they would attempt to discover if there were weaknesses in the opponents’ attitude'

Dion Fanning

In Giovanni Trapattoni's final hours as Ireland manager, his side were losing 1-0 to Austria in Vienna. Trapattoni had one last substitution to make as Ireland chased the game.

Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady were among those on the bench, but they stayed where they were. With nine minutes of the game remaining, Shane Long was replaced by Conor Sammon.

In his last days as Ireland's manager, Trapattoni insisted a new man couldn't change things.

"I know this group of players. Sure a new manager will not change three, four or five. One hundred per cent, there will be no chance. A new manager will continue the same way. I have the advantage of knowing the players, knowing the set-up."

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Former Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni in Sopot

In many ways, Trapattoni was right. All of the players who featured against Bosnia last week played during his era. However, some played more than others.

Trapattoni knew the Ireland players, he had the advantage of a lifetime's knowledge of players, and this knowledge told him they always make mistakes. By the time he arrived in Ireland, Trapattoni, like the hedgehog, knew one big thing: players could not be trusted.

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His approach was simple. Ireland would retreat and essentially live only for the last-ditch tackle. They would take no risks even if risk-aversion was a risk in itself. The scoreless draw in Moscow was the most successful example of this approach, demonstrating the resolve of the players even as they waited for more punishment. Four days earlier, the limitations had been made clear when Ireland drew 0-0 with Slovakia in Dublin.

Two years later, Martin O'Neill arrived and stated on his first day that he hoped he could find some new players. A few months later, reality had unhelpfully intervened. "In the back of my mind, I thought, 'There must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through' - and that may be the case. But at this minute, I haven't spotted it. Maybe I'm in the wrong place."

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Jack Grealish is in hot water again

The one pearl, Jack Grealish, eventually would be lost but Ireland would essentially demonstrate that Trapattoni was right. They would, in the final months of the campaign, demonstrate how wrong he was as well.

Ireland qualified for the European Championships last week with a group of players Trapattoni knew. But the squad had seemed transformed. Nearly every game under Trap had appeared to be a penitential exercise. Watching them required endurance for which the public would be rewarded at some distant point in the future. Or, failing that, in the afterlife. There was very little joy.

Last Monday night there was nothing but joy. Ireland beat Bosnia comfortably to qualify for the European Championship finals. Their journey through a difficult group which required a victory over the world champions and a play-off against more gifted, although crucially, less committed opponents, had helped create a bond between the side and the public.

History is written by the winners so last week everything Martin O'Neill had done made sense. The late goals at home to Poland, and in Tbilisi and Gelsenkirchen reflected the spirit of the Irish team. O'Neill spoke on Newstalk about the general sense of doom which followed the result against Scotland in June but how a lifetime in the game told him the campaign wasn't over.

The man who had said in 2004 that "anybody who is thinking of applying for the Scotland job in the next eight or nine years should go get themselves checked out by about 15 psychiatrists" may also have felt Scotland would not be comfortable in the strong position they were in. In September, Scotland lost in Georgia, returned to Glasgow and lost to Germany. Ireland were in a strong position now but there were more important steps to come.

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Ireland players Shane Long and David Meyler celebrate their victory over Germany. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

The victory against Germany last month was not only vital in the context of the group, it reawakened the nation to the possibilities of the football team. The game against Poland had hinted at the spirit in the squad but this game demonstrated it. Germany might have been relaxed and complacent but Ireland had played teams who were relaxed and complacent in the past and who ended the game thinking they were right to have been relaxed and complacent. This Ireland, made up of the players available to Trapattoni, was different.

Wes Hoolahan's presence had been a key factor but others like Brady and Jeff Hendrick developed too. More importantly, they had grasped an essential component of all Martin O'Neill sides. As he put it on Off The Ball last week: "Don't die wondering."

Ireland hadn't retreated when facing a superior team like Germany. Under O'Neill they would attempt to discover if there were weaknesses in the opponents' attitude. Their approach wouldn't be defined by the backward step, by Richard Dunne heroically defending on the edge of the box or on the goal-line. Instead they would be defined by the energy and relentless industry of Jon Walters.

In some ways, O'Neill's analysis was no different to Trapattoni's but O'Neill's solution was. "We lack certain things," he said last week but his Ireland try to overcome them with daring; Trapattoni's Ireland closed their eyes and hoped the world wouldn't notice.

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‘Now that O’Neill has had a conclusive last laugh, it’s as well to admit that his instincts proved to be right’

"The word I like to use," Roy Keane said last week, "for players with Ireland is 'courage'. Brave enough to want the ball, to receive it, brave enough to make a mistake. Take risks. Even last night, some of the passing . . . the intention was right. That's where you can't be too critical. If you want to be a good player, you need that bit of courage."

On Tuesday, Keane faced the media to explain many things. He will be in demand as a manager again after qualification and he may yet go to the Euros as O'Neill's assistant while managing a club. This may be another demonstration of perception being more important than reality when it comes to being recruited in England but Keane has been unfairly stereotyped as well. He has worked well with O'Neill. "The manager has the main points and I'll have little words with the players, small details. That's my job. I'm not great for analysing games too much. I say little bits, particularly to the midfielders, because I played midfield, I like to think I've maybe an edge on some others."

When Ireland qualified for the European Championships four years ago, Trapattoni's team was known almost immediately. Ten of the players who played in the second leg in Dublin against Estonia started the first match against Croatia. Trapattoni named his team for that game a week beforehand. Things will be different under O'Neill, although the problem is not the will for change, it is the same old problem: finding new players.

O'Neill's way is to keep them guessing and fewer players will feel certain of their place this time.

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"There's a fine line between loyalty and stupidity," Keane says. "You give great credit to the players for getting us there, but the players can't relax, there's places up for grabs, whether it's the final 23 or the starting 11. We've seen the way we had to chop and change which was kind of forced upon us with injuries and suspensions."

Some like Aiden McGeady might be most under threat but O'Neill will make few promises.

"I think Martin would be more inclined to say, 'Listen, it's great the lads who got us there but don't sit back and relax and think you're automatic for the Euros'," Keane added. "That's what you do, you challenge players to play to another level. That's what we will be doing, no doubt, over the next few months."

Ireland can take advantage of this opportunity by pushing on with the radical reform of the game. It should be more urgent now that qualification has been achieved. Ireland shouldn't wait for whatever the summer brings to think about the future. O'Neill has demonstrated the limitations of Trapattoni's approach but the limitations of Irish football predate both men. Now is the time to ensure future managers have different problems.

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