The closer we get to Rio, the further away it ought to seem for an Irish football team which abandoned all hope as far back as last September.
That the vista of a summer devoted to providing warm-up fodder for South America-bound opponents isn’t, in fact, quite as appalling as it should be, has everything to do with the notion that the darkest hour comes right before the dawn. In other words, having exited the age of austerity with the departure of Giovanni Trapattoni, we are now anticipating an era of plenty in the company of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.
But before we lose the run of ourselves, I’d like to take a moment to pay a fonder farewell to Trap than that to which he must have grown accustomed over the past few months. I’ve read a fair few reviews of the football year in recent days and, if you didn’t know any better, you’d be for forgiven for thinking that the Italian’s five-year reign had plunged Irish football back into the dark ages. The reality, of course, is that having been on the outside looking in for a full ten years, it was under the veteran’s stewardship that Ireland finally returned to the top table at Euro 2012, having only narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification two years before.
Of course, the higher the climb, the harder the fall, which is why Poland two summers back felt like the mother of all anti-climaxes. Trap’s reign never really recovered from that crushing disappointment and, while his first two campaigns fully merited his shot at a third, his position came under threat right from the first two games of the World Cup slog. After that, it was a sort of long goodbye, even if he did come close to bringing the best out of his team at home to Austria and away to Sweden.
Not that you’ll have seen him given much credit for that, or anything else, in the sour obituaries which followed his departure. To accept it was clearly time for him to step aside is not the same thing as saying he’d been a wholly negative influence on Irish football, though that was a point relentlessly pressed home by his critics, as if our international team was some oppressed free-flowing collective just waiting for the moment of the tyrant’s departure to be allowed spread its joy to the world. (Incidentally, riddle me this: if, as his many naysayers insist, Trapattoni’s communication with his players was such a massive problem then how could it be that, as the naysayers also insist, the team was suffocated by being forced to play quintessentially Trap-style football? I mean, where did the players get that idea from, huh?).
Me, I think Trapattoni did an excellent job over the first two campaigns in getting a middle of the road international side to successfully play to, and even above, its strengths but, after the demoralising blow that was Euro 2012 – compounded by the retirement or loss through injury of key players like Duff, Dunne and Given — the single-mindedness of his conviction meant he was unable to adjust his approach sufficiently to meet the new demands.
His suspicion of flair-players – short of the world greats, past and present, he liked to invoke to illustrate precisely what Ireland lacked – meant he never made enough use of Wes Hoolahan, even if only off the bench, while it took Noel King’s installation as caretaker manager to see Andy Reid finally come in from the cold.
Both players are understandably fan favourites, bringing a touch of what Trap used to call ‘fantasia’ to an otherwise mainly functional Irish side. Whether, closer to the end than the beginning of their careers, they can go on to exert a major influence over the course of a full campaign is a seriously moot point, however, and one to which O’Neill and Roy Keane will doubtless have to give a lot of thought.
Of equal concern must be the lack of an obvious replacement for Robbie Keane should age and injury finally catch up with Ireland’s only serial goalscorer. Similarly, even while James McCarthy continues to grow in stature and Darron Gibson, one hopes, follows suit on his return from injury, there is still a shortage of top-class creative quality at the heart of the current Irish team.
Reasons to be cheerful? The outstanding Seamus Coleman has started 2014 in flying form and, if he continues along the same lines, will become not only a vital figure in the current team but possibly even one of the all-time Irish greats. Hope for the future? That Robbie Brady fulfils his early promise and helps plug the gap in the national team that has been yawning since the Duffer was in his prime.
Meantime, there have already been encouraging early signs that the likes of Aiden McGeady and James McClean can respond positively to the new regime.
That said, I don’t expect anything revolutionary from O’Neill and Roy Keane. But the former’s proven ability to make good players better and the latter’s inspirational influence, coupled with a shared appetite for hard work, should be enough to ensure we’ll see the best efforts of any team they send into battle.
But whether that will be enough to bring back the glory days will, in the end, be down to the players on the pitch — not the men in the dugout.