Sunday 25 February 2018

Eamon Sweeney: Managing to strangle hope

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Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Had Ireland held out for another minute against Austria on Tuesday, Giovanni Trapattoni might have been inspired by the presence of Morrissey to greet his critics with the chorus of the Morbid One's greatest song, How Soon Is Now – "You shut your mouth, how can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does."

But they didn't so he didn't. And heaven knows we're miserable now. It's a bit rich for Trap and his dwindling band of apologists to say that the performance was good and that the result would have been too had we stopped Austria from equalising. In the first place, this brings to mind a well-known maxim concerning the essential difference between an aunt and an uncle.

And in the second, it ill behoves someone who's excused all kinds of uninspiring displays on the grounds that we got a result to suddenly start claiming the performance is what matters. In the end teams, and managers, live and die on results. And the problem at the moment is not even that Trap seems to have lost the knack of eking out results, it's that he seems to have become a positive hindrance to his team doing so.

There will always be those who defend him simply because he's the man in charge. This slavish faith in authority is perhaps our most unlovely national characteristic, one summed up by the immortal phrase from back in the day, "I suppose you know more than the priest". But it doesn't really require top-level managerial experience to see how the boss is screwing things up. It's pretty obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

It was obvious, for example, that Wes Hoolahan should have been introduced midway through the second half on Tuesday night because his creative skills would at least give us a chance to lift the siege which was developing and which was only going to have one result. In the brief time allotted him in Stockholm, Hoolahan got on the ball and showed typical invention in almost putting Andy Keogh in for a winning goal. It seems likely that he would have prospered on the counter against an Austrian team committed to pushing forward in numbers.

And no great arcane knowledge was necessary to discern the foolishness of withdrawing Shane Long from the fray with ten minutes left and leaving Conor Sammon on the pitch. A big lumbering centre-forward like Sammon was superfluous to the requirements of a team seeking to catch the opposition on the break. In any case he was obviously exhausted. Far better surely to bank on the mobility and energy of Long, not only a different type of player to Sammon but a much, much better one.

For that matter what was Sammon doing on the field in the first place? Hoolahan would have been a far more sensible choice to start the game. As indeed would Kevin Doyle. For all the talk about Doyle's decline which followed his exclusion from the panel, he did earn the equalising penalty and score the late winning goal in our first qualifying match against Kazakhstan, probably saving Trap's job in the process. His sudden total eclipse by a player who has scored nine goals in 73 games in English football is just one more of those inexplicable decisions which have blighted the manager's reign.

That was last week's inexplicable decision. The previous week's was the initial selection of Paul Green ahead of James McCarthy for the Sweden game, the lunacy of which was made clear when Glenn Whelan dropped out through injury and McCarthy gave a man-of-the-match performance. So good was the Wigan player's display that it prompted a rare tacit admission by Trap that he'd been wrong when he kept McCarthy in the team on Whelan's return and dropped Green.

Yet the manager's faith in the Leeds United journeyman is such that it seems to belong to the realm of theology rather than football and so when Long was withdrawn, it was not Hoolahan or Doyle who came on but Green. It was as though Trapattoni simply couldn't help himself, as though with victory just round the corner he had to cock a snook at his critics. But international football usually punishes those who act stupidly and that's what happened on this occasion. Green's introduction only served to exacerbate Ireland's backs-to-the-wall approach. David Alaba's goal might have come late but it seemed inevitable.

The problem with Trapattoni is not just that he makes the wrong decisions – what manager doesn't on occasion? – but that they seem rooted in self-indulgence. It's as though he's become more concerned with proving himself right than with doing the best for the team. At times he and Marco Tardelli, who increasingly resembles a clownish sidekick inserted into an opera buffa for the purposes of comic relief, seem almost to despise the country where they've fetched up and the players who represent it.

Witness the manager's denigration of James McCarthy after he'd dropped him for the Sweden match, his insistence that the midfielder simply wasn't creative. It says a lot about Trapattoni that he'd slag off one of his best players just to make a point in a press conference.

At this stage Trapattoni resembles nobody so much as King Lear, a once powerful man whose doting insistence on getting his own way is in danger of reducing his legacy to rubble.

Even the good Irish performances in the last two games merely serve as indictments of an out-of-touch manager. Looking at the tremendous class and composure of Seamus Coleman at right-back against both Sweden and Austria, it beggars belief that the Everton defender was, less than a year ago, considered not good enough to make the squad for the European Championships. Two terrific displays by James McClean called to mind the fact that the Sunderland player was marginalised by Trap to such an extent that he almost tweeted himself out of the squad in Kazakhstan.

And what of Shane Long, whose brio and invention were a constant treat to watch in the Aviva? This is the player who was publicly disrespected by Tardelli and who found himself sitting on the bench in the Euros while the manager pursued his ill-judged infatuation with Simon Cox. Long's energy and adventure against Austria also threw into sharp relief the sheer poverty of Robbie Keane's recent performances for the national team. When the most impressive thing you've done in the qualifying campaign is sit beside Morrissey, it's time to jack it in. Robbie should take heed of his cousin's career and its lesson that going on too long can turn even the most talented into an embarrassment.

Marc Wilson and James McCarthy are two more players who shone for Ireland last week after previous treatment at the hands of the manager which would have driven lesser men to despair.

For too long Trapattoni has been let off the hook by the statement that 'we just don't have the players anymore'. Yet the past week's performances have shown that while the current crop might not be the equivalent of Jack Charlton's 1988-1994 sides, they do have the potential to qualify for major tournaments.

All over Europe small countries are making the most of limited resources: tiny Montenegro sit on top of Group H with England, Poland and the Ukraine in their wake while Bosnia-Herzegovina lead Group G. Iceland, Israel, Bulgaria and Hungary, none of them blessed with especially gifted players, lie second in their groups. A similar showing should not be beyond Ireland, given decent management. It doesn't even need to be particularly inspirational, just reasonably sane.

But while Trap remains we can write off the possibility of progress. Because, in the final words of that Morrissey masterpiece, "When you say it's gonna happen now, well when exactly do you mean? See, I've already waited too long and all my hope is gone."


Drug cheats must be banned for life

The news that the winner of the women's 1,500m at the London Olympics, Turkey's Asli Cakir Alptekin, has tested positive for a banned substance can hardly be categorised as one of sport's great surprises. Alptekin's rise to prominence in 2012 had been accompanied by a great deal of suspicion and disbelief and her Olympic victory was met with a distinctly subdued reaction.

A year earlier, Alptekin hadn't even been able to make the World Championship final. But it wasn't the subsequent improvement in form which saw her knock six seconds off her personal best before London which accounted for the sour taste in people's mouths. It was that Alptekin had previously served a two-year ban for doping, in 2004 when she tested positive after finishing sixth in the world junior 3,000m steeplechase final.

The fact that the Turkish runner isn't the only repeat drug offender in athletics would seem to show that it's time for the authorities to punish doping violations with a lifetime ban. Because right now the gains are not outweighed by the possible severity of the punishment. If caught, a ban is only a brief setback. The odds are attractive to the ethically challenged.

To a young athlete, a two-year ban is merely a slap on the wrist. They can continue to train during those two years and they can presumably continue to take performance-enhancing drugs as well given that they are out of reach of the authorities. The reluctance to impose lifetime bans for first-time offences seems to stem from the sentimental notion that a young athlete may be led towards drug use out of inexperience or because of the influence of a dominating coach. Yet Alptekin's case is the latest to show that once you're a cheat, you'll probably always be a cheat. The question marks over Marion Jones were there from her teenage years after all.

The extreme leniency of the current drugs sentencing regime can be seen from the case of Justin Gatlin, who received a two-year ban for drug use in 2001, came back to the sport to win Olympic and world gold, got a four-year ban in 2007 and was back in time for the London Olympics where he won a bronze medal. His US team-mate LaShawn Merritt, the reigning world and Olympic champion over 400m at the time, was banned for two years after failing a drugs test in 2010 but he returned to win silver at the following year's World Championships. These lads can apparently alter not just their body chemistry but the nature of time itself. No wonder athletes are tempted to dope.

The result is that major races are compromised to such an extent that athletics runs the risk of following cycling into utter disrepute with an increasing number of people turning away from the sport because they can't believe the evidence of their eyes. Alptekin's victory was seen as a hollow one right from the start. But there are also question marks over the silver medallist, her team-mate Gamze Bulut, who took a full 39 seconds off her personal best in the previous two years.

And what about the fourth-placed athlete in London Tamara Tomashova, denied a medal by Alptekin's cheating? Well, back in 2008 she served a two-year ban for a doping offence. Of course she was back in time for the next Olympics. It's a cod, isn't it?


Athletes lead field in straight talking

Peter Collins was struggling Sunday lunchtime. He wanted a nice feel-good wrap-up dwelling on the positive aspects of Ireland and Fionnuala Britton's performance in the World Cross-Country Championships but, tee her up though he might, Catherina McKiernan was giving him nothing.

He pointed out that Ireland had finished fifth and were the first European team home and that Britton's 14th place equalled her previous best performance in the championships. But McKiernan was having none of it. The possibility of medals for both Britton and the team had been mooted in the build-up and she wasn't going to be pretend that the race hadn't fallen short of expectations.

She wanted to speculate why this had been the case and so, while Peter tried to make her look on the bright side, the greatest Irish cross-country runner of them all suggested Britton's build-up had been poor because she had run the wrong kind of races. Maybe she was right, maybe not but she was determined to get her points across and they were far more interesting than some patronising insistence that both team and individual deserved nothing but pats on the back.

I like Peter Collins. But he was no match for McKiernan. She was implacable and you haven't heard implacable till you've heard it in a Cavan accent. For that matter the other pundit, former Olympian Thomas Chamney, was less interested in soothing the nation's tortured soul than attempting a forensic analysis of why things hadn't quite worked out.

Athletes are the least sentimental of people. They work harder than almost any other sportspeople, must depend on themselves rather than a team and can't cod themselves about how good they are. The clock doesn't lie.

That's why there's a certain clear-eyed and flinty quality about them as analysts. Jerry Kiernan has it in spades but so too do Chamney, Ailis McSweeney and David Matthews. It makes them the most knowledgeable and interesting of pundits. A performance like that of McKiernan and Chamney this day last week is a breath of fresh air.

Other sports take note.

Irish Independent

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