Saturday 21 October 2017

Euro 2012: We deserve better than this

Eamonn Sweeney

There's no point in hiding behind the fans. Sure, they were wonderful but the European Football Championships is not a cheerleading competition. The clue is in the second word of its title. It's about what happens on the pitch and on that score the last week has been one of the great unmitigated disasters in Irish sporting history.

Not only are Giovanni Trapattoni's team the worst ever to represent Ireland in a major tournament, they are by far the worst side in the competition. And unless Ireland pull off a result against Italy tomorrow, we could earn the distinction of being the worst team ever to play in a European Championship finals.

At the moment, the worst record of all-time is shared by Yugoslavia in 1984, Denmark in 2000 and Bulgaria in 2004. Those three teams ended up with no points and a goal difference of minus eight. Right now, we're pointless and on minus six and counting. We might even have a sporting chance of equalling Yugoslavia's record of conceding ten goals in three matches.

In a competition full of sparkling football, Ireland have contributed not a single memorable moment. We are the first team to be eliminated and the only team who look like we don't belong.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that we might salvage some scrap of pride from the Italy game, given the manager's knowledge of the way his fellow countrymen play. But from our point of view that game is meaningless whatever happens.

Exhortations to accentuate the positive by basking in the fervour of our supporters are just so much bullshit -- 1988, 1990, 1994 and 2002 are remembered fondly not because of what happened in the stands but because of the great things we did on the field.

Qualifying from the group was always going to be a tall order. But any commentator who'd suggested that we'd lose the first two games by a total of six goals would have been derided for negativity. And there's not much solace to be taken from the fact that our hammering on Thursday night was inflicted by the reigning world champions.

There was nothing inevitable about our 4-0 defeat by Spain. Fine team though they are, Spain don't generally inflict this kind of pain on the opposition. Their victorious World Cup campaign included a 2-1 win over Chile, a 1-0 win over Paraguay and a 2-0 victory against Honduras. In the qualifiers, Scotland held them to 3-1 and 3-2. Lithuania lost both of their meetings 3-1. The only team Spain beat by more than two goals was Liechtenstein. If you're comfortable with Ireland keeping that kind of company, fair play to you. Me, I don't think it's too much to ask the team to at least emulate Honduras.

All four goals on Thursday night had as much to do with Irish sloppiness as Spanish brilliance. Sean St Ledger's cataleptic trance and Stephen Ward's flat-footedness gave Fernando Torres the chance to score the first. The second was created by a woeful clearance from Richard Dunne and a bad punch by Shay Given. Aiden McGeady gave the ball away for the third, while the fourth would have shamed a Sunday league team as Cesc Fabregas strolled unmarked into the area to receive a short corner and score one of the easiest goals of the tournament.

We knew Ireland hadn't the greatest set of players available but the expectation was that this team wouldn't give anything away easily. In Euro 2012 we've done nothing else but that. Over the past week the team has produced the worst Irish performances against foreign opposition since the Battle of Kinsale, or perhaps Enda Kenny's last phone call to Angela Merkel.

It didn't have to be this bad. Denmark, a team with the same kind of limitations as Ireland, beat Holland and need just a point in their final group match against Germany to reach the knockout stages. And they're in the most difficult group. It should have been within our compass to stay in the competition until our third match.

Our abject failure raises questions about Giovanni Trapattoni. His eccentric selections and the unappealing style of play he's imposed on the team seemed to be justified when Ireland qualified for the finals. But the subsequent poverty of our performances has hugely devalued that achievement. Because what's the point in qualifying for major tournaments if you're going to let yourself down to this extent when you get there?

That qualifying campaign saw us take just three points from four games against the top two seeds, Russia and Slovakia. We clinched second place in the group by scraping a home victory against Armenia, ranked 45th out of 53 teams in Europe at the start of the competition. In the play-off we beat Estonia, ranked 41st out of 53.

Yet Trapattoni said he would keep faith with the players who'd got us to the finals even though such a policy practically guaranteed complacency among the many squad members whose club form had been alarmingly poor. The ludicrous nature of his selection policies received its final shameful expression on Thursday when Paul Green was brought on in the closing stages. Green is a journeyman plucked out of nowhere by Trapattoni who has been woefully off the pace in previous appearances for Ireland. He's currently unemployed, having been let go by Derby County. Straight away he displayed his class by failing to pick up Fabregas from a corner-kick as the Barcelona midfielder rubbed further salt in our wounds.

That Paul Green will go down in history as having represented Ireland in the finals of a major championship when the likes of Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and Wes Hoolahan weren't even in the squad is a disgrace. Yet there are always people who'll make excuses for Trap. We were told that he 'likes what Green brings to the squad'. What does he bring? Chips? A pack of cards? An inflatable green and white hammer? Because it sure as hell isn't footballing ability.

Coleman's omission was justified on the grounds that he 'hasn't been in the best form for Everton'. Which would be all well and good if the squad wasn't full of players who've been in far worse form for far weaker clubs. Hoolahan, excellent in the Premier League for Norwich City this season, couldn't be brought because apparently he 'wouldn't fit into Trap's system'. Well, that notion of a finely calibrated system which cannot be tinkered with has taken a knock over the past week.

The only excuse for the absence of Wilson, singled out by his manager Tony Pulis as the unsung hero of Stoke City's solid season in the Premier League and a player who offers a multitide of options in defence and midfield, seems to be that Trap once blamed him wrongly for a disciplinary infraction. We'll never know, but if James McCarthy had been available he'd probably have spent the tournament on the bench. Anthony Pilkington of Norwich City is another good Premier League performer who was left at home.

Even then, the manager could have made better use of the players he did bring. Another journeyman, Simon Cox, came on wide on the left against Croatia even though he'd never played there before and James McClean was the obvious option. Against Spain, Cox was picked to bolster the midfield. Out of position once more, he was withdrawn at half-time. Why both he and Green were selected ahead of Darron Gibson in central midfield boggles the mind. Gibson has only ever been used in fits and starts by Trap. He is a footballer of some potential as is Shane Long who has unaccountably slipped down the pecking order behind not just Cox but Jonathan Walters. Sometimes I wonder if the manager prefers our English-born players.

Those who argue that we simply don't have the players anyway would seem to be taking the view that a lack of Xavis and Iniestas in our ranks means it doesn't matter who the manager picks. But that's nonsense. A properly selected Irish team and squad might not have beaten Spain but it wouldn't have been humiliated in the same manner. Our pool of players is too small for Trap to indulge his myriad eccentricities.

Meanwhile, John Delaney reckons that the singing of The Fields Of Athenry will be the abiding memory of the Spain match. Roy Keane, on the other hand, has become a hate figure for making the eminently sensible suggestion that Ireland "shouldn't just go along for the sing-song".

Maybe we should field the following team against Italy:

(1-2-3-4): Lynott, Hewson, Moore, Morrison, Furey, Keating, Filan, Geldof, O'Donnell, Makem, Clancy.

Subs (Parentage Rule): McGowan, Morrissey, Bush, O'Dowd, Rotten, Springfield.

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