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Losing the plot or losing the players?

Twelve years ago, not 100 miles from here in Olomouc, Robbie Keane came on as a half-time substitute for Alan Maybury.

He would soon form a pivotal role in what would transpire to be Ireland's most recent, albeit largely unfulfilled, 'golden generation' of burgeoning internationals.

Tonight in Zilina, another defeat, such as that March evening over the border in the Czech Republic, could well mark the beginning of the end for a significant rump of the Irish panel.

And, most pertinently, it could also signify the untenable nature of the exorbitant stewardship of Giovanni Trapattoni, recruited at lavish expense to extract a final, victorious bow for Keane and other gnarled, increasingly frustrated veterans such as Richard Dunne, Shay Given, Kevin Kilbane and Damien Duff.

For, make no mistake, the prospect of unthinkable defeat against Slovakia tonight will raise the oppressive clamour both within and without the squad and turn the spotlight firmly on the management of the much-travelled Italian manager.

Given the intense fissures that have developed within this Irish squad, as amplified in these pages yesterday in the analysis of just how much distance has grown between the manager's belief system and his players' increasing hostility to it, no other scenario can be countenanced should Ireland fail this evening.


There would be little point if, having invested so much faith in the ability of a manager to extract what he feels is the maximum from his deliberately limited selection base, the players then utterly disconnect from their leader's belief system.

Richard Dunne's comments, reported widely here yesterday, sparked the first real signs of dissent from those within the squad. More have followed, pointedly Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan.

The central theme is one wherein Trapattoni is losing the plot. More worryingly, he is losing his players and serious questions are perpetuating about a man upon whose shoulders a large portion of the FAI's dwindling finances have been punted.

Are we witnessing the blinkered ramblings of a detached leader, brainwashing supporters, players and employers alike? Or should we trust in his apparent profundity and be thankful for having him deign to guide us through such troubled waters?

Before the play-off in Paris, the last reference point for what then seemed like the merest hint of dissent compared to the prevailing noise that is emanating from Team Ireland currently, Paul McGrath was one of a few voices declaring that Ireland must break free from this straitjacket.

In this space, a similar exhortation was delivered for a squad worth an estimated €25m per annum to find their own voice and stir from within themselves a worthy declaration of their football intent, so ruthlessly denied them by their manager.

The parallels to Paris, while not entirely apposite, remain relevant to this evening's exercise; even if a neutral result may not necessarily prove to be as fatal as a defeat.

Before Paris, the pervasive concern was that the players appeared to have invested a disproportionate amount of trust in Trapattoni's unswerving devotion to the system. There appeared to be little or no reciprocation in terms of trust.

Hence Trapattoni's inflexible reliance on a robotic system, his spurning of creativity, his intransigent inflexibility, his instructions to full-backs to remain in their own halves.

He wanted to know what his players were going to do at all times. He still does. We wondered then, and still do, why the seemingly supine captain Keane did not attempt to seriously challenge his manager, requesting a better quality service from another midfielder, or suggesting an alternative system.

Keane, after all, has been utterly subservient to Trapattoni throughout the campaign; yet he was the main beneficiary on that evening of tainted glory in Paris, as his more central involvement in the game provided Ireland's away goal, prompted by the rampaging run of a full-back ordinarily instructed to remain in his own half.

Now, surely, the players should be allowed some freedom to compensate for the tireless adherence to often prehistoric instruction. Yesterday, I asked both manager and captain just how Trapattoni's instructions that "No player is allowed to decide what happens on the pitch" benefits the players.

"The system is not closed to creativity," he said. "It is about having order in the pitch. When there is no order there is problems. I don't forbid them from playing their game. I have to inform only about what they should do in this position.


"Until now we have played like this. If you've watched us you can say it's true or not true. You can come to your own conclusions."

Yes, we have and they are brimful of foreboding. Sadly, the captain chose not to reply to the question, seemingly more concerned with upbraiding a journalist at the end of the press conference to refute Sunday newspaper suggestions that he had had a row with Spurs boss Harry Redknapp.

Surely a case of misplaced loyalty on the eve of one of his most important games as Irish captain?

Earlier, when asked whether he supported Trapattoni's tactics, he absolved himself of the responsibilities so publicly and bravely espoused by the de facto captain, fellow Tallaght man Richard Dunne, by retreating into verbal inanity.

"We know exactly what we are supposed to do when we go on the pitch," he said blithely. "The manager is in the game longer than any of us in this room."

And yet Trapattoni's repeated insistence that he was fully cognisant that Russia would play with three midfielders belies that supposed wealth of experience, as does his subsequent refusal to adjust a doomed gameplan.

"If I had said I could foresee the situation we ended up you would not have believed me," remained his barely credible belief. "Your job is analysing. My job is predicting. If I changed and we lost, the criticism is the same. Why are we missing Keane, why do we change the system or players?"

That is to entirely miss the point. Trapattoni, not journalists or supporters, is paid €1.8m a year to assess challenges such as those posed by Russia and react, or gift his players the responsibility and authority to respond.

A prevailing truth, unfurled in Paris, remains constant even 11 months later. This Ireland team can produce a result via a performance which is not entirely predicated upon negative, anti-football.

Dunne and others have espoused that they still believe this to be the case and still their manager refuses to unshackle them. And yet; "I will not change our system," Trapattoni repeats, deaf to the growing entreaties from a cadre of his hitherto most loyal lieutenants.

The sad exception remains Keane. Even when called upon to issue a rallying call ahead of this most decisive of meetings, he struggled to come even vaguely close to emulating the passion imbued in Dunne or Glenn Whelan last weekend.

"You want to win every game. It's important not to lose. It won't be an easy game. We're hoping to bounce back." So hope is all we have left, then.

It's a far cry from the stirring eve of Paris rabble-rousing that predicated Ireland's singular departure from the tactical norm and one which seemingly places him at a distinct remove from some of his team-mates.

All the while, Trapattoni harped on about Friday's deflected own goal, just as he had done when France scored in Croke Park last year. "We will play the same and maybe we get the deflection," he stated then.

Instead, Ireland's players upbraided their manager and delivered a glorious performance that contradicted the arrant nonsense that suggests that they cannot play football with expression and colour.

Ireland, of course, may still profit from their utilitarianism this evening via a deflected corner-kick or a beneficial flick-on from a Shay Given hoof.

Qualification can still be secured within Trapattoni's colourless, lavishly acquired enterprise -- but only from second place. Fitting enough for what he clearly deems to be a second-rate outfit.

Irish Independent