Tuesday 12 December 2017

Brady still blinded by Zen master's illusions

Victory could have been achieved with a little more self-belief says John O'Brien

IT'S surely the tightest of verdicts as to which holds the greater comedy value: a lengthy and typically obtuse Giovanni Trapattoni press conference or Liam Brady, ever Grasshopper to his old friend's Master Po, in full emotive flow during a post-match RTE bunfight with the two-man tag team of John Giles and Eamon Dunphy.

As to which seems the most coherent, well, no contest there. The wily old Italian every time.

Among the gifts Brady offered to the nation on Friday was this little gem. "We're not privy to what is going on behind the scenes," he berated his fellow panel members at one high point of indignation. "It might be that there's a lot of respect for Trapattoni among the players."

And it seemed, truly, as if he believed what he was saying. "I cannot tell what is real," said the original Grasshopper, "from what is in my mind."

So obviously in thrall to his old Zen master, so ever eager to rush to his defence against a swarm of criticism, the general thrust of Brady's arguments, their attendant bias, can generally be discounted. There is one argument in particular, though, that needs challenging because Brady is rarely alone in trotting it out when deficiencies in other areas need to be accounted for. "Maybe," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "we don't have the players."

We have heard this so often during Trapattoni's five years in charge that it has almost become a leitmotif of the Italian's reign. We don't have the players. Trapattoni hummed the tune himself in Poland last summer when egregiously refusing to take his share of the responsibility for Ireland's grim humiliation at Euro 2012. We just didn't have the players, you see. What was such a lavishly well-paid manager to do?

Such lazy assumptions need to be challenged, though. Nobody is suggesting the current crop of Ireland internationals represent a golden generation, but neither should the perceived lack of quality be used to hide glaring shortcomings elsewhere. Keep convincing your players they are ordinary for long enough and, assuredly, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Robbie Brady, worryingly, seems to have become Trapattoni's latest pet project in that regard.

In an article in the now defunct Sunday Tribune in the late 1990s, Liam Brady claimed the then Ireland team was the worst anybody had seen in 20 years. He was rounded upon that morning by Mick Byrne, a member of Mick McCarthy's back-room team, but the point is that we haven't stumbled into new territory here. Decrying the quality of the players available to us has been a pointed refrain for the guts of 15 years now.

It is true that we are not producing the rare quality of a Brady or a Giles anymore and the deep underlying reasons for this need to explored more fully than they have been. But it is a significant leap from there to the cloying negativity of "we don't have the players".

It is all the more infuriating because, on closer inspection, the truth of it can be easily refuted. Take Friday night as a starting point. The Irish team that eventually took the field in Gothenburg contained eight regular Premier League starters and if you swapped Paul Green for the absent Darron Gibson, Robbie Keane for the maligned Wes Hoolahan, then that number increased to 10. The odd man out, Millwall goalkeeper David Forde, would have been a deserving winner of the man of the match accolade.

It is sometimes pointed out, as a supposed measure of decline, how so few Irish players make the breakthrough at the big clubs in England nowadays. But this proves less than people imagine.

With all due respect, would a young Kevin Moran be able to orchestrate a move to Manchester United now? Would John Aldridge have got his break with Liverpool?

The football climate has changed beyond all recognition. Having players at big clubs is not all it's cracked up to be. There's a more fundamental point to make, though. If this crop of Ireland players doesn't measure up to the past, then it simply doesn't need to because the international game itself is not what it once was. The club game, increasingly, holds the power and the quality now. International football continues in freefall. With a relatively ordinary group of players, organised and spirited, it's remarkable how far you can go.

In hindsight, the doom-laden atmosphere that surrounded Friday night was odd. A glance at Sweden's line-up reveals that they too had a Championship player among their ranks and, disregard PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, nobody from any of Europe's top clubs. That, by and large, is the story around the continent. Take away Spain and Germany and, perhaps, Holland, and who is there to fear? Every country seems beatable.

And so Friday's results proved: Israel unlucky not to beat Portugal, Albania winning in Oslo, Finland holding out in Spain. A few months ago, Northern Ireland battled to a heroic draw in Lisbon and their victims in recent years have included England and Spain, victories Trapattoni's Ireland could only ever dream about. Do they have the players we don't?

None of this is to denigrate Ireland's performance in Gothenburg which was full of courage and resolve. Yet, we shouldn't get too carried away. It was a winnable game, a chance to make a big statement, that went abegging because the Ireland players didn't believe it was one they could win. They simply weren't conditioned to think that way.

But maybe we do have the players after all. And with a bit of trust and confidence in them, there is more they could give on the world stage.

Irish Independent

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