It’s a difficult choice. Are Italian boss Giovanni Trapattoni’s “well-drilled” Ireland team more difficult to beat, or to watch? Such is the quality of Ireland’s Group C opponents in Euro 2012 – numbers one, four and nine in the last FIFA world rankings I saw – that ‘Trap’s’ team could be difficult to watch in a “hide behind the sofa” manner rather than because of their reliance on Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan for central-midfield creativity. I’m not letting out any state secrets when I say that Ireland haven’t been “easy” to watch very often since the Republic of Ireland became “my” international team, after I was given a copy of the Jimmy Conway Football Annual back in the mid-1970s, the “Fulham and Eire (sic) star” being an occasional member of our parish church’s congregation. The annual was dominated by features of Ireland player-manager Johnny Giles’s dashing young team, which had beaten the Soviet Union 3-0 in a European Championship qualifier at Dublin’s ‘homely and traditional’ (trans: small and ramshackle) Dalymount Park in 1974.
A hat-trick by QPR’s Don Givens had seen off the Soviets, who had been finalists in the previous European Championships. And Conway’s annual was full of black-and-white photos of that game, with a terrifyingly young-looking international debutant Liam Brady featuring as heavily as the hat-trick hero and the manager (television footage includes Brady turning two Soviet defenders inside-out with what commentator Jimmy Magee said was “his first touch in international football”). Unfortunately, this was already living on past glories. It was Conway’s 1976 Annual. And Ireland’s downfall was already complete, thanks to their putrid away record, which was to develop over the years into a form recognisable by any Celtic fans reading – poor defeats against poor teams and unlucky defeats against bigger teams.
Ireland lost the Soviet return match by two goals to one in Kiev, and in the 1978 World Cup qualifying campaign were sawn off in Paris every bit as much as they were to be in 2009. Frank Stapleton had a goal disallowed for offside against an Irish player out by the touchline. In addition to this, all sorts of other strange decisions were spread over the evening. As is all-too-well documented, Ireland were talented under-achievers until, from 1986 to 1996, Jack Charlton brought a more, ahem, ‘direct’ style to their play. The contrasts between the eras were nutshelled by Ireland’s appearances and performances against England at Wembley in 1985 and 1991.
In ’85, Ireland could call upon Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, Pat Bonner, Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath, Kevin Sheedy and Mark Lawrenson. And they tried to play football. But they lost, feebly, 2-1; Brady’s late, scrambled consolation flattered us, after Gary Lineker’s first international goal gave England a deserved two-goal advantage fifteen minutes earlier. Wembley was a third full and tickets weren’t a problem. Nor was money by the end of the evening, as still relatively-new pound coins rained down on Ireland’s decent-sized support from generous England fans above. The money I managed to scramble that night would have paid for my ticket.
Six years later, I couldn’t get a ticket for love, money or anything else I could summon up as Charlton’s boys “should have” beaten Graham Taylor’s England – drawing 1-1 after losing an early goal and Ray Houghton missing a late sitter. Then they could still call upon Sheedy, McGrath, O’Leary and Bonner. But Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino were what mattered. And there was none of this “surprisingly good touch for a big lad.” There wasn’t a route two for almost a decade. Ireland’s qualification for two World Cups and a Euro masked a team that was horribly ugly as soon as they were below their best – which was the case for the entire 1994 World Cup campaign after the Italy win (and if you don’t believe me, check out the 0-0 draw with Norway). And they really did have the stereotypical “luck of the Irish,” the whole era kick-started by an unlikely Scotland win in Bulgaria, when the hosts needed just a point to qualify for Euro ’88 and Gary Mackay’s second-half winner denied them even that.
Trap’s Ireland are more boring than ugly. But lest I sound too ungrateful, it must be remembered that the Italian legend took on an Irish outfit at a low ebb. After Mick McCarthy revived Charlton’s squad, Ireland were managed by Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton. Kerr was disappointingly unsuccessful, Staunton expectedly so. And Trap picked up some very scattered and dispirited pieces when he took over in February 2008. It is to Trap’s eternal credit, then, that Ireland have put in two genuinely creditable qualifying campaigns. Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in the World Cup qualifying play-offs “only” cost Ireland a place in a penalty shoot-out to decide who would go to South Africa, rather than an actual place in the finals, as folklore would have it.
But the team’s display in Paris that night, which saw them deserved 1-0 “winners” after 90 minutes, was a mature, confident one. And while critics could point to the 1-0 defeat in the first leg as a sign of the team’s limitations, the overall picture is one of competitiveness, solidity and credibility. In qualifying for Euro 2012, Ireland finished second in a group where they were seeded third. They were outplayed twice by a Russian team who impressively dispatched the Czech Republic on Friday but were otherwise unconvincing group winners. And most of Ireland’s other qualifiers were scrappy, dull… or both. But they worked fabulously hard for their luck in Moscow. I believe few could argue that players such as Shay Given and Richard Dunne deserved to be losers that night. And I’m sure John Giles, now a pundit on Irish television alongside Brady, would have sacrificed some of the style his Ireland team had for some of that “luck.”
I fear a little for Ireland in Poland, however. The squad combines genuine international class with impressive organisation and work-rate. But it is much more of the latter. If Given, Dunne and “Robbie” – as Keane is often called by the Ireland fans I know – are at their best and Aiden McGeady lives up to the hype which has surrounded him throughout his career, Croatia could easily be beaten, Italy might well be and Spain… well… let’s not go too far yet. But if Given’s knee gives out, Dunne’s lack of pace is exposed, Robbie is left isolated and McGeady continues his long-running quest to be the most over-rated player in international football history, Croatia might fancy their chances and it won’t matter much what Italy might well be, because by then Ireland will be heading for home.
Trap himself has a tournament finals’ record which is dictionary-designed for the word ‘inauspicious.’ Even McCarthy’s Ireland were more impressive than Trap’s Italy in the 2002 World Cup Finals. And while they had a win and two draws in Euro 2004 and were denied qualification for the knock-out stages when Sweden and Denmark’s draw sent Sweden and… er… Denmark through, Italy were below their best almost throughout. There’s something even more irritating than before about the usual “we’ll give it a lash and have a good time regardless” attitude. The sight and sound of jockey Mick Fitzgerald talking that sort of mush while wearing a top hat and formal dress on Derby Day at Epsom was wrong on more levels than you could imagine coming from three minutes of television.
The whole mindset is wrong for all the reasons that hacked Roy Keane off, with the added factor that Trap’s team will almost certainly do anything BUT give it a lash. For all my fears, I have hopes too. The 0-0 draw in Hungary will be typical of what Ireland will likely produce in the tournament. But within that there is scope for four points out of six against Croatia and Italy…if Robbie can nick a goal. And being organised but dull didn’t stop Greece in 2004 – a precedent being cited by an unhealthily large number of people, including Trap himself. Ultimately, though, I share ROY Keane’s incredulity that so many Ireland fans believe the team will reach the knock-out stages. I have huge second-generation national pride in this Ireland team. I expect that not to be dented over the next week or so. After all, they are “well-drilled” and difficult to beat. But they could be difficult to watch for more than one reason in this tournament, in this group.
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