Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ireland's promising young talent shackled by lack of faith from manager

David Kelly

David Kelly

A warm feeling hung upon the icy Siberian air as Irish supporters congregated in the Dublin 4 freezer.

Could a newly constructed team, framed by a manager engaged belatedly with a sense that renewal could no longer be indefinitely postponed, build upon the tentative green shoots that sprouted in Stockholm?

It was understandable that nervous anticipation also clung stubbornly to nervous supporters, like icicles dangling from a water pipe.

The answer, when it came, was chillingly so familiar that to not recognise it would have been akin to donning shorts and sunglasses strolling down Lansdowne Road.

This was such a familiar script that it made one question whether there was any point in continuing to hear the same tired old lines from the same tired old regime for any longer.

Once again, just as Ireland dabbled with delivering a false sense of security to their supporters by earning a point in Stockholm, so too here they offered so much hope before withdrawing it in the blinking of an eye.

This was not a sudden mugging, but a sadly recognisable submission.

Once again, as much as Giovanni Trapattoni seems to offer encouragement and trust, he wilfully withdraws it in the same breath.

Shane Long, stoutly decreeing that he was not tiring, is bafflingly withdrawn by the manager.

Ireland's midfield, suffering an acknowledged deficit under a simpering response to the unusual position of leading at home, were wilfully denied the option of deploying Wes Hoolahan.

At once, what has made this team so hard to be beaten by anybody, also makes it so hard for them to beat anybody.


Too often, the balance has been so awry at home, when Irish teams have withdrawn into a cocoon of conservatism, shackled by their manager's absence of faith in their ability to replicate feats they may have demonstrated quite effectively just days earlier in more difficult circumstances.

But confidence can only flourish with the necessary environment.

Trapattoni's persistence with a 4-4-2 threatened to over-ride the influx of positively intentioned youth.

Hence, early misplaced passes from the restored Glenn Whelan and the rehabilitated James McCarthy contrasted starkly with Austria's midfield control.

Ireland's tactics were forlorn from the opening whistle, either launching the ball long to Conor Sammon, or diagonally from well outside the fringes of the penalty area.

Martin Harnik, the game's eventual opening goalscorer, was floating dangerously.

Ireland's response was to avoid the danger by floating the ball over his and his colleagues' heads as much as possible. Like so many times under Trapattoni, Ireland's answer to a pressing problem was simply to ignore it.

As so often in the centre of Ireland's midfield, the duo were being bypassed; the routine was the same, only the names were different.

And so, with James McClean double-teamed, Seamus Coleman capisized in his own half and Jonathan Walters marooned on the wing, Ireland struggled to gulp air.

As so often, they sought oxygen through a familiar route. Ireland's spirit, always unquestioned, inured them against adversity once more. Walters would be the ultimate man to profit. When the ceaselessly hard-working Long raced to the byline, hardly an Irish colleague was in support; the utter inanity of Emanuel Pogatetz rendered the issue null and void.

Walters reflected his side's confidence with a stirring penalty kick.

Now level, Ireland treated the restart as an opportunity to regenerate their approach. A second chance for assertion.

McClean was growing in influence and it would have been no surprise that when Ireland pounced for the most timely of goals, upon the brink of the half-time whistle, it would derive from his profitable flank.

Walters, whose strength in the air probably indicated that he, rather than Sammon, should have started through the middle, delivered his header with vicious and violent intent into a goal where both posts remained criminally unmarked.

For Walters, a World Cup appearance in Rio would represent quite a journey, 10 years on from the time when, already it seemed, his troubled career was disappearing into the rearview mirror.

Wilderness years pottering around in the lower divisions eventually led him to the Potteries where, now an established Premiership player, he thrives.

His status in the Irish team has also been of the unsure variety; his two goals in 15 caps before last night betray a duty lived mostly on the fringes, either of the first-choice team or the first-choice front pairing.

Ireland's efforts, surprisingly unbridled, to secure a clinching third, increasingly included Walters in a more concerted, central role as the game developed an almost anarchic feel.

Walters' acute sense of timing and annoyance on the wing rendered the absence of Robbie Brady a negligible talking point, for now. Walters will, of course, seek to argue his case to be reinstated up front, as he was for the final 10 minutes here.

Whatever, as a reminder to his manager of the qualities that perhaps should be trusted a little more than they have been in the past, Walters made his case.

Sadly for him – and Ireland under Trapattoni – it may have all come a little too late to make any difference.

Ireland finished the evening as they started it. Out in the cold and utterly exposed. No amount of bravery could mask that numbing reality as a thousand dreams scattered to pieces.

But then, as the manager so ignorantly declares, we are little old Ireland and we should be grateful to have him.

Apologies, signor Trapattoni, if so many in Irish football don't feel particularly grateful this morning.

Irish Independent

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