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Green shoots of optimism

THE message is relentlessly positive from Giovanni Trapattoni. He hits the key words time and time again. Strength, confidence, belief, enthusiasm and, best of all, qualification.

He will put out his best available team against Paraguay and leave experimentation aside. The core strength of his squad is still the focus of his work, and any gems he mined in the Portmarnock training camp will require a patina of age before he can use them.

There was a moment in the middle of his pre-match talk with the media that illustrated the fragility of his efforts to build depth and quality into his squad before the Euro 2012 qualifiers kick-off in September.

Robbie Keane sat beside his international manager and, during an unusually chatty session, ranged from life at Celtic to White Hart Lane via Paris and the future, up to and including the moment when he chooses to retire.

Keane has no thoughts about giving up the green shirt just yet and if he can stretch his legs that far, the World Cup finals in Brazil in four years time are a definite target. For this we should be thankful, but Trapattoni wanted more.

"Ah but Robbie can still play for 10 years," laughed Trapattoni.

His captain's eyes lifted to the heavens in mock disbelief but you still got the impression that both manager and goalscorer would dearly love it to be that way -- although it never can be.

"What else would I do," said Keane when asked about his long-term ambitions. "I'm a football person."

In that little cameo lies Trapattoni's dilemma. Without Keane, the Republic of Ireland is relatively toothless and, apart from Kevin Doyle, there's no stand-out replacement biting at our top scorer's heels looking for recognition.

Certainly, there is nobody out there doing what Keane did when he was a 17-year-old, full of confidence and ability and more than ready to step up to the highest level of all.


As Keane reminded us, he and Damien Duff were of the same vintage and were playing senior international football at a time when many of their peers were waiting for their first professional contract.

As always, the current spread of Irish resources is patchy and Trapattoni must rely on good fortune and good discipline as much as good footballers.

Paul McShane is a case in point. He starts against Paraguay, paired with Sean St Ledger at the heart of Trapattoni's defence, as a replacement for Richard Dunne, a combination which would stretch the nerves if circumstances demanded it during the Euro 2012 qualifiers.

Nobody has ever doubted McShane's willingness to give everything he has in every game he plays but he has had some notable setbacks in a career which began with such promise at Old Trafford.

At other times in the past two or three decades, McShane would have been behind a long line of world-class defenders and struggling for caps.

But anyone who saw him physically dismantle Jan Koller at Lansdowne Road on a chilly October night in 2006 and shake up a sleepwalking Irish set-up under Steve Staunton can perhaps understand why Trapattoni keeps the faith and backs his man.

Great hope was -- and still is -- centred on young Shane Duffy but he was always one for the long term. Thanks to some inspired work by a long list of people last Friday night and Saturday morning, that remains the case.

Greg Cunningham has made a big impression on Trapattoni and perhaps he, of all the trainees, has the best chance of a rapid promotion.

Trapattoni has had his best luck in midfield. From a standing start, he found Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. He gave Liam Lawrence a chance and is offering the same opportunity to Paul Green. He will try Keith Fahey at some point in these next two games.

Kevin Foley has had a great season with Wolves, as often as not playing on the right side of midfield, and brings adaptability to the table.


Two notable absentees offer the greatest hope and come closest to the type of attention which was focused on Duff and Keane when they first burst onto the scene -- David Meyler and James McCarthy.

Meyler, of course, is in the throes of a personal battle which could yet define his career and, once he returns fit and whole, will certainly push Whelan and Andrews hard.

He has many supporters who feel that he will continue to progress, but there are some who view him as a bit of a headless chicken who runs too far and lunges recklessly into tackles.

This is an assessment which surfaced over the weekend and, it must be said, is at odds with almost every other view of a young player who is learning tough lessons -- as he must -- by making mistakes.

McCarthy hasn't put a foot wrong since he arrived at Wigan and he too will be a serious player in the story of the Euro 2012 campaign, a hugely exciting option who Trapattoni believes can be thrown in at the sharp end.

In an ideal world, McCarthy could be the man to widen Trapattoni's attacking options beyond Keane and Doyle but, for the moment, the alternatives are Shane Long, Caleb Folan, Andy Keogh, Anthony Stokes and Leon Best with an honourable mention for Cillian Sheridan who did himself no harm in Portmarnock.

Trapattoni talked about his squad in hugely complimentary terms yesterday, claiming that "this is a great group now" -- and he clearly meant it.

There are a half dozen young lads knocking on the door and some might wonder why he didn't throw them in against Paraguay from the start -- but that's not his way.


He is still working out the kinks from Paris, still building confidence and belief in the players he knows can deliver a performance.

Still the little details. In fact, always the little details. He showed his players three moments which decided key games in the Champions League and FA Cup this season to hammer home his now familiar mantra.

In some ways, this is a different Trapattoni to the one who marched into The RDS with a regal wave two years ago and told us what we knew. Resources were thin.

He is more at ease with his surroundings and he has shared enough raw emotion with us to forge a connection beyond a significant credit transfer every month and his professional pride.

He has improved the squad, sometimes by stumbling across someone like Andrews or, in the case of St Ledger, by making a shrewd judgement and following his instinct.

Most important of all, he has put some substance back into the Republic of Ireland senior squad and he offers real hope for the next few years.