Five issues trap needs to address
Despite significant recent progress, there's room for improvement if Ireland are to be a qualified success, writes Daniel McDonnell
UPON reflection, Giovanni Trapattoni's first campaign in charge of Ireland was something of a paradox. A journey which ended in failure, that in many ways was a success.
Sure, the bar was low after the Staunton era, but the Italian succeeded in restoring pride to the team, drawing the best from players like Robbie Keane and John O'Shea, increasing the fragile belief which led to so many slip-ups in previous eras, and finally delivering a toughness on the road.
And yet, when the final whistle of that two-year mission was blown, green jerseys were stained with tears.
Leaving the Thierry Henry handball aside -- it would be nice to think that, eventually, it will be fully behind this generation -- the frustrations which members of the Irish camp felt watching this summer's World Cup were about more than that simple freeze frame. With a bit of fine-tuning they could have gone to Paris in a stronger position -- or not needed to go there at all, if they'd avoided the winner-takes-all agony by qualifying automatically.
Two years ago, the play-offs were a target. Now, it's about winning the group, and it's obvious there is room for improvement, albeit considerably less than in 2008. Here are five areas where Ireland can progress ...
1 Better home form
As it happens, O'Shea tackled this heading from a different perspective, suggesting that Ireland were left to rue their away performances when they look back to the ill-fated South African odyssey. You can see where he's coming from, in the sense that favourable situations in Italy, Bulgaria and France weren't capitalised upon, but, in truth, if Ireland had done the business in Dublin against those three teams, they wouldn't have ended up disappointed with draws on foreign soil.
Croke Park never felt like home, and a handful of senior players have come out and admitted as much.
The vast confines and distance from pitch made it difficult for the supporters and so, too, did some abject displays. Georgia and Cyprus spring to mind.
For all the talk of the negative approach, Ireland showed they were capable of taking the initiative away from home; with the first 30 minutes in both Sofia and Paris as an example. Yet, in Dublin, they let winning positions slip away all too easily and allowed the tempo to drop, giving their opposition a gentle path back into the game.
Intensity from the stands at the Aviva will help, of course, but the onus is on the players to make their home ground a real fortress again.
2 Striking cover
How many times during the last campaign did you look at Kevin Doyle and, to a lesser extent, Robbie Keane, and think they might keel over in the last minutes of the game?
Trapattoni is not a prolific user of substitutes by any means, but, when there are options available, he will reshuffle, with the utilisation of his wingers a prime example.
You sense a desperation in the Italian to find a natural understudy to his front pair with Caleb Folan and Leon Best fast-tracked when they emerged. Alas, the former is developing a 'sick-note' reputation and the latter has regressed and is injury-prone anyway.
He sees Shane Long and Andy Keogh as wider options, ignores Daryl Murphy and thinks Anthony Stokes is too much of a showboater.
So, Cillian Sheridan is now the preferred back-up.
Trap was blessed that Keane and Doyle largely avoided ailment in the last campaign; he needs to use friendlies to educate his alternatives -- Long and Keogh deserve game time in the positions they are suited to and don't rule out Stoke new man Jon Walters from breaking in either.
3 Left-back dilemma
Kevin Kilbane may start the Euro 2012 adventure as the man in possession -- expecting the veteran to hold on to it requires a stretch of the imagination.
You sense that Kilbane himself knows he is performing a necessary duty in keeping the seat warm. Who is going to claim it from him? Well, Greg Cunningham is obviously viewed as the long- term solution, given his promotion to the squad before his development at club level. Alas, with expensive recruits ahead of the Galway lad at Eastlands restricting him to reserve team football, others have to be thrown into the mix.
Stephen Ward, twice denied by injury when summoned by Trapattoni, is worth considering and Stephen Hunt would actually fancy a drop back to the role as well, if needs be. Stephen Kelly has also lined out there for Fulham.
Mistakes by Kilbane cost Ireland dear in the last campaign -- although he did well in the play-offs. Trap simply can't be relying on the 33-year-old for the duration of this adventure, nor can Paul McShane be first-choice replacement at right-full.
In the aborted race to South Africa, Irish full-backs were exposed frequently by one-dimensional diagonal balls.
4 Develop wild-cards
Touched upon in the issue of striking cover, with respect to Anthony Stokes in particular.
Look, when the Andy Reid debate ended with the Sunderland star remaining in exile, it became apparent that Trap isn't a man for turning when it comes to certain issues. His system of play won't radically change in this campaign, if at all.
It would be easy to pen an improvement piece and encourage the holding midfielders to suddenly play with real expression, and so on, and so forth. It's not really going to happen, though.
Nevertheless, in Italy, with the hosts a man down, Trap demonstrated that in certain scenarios he can alter things in search of a goal. Indeed, that night, Darron Gibson was pushed into midfield and, like at Manchester United, proved he is more effective when pressed into the opposition half.
The same could be said of James McCarthy, although he is honing the other side of this game at Wigan. And Stokes is just the kind of character with the ability to offer something different in a difficult situation. They are three players who will be crucial to Ireland's long-term future and, with the star men ageing, this trio need to be integrated properly during the next 12 months.
5 The little details
"As the manager said today, it's the little details," said O'Shea on Monday, as he discussed this gaffer's pep talk to mark the beginning of the race towards Poland and the Ukraine. What are they? It's the punishment for switching off for a split second -- for all that Ireland improved organisation-wise, the tendency to switch off at vital moments lingers.
Think of the manner in which the innocuous free which led to that handball was defended, or the gift offered to Bulgaria in Sofia, or the bed wetting that accompanied taking the lead late on against Italy, or even Stephen Kelly's present to Georgia.
OK, you can generally find some fault in the defending for any goal a team concedes, but this Irish side have conceded a number of shockers in a regime built around solidity. Sort it out, and the summer of 2012 could be one to remember.