Sunday 25 February 2018

Banging our heads against a 74-year-old brick wall

Tommy Conlon

For periods of the games against Sweden and Austria, followers of the national football team were visited by an unfamiliar sensation.

It was the long-lost feeling of pleasure as Irish players actually managed to pass the ball to each other and keep hold of it rather than treating it as a time bomb.

It mightn't have alleviated the knot in the stomach that faithfully materialises every time an Ireland match kicks off. But it brought a warm glow that made the accompanying penance a tad more bearable. It's a pity it didn't last.

Mind you, we hadn't been treated to sustained passages of velvet possession football: it was mere fragments at a time, micro sequences of play. But fellas in green jerseys were passing the ball in tight spaces, producing moments of creativity and showing glimpses of ambition.

It was no more than should be expected of even a mid-ranking international team, but fans were happy to clutch at these straws having endured a style of play so primitive it had become a bit of an embarrassment. Euro 2012 was the pits, the 1-6 humiliation by Germany mortifying.

So the 0-0 against Sweden nine days ago felt like a blast of light at the end of a very long tunnel. It wasn't just the point gained, it was the modicum of self-respect that was restored as well.

Perhaps we're projecting too much here but, watching Irish players stitch some moves together in the first half last Tuesday night, it seemed important for their self-esteem too. It wasn't just that this was the most productive way of playing. It was as if they were saying: we're better than that, we're better than you think, we have our pride too.

The grim irony was that this determination not to hoof the ball away led directly to Austria's first goal. One hoped they wouldn't lose their nerve after that. And the presence of Conor Sammon up front also gave them the excuse to revert to the long ball stereotype.

For the most part, they resisted the temptation; they didn't retreat into their comfort zone. They mixed it up well between long and short, tried conscientiously to keep the ball and even, a few times, strung moves together that were improbably slick. Along with all that, they established a combative tempo that Austria couldn't handle. By half-time, the visitors were visibly wilting. David Alaba, their Bayern Munich star, had looked impressive early on. When the tide turned, shortly after their opening goal, he wasn't mapped for the remainder of the first 45.

Ireland's performance in the first half, after that shaky opening, was unfairly neglected in the welter of post-match recriminations. Alaba's gut-churning injury-time equaliser dictated the agenda in the hours and days that followed.

If Ireland didn't revert to type in the first half, they unfortunately conformed to a more familiar pattern as the second wore on. Their momentum dwindled; they started to defend their lead; they handed the initiative back to their opponents. By the 70th minute, they had fallen back to the edge of their own penalty area.

This habit has become such a feature of the Trapattoni era it is routinely attributed to his innate conservatism or, more broadly, to the Italian tradition of shutting up shop after taking a one-goal lead.

But the explanation could be physiological too: fatigue. They simply become too tired to get up the field in support of the forwards. Given the habitual skill deficit, Irish teams have always depended on industrial levels of work rate to compensate. They always seem to be the ones chasing the ball. Even against the minnows of international football they have to huff and puff to blow the house down. They generally do it the hard way because they're not skilful enough to do it the easier way.

Under this manager, the aerobic demands if anything are even greater. Enormous volumes of energy are spent tracking back, covering runs, plugging the inevitable gaps in midfield. It's what he requires, it's what his wretched 4-4-2 requires. So maybe it's his fault anyway. Whatever the reason, it happens so often it has become numbingly predictable.

Trapattoni has forgotten more about football management than most laymen will ever know. So at

one level there is something absurd about journalists asking him questions that frequently begin with the words: "Why didn't you . . . ?"

But it has become part of the ritual now, his team selections and substitutions routinely challenged by the amateurs.

It wouldn't happen if he didn't so often leave a void needing to be filled. When there is no apparent logic to his decisions on the sideline, explanations in the media room are always going to be demanded. The danger is that they could get brain damage from banging their heads against this 74-year-old brick wall. We all could.

Tuesday night, 20 to go, take off Sammon, put an extra body in midfield and see it out – right? Wrong. Take off Long, put on Green instead, leave two up front, and don't do any of it until the 83rd minute. He had his reasons, he always does. In his world only one person is right.

One can't help remaining fond of the man, but the manager is becoming insufferable. It's getting tedious at this stage. He is a good Italian Catholic. Maybe it's time he gave Pope Benedict a call.

thecouch@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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