Saturday 25 November 2017

Trap stumbled on a creative team in Sweden and he dismantled it over 90 minutes on Tuesday night

Under-fire manager is so conservative that even the chaos has been predictable, writes Dion Fanning

Giovanni Trapattoni had spent a good deal of Wednesday explaining why he had no explaining to do. He had made the right decisions, employed the correct tactics and the inexperience of his players was the reason Ireland had failed – yet again – to defeat a rival at home.

"Sure, it cost us three points," Trapattoni said of the failure of Paul Green and Jonathan Walters to keep an injury-time free-kick in the corner shortly after he said he wasn't looking to make excuses.

If there was a cause beyond the inexperience of his players, it was a cultural decline. Once Ireland had players like Roy Keane, now they have "one at Wigan, one at Leicester".

When it was put to Trapattoni that Ireland's failure to keep the ball had led to exhaustion and created a sense of inevitability about Austria's equaliser, he played his trump card. "Do you know what teams I have managed? Juventus, Milan, Inter." He had seen it all and had a CV that promoted infallibility.

When the FAI appointed Trapattoni five years ago, his CV brought delight. Even if for the previous five or six years he had displayed worrying signs that, like many men, he was becoming more conservative as he got older. And he was pretty conservative to begin with.

There were times in both games over the past nine days when Ireland looked like they were shaking off the rigid conservatism of the manager. In the first half last Tuesday, Ireland took a few short free-kicks, something that has rarely been seen under Trapattoni. With independent-minded players like Marc Wilson in the line-up, Ireland looked to play the ball infield, not always successfully. Following on from the Sweden game, there were reasons to be hopeful. But in 45 minutes those reasons vanished as surely as Ireland's chances of reaching a play-off.

On Wednesday, Trapattoni was unaware that only the top eight second-place sides reached those play-offs. He believed one second-placed team qualified automatically when, in fact, one misses out entirely.

This is no administrative oversight. Trapattoni had stated the night before that drawing or winning didn't really matter as Ireland are now level with Austria and Sweden. But the second-place team in each group is competing with the second-place team in every other group so points are crucial. It was easy to imagine Steve Staunton in that position and the mauling that would have followed.

Over the two games, Trapattoni achieved the minimum necessary to survive which means, at this stage in the campaign, there is no appetite for a change. Ireland will now stumble into the autumn, mathematically in contention but emotionally broken. Ireland's campaign has been entirely predictable. Trapattoni has demonstrated his great qualities of resilience and toughness while others have been less assured.

In October, the FAI's "senior source" made a botched attempt at launching a coup. The Board of Management subsequently backed the manager and the FAI got tough on the cosmetics. They ordered Trap to go to England to see more matches. He did what he was told and came back with Conor Sammon.

If the ability of some of the Irish players was demonstrated in Stockholm and during the first half in Dublin, the manager asserted his authority in team selection and in his decision to persevere with Sammon.

There is an understandable reluctance to criticise Sammon as he is a player who gives everything. More importantly, Conor Sammon doesn't pick Conor Sammon for Ireland and he doesn't decide that Conor Sammon will play for 90 minutes with Shane Long taken off instead of him.

Trapattoni made those decisions and while the manager and players were keen to point out that Ireland had been one minute away from victory, David Alaba's equaliser reflected the way the game had gone for the last half an hour.

Sammon serves many purposes for Trapattoni. If the people around Europe who marvel at all Trapattoni has achieved watched Ireland play with Sammon rather than, say, Wes Hoolahan, they would indeed think Trap was working miracles.

Sammon's limitations also ensured that Ireland never kept the ball for too long which means the midfield never advanced too far forward. In some ways, the game Ireland played against Austria in the second half is the game Trapattoni wants them to play. They have men behind the ball and they gamble, in the deeply conservative way, that they will hold out as they did in Moscow.

Trapattoni pointed out that Ireland had played some good football in midfield on Tuesday and there were many things to be encouraged about over the two games.

Yet Ireland are now gambling on others helping them and it would be particularly helpful for Sweden and Austria to draw twice. "Never say never," Trapattoni said when asked what made him think Ireland could beat Sweden in September when they have failed to beat anyone better than Armenia in a home qualifier during his five years in charge.

He pointed to the results across Europe as examples of how the quality is improving. If Finland could draw with Spain in Gijon then anything is possible. Trapattoni uses improving standards when it suits him but they never seem to be improving in Ireland. In Ireland, he always hints that people are carrying around crazy notions. "I play against Ireland of Roy Keane, Stapleton. I play. It was very, very strong team with personality. Now we have one in Wigan, one in Leicester." Again it was the inexperience of the team that was lacking at key moments.

John O'Shea was one of the Irish players who felt Ireland could have been more "cynical" in injury-time. But it was not inexperience that led to Austria's equaliser. Walters had been superb on the right before he was inexplicably moved up front. He also spent the second half rolling out every time-wasting trick he has picked up at Stoke.

Ireland wasted plenty of time taking the free-kick that Trapattoni felt revealed their inexperience. Green was fouled on 89 minutes 54 seconds. It took Green 30 seconds to take the free-kick short to Walters even if he could have waited until Walters was closer to him. Walters lost the ball and Austria were awarded a free-kick but Ireland recovered possession four more times and gave it away cheaply each time before Alaba's shot, which was two minutes after Green was fouled, was deflected in.

It wasn't inexperience or a lack of personality that cost Ireland on Tuesday but the manager's mistakes. He had stumbled on a team of creativity in Stockholm but on Tuesday night he dismantled it over 90 minutes.

The campaign is likely to stumble to a dismal end unless the players assert themselves as they did in Stockholm and for 45 minutes in the Aviva. Trapattoni insists that he remains united with his squad and nothing else matters.

"They are responding to me one hundred per cent," he says. "Because I am very, very sincere with them. Obviously those who aren't playing are not happy. I would be worried if they were. It is better if he is disappointed. The atmosphere is very, very good."

His relationship with the FAI, he said, mattered less. "The federation has a role, a position. We have achieved things as a group."

Certainly Trapattoni displayed all that makes him great and all that makes him bewildering over the past 10 days. Yet even the chaos was entirely predictable. If Ireland are to make the play-offs, Ireland's 74-year-old manager will finally have to do something surprising.

Irish Independent

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