Green shoots stunted by Trap tactics
Published 19/06/2012 | 17:00
Purgatory in Poznan. Euro 2012 for Ireland ends as it begins.
Pointless in many different ways, but with an illusory hint that darkness may not completely mask the future of an international side now desperately requiring direction.
A pointer to a brighter, more enigmatic future under a stubborn manager? Irish supporters can only hope.
And so Ireland ended their forgettable sojourn as they would have wished to begin it, in spirit at least if not in substance.
Where first the dreams of an expectant, if slightly deluded nation, were crushed beneath the weight of Croatia's greater verve and character last week, the slowly unfurling, grim reality returned Ireland to the same venue last night.
Relentless rain had been supplanted by oppressive heat. In all other respects, the climate remained stubbornly unchanged.
Eighteen years to the day since Ray Houghton's speculative punt undid the Italians in a Giants Stadium cauldron heaving with green, another stadium brimful of green dolefully, rather than hopefully, awaited a similar, stellar moment.
The merest glimpse of a happy memory was all they wanted. Just one moment to store away in a locker of reminiscences to which they could refer in years to come. Then they could once more drink to forget.
Instead, we had a rumour of a rebellious assault against the indignities heaped upon Ireland this past fortnight.
An illusion of folly that, now that the competitive element had been so impolitely withdrawn, Ireland could rouse itself for some academic defiance.
True, they came close. But they were so far away to begin with that it didn't really matter. To most people at least.
The supporters' mood here has been one of delirious resignation, a confusing assault on the senses without a clear absence of anger.
Much as it might rile Roy Keane, they have been here for the sing-song and many argue strongly that they expected little else to begin with.
A similar spirit embraced this game's early flourish from the Irish; for them, the shackles were off and Kevin Doyle gambolled about the place as if to avenge the great wrong wrought upon him when unfairly dropped for the Spanish game. Stephen Ward bounded into the opposition third; an offensive pressure game, unseen thus far, seemed to be the default position even though so much else remained so familiarly, so tediously, the same.
There were subtle adaptations, with the wingers sometimes closing in to lighten the midfield load; aside from that, a different attitude coursed through the team.
Ireland's fear, as impugned so abruptly by a manager suddenly abandoning his renowned empathy, had now seemingly evaporated as they pressed inordinately high.
Instead, Italy were the ones upon whose shoulders fear stalked as they nervously anticipated collapse here and conspiracy elsewhere in Group C.
"Dai, Trap, non ti arrabbiare, l'importante e' partecipare," said one Italian flag, sympathetically exhorting their erstwhile managerial hero not to use his side's anger to eliminate their team.
Trapattoni, preening and strutting around his technical area, still retains the scars from his 2004 exit.
Tonight, this was personal and his vicarious vehicle was an Ireland team with whom his bond had become severely weakened as never before in this tournament or, indeed, his tenure.
There was as much a sense that if he was doing this for his own selfish reasons, then the team would adapt their game for their own selfish reasons too.
Whatever the motivations, there was a decent chunk of evidence in the first half to mock those who reckon that critics of the manager's methods are wilfully ignorant of the limited materials he has to work with.
This has always been arrant nonsense. This much was evidenced by the verve and vigour with which the Irish assaulted the wary Italians who, it must be remembered, went toe to toe with the Spanish side who humiliated Ireland just four days ago.
Ireland have the players; and not just the limited, deliberately restricted number deployed in these championships.
It is the mentality and the wilfully negative attitude that has handicapped this Irish team, not materials.
For all that, evolution is required and one wonders can the manager be persuaded upon to instigate it. Otherwise, pyrrhic displays of such revolutionary spirit are worthless. In any event, it had all come too late for this demoralised and dysfunctional Irish team.
Their inability to forge meaningful attempts on goal flattered the fact that they were marginally outplaying the weakest team in the group; for all of Aiden McGeady's belatedly brief flicker of form, it amounted to an illusion.
And that applied to his team-mates too. The chains that bound them, individually and collectively, were ultimately too much of a load to bear.
Poor Shay Given was the first to succumb, so cruelly at his last genuine appearance on football's grandest stage. This is not, assuming he retires, how football wanted to remember one of the game's most gracious and graceful of athletes. His hat-trick of errors leading to Italy's first goal surrendered any tentative assumptions Ireland may have had in terms of holding the initiative against an Italian side who, until Antonio Cassano's opening goal, were demonstrating the first signs of frustration at Ireland's compression of the central areas.
Familiar habits haunted Ireland, Whelan conceding possession, Given's persistent fitness and form issues compounding the error as Ireland ended the half as an undisciplined rabble.
Football's punishment principle evades nobody at this level.
Conceding from a set-piece against one of the smallest players on the sward summed up the reckless abandonment of Ireland's defensive surety and solidity, Trapattoni's first and last modus operandi.
Without this, he is nothing.
Ireland need not be so despondent, once the manager can change his ways. If not then they too will have nothing more to add as a post-script to this inglorious failure.
The truly sad aspect of it all has been the absence of defiance, of a rage against the extinguishing of what one would have hoped all along would be a typically doughty flame of desire and passion.
There has been no defining moment of this campaign. Ireland have just slowly drowned in a sea of enforced mediocrity, at times both unwilling and unauthorised to impose their character during these grim tidings.
The sense of ennui existed in the second half when it seemed unconscionable that Shane Long should have remained on the bench for so long; Trapattoni is now sadly institutionalised.
With every superlative clearance and tackle from Richard Dunne -- at one stage he almost desultorily wafted a leg at a dangerous cross to concede a corner -- one sensed by his body language the air of a defeated soldier.
"Do I really need to endure another two years of this stuff?" you felt he was asking himself.
Many Irish football supporters feel the same way this morning.