Thursday 23 November 2017

Richard Sadlier: Rigid regime gave players no chance

FAI must make change after an era defined by tactical inflexibility

Giovanni Trapattoni
Giovanni Trapattoni
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Ireland's 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign will limp to an end next month, as will the reign of Giovanni Trapattoni. One of those is hugely positive for the future of Irish football.

Once the specifics of his selections and his tactics are long forgotten, Trapattoni's time in charge will be looked upon as a success. His greatness as both a man and a football manager will always trump any chat about Paul Green or Wes Hoolahan. But before time has elapsed and clouded our judgement, let's accurately reflect on what has been achieved.

The 2010 World Cup campaign will be reduced to a discussion on poor refereeing, player dishonesty and the harsh injustice of sport. Yet Ireland were denied qualification by two of the poorest teams to compete in the finals – Italy and France. And though they failed to beat Italy despite having an extra man for 80 minutes, it's a lot easier to blame Thierry Henry.

The performance in the European Championships was the worst by any side in the history of the competition. As easy as it is to reference the progress of both Spain and Italy to the final itself, or Ireland's absence from the competition for 24 years, recall the omission of Seamus Coleman from the squad, stubborn team selections, baffling substitutions, public criticism of James McClean and the inability to do anything different than what he has always told the players to do – kick it long and keep it tight at the back. Who would have thought such a crude and outdated strategy would fail so spectacularly?

And what of the current campaign? Kid yourself if you like. Focus on the might of Germany or the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Make a reasoned argument about the limits of the players or the track record of past Ireland teams in keeping possession of the ball. Or better still, remain hopeful of securing a play-off place based on Ireland winning the final three games. Remember, that's still a possibility.

But the results in the Euros were not the only record-breaking achievement under Trapattoni. There was also the home defeat to Germany. The worst thing was, the performance fully deserved the scoreline. Kazakhstan away was an embarrassing shambles, and Friday night was just as disjointed. Kick long, and keep it tight at the back. Schoolboys are given more sophisticated instructions.

Throughout this qualifying campaign, the players have been asked to implement a strategy that limits their potential and plays into the hands of opponents. The disappointment in the Sweden defeat is not based on a belief that Ireland should qualify for all tournaments or play entertaining, possession-based football. It's nothing to do with the aesthetics of the game. If a manager is not maximising the potential of the players at his disposal he is failing in his primary task. Trapattoni has been guilty of that for some time.

The performance on Friday was the natural consequence of everything Trapattoni has asked of his players. There were some very poor individual displays, but the collective effort was nowhere near enough to outsmart a very ordinary Swedish defence. The players did as they were instructed. When Sweden had the ball, they dropped off. When Ireland had the ball, they aimed for the centre forwards. When that was getting them nowhere, Simon Cox was sent on to make the difference. As a winger.

It's almost past the point where any of this matters. It's impossible to present a coherent argument for Trapattoni to remain beyond his contract based on everything we know of how he works. The focus now is on the financial position of the FAI and whether Denis O'Brien remains involved.

The selection of Trapattoni was farmed out to a three-man panel of outsiders, not an unreasonable move given the choice of the FAI in appointing Steve Staunton prior to that. John Delaney's insistence on backing Trap after everything that was learned during the Euros would suggest they'd be wise to do the same again. The search for Trap's successor should have begun as soon as the final whistle blew on Friday evening. Any other response puts the FAI in 'head in the sand' territory.

But what will the new coach be inheriting? Shackled by the limiting instructions of an outdated and elementary system of play, the potential of this group of players is not known. And that's the basic point in all of this. It's not about playing cavalier, eye-catching football that would make every game at the Aviva Stadium a sell-out. It's not about reaching every play-off or guaranteeing qualification. It's not even about whether the new man can speak the language.

It's about giving the best Irish players the opportunity to succeed on the international stage. There are many theories on how to achieve that, but it won't involve giving them one set of tactics in every situation against all types of opponents. It's about supporting the players, not shafting them. It's about more than avoiding defeat.

Ireland may not qualify for Euro 2016. But if they don't, let's not fall into the trap of looking back on this era as something it was not. One play-off defeat and one qualification in three attempts is an impressive statistic, but it is in no way a measure of the experience. History may record it as something else, but it's been a frustrating and demoralising farce for quite some time.

John Delaney and the FAI should have acted before now. They have no alternative but to seek a new manager at this stage. There was a time to make a brave call. Now they are doing the bare minimum required. Same as it ever was.

Sunday Independent

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