Euro 2012: Laws of possession catch up with the poor relations
Perhaps the most poignant sight, on a night when there were many of them, was the gallant attempt by Irish players to keep the ball.
They had always been gallant without the ball. Many of them have made a career out of their willingness to tackle and chase and run hard. It would be unfair to say it's all they know, but at times playing for Ireland it's all they do.
And it's not their fault either. They are products of the system that produced them, long before they'd ever heard of a man called Giovanni Trapattoni. Sadly, the need to keep the ball was never drilled into them with anything like the same zeal. No doubt they heard about the importance of work rate a million times as schoolboys. But no one ever gave them the tools to become 'comfortable on the ball'.
It's a phrase that's used over and over, in Britain and Ireland, usually to contrast the inferior skills of indigenous players with foreign imports in the Premier League or with various national teams. And it's remarkable that no matter how often the skills gap is mentioned, no matter how often it is exposed in international competition, nothing seems to change.
The current Irish players grew up in a culture where it was okay to kick the ball away at the slightest sign of pressure; where safety first was paramount; where hoofing the ball into the proverbial row Z was a responsible thing to do; where a player would be hammered for failing to track back but excused for making a poor pass.
They tried to keep possession at various moments of the first half last Thursday night because they knew they had to try it. But it only served to show how uncomfortable they were on the ball. They looked awkward and stilted and ill at ease. They could only manage it deep in their own half where they had enough time and space to mechanically move it around. And it usually petered out after four or five passes anyway.
It was poignant to behold because they were so ill-equipped to do it. They were trying to defy a lifetime of conditioning. Their first instinct would've been to punt it forward, as they had been coached to do since childhood. And yet there they were, trying to do the right thing, when every voice in their head was screaming at them to get rid of it.
The saddest aspect was that they were trying to do it against Spain, modern masters of the possession game. In fact, calling them modern seems a bit passé because what the Spanish are doing is so sophisticated it looks futuristic, like something that will still be modern 50 years from now. Here were two teams at opposite extremes of the spectrum. Ireland's effort at keeping the ball was, by comparison, almost pitiful.
Trapattoni threw on Jonathan Walters at half-time and the Irish abandoned any pretence to the passing game thereafter, going long to Walters instead. In the circumstances, it came as a relief.
The great man for once looked all of his 73 years in the TV interviews afterwards, and no wonder. His project was in tatters. He had seen the principles upon which he had built this team crumble before his eyes over the course of two games. Trap hadn't so much coached these players as indoctrinated them.
Everything he had taught them and repeated, over and over, seemed to have been forgotten. He had drilled the fundamentals into them: concentration, rigour, discipline, more concentration. These were the controllables and they were supposed to minimise the mistakes and lapses that lead to goals.
It was working too. It had brought the team to the European Championships. They'd conceded just three goals in 14 games. Against Croatia last Sunday, they conceded three in 48 minutes, the first to a player who was criminally unmarked. It came three minutes into the game. The second came three minutes into the second half. The first Spain goal came four minutes into the game, the second four minutes into the second half. This in its entirety was a departure from the Trapattoni standard. It was an aberration.
The performance against Croatia was particularly baffling. The expectation was that they would be outplayed. But this team had been outplayed before and had survived. On this occasion they
were also unnerved. They appeared to have stage fright. The characteristic conviction and unity of purpose were missing. There was no leadership from the senior players in the team. Some of the other players went into their shells. Keith Andrews was about the only player who seemed inspired by the grandeur of the event. He was magnificent in the Spanish siege, Ireland's player of the tournament.
By making Euro 2012 Ireland were over-promoted. The hope was that they would bridge the gap in class through the system, the manager, and an irrepressible team spirit. The gap instead became a chasm.
The veterans on this team have been outstanding in their commitment over many years. They wanted desperately to make it to another major tournament before the end came. Trapattoni had unfinished business too. They managed to drag each other to the big show for one last hurrah.
For services rendered, they deserved a happier climax. For performances on the night, they got what they deserved. It was a sad finish to some very honourable careers.
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