Spring to follow our winter of discontent

It was hard to keep sight of the green shoots of a footballing spring at the Aviva last Tuesday as thick snow began to swirl into the press box, threatening to short-circuit the old laptoperooney. And harder still, nigh on impossible in fact, when they were unceremoniously trampled underfoot at the death.

That’s how bad it felt in the immediate aftermath of the 2-2 draw with Austria, David Alaba’s stomach punch effecting the double-whammy of turning three points into one on the night and four into two after the scoreless draw in Sweden just four nights earlier.

How quickly the wheel spins in sport and how fine can be the margins between success and failure. Think back to the dying moments of the game in Stockholm, when David Forde was able to get a strong hand to Rasmus Elm’s shot and ensure the Irish would take home a point that was as well-earned as, in advance of the game, it had been unexpected. Now flash-forward to the dying moments on Tuesday and this time Forde, through absolutely no fault of his own, was unable to get any kind of hand to Alaba’s deflected strike, with the result that the narrative changed in an instant.

And I mean that literally. Only very occasionally do sports journalists get to write history. Far more often we find ourselves having to rewrite it.

Ah, yes, the dreaded, last minute ‘rewrite’ — the mortal terror of all hacks facing the deadline. In Stockholm, where many of us would have been filing ‘on the whistle’, as we say, or very soon after, Forde’s late, late intervention saved our copy as well, ensuring that all the positive stuff we’d be hammering out for the previous 90 minutes could remain more or less intact.

Not so on Tuesday. The immediate response to the sight of Alaba’s shot hitting the back would have sprung from the depths of the hack’s inner fan, a man-child character who — despite what many might believe — is, in truth, never too far from the surface when Ireland are playing. But the match reporter has no time to mourn and so, in the 92nd minute on Tuesday night, once you’d extracted your head from your hands and with your muttered profanity still hovering in the cold night air, you fell to stabbing desperately at the delete button and, as fast as your frozen fingers could manage, replacing all the upbeat stuff on the screen with something more akin to an instant obituary.

Such is the primacy of the result, as Giovanni Trapattoni never ceases to remind us. And he’s old enough to know the score from our side of the fence too. “Two minutes less and your analysis would be different,” he told us on the morning after.

And who could argue with that?

Except, of course, that there is cause as well as effect, and there were many who felt on the night that Ireland had been playing with fire for around the last 15 or 20 minutes of the game, falling back into their traditional defensive posture and, in effect, inviting an Austrian siege.

The home side might still have got away with it, mind, because it wasn’t as if Forde was being overworked or the woodwork taking a hammering. But with the visitors now dominating possession and, in the knowledge that possession is nine-tenths of the law in football too, it was clear that something needed to be done to redress the balance. And that something, as far as most people were concerned, would have been Wes Hoolahan coming on for Conor Sammon in or around the 70th minute, if not, indeed, a little earlier.

Instead, Giovanni Trapattoni didn’t act until seven minutes from the end of regulation time, and then it was Shane Long who made way for Paul Green. The manager subsequently explained his decision by saying that, with defending the lead his prime responsibility, he wasn’t prepared to throw on a creative, attacking player like Hoolahan. And he justified retaining Sammon on the grounds that he would be more effective than Long if the Irish had to defend late corners or free-kicks.

Even those who tend to dismiss Trapattoni’s thinking as willfully eccentric would have to concede that there is, at least, a clear logic to that reasoning. Nonetheless, I would still contend that it was seriously flawed on the grounds that, had Hoolahan been introduced earlier or even, at a pinch, at that very late stage, his proven ability to take control of the ball and retain possession would have been of significant defensive benefit to Ireland’s increasingly embattled cause.

In fairness to Trapattoni, and as a forensic examination of the equaliser will confirm, the substitution actually had no direct impact on the making or taking of Abala’s goal, but we are still entitled to speculate on how much more comfortably the final phase of the game might have played out for Ireland had the manager opted to go a different route.

But, as they say, we are where we are. And even if I can’t say that I’d be all that confident about our chances of getting to sample some samba sunshine in 15 months’ time, those aforementioned green shoots are definitely still visible in the likes of Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and James McCarthy. Their presence gives cause for optimism of brighter days ahead — with or without ‘Il Vecchio Trap’.

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