Friday 22 September 2017

Euro 2012: Grabbing our chance

A limited Irish side are expected to pose few problems for more exalted opponents. But that’s what they said in ’88, ’90 and ’94 . . .

Giovanni Trapattoni urges on the Irish
players during training in Gdynia yesterday
Giovanni Trapattoni urges on the Irish players during training in Gdynia yesterday
David Kelly

David Kelly

It wouldn't have done for the former Polish president to miss the party.

With his flight delayed an hour as he travelled from his Gdansk home to the Polish capital for last night's opening ceremony, Lech Walesa was understandably irritable.

The idealist who first rallied for the underdog over 30 years ago is still fighting for the little man. Flying at the top of the bus hasn't completely evicted solidarity from his mind.

"I would like to think that Ireland and Poland, the teams that are not fancied in this tournament, might be able to create something special, a surprise to make the world sit up and notice," he says.

"There may be a lot of sadness at the economic situation in your country at the moment but sport can still make people smile and that is what makes these championships so special.

"As for Poland, no matter what they do in the competition, we have already won something really special simply by staging this celebration of football."

One suspects his mood improved as the evening progressed.

Ireland anticipates with feverish impatience in this, their fifth major tournament and first European finals since 1988. Over 30,000 from this country will cumulatively attend all three Group C games here; many more will gather in Poznan and Gdansk and, who knows, perhaps the Ukraine too.

A good start is half the battle. Ray Houghton has a lot to answer for.

Ireland have never lost the opening match in any of their limited appearances at major championships -- and the Scottish-born midfielder was responsible for scoring in two of them.

In 1988 and 1994, when so many feared for Ireland's fate against the supposed superior forces of England and Italy respectively, Houghton's goals, aided by now familiarly limited resources of spirit, spectacularly reversed the odds.

It is at once a story of Ireland's implacable battle against the tide of expectation when they occasionally pitch up at soccer's big hooleys.

bonus

Supporters fear the worst but at the same time resort to an equally familiar default position that a party will be had nonetheless; positive results, of which there have been a disproportionately large amount, are a bonus.

Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland are the epitome of an Irish tournament side. As the manager admitted again this week, there is little creativity in this Irish team, largely down to his preference.

His philosophy is wedded to Philistinism. The result trumps everything, as it should do in sport.

Ireland's supporters will care not a jot how their side play; if they do, excessive inebriation can help to dull the memory of what this honest, committed collection of players admits is a destructive, not creative approach.

This negative outlook, familiar from a previous era, is underpinned by limitless desire and belief.

Knitted seamlessly together, these qualities can at once trump any feelings of inadequacy and serve to contrast starkly with other sides whose temperament can often by brittle when so much is expected of them.

Ireland's supporters now regularly approach matches with obvious fears that they may be utterly outplayed, but at the same time with a stirring conviction that they will not be defeated.

It is an illogical wedding of emotions but the 0-0 qualifying draw with Russia in Moscow perfectly illustrated just the possibility of the seemingly impossible.

And so while Stephen Hunt spoke this week of how easily Ireland could end up being embarrassed, it will be precisely that fear of failure that will spark Ireland to, however improbably, bloody the noses of three of world football's best teams.

Ireland inherently fear what others might to do them. Strangely enough, the opposition will also fear Ireland.

Not for what they think Ireland can do, but because they know what Ireland cannot do. "The most important thing is not to lose," reiterates the manager.

"I don't think a point is the end of the world," adds Damien Duff. "I keep reading that they will be going all out for the three points, but a draw isn't the end of the world."

More often than not in his four years in charge, against far superior footballing opposition, Trapattoni's teams have managed to do just that, specifically away from home.

International sides, whether it is Euro 88 or Euro 2012, learn to underestimate Irish sides at their peril.

"We would benefit from other sides underestimating us, so hopefully they are," smiles Duff.

Keith Andrews typifies the utilitarian values of a team that eschews the flair of a Modric-inspired Croatia; it is quite likely that Ireland's record goalscorer Robbie Keane will be asked to move nearer his own goal than the opposition's in an attempt to curb the Spurs playmaker.

Even the team, it seems, are fearful of the damage that can be wrought from their opponents. Then again, it is a good thing that expectations will not burden a collective who will simply and monotonously replicate a pattern that has brought them this far.

"In a weird way, all the focus has been on all the other teams in the group rather than us so I feel that can help us," observes Andrews.

"We can hopefully go and put our stamp on this tournament. I know we're worried about not losing this game. But so will Croatia.

"I don't know who fears the other more. There's a lot of talk in the press. Both managers do their bits and bobs and stuff maybe gets lost in translation to a degree.

"For both teams, it's a massive game. Spain are red-hot favourites to win the group and ourselves, Italy and Croatia are probably vying for second spot, if we're all being honest.

"But we're coming in on the back of a good run at the minute and I don't there will be too many countries coming in on the back of the sort of run we are on."

Whenever Ireland are threatened by insecurity, it is these numbers they rely on -- the unbeaten away record, the three goals conceded in 14 games.

Mathematic realities delight Trapattoni in the way that aesthetic aspirations do not. Whatever emotion exists within the team will energise, not enervate them.

Croatia, no more than Italy and Spain, have so many attacking options that pressure to create can often suffocate.

The past -- Greece's unlikely European Championship success in 2004 -- as much as the present -- Barcelona's demise in the Champions League this season -- infuses Trapattoni with enthusiasm that his cautious certainty can prevail.

Hence his side are restricted -- the less they are asked to do, the less chance they have of failing. It is all about the little details, not the bigger picture.

Croatia have a Plan A, B and C according to the cocky Slaven Bilic; Ireland's alphabet soup of tactics starts and finishes at A.

"We're in good form and if that's not a good enough basis for a plan then I don't really know what is," says Stephen Ward quite simply.

Even Barcelona's galaxy of stars couldn't adapt when confronted by sheer myopic, bloody-minded defence.

There is quality within the Irish team but the arguments about Trapattoni's trust in it is a debate covered in cobwebs at this stage.

Ironically, if Group C was labelled the 'Group of Debt', Ireland's perilous financial position is mirrored in a graph produced in the 'Financial Times' this week, which showed that, in terms of transfer values, its soccer squad was the least valuable of all 16 teams.

The Irish captain, clearly frustrated at not receiving his subscription, laughed it off.

"They said that, did they? The cheapest squad? I totally disagree with that! The 'Financial Times' know that, don't they. They love all that money," Keane concluded with presumably unintentional irony.

The numbers contradict them, though, as if our economic inferiority complex is now somehow married to the insecurities of an Irish team who often seem more comfortable in defence.

Spain are the clear favourites. They harbour the most valuable team overall but their team is homogeneous too. They possess the most valuable goalkeeper, best defenders, and midfielders. Only England (Rooney) and Portugal (Ronaldo) have more valuable forwards.

Therefore, Portugal will play Spain while Germany meet England in the semi-finals. The final will be Spain versus Germany. Spain will win.

Sounds so simple. But in sport, as in economics, an over-reliance on one sector can underpin the health of the nation; were Ronaldo, Rooney or Xavi to get injured, their respective teams would suffer greatly.

Hence Ireland's nationwide novena to the continuing well-being of Shay Given this week.

Mercifully, sport is unscripted drama, largely unresponsive to the rigid laws of economics. It is about more than numbers. It is about people. It is about attitude.

Upon those planks rest the prospects of Ireland overcoming their many limitations. In some respects, you fear for them.

And then you think of Richard Dunne in Moscow. Keane in Ibaraki. Paul McGrath in Giants Stadium, Houghton in Stuttgart. Hopefully, new heroes may emerge from the managerial straitjacket.

The party will carry on regardless.

Irish Independent

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