Tuesday 24 October 2017

John O'Brien: Echoes of Big Jack's philosophy hold out hope of another great adventure

John O'Brien wonders how far Trapattoni can inspire a hugely disciplined and tightly organised team to go

'How right is it that an in-form striker such as Jonathan Walters should be deprived an opportunity in preference to a struggling Kevin Doyle?'
'How right is it that an in-form striker such as Jonathan Walters should be deprived an opportunity in preference to a struggling Kevin Doyle?'

There's a story told about former Middlesbrough striker Bernie Slaven and his bit-part role in Ireland's extraordinary journey at the 1990 World Cup.

As the party moved to Genoa and an entire nation sat on the edge of its seat as a tense afternoon against Romania eased into a penalty shoot-out, Slaven sat in the dug-out, wracked with mixed feelings, a part of him hoping Ireland would lose so he could get back to the north of England to see his beloved dogs.

We know this to be true because Slaven subsequently recounted it in detail in his autobiography. Years later, Alan McLoughlin, Slaven's room-mate in Italy, would tell of his disbelief each night when Slaven called home and had his dog, Shauna, put on the phone and Slaven, literally, would bark back in delight. "Mental," McLoughlin recalled. "Absolutely mental. Three weeks that went on. I can still hear it now."

In a way Slaven's position was understandable. The 22-man World Cup squad had convened in Dublin on May 22. Thirty-six days later, with no end in sight and with no conceivable role to play, Slaven's frustration began to bubble over. Frank Stapleton was in a similar boat. Later, back in Dublin, when thousands welcomed the squad home, Stapleton conceded a certain emptiness inside. "The World Cup was over," he said sadly, "but for me it had never really started."

They were far from alone. Alongside Slaven and Stapleton, four other players would go to Italy and not see a single minute of game-time: Gerry Peyton, Chris Hughton, David Kelly and John Byrne. McLoughlin would get 25 minutes against England and Egypt. Ronnie Whelan would scrape half an hour against Holland, John Sheridan even less against Italy. David O'Leary would be restricted to a brief, albeit crucial, cameo in Genoa. In his own inimitable manner, Jack Charlton had a curious way of maintaining the spirits of those on the periphery of the squad.

Stapleton tells of a day during the acclimatisation period in Malta when a practice game was arranged and Charlton drafted in five local Maltese players while Stapleton and four other fringe players were left kicking their heels on the sideline. Whatever curious logic lay behind the exercise, Charlton steadfastly kept it to himself.

What couldn't be disputed was the effectiveness of his approach. Charlton had begun to impose his rigid philosophy on the Ireland team much earlier, but it wasn't until Italia '90 that its shape was truly formed. It is a remarkable statistic, and a testament to the discipline and organisation of his team, that seven of the squad played every second of Ireland's five games in that tournament. Hence Jack's pointed indifference to those not foremost among his plans.

Fast forward 22 years and the clear echoes are unmissable. Because it is only the second time Ireland have reached a European Championship finals, the urge to cast a glance back at Euro '88 and admire the sheer novelty and beautiful innocence of that summer has been irresistible. Yet it's odd to look back and

consider that, in a squad restricted to 20, Charlton chose to bring six strikers. In America six years later, he brought four in a squad of 22.

Italia '90 trips with greater relevance. It was almost uncanny that in belatedly choosing to exclude Wolves' Kevin Foley from his final squad of 23, Giovanni Trapattoni was unwittingly tipping his cap to Charlton's controversial decision to omit Gary Waddock in 1990. Both were ruthless decisions which were poorly handled and ended with the two managers becoming exasperated with reporters.

And there too is the core loyalty of the Italian to his key players and a marked antipathy to radical change. Which of his rivals would effectively have picked his squad a month in advance of the tournament or announced his starting XI a week before the opening game? And what's that faint noise in the background? Big Jack applauding, perhaps. "This is Ireland," Trap seemed to be saying. "This is how we play. Come break us down if you are able."

In a sense, though, it isn't surprising that Ireland managers would select from a very narrow base of players. When Spain were crowned World Cup champions in 2010, only one of their outfield players remained unused and by the end of the group stages Vicente del Bosque had already given 18 of his squad game-time. By contrast, Otto Rehhagel only used the same number for the entire tournament when driving Greece to a shock victory at Euro 2004.

For the manager with limited resources, perhaps, narrow is the way to proceed. In the first four games of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, before injury intervened, Trapattoni picked the same starting XI and used a relatively meagre 26 players over the course of the 12-game campaign. For those on the margins eager to play their way into the starting line-up, it would seem, the omens are hardly promising.

Still, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the team Trapattoni will rely on in Poland and the one Charlton swore by in Italy. Charlton's starting XI, in case you'd forgotten, contained two Liverpool players, then champions of England, as well as two from Aston Villa, their closest pursuers. Blackburn's Kevin Moran apart, all of them plied their trade in the top division. Hughton was in his prime at Tottenham yet couldn't get a look-in that summer. That said it all.

The team Trapattoni fields against Croatia today contains one player, Robbie Keane, from a championship-winning club this season, but otherwise remains a veritable ragbag of players either out of form or out of favour with their clubs, carefully nurtured by the Italian to be far more than the sum of their parts. Ten clean sheets in the last 14 games isn't a statistic worth arguing with. The 14 games preceding Euro '88 had incorporated nine clean sheets. Almost all of Ireland's hopes seem bound up in that one impressive statistic.

Yet, it's also true that Trapattoni's favoured system faces a more rigorous test in Poland that it has previously encountered and how it will cope is hard to say with confidence. It is difficult to see Ireland advancing beyond the group stages without a more adventurous deployment of their troops.

While circumstances may dictate otherwise, how daring do we imagine Trapattoni to be? Will James McClean, for example, remain anything other than a passenger for the entire tournament? And for all the credit Trapattoni deserves for the success of his system, how right is it that an in-form striker such as Jonathan Walters should be deprived the opportunity he deserves in preference to a struggling Kevin Doyle? You can respect the system but continue to argue that things could still be better.

Beyond the patriotic urge and feelings of warmth towards the manager, it's an intriguing and fascinating question as to how far Trapattoni can inspire his team to go. In dragging a ragged, down-at-heel football nation to a first finals in 10 years, Trapattoni would regard this as one of his finest achievements in five decades of management and the urge to take them another step -- and atone for a lapse at Euro 2004 when manager of his native Italy -- will be strong.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine another fairytale? Take a hugely disciplined and tightly organised team effort, add a dollop of Paul McShane (Hull City) and a dash of Paul Green (currently unattached) and the zest of Stephen Hunt (relegated Wolves) to finish. If Trapattoni has got his recipe right, maybe, just maybe the ingredients are there for another unlikely adventure.

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