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Saturday, June 16, 2012
THE most sobering aspect of Thursday night was that, really, this was how it felt to be insignificant. This was how it felt to be a Honduras 2010, a Costa Rica 2006 – in other words, one of the worst teams in a tournament.
Ireland have never been in that situation before. Indeed, Euro 2012 marks the first time the country has ever lost two consecutive games at a competition. We’ve never not been in contention.
Of course, all of this must be placed into the context that Ireland have never been in a group this difficult before. Indeed, it’s arguable whether they’ve ever faced a team as good as this Spain before. As goes without saying, Ireland were the least talented team in the pool.
Amid the general acceptance of this fact, however, something has been lost in the wider argument. It is somewhat inevitable that something gets lost, though, when that very argument continues to go to such extremes.
This has been the hugely curious aspect of Giovanni Trapattoni’s time in charge of Ireland, with the parameters of that debate poorly set by the false impression Steve Staunton’s disastrous tenure gave of the team and the equally false impression that Trapattoni’s previously excellent career gives of his current – still very good – ability as a manager.
Far too often, the debate has drifted to unrealistic fringes. There is seemingly very little middle ground.
On the one hand, there are those that are resolutely against the manager’s reserved style; on the other, there are those who think he is performing wonders with a paucity of talent.
Here’s the thing, though. Nobody expects Trapattoni to bring Ireland to Spain’s level. And, contrary to perception, that is not actually the point of management. The point is to enhance every available element of the team in order to maximise your chances of bridging the gap.
On Thursday, whatever about the last four years, Trapattoni did not do that. This was nothing to do with talent: this was basic, illogical tactical errors: approaching Spain’s famed midfield with only two in that same area, for example; playing long ball football with a lone frontman that is no longer all that mobile.
The result was that Spain were given their easiest tournament game at any point since Euro 2008. That is reflected in the scoreline: it is the world champions’ biggest win across all of those games. Indeed, it was exactly the kind of confidence-boosting match they were crying out for in the 2010 World Cup after the Swiss unnerved them by doing what the Irish couldn’t.
For a team like Ireland, that pride themselves on their ferocity, that is lamentable.
Again, criticisms of individual aspects of Trapattoni’s management do not imply criticism of his tenure as a whole.
And, to be fair to Trapattoni, there are much broader criticisms to made of the infrastructure he has to work on top of. Because, while it remains true that the manager has made certain decisions that are out of step with the modern realities of international football, it also remains true that Irish football hasn’t exactly given itself a perfect platform. This goes beyond details like population and three major ball sports competing for talent. It comes to basic administration.
Every time England go out of a tournament, we roll our eyes about their hysterical reaction, the acceptance that they must alter the infrastructure and the subsequent failure to do absolutely anything about any of it. It’s time to turn that on ourselves. Because, as a result of the failures of our own infrastructure, we are hostage to the flaws of the British.
It has resulted in a situation where, when one famed foreign coach was watching an Irish U-21 game, he turned to the official beside him and just scoffed: "Watch here. This guy will just get it, put his head down and run with it."
The player did exactly that. And we saw the ultimate results of it all in Gdansk. As the Irish squad rushed around, the Spanish players stopped the ball, looked up and struck. There was a massive gap in composure as well as control.
The key point here is that none of this is "genetic". Up to the 60s, after all, the Spanish used to be famed for precisely the same "furia" as the Irish. From the late 80s on, though – in preparation for the Barcelona Olympics – they completely revamped every aspect of sport.
Interestingly, around the same time as Trapattoni took the Irish job, there was a superficial attempt to do the same within the FAI. One official was given a mandate to implement a clear pyramid coaching structure, the key to ensuring that young players are properly schooled and none fall through the gaps.
The key quote of the first meeting arranged to discuss it? "Why bother? It’s a political nightmare."
This is the problem with Irish football. We have a situation where there is no pyramid. There are only vested interests, best illustrated in the fact that, rather than provide a link to each other and natural progression for young players, junior and senior clubs squabble over signatures because it might mean more money from his eventual departure to Britain. As that same foreign coach said, "I’ve never seen a football structure as crazy as Ireland. It’s like the wild west."
And the players? Well, as one official explains, "the benefit of the young lads just doesn’t come into it."
Until then, we will qualify for tournaments by coincidence rather than design. And there is every chance we will be just as insignificant in them again.
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