Saturday 21 April 2018

David Kelly: Do we really want two more years of this?

Outclassed, outpassed and, quite simply, out.

The fans stayed on to cheer their fallen heroes, singing the Fields of Athenry with incredible gusto. As the rain continued to sheet down, this had all the atmosphere of that infamous Anfield play-off defeat 16 years ago.

An ageing manager, unable to learn new chimes. A series of veterans struggling to defy the ravages of time, unable to retrieve past glories.

An end, perhaps, of an all too brief and, on the pitch at least, colourless era.

Giovanni Trapattoni had correctly forecast the weather. He had accurately predicted the Spanish team.

His great failure last night was to precisely foretell just how his Ireland team could vainly hope to stifle the Spanish Armada.

In the torrential rain of Gdansk, Ireland went to football war in a lifeboat.

It was always going to be a matter of hope over trust. "Our passion will overcome perfection," said one banner in the stand. Behind the motto lay the intangible element of hope.

Delusion

Bottomless heart would be required to bridge the gap between heartfelt delusion and hard-nosed reality.

Under Trapattoni, Ireland spent four years harvesting a system and a style of play that rewarded defensive resilience and restricted creativity to its barest minimum.

Now, with another major championship outing under his tenure on the verge of implosion, the septuagenarian manager suddenly completed a remarkable volte face.

One sensed that the old dog was leaving it a tad late to try new tricks.

His trust in a prosaic pattern he had striven manfully to implant in his squad, now suddenly abandoned, represented a flight from the trust he so craves.

Simon Cox, the perception of whom was so underwhelming at Reading that he had to leave the club, now found himself leap-frogging erstwhile club colleagues Shane Long and the luckless Kevin Doyle.

Thus, Ireland appeared to operate upon the premise that it didn't matter too much if they had the ball, as is the usual way, but that the Spanish didn't have it in the areas that count.

Trench warfare would be the mantra, the adoption of a siege similar to that fought by the 52 brave post men and women in Gdansk who held out for hours on end against the mightily ruthless German forces 63 years ago.

By the interval, Cox had ran himself into the ground. Ireland had, it seemed, run out of whatever ideas they had to begin with.

Spain, currently soccer's Goliath, harboured doubts entering this wonderful bowled arena too, a threat of inertia that might grip them should their redoubtable tiki-taka style baulk before the crudity of "batter-batter".

For that, Fernando Torres' inclusion represented their own gamble of sorts; a psychological roll of the dice as much as anything, given his recent travails.

One false nine, it seemed, had been replaced by another.

Ireland's surprise choice won the first free-kick and produced the first save, all within the first 96 minutes. Keith Andrews' crunching tackle on the lumpy figure of Sergio Busquets invited indecent exposure to giddy enthusiasm amongst the raucous support.

They enjoyed it while it lasted.

Ireland were down and out before they had a chance to raise a gallop.

Again, it was an unusual slip in standards, literally, from one of the men expected to provide the ballast behind the thinner resources within this Irish squad, as Richard Dunne followed a timely tackle with a fateful lapse in securing the subsequently loose ball.

Ward, whose fallibility against Croatia should have been accompanied by his demotion, was easily ghosted by Torres and his powerful shot mocked Shay Given's uncharacteristically feeble effort to save.

Ireland had arrived with adversity as a bedfellow; now it was their greatest enemy.

Suddenly cracks appeared everywhere; the peerless Andres Iniesta, it seemed, had a direct line through each and every one.

Given was Ireland's primary passer. With each long ball, desperation grew. By the break, Spain's players had passed the ball an average 35 times each. Ireland's figure was 13. Xabi Alonso passed more times than the entire Irish team.

The more Ireland slogged to retrieve the possession so selfishly guarded by the skillful Spanish, the less it appeared they seemed able to do much with it.

In truth, Kevin Doyle's presence would not have mattered a damn. Cox and Keane, when they tracked back, did so fruitlessly for the Spanish would not surrender the ball.

As the front pair dolefully limbered forward, one could see their heads drop in the realisation that they would not see it again for several moments.

John O'Shea, for whom this has also been a hugely disappointing tournament for someone so vastly experienced, once launched a high ball to the front, perhaps unaware that his manager had foregone the option of a target man.

In any event, lamentably, O'Shea's hopeless delivery didn't even make it into the same parish as the intended target.

With Ireland's veterans so below par -- Keane's yellow card typified another fitful display as his irrelevance grew exponentially -- what hope for the rest, notwithstanding the wonderful defiance of Andrews?

When Keane tried to hold the ball up in the corner flag, his renowned skill eluded him, within seconds, Spain were gleefully counter-attacking once more.

As Given's goal was peppered for the 10th time on the verge of the interval tea and oranges, Trapattoni, strangely subdued in the dugout all half, needed to take matters firmly in hand.

The beauty of soccer is that its scoring system allows for the extraordinary paradox of a side's utter dominance not always being reflected on the scoreboard.

Ireland's defensive resilience had been Trojan in reducing Spain to the minimum margin.

With hope flickering, Trapattoni did at half-time what he should have done before the game. He brought on Jonathan Walters; acknowledging that his audacious gamble had been undermined by his own crude style of management.

In team sport, the greatest influences a manager can have are early in both halves, when he has issued his final instructions.

This has not been a happy tournament in that respect for Trapattoni.

Within minutes of the fourth stuttering half of Ireland's tournament, the dream fell further away from their grasp, Given sadly exposed yet again with an awful parry, David Silva then lining up a trio of stunned Irish defenders to teasingly roll the ball into the corner.

Spain concluded as if this were an exhibition. In many ways, it was and Ireland could arguably have done little about it.

Would that the Irish players been allowed to believe a bit more in their own abilities though, however limited their myopic manager might view them.

Trapattoni often chides the ignorance of those in this country who think there should be an aspiration to combine decent football with a winning mentality.

Mercifully, Spain manage to do both.

If Ireland's manager cannot try to change his worldview, then there is little point in listening to the same stultifying tune for another two years.

Especially when the end result is inevitable.

Irish Independent

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