Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Evolution, not Revolution......

So, as the dust settles on the first 10 days of the Martin O'Neill era, have we seen signs of the changes the people were baying for at the back end of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign? Prior commitments in Donegal had unfortunately kept me away from the arrival of O'Neill and his headline grabbing choice of assistant at Lansdowne Road for the first game under his charge, so I had to rely on TV highlights and conversations with those I normally attend with to gauge an opinion. What I saw looked broadly positive with the fact that Wes Hoolohan was employed in behind Robbie Keane, along with the defence and midfield as a whole playing further up the pitch giving the central midfielders more opportunity to collect the ball from defence and a different option to play the ball into. There was a decent tempo to the Irish play and the atmosphere was definitely helped by the excitement generated by the new management team. Without the new team in place, a friendly against the team ranked 117th in the world would not have looked an attractive night out in mid-November and while the official attendance announced at 37,100 looked to be slightly over estimated given the empty seats on display, there's no doubt that the appointment of O'Neill probably accounted for the guts of 10,000 of that number and you could say the same again for his appointment of Roy Keane as his number 2.
It was a familiar feeling with the new era starting with a goal from Robbie Keane after 20 minutes (his fifth in a row at home) and it looked like this was an opportunity for the floodgates to open, given how poor the opposition had looked till then. The goal was followed by a couple of chances for Keane and for the impressive James McClean but half time arrived with the score at 1-0. The second half began with a similar pattern, Ireland again creating chances (again mainly involving McClean) but it took until the 68th minute for the second goal to finally arrive. Aiden McGeady, who'd also been impressive on the flanks, was gifted the ball through a misplaced pass and drilled it into the bottom corner. With the game safe, although it must be said that Latvia had never really threatened the Irish goal, O'Neill rang the changes, introducing Andy Reid, Jon Walters and Shane Long on for McGeady, Keane and Hoolahan and it wasn't long before 2 of the subs were involved in the move and goal of the match. Walters did very well to play in Seamus Coleman on the overlap and he hit a perfect ball to the feet of Long who finished well at the far post. More changes followed with Paul Green, Anthony Stokes and Kevin Doyle coming on for Whelan, McClean (a worthy Man of the Match for me) and McCarthy. Stokes did his best to try and get off the mark with a couple of efforts but there was little else of note in the remaining few minutes and the 3-0 final scoreline was an encouraging start, judging by the highlights at least.

That said, I found some of the reaction afterwards from some quarters, including the RTE panel, ridiculously OTT. The opposition were pretty much as poor as you could get. The last 4 games of the Trap era against similarly ranked opposition ended in 4-1 victories against Oman and the Faroe Islands, a 3-0 victory against the Faroes again and a 4-0 victory against Georgia so putting 3 or 4 goals away against the minnows wasn't an issue, even under the safety first approach of Trap. This seems to have been airbrushed from history in the disappointment of the final 2 games he was in charge for against Sweden and Austria. Trap's problem was getting results (and victories in particular) against the teams ranked above us. However, it was encouraging to see us mix our approach up a bit against those lower ranked teams who we clearly have the ability to pass our way around.

And so onto last night and the return to the scene of last years heartbreak in Poznan for the first away game of the new era. With holidays thin on the ground coming towards the end of the year, I decided against being one of the 200 hardy souls that made the return trip and settled instead for watching the game from the comfort of the couch with a few friends. Although O'Neill had said that he intended giving everyone in the squad a run out over the 2 games, it must be said that the team selected was very reminiscent of what would have been played by his predecessor with a flat 4-4-2 including a striker out on the right in Walters, who was Captain for the night, and starts for 2 of the players who were given far too much stick in some quarters for allegedly being Trap's pets, in the aforementioned Green and Stephen Ward. I think it's safe to say that, had Trap still been in charge, the team selection would have been met with howls of derision on the message boards and comments sections of online media! But hey, it's a fresh start and everyone's got a clean slate. Plus, in my opinion, it was important for the manager to have a look at everyone in the squad especially considering the squad was picked by Noel King rather than O'Neill.

Before the kick off, the esteem in which the Irish fans are held in Poland was clearly visible by a lovely gesture by the 30,000 or so home fans who applauded all the way through Amhrán na bhFiann. However, once the game kicked off,  it wasn't just the team picked that was reminiscent of the worst of the Trap era. Ireland actually started quite well with McGeady looking to get on the ball and generally being pretty dangerous and, following a corner that he won, we really should have gone ahead. McGeady himself took the corner which was flicked on perfectly by Walters but with the goal gaping, Stephen Kelly somehow managed to head the ball into the ground and it bounced up and over the bar. The set piece itself was very similar to that which led to Keane's goal against Latvia and it really should have paid dividends again here. Well worked set pieces have always been a big part of O'Neill's approach and it seems clear that a degree of work had been done on this aspect of the game this last 10 days. But, having started quite well, as has been often the recent case, the longer the half went on the more ragged Ireland seemed to become.

John O'Shea takes the wrong meaning from the talk about O'Neill's All Ireland team......

This wasn't help by an enforced change when Sean St Ledger, who'd been solid in what was a rare outing this season, picked up a groin injury and was replaced by an out of sorts John O'Shea. Indeed, O'Shea was lucky to last more than 3 minutes when he blatantly handled a ball that Lewandowski was running onto after flicking it over his head. It was around this time that Ireland started to look a little ragged and Poland began exerting more control for the close to 10 minutes or so left of the half.  One thing I did notice was that, while James McCarthy has had better games recently, there was a bite to his play that has been missing in the past and he was prepared to demand the ball a bit more and was more robust in his tackling.  This may have been down to him getting more experience and responsibility at a team at the right end of the Premier League or maybe some training ground influence from Roy Keane or even a combination of both but it was encouraging to see.  The potential is certainly there for him to be a very important player for us if he can start combining that facet of play with the obvious ability that he has.

 Not a red???

Come the start of the second half, the pattern of the game remained pretty similar with Poland having more of the ball than at the same stage in the first half but not really giving David Forde in the Irish goal anything much to do. Mention should be made of the much maligned Paul Green who was very solid in the defensive midfield role making a number of blocks and interceptions which helped keep Forde relatively untroubled and he was certainly a candidate for man of the match. The usual raft of second half substitutions duly arrived with my man of the match, McGeady being replaced by McClean being the first of these, but the next thing of note that happened should really have resulted in a red card after an absolutely horrific challenge on Walters by Michal Pazden luckily not resulting in serious injury. It's possible that the ref was lenient due to not sending off O'Shea for his handball in the first half but tackles like that really shouldn't be tolerated, friendly or not. McClean put a decent ball into the box on the resumption of play but no one could take advantage and the longer the game went on, the more difficult Ireland found it to keep possession for any meaningful period. The very poor and heavy conditions of the pitch certainly didn't help and it's not surprising that players may revert to old habits early on in a new managers reign. That said, the little bit of possession we did have should have resulted in the creation of a breakaway chance when Hoolohan played a quick free kick over the Polish defence to where McClean was free in acres of space, but inexcusably he had moved into an offside position when having held his run across the line would have resulted in a clear run through on goal. McClean had a decent time of it the last couple of games but really needs to work on his positioning when it comes to staying onside before we start playing competitive games again. The final whistle sounded not long after finishing a nil-all draw that was pretty similar to the last 2 Eastern European friendlies played under Trap against Hungary and Serbia.

So, overall it's a case of slight changes so far rather than a great leap forward. The new found enthusiasm the new management team have brought is to be welcomed and, if the extra people that came out on Friday can stick around and support the team then that's a positive too. That said, if performances were to continue in the vein of last night's second half then it's arguable that the crowds will fall off again. But it's far too early to be passing any sort of judgement after 2 meaningless games, Steve Staunton's first game in charge brought about a 3-0 victory against a Sweden side that were far more credible opposition than Latvia and we all know how that turned out! That said, Martin O'Neill is clearly a far cannier operator than Stan ever was and has a wealth of experience behind him. Communication under the previous manager was always an issue but O'Neill's handling of the media has been excellent since taking over and to his credit, Roy Keane has been making the right noises in his media work about wanting to learn and knowing where his position in the pecking order is. I was concerned that the over-emphasis on the Keane element of the appointment in the media and by supporters could prove to be unhealthy as it's imperative in any set up that players are very clear on who is running things. Given the force of Keane's personality, there are plenty of managers with whom this could become an issue but I think O'Neill is a strong enough personality himself to prevent this and looking at how both men have worked together this last week and a half, my belief in this has been strengthened.  And while the results so far can be compared like for like with Trap's results against similarly ranked teams (indeed we beat Poland 2-0 as recently as February), there's no doubt that things had gone stale by the time he left and the positivity around the team since the new appointment has been very refreshing.

So there's now a break until March before the next friendly in Dublin v Serbia. Before then we have the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers next February and it is this draw that could really dictate the future of this era for Irish football. Greece's play off win against Romania should now guarantee Ireland a second seeding for the qualifiers, barring any last minute moving of the goalposts from UEFA. Even with a tough first seed in the draw, if it's confirmed that, as rumoured, the top 2 will qualify automatically and some of the 3rd place teams will go into play offs there will never have been a qualifying group with more potential for teams to go through. An attractive draw should give the management, players and fans a lift before the friendlies kick off again in March and another 6 months after that for the manager to get his ideas across will give us the opportunity to generate some momentum going into the qualifiers in September next year. Here's hoping.....

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Keane Edge

News of the seemingly imminent appointment of Martin O'Neill as Ireland manager would have been massive in itself over the weekend but it was the linking of Roy Keane to the management ticket that electrified every element of media from social to print with radio and television in between from when the story began to break on Friday night.  From initial scepticism and disbelief, it wasn't long before a mini Saipan seemed to break out on social media as years old entrenched positions were re-dug and debate and argument broke out across the Irish fans forums and likes of The, where a poll on whether Keane's involvement was a good idea quickly gathered over 10,000 votes with nearly 50% of the opinion that it will end in tears, while a similar poll on the You Boys in Green website had over 60% in favour.  While anyone who knows me would be able to tell you what side of the fence I was on post Saipan, I don't necessarily see this appointment in a negative light.  However, there are a number of legitimate concerns that should be addressed in relation to both O'Neill and Keane along with a number of grounds for optimism.

On a previous blog, after Trapattoni had left the post, I'd looked at some of the candidates that would be in the running, including O'Neill.  At that time, I expressed concern that if John Robertson, O'Neill's right hand man throughout his managerial career up until he got the Sunderland job, wasn't included in the set up that there would be the lack of a hands on coach as it's been well reported that O'Neill hasn't been a training ground manager through his career, generally only showing up at the end of the week to look over things and concentrate on the man management aspect of the role.  The inclusion of Keane in the set up does nothing to allay this concern as, he again has a reputation for not really getting involved on the training ground and left that aspect of things to his previous assistant, Tony Loughlan.  So, who does that leave to take the players and work with them tactically in the run up to internationals.  Steve Walford has also been involved with O'Neill for his entire managerial career but has been recently called the Gene Hunt of football coaching by Colin Young, the Mail's North East correspondent who covered both O'Neill's and Keane's managerial stints in Sunderland.  And he was referring to his old school coaching style rather than complimenting his taste is Crombie overcoats!  I have my doubts about Walford and don't think he made the requisite step up from his previous number 3 role when Robertson decided against moving his family up to Sunderland and the managerial set up suffered there as a result with the end of O'Neill's reign at Sunderland joining his short lived reign at Norwich as a blot on what's generally a very good record elsewhere.  Steve Guppy is also said to be involved  whose work with James McClean at Sunderland seemed to halt his progress rather then develop it despite the fact that the wing was where Guppy played at Leicester and Celtic, so there are question marks around him too.  This shouldn't be as big a deal in international football as it is in club football given the much smaller amount of time to work with players involved but I still think it would benefit from having someone with a recognised tactical mind who has experience of taking regular training sessions with players.  Had Robertson been involved at the expense of Guppy I'd have been happier with the set up than with what seems to be proposed.

There are also potential issues with O'Neill's favoured style of play which is a quite rigid 4-4-2 in the main and it was Trapattoni's strict reliance on that formation which led to a huge amount of criticism in the latter part of his reign.  However, I do think that O'Neill's variation of the formation allows for a higher tempo game and is generally played further up the pitch with more pressure put on the opposition when they have the ball in their own half unlike Trap who was happier to stand off the opposition until they got closer to goal.  His style of play did come in for some criticism at Aston Villa but they've struggled to finish near where he had them since he left and Sunderland certainly haven't improved since he left and are now on their third manager in 7 months.  And let's be honest, the bulk of Irish supporters were more than happy with Jack Charlton's style of play as long as it was getting results.  Both O'Neill and Keane have come in for criticism regarding the money they spent and the players they spent it on from some fans of the clubs they've managed in recent years but that obviously is irrelevant in international football so those criticisms can be discounted.   

With Keane, there are also issues that need to be explored.  His dealings with players and man management skills reportedly leave a lot to be desired.  From talking to players who've played under him, his modus operandi was to rule by fear and intimidation which may have worked 20 or 30 years ago but doesn't seem to gain much traction with players in this day and age.  Players have spoken about being afraid to make a mistake and this stifling their natural game.  Add in reports of dressing room tantrums and persistent fall outs with players and there is clearly the potential for things to implode. There's an unusual dynamic to the partnership as well in that, in a usual good cop, bad cop managerial scenario, it's generally the number 2 who acts the good cop and puts the arm around the shoulder of the player after the manager has let loose.  In this situation, while O'Neill who has characteristically been the type of manager who can do both (witness the famous picture of himself and Neil Lennon in Ibrox in 2004), there wouldn't seem to be the buffer that's needed when he has a go at somebody if they don't feel they can turn to the number 2.  In fact, we could be looking at a role reversal of the norm with the manager being the good cop and the assistant the bad cop.  There's also the fact that, through no fault of his own, the level of media attention given to Keane in this country is phenomenal and there's a risk that a disproportionate level of attention will be given to him which could overshadow and potentially undermine the manager.

On the positive side, in accepting an assistant's role the is possibly an indication that Keane realises some of the mistakes he's made in the past and may see this as an opportunity to go through a belated apprenticeship with a manager who's far more experienced than he.  I was shocked when I first heard of this possibility as I didn't think working as an assistant would be in Keane's make up.  I think he may realise that his managerial reputation was very low in England after his Ipswich reign and the attack on his ability by Alex Ferguson the other week would have done further damage to his hopes of getting another managerial job over there.  This may represent an ideal opportunity to begin rebuilding his managerial career alongside someone he respects and in an environment where half the support will forgive him anything and blame him for nothing.  Even allowing for that, it shows a heretofore unseen degree of humility to consider working as a number 2 and it has been reported by the BBC journalist, Pat Murphy, that Keane has begun to reassess the methods that alienated many of his players at Sunderland and Ipswich which, if true, indicates a realisation that change was necessary to have any chance of getting back onto the managerial merry go round.  

It must be remembered amongst all the hyperbole that Martin O'Neill is the manager.  As such, it's 100% right and proper that he gets to choose his background team.  So if he wants Roy Keane as part of that team and Keane wants to be part of it then it was essential that the FAI facilitated this.  I have heard some reports which suggest that Keane was suggested to O'Neill but I find it hard to believe that someone as single minded as O'Neill would allow that to happen.  I'm sure we'll find out more after the appointment is rubber stamped but if it was O'Neill's choice it's a great opportunity for Keane to learn if he's prepared to do so.  From the FAI's perspective, the fact that Keane is undoubtedly box office is a bonus for them despite his fractious relationship with John Delaney.  They can certainly expect a bump in attendances in the short term at least with an influx of many who have preferred to watch their football from the barstool rather than the stadium in recent times.  I'm happy to see anything that may help turn Lansdowne into a fortress again and if this is what it takes to get fans out of the pub and into the ground then so be it.  It's a boon for the media as well and there's no doubt that the press conferences should be fascinating.   

There's been a lot of the usual nonsense from both sides of the Saipan divide on the phone ins with the usual few proclaiming the second (or is it the third?) coming and others saying they won't "set foot in Lansdowne as long as that traitor is involved".  From my perspective, I didn't stop following my country when he returned under Kerr and won't be stopping when he's involved now.  Much as I have my concerns as detailed above, nothing would make me happier than to see this appointment working, the success of the team is the most important thing rather than any individuals.  And, despite those concerns, there is a large part of me that hopes and believes that it can work.  Either way, I think it's safe to say that it won't be boring!                

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Trap Finally Gets Sprung

As the dust settled on the Trapattoni era, it was strange to see that an awful lot of opinions of his time with Ireland seemed to be purely weighted on the, admittedly dark, days of the last 15 months.  While the current qualifying campaign can only be deemed a failure following the double header of defeats and the sort of home record which competed with the worst days of the 70's and early 80's, to call his reign here an 'unmitigated disaster' as Eamon Dunphy laughably did last week is hysterical in the extreme.  Like most managerial reigns it had its good and its bad, and like most managerial reigns it ended badly, but to view it through the prism of the disappointments we've had since Nikita Jelavic contentiously put Croatia 2 - 1 ahead is exceptionally shortsighted.

So, what does Trap have on the credit side of the ledger?  It has to be appreciated just how low we were after the messy and dragged out end of the Staunton era.  Players were low on confidence, the relationship with elements of the media had dropped to a level never seen before in Irish football (Miss Piggy and Kermit the frog at training?) and while we'd had a few reasonable results (Wales at home, Czech Republic at home and Slovakia home and away. Although the last minute concession of an equaliser away made that feel like a defeat), we'd also had some of the most embarrassingly inept performances of our recent history with San Marino away and Cyprus away and home standing out in particular.  We seemed to have no defined game plan and the general shoddiness was summed up by the farcical situation in which the management team put suspended player Shane Long on the bench for the qualifier in Slovakia which could have led to the match being awarded to them had he been brought on.  While many, myself included, have had issues with the rigidity of the game plan Trap introduced, it can't be argued that there was an immediate structure put in place as his starting point.  For right or wrong, there was also an immediate stamping of his authority on the squad much to the detriment of the unfortunate Andy Reid.

Although it ultimately ended in heartbreak, I'd argue that Trap's first campaign was his best.  After settling in with an unbeaten run in his first three friendlies and getting his first win v Colombia in London, the qualifying campaign got off to the best possible start with an away win to Georgia.  This also saw the first stroke of the luck that seemed to become a stick to beat him with when UEFA ordered that the game be played at a neutral venue due to the political unrest in the region at the time.  To me it's facile to blame a manager for being lucky, it's something that's out of his hands and given the amount bad luck or bad decisions we've suffered from in the past, and would do again at the end of the campaign, it can't be used as a factor in a sensible argument.  In fact, in the next game away to a rapidly improving Montenegro, we were only denied a victory by the ref missing a blatant handball when one of their defenders rolled the ball away from Robbie Keane along the ground.  Some ghosts of the Staunton era were then banished with a victory at home over Cyprus.  Although his first defeat came next in a friendly v Poland, the qualification campaign kept moving nicely with draws in a series of 3 games against the top 2 seeds in the group, home and away v Bulgaria in games we conceivably could have won and a memorable draw in Bari v Italy.  Victory away to Cyprus left us still with a chance of topping the group with 2 games to go and that was still the case with 2 minutes to go at home to Italy when Sean St Ledger sent Croke Park into raptures only for Alberto Gilardino to almost immediately deflate what had been an unbelievable atmosphere by equalising in the final minute.  Although this meant Italy could no longer be caught, it did guarantee second place which left the final game v Montengro a dead rubber as evidenced by the uneventful scoreless draw.  And so on to that play off against France of which so much has already been written.  Although not at our best in the home leg, it still took a deflected Nicolas Anelka goal to beat us and it's generally accepted that the second leg was our best performance since World Cup 2002 with the only fault being our inability to take the chances we had to put the game beyond France in normal time which gave them the opportunity for that handball.  It's my opinion that had the game gone to penalties we would have won it, France as a squad were all over the place as proved by their explosion in South Africa that summer, the crowd were on their back and I don't think they'd have been able to handle the pressure.  So although the campaign ultimately ended in failure, it should generally be considered a success.  The errors that cost us points were generally individual errors such as Kevin Kilbane getting caught under the ball v Bulgaria and the team's general brain freeze after going ahead v Italy, those 'little details' that Trap was so fond of mentioning.  Tactically we were sound, if a little staid, and despite what some would have you believe, new players were introduced with Sean St Ledger, Keith Andrews and Liam Lawrence all playing their way into the starting XI over the course of the campaign.  Once the rage had somewhat dissipated after Paris, I was quietly confident going into the Euro qualifiers and happy with the progress under the manager.

Prior to the Euro campaign beginning, word came through from the camp that Liam Brady would be leaving his position within the set up.  Although not much was made out of it at the time, and indeed there were some disparaging remarks made about his role having been little more than that of a glorified translator, I was sorry to see him go and still believe that his departure was to the detriment of the team.  On the pitch the campaign began in similar fashion to the previous one with a gritty away win against a lower ranked team that would cause the other teams in the group problems, Armenia in this case.  This was followed up by an expected, if unconvincing, win against Andorra on our Lansdowne return but the first sign that something may be going amiss came in the next game when a disastrous start saw us ship 3 in the first half at home to Russia before rallying in the second and nearly grabbing an unlikely draw before finally succumbing 3-2.  This was really the first game where you could point at the managers tactics as causing us problems as we were clearly over run in midfield and left it too late to react and change things.  However, the away game against Slovakia the following week was a very creditable performance and we were again only denied all 3 points by an individual error via a very rare Robbie Keane penalty miss.  By the time the group reconvened, we had beaten Wales 3-0 to kick off the Carling Nations Cup and then collected 3 points at home to Macedonia.  We also hit an excellent streak of form when the remaining Carling Nations Cup games were played with a 5-0 trouncing of Northern Ireland, followed by a single goal win over Scotland to claim a trophy to put beside that from the Tri Nations tournament from the beginning of Big Jack's reign. We took that form into the qualifiers with an away victory against Macedonia followed by a friendly victory against Italy and draw with Croatia.  However, issues with our home form were raised again with an insipid scoreless draw v Slovakia followed by that heroic backs to the wall performance to gain a point in Moscow.  Results elsewhere put our fate back in our own hands and we duly obliged with solid, if uninspiring, victories against Andorra and Armenia home and away clinching a second successive play off spot.  Trap's luck may have come into play when we drew Estonia, but you can only beat what's in front of you and the 4-0 victory away was the second best performance of the Trap era.  The one all draw in Dublin can be discounted, with the tie over after the first leg. The atmosphere at Lansdowne that night was special, as qualification for only our 5th major tournament was confirmed.  Some creditable results in friendlies meant that we went into the Euros unbeaten in 14 games and possibly with unrealistic expectations, given how unkind the draw had been.  However, it's at this point that more entries start appearing on the debit side of the ledger.

I'd got together with a number of the lads I knew I'd be travelling to the Euros with in Brogan's on Dame Street on the Friday in December when the draw was being made.  Our hopes were two fold. One, that we'd end up based in Poland and two, that we'd get a group where I felt we could be competitive in.  Given that we were 4th seeds the second of these hopes was going to be difficult but with Sweden and Greece in pot 3, I was hoping for one of those and even England or Russia in pot 2 looked attractive.  Unfortunately, although we got our wish of being based in Poland, the draw itself really couldn't have been harder.  Being drawn with World Champions Spain was initially bad enough, but when Croatia came out next rather than Sweden, I started feeling pretty bad about it and when, given the choice of England or Italy, we got Italy; I felt it would be the greatest achievement in our history to get out of the group.  The previous 2 World Champions, reigning European Champions and all 3 teams ranked in the top 8 of the world.  The only group in any of our previous tournaments comparable was the Euro 88 group of England, Holland and Russia, which, as was to happen this time, contained the eventual 2 finalists.  Without trying to make excuses for what transpired in Poland, I do think that this needs to be mentioned for the sake of context.

That said, I was still hopeful travelling to Poland and I never thought that things would be as bad as they turned out to be on the pitch. The build up was overshadowed by a late change to the squad where doubts over the fitness of Richie Dunne and John O'Shea led to Kevin Foley being sacrificed and Paul McShane, who could cover centre half as well as full back, being brought in.  Foley was understandably devastated and vented his fury by refusing to play again as long as Trapattoni remained in charge. While I had the utmost sympathy for Foley, I feel that finding fault with the manager for making that decision is incorrect.  Jack Charlton had to do the exact same thing for Italia 90 when Gary Waddock, having bravely battled his way back into the squad from a career threatening injury, was axed to allow Alan McLoughlin in to provide cover for Ray Houghton who was carrying a knock at the time.  It's a horrible thing to happen to any player but managers are paid to make those decisions without letting their hearts rule their heads.

I've gone into detail on the finals in previous blogs so I won't repeat myself too much.  I actually thought that, while not playing particularly well against Croatia, on another day we may have squeaked a draw out of the game.  I still contend that their second goal should not have been allowed and that we had a stone wall penalty not given in the second half when Keane was clearly taken out of it in the box.  That said, it was clear that we would struggle to compete in midfield with teams that passed the ball as crisply as Croatia and it was the intransigence and unwillingness to even tweak the system that is one of the major issues on the debit side of Trap's account.  Even the most optimistic of fans had reckoned that our route from the group would be to beat or draw with Croatia before losing to Spain leaving a winner takes all clash v Italy to come.  However, I don't think that any of us expected the defeat to be as bad as it was. Spain really took us to the cleaners and ended our interest after only two games.  The selection of Simon Cox up front to replace Kevin Doyle, while Jon Walters and Shane Long kicked their heels on the bench also saw a large number of fans begin to question the manager's team selections at that stage. The withdrawal of Cox for Walters at half time seemed to back up the theory that the team sent out was the wrong one.  Following that game, I was of the opinion that, as we were out in any case, the Italy game should be used to give some of the other players a game but while Doyle was reintroduced no other changes were made.  This was a mistake and led to serious discontent among those members of the squad who didn't play, with the Darren Gibson fall out symptomatic of this.  That said, there's no excuse for the way Gibson made himself unavailable after the finals. You play for your country, not a manager. The dignity which Stephen Kelly showed after much worse treatment is the manner in which these issues should be handled.  Indeed, a number of players that didn't even make the squad have knuckled down and are now fixtures in the team. I've no doubt that had Gibson not spat the dummy he'd have been a starter by now.  While the Euros were undoubtedly a massive low point, it must be pointed out that nearly every goal we conceded was down to an individual error and poor errors at that.  On the other hand, it was patently obvious to me that a number of senior players such as Given, Dunne and O'Shea were unfit and consistently picking these players out of loyalty during the finals was a major black mark on the manager.

Having been given a contract extension off the back of qualification and the 14 game unbeaten run in advance of the finals, we now found ourselves in the situation of having a team beginning a qualifying campaign who's belief had taken a serious beating with a manager who's stock had taken a similar beating.  I can understand the logic in offering a contract extension prior to a tournament once the manager has qualified for it. It's a bit of a no win situation for the FAI, if they don't offer a contract and we go on to have a good tournament then there's a big chance that the manager might get a better offer and the organisation will get criticism for not nailing the manager down in advance of it.  So I didn't have an issue with starting the Euro qualifiers under Trap and was of the belief that, having delivered consecutive 2nd place finishes, he deserved to start this campaign despite the disappointment of the finals.  That said, my patience was tested to the extreme following the first two games where a lucky win away to Kazakhstan was followed by an absolute humiliation at home to Germany.  With the calls for Trap's head gaining volume we needed a win away to the Faroes and this was duly delivered, leaving us on 6 points from 3 games which is the most anyone expected to be fair.  The difference in this campaign was, that the solidity we'd shown in previous qualifiers seemed to be deserting us and we were relying on Trap's famous luck more and more.  Despite the noises emanating from the media, and allegedly from loose lipped FAI officials, I didn't expect a sacking at that stage given the cash strapped state of the FAI.  I also wasn't prepared to give up on the campaign at that time given that Sweden and Austria also seemed to be struggling for results.  Trap also, finally, seemed to get his finger out and began attending more games leading to call ups for the likes of Wes Hoolahan, who'd had a huge clamour for his inclusion after his belated rise from League One to the Premier League and for the likes of Conor Sammon who, being honest, hadn't.  Hoolahan duly impressed with a goal in a friendly v Poland which was followed by a cameo in a very creditable draw away to Sweden which left us well in contention in the group. Unfortunately, the next qualifier was to end in heartbreak when, having responded exceptionally well to going behind early on by going 2-1 up via 2 Jon Walters goals, under clear instruction from the manager we sat back from 70 minutes and conceded a stoppage time equaliser. Although a draw was pretty much a standard result at home for us by then, it was the tactics employed late on and the complete unwillingness to utilise the bench in a manner that might have relieved the building pressure that manufactured the strait jacket that the team now seemed to be trussed up in.  While we were still level with Sweden and Austria, it had the feel of the leads we squandered in Brian Kerr's second campaign in both the Israel games and felt like a hammer blow to our hopes and to the Trap era.

A creditable draw in Wembley with big wins against Georgia and in the return game v the Faroes kept the bandwagon rolling and gave us some belief going into the double header v Sweden and Austria that would decide our fate. We all know what happened next as, following a very encouraging start where we went ahead against Sweden, we retreated back into our shell after 30 minutes and conceded two goals.  Once again in the second half Trap's lack of vision in even attempting a Plan B was glaringly obvious and we went down to a second home defeat in a campaign for the first time in 42 years.  The same shortcomings were visible in Vienna where the only subs made were like for like and the longer the game went on, the more we looked like conceding.  Sure enough, another late goal led to the first competitive away defeat of his reign and drove the final nail into the coffin of Trap's relationship with Ireland.  Although before the game I'd expected him to see the campaign out, as I'd expected a draw, I had come round to believing it was time to go at full time and was glad to see it finish in a dignified manner on both sides the following day.

Overall, how would one judge the 5 years the Italian was in charge?  For me it has to be judged a success, albeit not an unqualified one. People seem to forget that until 25 years ago we had never qualified for a major tournament and that qualification for Euro 88 remains the only occasion we have topped a qualifying group.  Seven consecutive 2nd places (leading to three qualifications) were followed by a 3rd, 4th and 3rd during the Kerr and Staunton years before Trap stopped the rot.  In that context, two 2nd places and one qualification have to be judged a success for the first two campaigns.  Added to that, he gave the travelling support some great results with Bari, Skopje, Tallinn and even Paris (bar the handball) being personal highlights.  The Euros themselves have to be considered a failure as does the current campaign.  There are also issues outside of the results themselves to be considered on the debit side.  His attitude towards certain players left a lot to be desired. Andy Reid warranted another chance and his comments on Stephen Reid's injury and the Stephen Kelly issue were unwarranted and counter productive.  I maintain that, had Liam Brady remained in the set up some of these issues could have been avoided.  Regardless of his tactical input, he was an ideal buffer between the manager and the players given that he was respected by both and a lot of the communication issues that became more prevalent could have been avoided. Yet it has to be said that many of the players, even a couple who had become cause celebre's with certain journalists, such as Long and McCarthy due to their alleged mis-treatment at his hands, came out with heartfelt tributes following his departure.  It should be noted that he's not the first Irish manager to fall out with players, with Jack having arguments with Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and, in particular, Dave O'Leary, none of whom refused to play when called upon again.  And I won't mention Saipan!  His preference for workhorses rather than players with an inkling of creativity was frustrating, as was his stifling of the creativity of the players he did pick, with his insistence on sticking with the system.  But it's rare that I've agreed with every decision any manager has made at whatever level I've watched football, that's the essence of the game.  It's a results business and things were good while he delivered results and once they dried up he went.  That's football.

It's a nonsense to suggest that he's set the game in Ireland back years as I've seen mentioned in some articles.  For right or wrong, the Senior International Team exists in it's own sphere and there's no reason to think that a new manager can't turn things around relatively quickly.  While I agree that it would be immensely beneficial to see a proper structure introduced all the way through the grassroots of Irish football similar to what Michel Sablon with Belgium has introduced in the last 10 years or so, it will be the minimum of a decade once those structures are in place before the Senior team would even begin to benefit.  Hopefully, with the recent appointment of the brilliantly named Dutchman, Ruud Dokter, as High Performance Director with the FAI, we might begin to see some of those structures implemented. In the meantime, there are still tournaments to try to qualify for, meaning the right appointment is essential.

At present, Martin O'Neill is the clear frontrunner at nearly unbackable odds.  There can be no questioning his achievements with Leicester and Celtic (he was my first choice to replace Brain Kerr) but there are questions which could be asked of his more recent managerial career and of his preferred style of play which isn't a million miles away from the long ball tactics we've been used to under Trap, and indeed for most of the last 27 years.  For all that, I saw a very good point made on the YBIG forum which stated that while both managers play direct football to a degree, the difference is that O'Neill does so in a more positive manner with the team pushing further up the pitch and pressurising the opposition more than we saw under Trap.  Plus, his man management skills have always seemed second to none, so the fall outs with players that characterised the Trap reign should no longer be an issue.  If O'Neill is to take over (and I believe the job is his if he wants it), I think it's essential that we move heaven and earth to get John Robertson in as his number 2.  It's my belief that the main reason for O'Neill's failure at Sunderland was the absence of the man who'd been his number 2 at every successful job he'd had.  It's said that Robertson didn't want to move again having settled back in the midlands during their term at Aston Villa.  It was also reported that he was sick of dealing with modern footballers.  In the main, Irish players don't tend to conform to the stereotype of their English or Continental colleagues at club level and even during the recent run of results, their commitment couldn't be questioned.  Given that Robertson is currently recuperating from a recent heart attack, the fact that the demands of international football are not as involved as the day to day running of a club and that he could work from his midlands home, mean I'd be hopeful that O'Neill would include him on his staff.  Even if the 2 remaining qualifiers were too soon for Roberston following his illness, then getting him on board for the Euro 16 qualifiers could be a target.  Were that to be the appointment I'd be relatively happy with it. 

Outside of this, the usual suspects of Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane have been linked, but I don't see either as a viable option.  John Delaney will want a populist appointment given how divisive Trap's reign became. Judging from talking to the travelling support and browsing the fan forums, either appointment would be divisive again regardless of the merits (or lack thereof, depending on one's viewpoint) of either's ability.  There has been interest from abroad with Hector Cuper's agent putting his client forward but my opinion is that Cuper's star is on the wane and he's a long way removed from his two Champions League finals of a decade ago.  His last international stint with Georgia was uninspiring and his last big job in La Liga with Racing Santander ended 5 months in with them rooted to the bottom.  Not for me.

For a more left field choice, I'd like to see Marcelo Bielsa looked at.  Major international experience with Argentina and Chile and a relatively successful recent tenure with Athletic Bilbao, including a methodical destruction of Manchester United in the Europa League winning both legs, he was called the best manager in the world by Pep Guardiola and is currently available.  Given the salary on offer for the Ireland job, his demands wouldn't be beyond what we can afford and I'd love to see options like that explored.  However, given that a lot of Irish fans rarely look beyond English football, the fact that he's relatively unknown would go against him in the eyes of a populist like Delaney so I think it's a pipe dream!

To finish, I think that the success or failure of the last 5 years will be brought into focus by what his successor achieves. If he doesn't get consecutive 2nd places, will he considered to be worse?  Despite the negativity of the last 18 months, Trap's record compares favourably with Mick McCarthy's on a similar amount of games as do his two 2nd places, the difference being that Mick's team delivered on their 3rd campaign whereas Trap's stuttered although they both delivered one major finals each.  Hopefully, whoever the new man is, he can eclipse them both.

Mick Meagan 12 0 (0%) 3 (25%) 9 (75%) 7 26
Liam Tuohy 10 3 (30%) 1 (10%) 6 (60%) 11 20
Sean Thomas 1 0 (0%) 1 (100%) 0 (0%) 1 1
John Giles 38 15 (39%) 9 (24%) 14 (37%) 49 45
Alan Kelly Snr 1 1 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 2 0
Eoin Hand 40 11 (28%) 9 (22%) 20 (50%) 47 59
Jack Charlton 94 47 (50%) 30 (32%) 17 (18%) 128 63
Mick McCarthy 68 29 (43%) 20 (29%) 19 (28%) 117 66
Don Givens 3 0 (0%) 2 (67%) 1 (33%) 2 3
Brian Kerr 33 18 (55%) 11 (33%) 4 (12%) 39 20
Stephen Staunton 17 6 (35%) 6 (35%) 5 (30%) 23 18
Giovanni Trapattoni 64 26 (41%) 22 (34%) 16 (25%) 86 64

 Thanks to Soccer Ireland for the table.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

It's Goodnight Vienna as Trap Door Opens

Following the disappointment of the Sweden game it was nice to have an away trip to throw ourselves into straight afterwards, albeit that we were travelling to Austria far more in hope than expectation.  With an 8.15 flight out of Dublin on Monday morning I had the usual fitful sleep the night before filled with dreams about oversleeping and rushing to make the flight so it was nearly a relief when the alarm went off at 6 and I dragged myself out of bed to ready myself for the half 6 taxi and the journey ahead.  As a few of my regular travelling companions were sitting this game out I was rooming for the first time with an old mate, Brendan, a veteran from many trips in the past going back to the mid 90's so it was good to see him at the airport and to see a few familiar faces from his crew down at the gate.  A short flight to Luton and a two hour wait for a connection was spent reminiscing about those old trips and it wasn't long before we were airborne again en route to Bratislava which is only an hour or so from Vienna and was the cheapest option for getting there.  A quick pit stop for a beer in Bratislava airport while we waited for the bus was followed by an uneventful journey and we arrived in Vienna around 5.   Terry the Tash had done his usual trick of booking half the hotels in Vienna as soon as the games were announced before cancelling the ones he didn't need, he had set us up with a cracking room in a lovely hotel at a decent rate so we'd hit the jackpot there!  A quick freshen up and we stopped in the hotel bar to be served by an excellent Austrian bartender the spit of BBC's Andrew Marr and waited for a couple of the other lads in the hotel before heading out for food and to check out the town.

 Our award winning bartender....kind of......

While walking up to the Schewdenplatz area, which was to become our base for the trip, we walked past the team hotel just in time to see John Delaney wandering around the bar pressing the flesh as per but having given him a serious ear-bashing a couple of years back in Skopje I decided against a repeat performance and we carried out to what turned out to be a lovely pedestrianised area with 40 odd bars and restaurants.  Having eaten and been joined by the Brummie crew, we headed off to a local Irish bar named after one of my favourite haunts, Dick Mack's in Dingle!  Unfortunately, the name was pretty much where the similarities ended given that Dick Mack's in Dingle has one of the nicest pints of Guinness in the country while the first pint of black liquid I was served in Vienna left a lot to be desired!  On the plus side, there was an ongoing midweek price offer in place where all pints were €2.40 from Monday to Thursday with all shots €1.20 so despite the average stout and dingy decor we soldiered on for another couple of hours with the drink and the conversation improving the more it flowed.  To be fair to the place, it looks like your typical student bar which is understandable at those prices and the crowd that started arriving backed that up.  After a tip from the barmaid we moved onto another pub which was owned by the same crowd around the corner called Sally's, so we decamped there and put the word around to some other friends who were en route.  Sally's was a different proposition altogether and was very well put together. Although the lager was the same price, the Guinness in there was unfortunately a bit pricier at €3.60 but was a better pint and still pretty cheap in comparison to Dublin prices!
  Dick Mack's v2.0!
My old mate Billy had travelled down from his Swiss home with his wife Sophie and having arrived at every pub we'd been in just after we'd left he finally caught up with us in Sally's and immediately started sparking off hilarious conversations in his own inimitable fashion.  Having spent a couple of hours in Sally's and caught up with everyone we grabbed a few taxis and made our way to a bar called Charlie P's across the city where the YBIG crew had made their base.  Although the place looked pretty busy when we arrived about 1, there seemed to be a bit of space inside, it took a fair bit of persuasion on my part for the lot of us to be allowed in but after a couple of minutes they relented and we made our way inside.  Although there was a smaller travelling support than normal for the game with a Germany trip in the offing next month, there was still a great atmosphere in the place with the usual night before a game shenanigans going on, lots of ceoil agus caint upstairs with a dancefloor downstairs and we managed to find a few seats and got a bit of a sing-song going before the place shut down around 3am so we headed back to the hotel to grab a quick bite from a noodle bar in the vicinity to try and pre-emptively cut off the hangover and called it a night.  I've always loved being in a city the night before a game, the atmosphere is always superb as optimism takes over and Vienna didn't disappoint.

Game day arrived with the noodles having at least helped with the hangover as did the sun which was shining without a cloud in the sky as we got ready to head out and the fans began congregating in the various watering holes in the city centre.  We wandered back to Schwedenplatz to find the bars we'd started in the previous night weren't opening till later in the afternoon, so we settled in a local bar called Krah Krah which had seating outside and spent the next couple of hours waiting for the likes of the Quinn towers, a certain small brown man and Caimin and Karl who were only arriving on the day.  A few Austrian fans had already arrived so there was a good bit of craic interspersed by the arrival of a local T.V. crew who interviewed some of the Austrian's and then requested a chant from us so we were happy to oblige with a chorus of 'Come On You Boys In Green'!  A good crew of us had gathered at that stage, but as I had to collect a ticket (and unfortunately just as happy hour drinks for €1.70 had begun!) myself and Bren ducked out for a couple of hours for that and hung around for a drink with the lad who had the spare, which was a bit of craic, before heading back to our crowd and catching the end of the second happy hour.  We also got the news that Sweden had gone ahead early in Kazakhstan which really killed off any of the lingering optimism we had that a miracle might happen.  At that stage we figured our goose was cooked, so concentrated on making the best of the trip and enjoyed the final couple of hours before heading to the stadium having had the Sweden result confirmed en route.

As usual, the craic on the train out to the ground was great with Irish and Austrian supporters mingling and swapping chants with The Fields of Athenry and The 12 Days of Paul McGrath ringing through the carriages.  I can normally get pretty tense heading out to games where there's something at stake but given that qualification was really beyond our grasp the pressure was off and I was just hoping for a good performance and hopefully a victory to regain a bit of pride.  We got up to the ground and were greeted by a pretty spectacular looking stadium at dusk and the sight inside was even more impressive as the locals were determined to help their team hold onto the final sliver of hope they had for hauling back Sweden in the race for qualification.  Flags had been left out on every Austrian seat which lead to some very impressive coordination around the stadium and really added to the atmosphere.  For a change, there was actually space to get the 69er's flag hung and having done that I went back to my seat and waited for the game to begin.

Onto the game itself and, once again, I felt we started reasonably well with Austria struggling to get any ball in the first ten minutes which silenced their fans somewhat and I'm sure I even heard a couple of boos at that stage.  Unfortunately, as has so often been the case, this wasn't to last and at around the 15 minute mark, David Alaba began to get on the ball and dictate the midfield as we began to drop a bit deeper.  To be fair, Paul Green was making a nuisance of himself and I think that James McCarthy plays better with Green beside him rather than Glenn Whelan but Alaba really looks the real deal and was head and shoulders above everyone on the park.  But, although Austria were gaining a foothold, it wasn't all bad from Ireland with Robbie Keane putting a half chance just wide on around the half hour mark and Anthony Pilkington doing well to cut back inside after a ball from Shane Long but dragging his shot into the side netting.  Alaba was still causing problems though as the game opened up a bit and David Forde was needed to parry a couple of shots to his left and his right as the game moved towards half time.  At the other end, Long did what he should have done on Friday to pull a ball across the box where Jon Walters was waiting but their keeper got down well to intercept.  The game was fairly end to end by now and John O'Shea can consider himself very unlucky to have got booked for a challenge where a far worse one through the back of Long had gone unpunished earlier.  That was O'Shea out of next month's game and then to compound things Robbie Keane was also booked after the ref blew for half time which was poor form by the ref given that, as captain, Keane should have the right to bring a query to the ref.  So a reasonably close first half had finished nil all but given how Ireland have tended to fade later in games this campaign I was concerned for the second.

The start of the second half was similar to the first and we were well on top for the first 15 minutes without really troubling their keeper.  Unfortunately, Alaba began dictating things again and we reverted to type by drifting further back.  O'Shea looked to pick up a knock and was replaced by Ciaran Clark which was an understandable like for like change but, given how the game was going, it was very frustrating to see another like for like change around 75 minutes when Pilkington was replaced by James McClean.  Personally I think McClean could consider himself unlucky to have been dropped after a reasonable game on Friday but I'm tired at this stage of no effort being made to change how the team in set up when games are slipping away from us.  If things aren't working then maybe try something else, as just putting fresh legs on and sticking with the same game plan hasn't been working.  Austria began their best spell of the game around then with a flurry of corners requiring some last gasp defending and blocks from the likes of Green and Seamus Coleman in particular.   However, having weathered that storm and broken upfield a couple of times ourselves we were to shoot ourselves in the foot once again.  McCarthy had the ball in  midfield under little pressure with options in front of him and across to his left.  He chose the more difficult ball, for me, and lofted it forward to Walters but even if it wasn't the easier ball it was a bad touch from Walters when he had time to control it and possession was ceded back to Austria.  They broke quickly and worked the ball down their left. As the ball was pulled across the box there seemed enough time for Dunne or Clark to clear it but it evaded both and pinged around before ending at Marc Wilson's feet.  His attempted clearance was mishit and of course has to land right at Alaba's feet who finished superbly first time and blasted a shot into the roof of the net where it couldn't have been blocked by the various defenders on the line.  Once again, a late goal to break our hearts and send the Austrian support into raptures.

The final sub had been made just before the goal with Conor Sammon replacing an out of sorts Long but, despite our continued efforts to hoof the ball towards his head, we looked dejected after the goal and the game fizzled out as the fans, players and staff realised that the end of the Trap era would be marked by our first away defeat of it.  The final whistle nearly came as a relief as it was clear we weren't going to score at that stage.  I'd thought beforehand that Trap would see the campaign out but by the final whistle had come around to thinking it was time for him to go.  Although you can't blame the manager for some of the individual errors which have been so costly this campaign, I've lost patience with his idiosyncratic team selections and substitutions which have done nothing to change the flow of games when they've been slipping away from us.  There are options such as Wes Hoolohan which should have been utilised as it's been clear that the options he's been using haven't been working. But I guess the pros and cons of his reign are for another blog. Although I always hate coming out of games where we've lost and was gutted in the immediate aftermath, I wasn't as annoyed or down as I have been in the past given that the campaign was all but over after the Sweden result from earlier that day.  While walking out I was approached by a young Austrian fan with his Dad looking to see if I'd swap flags with him but I was happy enough to just give him the tricolour draped around my shoulders which seemed to make his night as I passed it to him.

So we made our way back to Sally's where those we didn't see leaving the stadium gathered.  The atmosphere wasn't as morose as previous away defeats but it was a bit strange having not experienced it in so long, bar the draw in Paris which felt like a defeat as well as a robbery.  There wasn't a huge amount of conversation about the football as we all knew that this was the end of the road for Trap.  In fact, the most passionate debate of the night was started by Billy asking people what their Top 10 women of the 80's would be!  Lads were still arguing the toss about it when we were heading back in the airport yesterday when Daisy Duke came into the conversation! I can't believe we missed Kim Wilde.......

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Winner Takes It All, The Loser Has To Fall

I guess the tone was set pre kick off when we had to endure the unfortunate Nadia Forde absolutely butcher our national anthem.  I'd have been prepared to turn a blind eye to it if that remained the low point of the evening but alas, that wasn't to be.

The matchday experience had been pretty positive in the build up.  Given that this was such a make or break game there was a general feeling of optimism amongst the support and in the media.  The team Trapattoni had picked was quite attacking and unusually, given some of his previous idiosyncratic selections, was pretty close to what most fans would have gone for.  The news that the game was approaching a sell out was welcome and everyone seemed to be looking forward to a big atmosphere with a full house roaring on the team for only the 3rd time since Lansdowne re-opened.  Having managed to get out of work at 4, we strolled down by the canal to our usual meeting spot in the Beggars Bush on Haddington Road and a decent atmosphere was building with a fair smattering of Sweden fans visible and adding to the sense of occasion.  We were due a big home performance and given the recent improvement in form through the summer friendlies, I was pretty confident we wouldn't be beaten and quite hopeful that we could get the 3 points we so badly needed to banish the memory of the last minute Austria goal which still rankled.  When we arrived, the Brummie boys were already there and the rest of the gang gathered over the course of the next couple of hours as we discussed our chances and finalised some arrangements for next week's trip to Austria.  At 7.25 we finished our last pint and made our way into the Singing Section with our new season tickets.  There's been many a time in the past when we've stayed a little too long in the pub beforehand and missed the anthems but now that we're a bit older and wiser we've got into the habit of making it in time for Amhran na bhFiann.  Unfortunately, given last night's rendition we may have been better off hanging on that extra 5 minutes before getting into the stadium!

The ground really did look great with the capacity crowd, the 6,000 Swedish fans in the North end and the side of the East stand seemed to spur on our support with our Singing Section in the South Lower vociferously getting behind the team from the kick off.  I actually think we started very well and won the first corner of the game within minutes when a Long shot was deflected over.  We were playing to a decent tempo and creating a few half chances which was feeding the atmosphere and although Sweden began to come more into the game the lead was deserved when it came.  A James McClean cross had drifted onto the crossbar a couple of minutes earlier but we weren't to be denied for long.  And who else would score it but Robbie Keane who really is our only goal threat these days.  A header back to the Swedish keeper was left short and Robbie nicked in to go round the keeper and prod the ball goalwards.   I actually think Keane was fouled by the keeper which could have resulted in a penalty and a red card had the goal not gone in but he deserves great credit for playing to the whistle and he was straight back on his feet to collect the rebound as the ball came back off the post and Mikael Lustig's heels and bury it in the roof of the net!  Cue lift off at Lansdowne, although to be honest the first thing I said when we'd finished celebrating was that I'd have been far happier had we taken the lead with 22 minutes left rather than 22 minutes gone.

Part of the problem with Ireland under Trap is that we seem to turn into a different team once we go ahead.  And not a better team, a significantly worse one.  Instead of gaining confidence from a goal we seem to retreat into ourselves.  We don't have the Italian culture or the ability to shut up shop and protect a lead and we don't seem to be able to keep doing the things that we were doing well that enable us to go ahead and build on a lead.  When we should be going for the jugular we get caught between 2 stools and allow momentum to get away from us.  So it proved again last night as our lead lasted for all of 11 minutes and indeed should only have lasted 9 when Seb Larsson inexplicably placed a free header wide.  Instead of counting our blessings and learning our lesson from it another cross 2 minutes later found Johan Elamnder getting a yard on Richard Dunne and powering home a bullet header.  To be fair, it was an excellently worked goal and it would be churlish to attach blame to the defence for it, sometimes you have to put your hands up and just say it was a great goal.  Needless to say, this roused the Swedes and the half time whistle came as a relief as we hoped the break would enable us to re-focus and try and regain the intensity we'd played the first half hour with.

Unfortunately, that intensity never materialised and once the second half began it was with Sweden in the ascendancy again.  The only tactical change seemed to be a pointless swap of wings for Walters and McClean and bar a shot from the latter player that Isaksson in the Swedish goal had covered all the way we were creating little.  In fact, only the alertness of Forde in goal prevented us falling behind when he dived at the feet of Larsson to prevent a clear goal chance.  Again, this let off only delayed the inevitable.  A quality through ball from Ibrahimovich should have amounted to nothing with the defence pushed up but some very lazy play from Glenn Whelan kept Svensson onside and he coolly finished past Forde.  I can't understand what Whelan was doing, if you're going to track the man then get tight and get goal side, he was caught in no man's land when all he had to do was step up with the defence and leave his man offside.

So 2-1 down and really up against it.  Surely time to try something different.  Having seen Robbie Brady and Simon Cox warming up I was really hoping to see Brady come on with Walters looking likely to make way but no, despite the fact that it's been proven time and time again that Cox is completely ineffective out wide it was he who stripped off his tracksuit top and came on.  No tactical change, just a like for like so needless to say the pattern of the game didn't change at all.  We increasingly looked like we'd need to get a break to get back into the game as we were creating little and playing with increasing predictability.  A chance duly arrived when Long got onto a misplaced pass but with Keane in acres of space screaming for the ball, Long, for reasons best known to himself cut back onto his other foot and straight into a defender.  It was a serious lack of vision and cost us really the only chance we had of getting back into the game.  A final sub saw Anthony Pilkington introduced for his belated debut replacing McClean in another like for like sub that once again did little to change the pattern of the game.  Although he looked lively in his cameo we had resorted to aimless long balls at this stage and bar one half chance where Keane slid in but failed to reach the ball before Isaksson the game ended with a whimper rather than a bang and with it Ireland's chances of making it to Brazil, barring the most unlikely sequence of results.

To say it was a disappointing end to the day is an understatement.  To lose 2 home games in a campaign is unacceptable and this is the first time it's happened since the Euro '72 qualifiers where, funnily enough we also faced Sweden and Austria although we managed to get a point from the home game v. the Swedes before losing to Italy and Austria.  While our away record is very impressive, our home form under Trap has been very poor.  Even in our darkest days in the past, we usually got it together at home and it's a pretty damning indictment that this is no longer the case. Once again, a large portion of blame for yesterday's defeat has to lie at the feet of the manager with the complete lack of a plan B galling in the extreme.  The players shouldn't be immune from criticism either, a large number of them (including many that people have been clamouring for) simply didn't show up last night. Marc Wilson had a nightmare at left back and you can't blame the manager when a professional player kicks a 5 yard pass to a team-mate directly into touch.  James McCarthy was anonymous in centre mid as was Whelan beside him.  While Long won his share of ball in the air, his play when the ball was at his feet was very poor and the lack of vision when Keane was free in the box was inexcusable.  To be fair to Long, he had a disruptive week and finding out your club manager is happy to let you go can't be good mentally.  McClean justified his inclusion and can be happy with his nights work as can the 2 old warhorses in Keane and Dunne (notwithstanding Dunne being beaten in the air for their first) and Forde did well once again although he may think he could have done better for the winner.  Although we played well for 30 minutes, any kudos gained for that is more than cancelled out by the hour that followed it.

So, instead of looking forward to an early morning flight to Austria on Monday with a degree of optimism there's an air of despondency around as our qualification hopes seem holed below the waterline.  I won't give up until it's mathematically impossible and given that I don't think Sweden are particularly impressive bar Zlatan, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that if he has an off day they could come unstuck in Astana but it's a pretty forlorn hope.  I've always measured an Irish manager's success on whether he can deliver a top 2 finish or not and, to be fair to Trap, he has done this is both campaigns so far.  Some may say he's been lucky to do so but it's a results business and we've had our share of bad luck over the years.  If he manages to turn this around then the luck he's previously had will pale into insignificance.  I believe he'll see out the campaign and go with a two out of three record which ain't bad as the song goes.  Where we go from there remains to be seen and I really think that his reign will only really be judged once we see what another manager can do with the players we have at our disposal.

Fingers crossed for a rare away victory on Tuesday but even then I think that'll be too little too late.