Euro 2012: Lack of resources point to spell in the wilderness
Hard times loom as stalwarts consider hanging up their boots, writes Mark Ogden
For the Republic of Ireland, one road ends in Poznan on Monday evening and the next begins in Kazakhstan.
If anything sums up the bleak landscape following Ireland's Euro 2012 misery, it is the route towards Brazil 2014 which, thanks to a quirk in UEFA's map-reading, begins in the central Asian outpost in September before winding it's way back through Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Faroe Islands.
Little wonder then that the Group C encounter with Italy in Poznan tomorrow has the distinct feel of an era coming to an end, with such an arduous journey ahead for those charged with securing qualification for the World Cup.
Damien Duff will win his 100th international cap against the Italians and it will almost certainly be his last. Shay Given (124 caps), captain Robbie Keane (119), John O'Shea (78) and Richard Dunne (75) are all now expected to consider their Ireland futures, with Given already admitting his time may be up, following a hugely disappointing tournament.
Ten years ago, those players were the bright young things ready to follow the iconic Irish figures of Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton and Roy Keane, but it still took them a decade to return to a major tournament.
Now, Giovanni Trapattoni must turn to James McClean, Shane Long, Keiren Westwood, James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman to replace the old-stagers but, in truth, none of them have yet shown the ability to pick up the mantle and the pessimistic view in Ireland is of another decade in the wilderness.
"There's an opportunity now to start afresh for the World Cup campaign and I would hope that there would be a different approach," says John Giles. "They [the current team] have taken us so far, and we've talked about other teams who would love to be there, and Spain are the best team in the world. But of the performances I've seen in the Championships so far, we've been the worst team."
Giles' comments, more considered than Roy Keane's rant about Ireland's players being too happy to go along to a major tournament for a 'sing-song', chime with the mood of a nation ready to look to the future. But what kind of future will it be?
Having signed a new contract prior to Euro 2012 which will tie him to the job until Brazil 2014, Trapattoni will continue in his post as manager. But the 73-year-old Italian, criticised for his conservative approach and reluctance to blood youngsters such as Sunderland winger McClean -- a late substitute against Spain -- ahead of the underperforming stalwarts, remains unconvinced by the merits of the next generation.
"Against Spain, you saw an idea of how we can try to look to the future." Trapattoni said. "For McClean, it wasn't the best time to put him on, but coming on like this will help him understand what international football is all about. Some of the players who are talked about in Ireland need to come in and play these games and get used to it. But it is not easy, because teams play different systems in international football, unlike in England where everybody plays the same way.
"It is a developmental thing. Some of our players don't yet have this experience and they cannot get it in a major tournament because we cannot take chances in such important games."
Trapattoni has hinted at using the likes of McClean and Long tomorrow, but a determination to end the tournament on a positive note will prevent wholesale changes.
"We have to approach the game properly and make sure that Ireland finish with our heads held high,'' he said. "If Italy go through by winning the game, it has to be because we made them play well and with the right attitude."
Despite the lack of resources and ageing veterans, Ireland went into Euro 2012 with many pundits and former players tipping Trapattoni's team to progress from the group, pointing to previous heroics in major tournaments as the basis for their optimism. But the reality is that Trapattoni and his players surpassed themselves by qualifying.
At Euro '88, when Jack Charlton's team were eight minutes away from a place in the semi-finals, Ireland had three title-winners with Liverpool in their starting line-up, two from Manchester United and others from Tottenham and Celtic.
The current squad has no representative from a top four Premier League club, with three free agents, Keith Andrews, Paul Green and Darren O'Dea, among a group of players sourced from the likes of Millwall, Hull and Leicester.
So really, Ireland had no right to hope for success against the stellar squads of Spain, Italy and Croatia.
"I dreamed like everyone else," admitted Duff after the Spain defeat. "I dreamed of going the whole way. Before the game, we believed that we could grind out a result, and I mean that genuinely."
When Trapattoni's new-look team lands in Kazakhstan in September, pessimism is more likely to be the national mood, with few expecting The Fields of Athenry to ring out around the stadiums of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte in two years' time.
Sunday Indo Sport