Having made my debut under the manager, most people will assume that I look at him through rose-tinted glasses but, after being left out of these last two crucial qualifiers, — without any contact from him or Marco Tardelli — I can assure you, I do not.
But, being as objective as I can be, I have to say that, on the whole, his reign as our national boss has to be regarded as a successful period in our football history. Before him, we had endured years of not qualifying for a major championship, and in his first campaign we came agonisingly close to getting to the World Cup in 2010. He then kept the majority of the squad together for the following campaign which saw us qualify for the Euros and give the country the massive lift it needed in tough economic times. What subsequently transpired at the finals shouldn’t make us forget the infectious buzz of coming through the play-offs the previous November.
The main criticism I hear from people about him is the “style of play”, and it does make me laugh. I grew up watching the Ireland teams under Jack Charlton and as much as I worshipped Jack and all of the players in that era, I don’t remember us playing free-flowing football and dominating possession in many games. Instead, my most vivid memories are of long balls from Packie up to big Cas or Quinny and then playing from there — and with a lot of success, I might add.
Let’s not forget either that the Ireland teams in the late 80s and 90s contained household names playing with the top sides in England. Today’s pool of Irish players, by contrast, is mainly a mixture of bottom half Premier League sides and Championship sides. A factor in this is certainly the influx of foreign players into the English game. And while some of the most outstanding of these imports have clearly brought a lot of the “beautiful game” to England, their arrival has not been without its negative effect on their national team, which is now drawing on a smaller pool of top-flight talent than was the case 15 or 20 years ago.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Ireland are capable of playing a “better” style of football but, in doing that, I’m not sure if we would have been as successful as we were in Trapattoni’s first two campaigns in charge.
A lot of people accused the manager of being very stubborn in persisting with his favoured 4-4-2 formation, when the majority of other nations employ a system to make sure they don’t get overrun in midfield. We always had a big problem with this, there’s no denying it, but could we realistically leave Robbie Keane out of the side? Playing as a lone striker isn’t Robbie’s preferred role and, with his goal record, the vast majority of managers would build their team around someone like him.
The match against Sweden highlighted a lot for me and one thing was that, as good as we were in the opening 20 minutes or so — dominating possession and dictating play — we didn’t actually create any chances until the goal. And we all know how the goal came about — long ball, flick-on and Robbie sniffs out a goal.
When the manager took over in 2008 he had four players, in particular, who were probably at their peak: Shay Given, Richard Dunne. Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. With their wealth of experience, these players were the soul of the team and gave the rest of us great confidence when we walked out onto the pitch. But if you wind on five years, two of those players have retired (Shay and Duffer), one of them has been out of action for a full year and is still only making his way back (Dunny) and, at 33, Robbie obviously isn’t as sharp as he once was, despite still being our most reliable source of goals.
As highly as I rate some of the young players that have come into the squad over the last year or so, you cannot beat experience. Having the right blend of the two is vital.
Football is a results business and when we were getting results in the first two campaigns of the manager’s reign, the fans — and media, to a certain degree — were content. It’s when results aren’t great that everything gets magnified — style of play, the manager’s English, not going to scout potential players, etc.
Whoever takes over from Mr Trapattoni will have a tough job and it’s certainly not going to be a quick fix. There are lots of names getting batted about but whoever the FAI opt for, he has to be somebody who wants the job for the right reasons. In my opinion, we need somebody who will look at the whole infrastructure of Irish football, from grassroots all the way to the senior team. It may well be a case that we have to take one step back to go in the right direction for the long haul. As a patriot, I would prefer the manager to be Irish or have a connection with Ireland, but if the right appointment is a foreign manager who brings in new methods to help us evolve and succeed in the long term, then I’m certainly open to that.
As is so often the case when a manager exits under a cloud, people only remember the negatives. But the fact is that this man brought us to our first major championship in 10 years and for me, anyway, his time deserves to be remembered as a good chapter in our football history. As well as the football side of things, he has also given us some of the funniest quotes in modern Irish history. Yes, everyone had a giggle at his broken English, but deep down I think it was him who ended up laughing most, as he could always get out of a tough question by talking about cats in bags!
Take care Mr Trapattoni. It’s been emotional.