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.

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