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Ireland's Jeff Henderick in action against Spain.Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland's Jeff Henderick in action against Spain.Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni and assistant manager Marco Tardelli at Yankee Stadium. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni and assistant manager Marco Tardelli at Yankee Stadium. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

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Ireland's Jeff Henderick in action against Spain.Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

EACH summer for the first three years of his time as Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni returned to Milan with certainty as his travelling companion. For the last two, he has been assailed by change.

Now, Ireland stand at a crossroads and the only question Trapattoni must answer is whether he wants to drive the car or end up as road kill.

Logically, football's meat factory should have carved him up and sent him to the boneyard after Euro 2012 and with it his idea that Ireland could play only one way if the FAI wanted to qualify for big tournament finals.

Given recent revelations about a €4million payment to Goldman Sachs and the ever-more difficult job of repaying the Aviva Stadium loan in the face of falling attendances and a failed long-term ticket sale, once Trapattoni chose to stay and see out the new deal he was given before the finals in Poland, he knew that he held all the cards.

Short of an intercession by wealth sourced outside Abbotstown, Ireland were stuck with him, and the trip to Kazakhstan for the opening round of the Brazil 2014 qualifying series graphically revealed what that meant.

Trapattoni's certainty had become a liability and despite the very obvious claims of young lads like James McCarthy, Séamus Coleman and Marc Wilson, nothing appeared capable of shifting him from his dogma.

This summer, he will sit in his comfortable chair at home or on a beach somewhere with his grandkids and perhaps think the unthinkable. Is it possible that Ireland actually has some footballers?

It is a glib way of making the point that the evolution of Ireland's team in the last six months has been towards technically-gifted players with age and energy on their side, and away from the awful tedium of defence at all cost and the long ball as a weapon of attack. It should have happened much earlier than this.

 

Dynamic

The big question for Trapattoni is whether he can accommodate so much change at once. For the second half of last year, that question was clearly answered in the negative. But one player, McCarthy, has shifted the dynamic so much that the manager can't do much more than surf the wave.

McCarthy chose to stay with his father last June, an entirely understandable decision given his family circumstances. But the sense that he would have gone to Poland if he thought he would get a game was hard to shake.

He did the right thing and came to the autumn campaign fresh. Not that Trapattoni was too keen. Injuries and retirement forced his hand and McCarthy was in.

But Trapattoni's dogged loyalty to the players who collapsed in Poland has been very difficult to shake and Wes Hoolahan has been the big loser. James McClean too.

Trap admitted that "it was a pity" that he had "ignored" Hoolahan for so long, an answer which was both trite and meaningless given Hoolahan's excellence in the pitifully few minutes he was given to prove himself.

But it now seems obvious to everyone that the days of a Glenn Whelan/Keith Andrews midfield axis are over and that Robbie Keane and John O'Shea are the only bankable links to the first two qualifying campaigns run by Trapattoni – whether he likes it or not.

And there's the key. Perhaps for the first time, the players have become more important than Trapattoni and if he is to pull off a most unlikely qualification, he needs to find a way to embrace radical change.

New York was a success, if losing 2-0 to any team can ever be seen as that, but when Spain are the opposition, anything less than a hammering is always going to be a positive.

The fact that Ireland's thrusting young men were able to dig in and then go again against the best players in the world was a big turning point.

Trapattoni's system collapsed completely against Spain in Gdansk and he had no answers other than to blame his players for the lot and absolve himself of any responsibility.

But we have moved on now and the Irish squad has moved on, leaving Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli trailing behind.

Very belatedly, he seems to have twigged that Ireland does harbour some talent after all.

He's still a great source of entertainment for journalists and you won't find many among the hardcore travelling group who don't feel great affectation for him and his ridiculous eccentricities.

But, as the same peccadilloes are applied to his approach to the team, patience is wearing very thin indeed and he would be well served if he threw aside the DVDs and his own preconceptions for a more flexible approach.

Of course, it could be that the wheels will fall off Ireland's qualification effort as early as September 6, when Sweden visit Lansdowne Road, or four days later in Vienna.

 

Targets

That scenario would leave room for someone like Martin O'Neill to step in with a few miles yet to travel in the qualifying series and time to bed in his own ideas before the new European Championship draw is made and new targets emerge.

The last three weeks have demonstrated very clearly that there is hope; that there is a new group of players ready to move Ireland forward.

But if Trapattoni is to survive, he must loosen his grip on the minds of his players. He must force himself to acknowledge that his system is now redundant and that he must build around the capabilities of Coleman, McCarthy, Wilson, Shane Long, Jeff Hendrick, Hoolahan and other emerging personalities like Stephen Quinn.

If he doesn't, we will bid him goodbye in September and move on.


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