Thursday 22 March 2018

David Kelly: Trap's redundant style the biggest barrier to victory

Italian's principle of 'not losing' games has alienated public but players could deliver if shackles are taken off, writes David Kelly

Giovanni Trapattoni feels the heat during training in Malahide yesterday
Giovanni Trapattoni feels the heat during training in Malahide yesterday
David Kelly

David Kelly

IN Giovanni Trapattoni's more reflective moments, he likes to imagine himself whiling away his final days in blissful semi-retirement as the manager of the Vatican City's football team.

In less than a week, he may discover that his daydream is closer to reality than ever before – particularly if a nightmare scenario unfolds in Dublin and Vienna.

Trapattoni has only days to find a successful formula for his Irish side – perfecting his 'not losing' principle will no longer suffice – or else he and his era will be consigned to the conflicting reflections of the history books.

For the deeply religious Trapattoni, purgatory or paradise – in football terms – awaits. In the worst case scenario, it could become simply hellish for Trapattoni's Ireland.

As always in these international weeks, we know not what to expect but, ultimately, little will come as a surprise.

As ever with Ireland's international soccer team, an eerie sense of ethereal stasis envelops its being ahead of a defining week.

Except that we all know it probably will not be much of a defining week at all.

It seems to be ever thus; unrealistic expectations of success and failure, from delusional supporters or equally vicious critics, that are ultimately diluted into nothing much at all.

It remains a remarkable achievement of this international side that they perfected this trick most effectively of all at Euro 2012, when the most recognisable element of Ireland's participation in that tournament was their staging of the most elaborate overseas underage drinking festival in the country's history.

Now the team are purportedly on the road to Rio, once more pursuing a path of unchangeably stoic, straight-line steadiness, disregarding most attempts to frolic in any lingering sense to take an unpredictable deviation.

Many people are happy with this limited strategy and point to the multi-coloured zaniness of the Irish in Poland as sufficient reward.

Many more people are, if not unhappy, utterly disinterested which, if the FAI are cognisant of their worrisome financial situation, should be of the utmost concern.

Just as their senior team remain rooted in mediocrity, their own finances remain just as impoverished. That is where going nowhere gets you; even Euro 2012 barely dented financial penury.

The genial Italian has rendered the pay-off in this desperate quest for stability as pedantically as Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh.

The pursuit of steadiness has achieved just that – a straight-line exercise in mind-numbing monotony that is only representative of Irish culture if it is compared to a Beckett play where nothing ever happens.

It is little wonder, then, that a modern nation schooled on the breathless anticipation and boundless courage of coaches and players in other codes should sniff indifferently at the international team.

The Irish soccer fan may portray chest-beating sympathies this week but the majority of their interest lies elsewhere; the swift run of ticket sales for the glorified knock-about between Celtic and Liverpool last month offering the latest exhibit of renewed priorities.

Tickets will be in plentiful supply this Friday.

Home supporters will snort indifferently at a Swedish side who will arrive in Dublin freighting a side of limited, practical certainties embellished by just one speck of genius.

Home supporters may as well look in the mirror, for Sweden are an equally modest reflection of their hosts. As, for that matter, are Austria.


It would be particularly difficult to find a more tedious triptych of plodders on the European international scene.

At least Sweden and Austria can claim a step beyond the ordinary in their housing of one truly world-class talent each amidst their ranks.

At last sighting, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring twice for PSG while David Alaba was netting a penalty in the European Super Cup for Bayern Munich.

Ireland's one player truly capable of rising to that exalted level, Robbie Keane, is also scoring but in rather less exotic climes.

The sad reality is that Keane, for all the vituperative invective that is shot across his tattooed bows, still represents his country's best opportunity to bulge the opposition net.

For, as long as Shane Long continues to be portrayed as one of those dreadfully modern compositions – the striker who doesn't necessarily score goals – Keane's importance to Ireland will remain.

And hence Trapattoni's Ireland will cleave to the unchanging nature of their redundant style of play, a style that will neither reap vast awards nor cost them lavish expense.

It will be noted that, as this qualification campaign has advanced, the style has morphed glacially into something, if not necessarily quixotic, then at least recognises that there is room for individuality and freedom of expression.

Whether this stems from design or desperation is a moot point.

This week, the manager seems content to toy with the notion of deploying a player whose rejection of Ireland's advances hardly seemed conducive to a meaningful relationship.

That Anthony Pilkington is being hurriedly prepared for Ireland says a lot about the manner in which the direction of the international team has become slipshod as opposed to shipshape.

Of course, Ireland cannot possibly claim any nod towards vaulting ambition. The most heightened activity around the camp this week was focused on whether James McCarthy, would swap life in the Championship for a prospective struggle in the relegation zone.

A year ago, this kid was being groomed, supposedly, for Champions League glory with the top four. Others don't perceive him in the same way as those with green-tinted specs.

Ireland's only Champions League representative this season is likely to be Anthony Stokes, whose career has been remarkable thus far if only for the number of times it has crashed into the buffers.

Whether Stokes is worthy or not of an international place is beside the point. It confirms the vast disconnect between the international and club game.

For now, Trapattoni will, with his characteristic careful conservatism, work with the hand he has been dealt.

The pyrotechnics that accompanied Andy Keogh's omission from the squad formed familiar mood music to the build-up; there is always a contrived controversy off the field to divert one's attention from the penance to come on it.

Trapattoni's Ireland have been just as consistent – admittedly his predecessors were equally culpable – in their inability to beat anyone of consequence at home. Or, for that matter, away from home.

That must change this week for Ireland to have any chance of, yet again, stumbling into a play-off where they will vainly pray for a favourable draw against Outer Modlova or some such.

The memories of limp-wristed submissions, despite fervent opening auguries, against Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Austria all coat Friday's fixture with a sense of familiar foreboding.

Even if Ireland assert themselves, their manager more often than not contrives to disabuse his players of such lofty notions; his fingerprints were all over the implosion against Austria that undid that night's decent effort earlier this year.

In turn, that undermined the excellent performance – easily the best away stint of the manager's reign – in Stockholm albeit they were a David Forde save away from losing a match they should have won against a flaccid Swedish side.

If Trapattoni sends his team out to win from the opening whistle, they have a reasonable chance of doing so. His influence and faith can make much of the difference.

Ireland's team are not world-beaters but neither do they fear the world. And, one world-class player aside, there is nothing to fear from Sweden or Austria.

The youthful fearlessness of Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, McCarthy and James McClean can thrive once offered the encouragement to do so by their manager.

If the task proves to be beyond his team, then his weaknesses will be exposed as much as his those of his players.

Indo Sport

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