Sunday 25 February 2018

Trap's beautiful mind game

The Ireland manager has instilled a work ethic that may not be pretty but is effective, writes Dion Fanning

After 15 minutes in Yerevan on Friday, Kevin Doyle wondered how he would keep going. The heat and humidity was even more draining than had been anticipated. All around him Ireland's players were searching for air. There was no recovery time as the Armenians swept past Irish defenders with dangerous and taunting runs.

Doyle feared it would be a long night and he was right. Keith Fahey spoke afterwards about the quietness in the Ireland dressing room at the end of the game. The Irish team were exhausted but the silence was also a sign of a developing maturity.

When George Graham managed Arsenal with pure pragmatism, he would tell his side of London boys to "get the three points and get out of this country town" when they went to places that were alien to them like Norwich or Leicester.

Ireland went to Armenia with similar purpose but maybe more apprehension. Irish football has bad memories of places like Yerevan. But on Friday, they demonstrated their commitment to Giovanni Trapattoni's philosophy and the willingness to fight for it. Trapattoni's philosophy means nothing without the willingness to fight for it and a result at the end of it.

Yesterday in Malahide, Trapattoni returned to one of his core themes. The imaginary violin was out again as he pointed out that Argentina and Brazil had played beautiful football but were knocked out of the World Cup. Brazilians would argue with him that Dunga's side were beautiful but Trapattoni has been 50 years forming this argument and he isn't going to be knocked off course.

There is beauty for Trapattoni, as there is for many professionals, in winning 1-0, especially in a place like Yerevan. If all there is in the history books is the result, then a 1-0 might tell a story of a team that is hardened and organised. Ireland suggested on Friday night that it could be their story in this campaign.

Early in the game, Shay Given ran to the half-way line to make a point. Ireland had been caught by a swift Armenian break following an Irish corner and he didn't want it to happen again.

There has been an important change of emphasis from Trapattoni already. He had seen the opportunity available from a victory in the opening game and now, with Andorra at Lansdowne Road on Tuesday night, Ireland will surely not squander the opportunity to go into the key October matches with six points.

"We have learned we can get a result even when we don't play well," said Trapattoni. "We now know that if it isn't a beautiful day for us that it doesn't matter. You just keep going, looking for one point if that is available or grinding out a win if it is available."

But he spoke all week of the chance to go and win on Armenian soil and on Thursday said he could picture a group with Ireland at the top of it. This was not the talk of play-offs or the ancestral and unnecessary respect paid to Italy in the last campaign.

Ireland might not have played with the same freedom they showed in Paris but there was something of the attitude and it seems this team is now understanding the manager and benefiting from some stability.

Ireland begin this campaign with the same manager who started the previous campaign for the first time since 2000 when Mick McCarthy began his last full campaign which would end with qualification. There has been constant disruption to Irish football since, but now given time and, more importantly, given time with a manager who knows what he is doing, Ireland are showing maturity.

"Any corners in the last minute tonight, I automatically know straight away what I'm to do," Kevin Doyle said on Friday night. "Robbie knows what he has to do. Whoever is on the pitch knows exactly what they have to do. There's no 'who's picking up him', everybody knows. It's just simple things like that, really. We have a settled team, a settled squad. We're all pretty familiar. Things become like second nature, you don't really have to think about it. It helps eliminate mistakes straight away. In other times, we had a lot of different people with injuries, people coming on and not knowing what to do. I think the fact that we're lucky with injuries and we have a pretty settled squad. It's been drilled into us."

So the squad knew the significance of the 1-0 win. Trapattoni talked about the psychology of the result and the dressing-room mood afterwards reflected that simple truth. Ireland have spent a few years coming to places like Armenia and talking up their results. They had no need for spin on Friday.

"If they had beaten us, obviously, it would have been very disappointing but I think the draw we could have accepted. We went to Montenegro last year and got a draw in similar sort of conditions and went on to do quite well in the group. We wanted to start on a high and we have done. We know it won't be easy for other people here."

Doyle's strength is that he shows no appetite for the things that come easy. He was outstanding, selfless and restrained in the Republican Stadium, no matter what kind of a kicking came his way.

"Yeah, it was good fun," he said with a smile. "There was plenty of to and fro, the ref gave some mysterious ones against me and vice versa. You know it's just the way it is, it's enjoyable when you come out on top, not so enjoyable when the centre-half is winning everything. But it was effective tonight, we created some chances and we don't mind when that's the case."

His team-mates don't mind that Doyle takes the punishment. "There were times when there were three Armenian players jumping on his back," Shay Given said later with admiration. "People say he doesn't get enough goals, but he creates enough goals for the team and it is not about individuals getting goals, it is about the team creating goals and Kevin is really crucial for our team."

When Trapattoni was asked about Doyle in Malahide yesterday morning, his eyes lit up. He will talk about Robbie Keane, his talent and his symbolic importance but Doyle is everything Trapattoni looks for in a footballer. In Yerevan, he showed why. Ireland would not have won without his selflessness but the team also showed their maturity.

"It's the last few years, it's not just tonight," Doyle said. "We've been working towards that. A couple of years ago we wouldn't have ground that out, you'd give away a sloppy goal but tonight we ground it out. It's the culmination of a few years' work but hopefully we can keep it going. We weren't nervous though, no one was nervous, everybody was very calm. It wasn't in the back of my mind that we were going to concede a goal. I was trying to get another goal."

In the last minute, Doyle cut in from the corner flag and lost possession. "I only realised afterwards that it was the 46th minute and they were breaking down the other end and I was thinking 'I could get in trouble for this one'. But with the confidence we had, I don't think we were ever feeling on edge like we have done in the past."

Trapattoni spoke yesterday of his growing faith in the team. He was asked if he will let them go out and play on Tuesday, to enjoy themselves, but you might as well ask him if he would like to be known as the great entertainer, to score four if the other team scores three.

He is unlikely to make changes. If Ireland are winning 2-0, he said, he would consider it but not before then. He was asked if he would, once again, be happy with a 1-0 on Tuesday. He didn't say he would be, but there is nothing in his story which suggests it would cost him sleep. With Slovakia playing Russia on Tuesday in Moscow, Ireland have a chance to top the group this week but they know, barring calamity, that they won't be behind before Russia arrive in Dublin next month.

Trapattoni is talking of his trust in this team and his team's trust in him. "When I first came in they make useless fouls and football is in the details." The players felt they had learned the lessons from those mistakes on Friday night.

Yesterday Trapattoni returned several times to the goal Ireland conceded against Italy as an example of what not to do. He has a team he thinks he can rely on. "Players understand my philosophy now. There is theory and then there is the reality on the pitch."

Trapattoni thinks the reality is going to get better for Irish football.

Sunday Independent

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