Republic of Ireland: Martin O’Neill – The New Trapattoni?

by | Oct 14, 2016

When appointed Ireland manager in November 2013, Martin O’Neill was widely seen as a ray of light after the dark final days of predecessor, Italian Giovanni Trapattoni. At Fulham’s Craven Cottage the following May an Ireland fan suggested the team had played “more football” in the as-yet-unfinished friendly against Italy than during Trap’s entire tenure. However, as Ireland chugged their way to an unconvincing six points from two World Cup qualifiers last week, I couldn’t but be reminded of Trapattoni’s teams. Over-negative narrow home wins. Luck-riding away draws against opposition of genuine class. Narrow away wins against opposition of almost no genuine class. And sometimes stinking the place out, home and away. All trademarks of Trap’s Ireland, some powerfully evident as Ireland pushed past Georgia and Moldova. So, is O’Neill still that ray of light? Or the new Trap?

In September 2014, after O’Neill’s first competitive game, a Euro 2016 qualifier in Georgia, I posted on Facebook: “A 2-1 away win in a scrappy match in Eastern Europe with a late goal. That’s Martin O’Neill for you…never happened under Trap… er…” And in November, after a 1-0 defeat in Scotland: “What if Trapattoni’s teams produced a display like that?? Er…they did…loads of them. No progress yet under O’Neill.” I was probably inordinately harsh about a nascent regime (and none-too-prescient…my next words were “Scotland a class above, genuinely in with a shout in the group”). Especially as the games surrounded a creditable draw in Germany, the eventual group winners and reigning world champions. But such results had huge parallels with Trapattoni’s beginnings. Trap too started with a scruffy 2-1 World Cup qualifier win against Georgia. They fluked a 2-1 win in the Georgia return too. And later produced a creditable draw in Italy, the eventual group winners and reigning world champions.

Trap’s early teams were as difficult to watch as to beat. But since 2002, Ireland had been easier to beat than to watch. And those hiring Trap in February 2008 surely knew he was skilled in Italian defensive system catenaccio and reportedly a “disciple” of its pioneer, Nereo Rocco. Twelve goals in ten World Cup 2010 qualifiers was the near-inevitable result. But an unbeaten campaign also resulted. Only four wins, two each over Cyprus and Georgia. But memories of a 5-2 Euro 2008 qualifier defeat in Cyprus under inexperienced, out-of-depth boss Steve Staunton meant such successes were appreciated. Trap was initially considered a “lucky” manager. And he attracted criticism for not selecting ball-playing midfielder Andy Reid. “If I was certain Andy Reid would improve the team, he would play tomorrow,” he said in November 2008, to widespread disbelief.

Results helped. Before Ireland played in Italy in April 2009 he said: “Analysis lasts four or five days then we forget about it but the result stays. You can’t always play beautiful football when you are playing for qualification.” And he channeled his inner Alan Durban (an ex-Stoke manager who once said “if you want entertainment, go and watch clowns,” something contemporary Stoke fans thought they were doing already) when he said: “If I want to see a show, I go to La Scala. if I want results, I play football” (NB: Englishmen recommend clowns, Italians recommend opera. Europe, eh? Glad we’re leaving). And despite Ireland requiring a scruffy late goal to avoid defeat against an Italy side reduced to ten men after three minutes, the Irish Independent (Indo) suggested: “We now know that, as well as the dull and colourless Plan A, the Irish manager has a Plan B. And even, perhaps, a Plan C.”

By June, the headline was “Hats off to Trap the wise.” The Irish Times newspaper’s Tom Humphries wrote: “Our successive one-all draws away from home with the big fish mightn’t have been epic occasions but they were more remarkable for that…a team of apparently modest talents plays with patient exactitude away from home. Giovanni has his system and his demands. Everybody fits in.” And Trap’s team played with…eeek…panache in the infamous play-off second leg against France in Paris that November, winning 1-0 to take the tie to extra-time before…Thierry Henry etc… Perversely, however, that panache inspired more critical Indo questioning. John O’Brien asked: “Could Ireland have achieved more if they weren’t shackled to (Trap’s) rigid system and given more licence to surge forward? The broad consensus (was) that Trapattoni had taken a limited group of players as far as they had any right to go. (Last night) challenged that consensus.”

O’Neill’s first campaign brought play-off success. And an expansive 2-0 second-leg win over Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Bosnia weren’t France. They didn’t have a basketball aficionado up-front, he notes without bitterness. And qualification was often as grim as Trap’s teams, eight goals in eight games if you don’t count the turkey-shoots against Gibraltar. The Irish Times’ Ken Early wrote on June 13th 2015, midway through the campaign: “It’s hard to think of a single protracted spell of good football Ireland have played in the group, with the exception of a respectable second half showing against Poland (who) dropped too deep trying to protect a lead. This is a team that can’t remember what it feels like to play well and win.” And Dion Fanning wrote in the Indo on 26th July 2015 that O’Neill was “supposed to provide the antidote to the sterile days of Trapattoni. There have been moments, but they have been very few,” adding that he seemed “the perfect man for the job when he was appointed” but “seems less than perfect after a disappointing first half of the campaign.”

Trap’s one success was making a 16-team Euros which required a second-place group finish. However, Ireland’s group was England-esque comfortable. Games against Armenia, Macedonia and Slovakia weren’t for filing in the “fun-packed” column. Trap’s catenaccio-lite, a rigid 4-4-2 formation, failed to keep out Andorra, whose only goal in ten qualifiers came in Dublin.  And when Russia won 3-2 in Dublin, having led 3-0 before declaring after 50 minutes, criticism flowed. The Irish Times’ Pat Fenlon complained: “Movement and pace will always destroy the current Irish system.” On RTE television, ex-international Ronnie Whelan quipped that Ireland’s “two holding midfielders…didn’t actually hold anything.” The Sunday Independent’s Eamonn Sweeney was blunter still: “Trapattoni is making a mess of the job.”

Results helped again. Ireland’s “creditable draw” was a nil-nil in Russia, four days after a less revered nil-nil at home to Slovakia. In Moscow, Ireland were “obdurate,” “dogged” and…lucky. Shay Given and Richard Dunne were “immense.” But “we didn’t rectify what happened (against Russia in Dublin); we used exactly the same system and they cut us open again, even more so this time” (Fenlon). The goals only flew in during the play-off first leg in Tallinn against Estonia. Ireland were three-up at the break and even if Estonia had three Thierry Henrys (let it go Mark – ED) the tie was over. However, an insipid second-leg display was a portent of Trap’s second fling at the World Cup, which was predictably dismal-and-a-half, endured because the FAI couldn’t afford to pay off the two-year contract they gave him after Euro qualification and hire a manager able to clear up the mess.

Things began with another scruffy 2-1 away win in Eastern Europe…more so as Ireland were losing in Kazakhstan until Robbie Keane’s late penalty and Kevin Doyle’s later winner. And Trap was a dead manager walking after losing 6-1 at home to Germany. Despite a creditable nil-nil in Sweden, all qualification hopes were squished by Austria’s last-kick equaliser in Dublin. Without the games against the Faroes Ireland only scored nine goals in eight games. There was more joy in a 1-1 friendly draw with England at Wembley than the following 3-0 home win over the Faroes (I know; I was at both). And dismal defeat to another late Austrian goal in Vienna seemed a fitting end to Trap’s reign, with two qualifiers left.

Of course, Ireland were “ill-equipped” and out of their depth” (Emmet Malone, Irish Times) in the 2012 Euros whereas they “could leave with their heads held high after acquitting themselves with honour throughout the tournament” (Irish Examiner, 12 July) this summer. Nonetheless, while Ireland were permanently godawful four years ago, they were also godawful against Belgium this summer and the paucity of their attacking threat against France was masked by trademark Trap obduracy. They only beat Italy’s reserves with good football. And while the first half against Sweden was excellent, they faded against a side which didn’t win another point. Yet the reaction seemed a little more in tune with Wales’ stirring run to the semi-finals than one win and three goals in four games. “Pride restored to Irish football,” “bona fide stars emerge,” “O’Neill has found a system to stick with,” Tom Rooney proclaimed in the Indo. Jeff Hendrick was “redolent” of Roy Keane “circa 1994” and a “bestriding, muscular totem.” While Robbie Brady had “a cultured left peg” and a “rarefied skillset.” Ireland did well in France. But that well?

In Belgrade in September, Ireland scored early and retreated into defence until Serbia went ahead. Ireland started playing again and deservedly scored again and…re-retreated into defence, which nearly cost them. This, the Georgia horror-show and the nervy slide past Moldova were signs that at least some old Trap failings remain. “Outclassed and out of jail,” “Familiar feelings, familiar failings,” screamed the headlines after Georgia. “Doggedness” and “obduracy” made unwelcome, if timely, reappearances. “Some games may require tactical obduracy. (Georgia) wasn’t one of them.” Vincent Hogan suggested in the Indo.

On Sky Sports, James McClean, a refreshingly honest interviewee, slammed Irish media criticism of the team (a point Sky’s Niall Quinn spectacularly missed when gently defending his gentle analyses). “We got a lot of flak after the Serbia and Georgia games, unfairly so. The Irish press need a reality check. With the media it’s a no-win situation. If we play pretty football and we don’t win they say we should have won. If we don’t play pretty football and we win, they say we need to play better football.” But the Irish media are simply being consistent (bar the predictable exception of RTE’s controversialist Eamon Dunphy) and are not always wrong to criticise O’Neill as they did Trap. O’Neill is dealing with a similar talent-pool. But he was hired to deliver more substance and style than Trap. He has delivered more of neither.

O’Neill’s Ireland stand at a crossroads. The Euro 2016 qualifiers could have gone the way of Trap’s out-of-tune swansong but for that Germany game… and Scotland’s collapse. And this campaign could go that way after the Austria, Wales, Austria run of games. O’Neill may have an increasingly positive influence, now that he has the comfort of a new two-year contract. But I can’t rule out more Facebook posts declaring that it “never happened under Trap.”

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