Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 February 2017

Trap aiming for joy of six

Ireland must take maximum points in double-header to prevent repeat of past heartbreak,says David Kelly

David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given is put through his paces at Gannon Park yesterday. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given is put through his paces at Gannon Park yesterday. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

When Ireland's players embark upon their latest qualifying adventure in the south Caucasus this week, they will have more than just the searing heat to overcome.

For Ireland to justify the exalted optimism of those who still decry officialdom for thieving their rightful place at this summer's World Cup, their players and management must conquer the crippling caution that ultimately smote them much more grievously than Thierry Henry's heinous hand.

Despite the carping at Italy's demise in South Africa -- it's better to ignore the pointless schadenfreude at France's implosion -- it must be remembered that Italy rather cruised through the qualification process.

None of those who gleefully celebrated their decline in South Africa were as sure of the Azzurri's lack of surety as they jostled, with increasing confidence, against Ireland in the qualifying schedule.

The 2-2 draw in Dublin was one of many examples where Irish hubris undermined subsequently ignorant chest-thumping.

chided

As if chided by their recidivist tendencies to sit back and defend throughout the campaign, Ireland's reaction to going 2-1 up late on in the Croke Park piece was to rampage forward in unison.

It was as if they suddenly realised that their inherent caution needed to be replaced by a broader expression; sadly, their manic rush into the Italian's half ultimately exposed them to a scything Italian break.

Of course, it was not in that moment that their hopes of winning the group, thus avoiding the ignominy of Paris, was lost.

Forgetting the Steve Staunton era, as most of us gladly prefer, Ireland won the same amount of matches and against the same quality of opposition in Brian Kerr's final campaign as they did in during Giovanni Trapattoni's first one.

Kerr's side scored the same number of goals but conceded less -- on that occasion a legal, rather than illegal, intervention from Thierry Henry proved the difference between glory and failure.

It has taken an inordinately long time, via the ill-advised Staunton era, to reach a stage where Ireland are merely marginally ahead of where they were five years ago, and at such a point, quite obviously, where its talismanic players are all five years older.

If Ireland begin this campaign as they mean to continue, unlike last time out when they ended as they should have began, then qualification for a major tournament, Trapattoni's stated target, is a realistic attainment.

This campaign is where the exorbitant expenditure on the Italian input into the top tier of Irish football must produce results, beginning with a double header of obvious potential for an accelerated beginning to a qualification campaign riddled with risk.

Two of Trapattoni's predecessors, Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy, were fans of lining up the big guns early on in the piece, seeking to strike an early bloody nose and leaving room for a late surge on home turf.

Trapattoni has not been afforded such luxury, the fixtures computer spitting out the order after the group rivals failed to give the nod to a mutually agreed schedule. But what may have seemed a difficulty now presents a perfect opportunity.

With the group favourites, Russia and Slovakia, both clashing within the next week, Ireland have the perfect opportunity to soar above their group rivals with a perfect six-from-six start, before the visit of Russia in October.

Ireland's record behind the iron curtain is as specifically unimpressive as their away record in general; in the last 14 years, the same number of qualifiers have produced just three wins (Estonia, Lithuania and Georgia).

At the outset of the last campaign, Andy Reid's banjo played not the only discordant note as Ireland benefited from FIFA's lily-livered decision to switch Georgia's home game from Tblisi to Mainz, which had singularly favoured Ireland over all their group rivals. Four days later, Ireland travelled to an sultry Montenegro and drew 0-0.

Such a blinkered approach cannot be countenanced this time around. Yet the timid offering against Argentina, so paltry that the joke was that one wouldn't blame the manager for pulling a 'sickie' to avoid watching, may leave those of us seeking a more ambitious approach a tad disappointed.

As well as reason and logic, another thing was lost amidst the fog of the post-Paris fallout last November. The so-called players' revolt, whether correctly reported or not, was more interesting as much for the manager's reaction than anything else.

In fact, the FAI responded on behalf of the manager, which in itself unusual. As a reminder, this is what they told us.

task

"Each player knows his exact task on the pitch before every game and they have followed this to the letter. No player decides what to do on the pitch. Under Mr Trapattoni's management, the players follow only what Mr Trapattoni has asked them to do."

This can be interpreted in two ways and the correct one will decree how successful Ireland's qualifying campaign can be. If Ireland's players are rendered incapable of independent thoughts on the football field by an autocratic coach whose urgings to defend 1-0 leads in the last campaign ultimately came back to haunt him, then Ireland are doomed to repeat the errors that mocked their qualification candidacy last time.

On the other hand, if the players were willingly allowed to express themselves in Paris with such daring as rarely witnessed before under their hitherto overly cautious coach, producing their best performance of his tenure, then there may be reasons to be cheerful about a subtle change in Ireland's direction over the next two years.

One thing is certain. They cannot afford to stand still. As this squad's leading members age before our very eyes, this is not the time for caution to prevail.

Irish Independent

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