WHEN Christian Martinez of Andorra ripped a perfect half-volley into the roof of the Irish net on Tuesday night, I believe I may have been heard to exclaim two words, one of which was “me”.
Oh, how the memories came flooding back.
Of the goal which gave the same opposition a shock lead at the same location 10 years before, on a rain-soaked night in Lansdowne Road when I discovered why the old bucket seats were so-called, as I parked my backside in a small pool of water at the Havelock Square end and watched Ireland go behind to a man by the name of Lima.
“There but for a typographical error, go I,” I might have quipped good-naturedly, had a combination of trenchfoot and shell-shock not temporarily divested me of my intellectual faculties. I was gobsmacked, like.
And then there was that freezing night in San Marino when Ireland conceded a slow-motion, car-crash of a goal to the part-time team all the other part-time teams call ‘The Guvnors’. Or that long, dark night in Nicosia when Cyprus, with five knives to the heart, did to Ireland what, once upon a time, all the other football nations used to do to Cyprus.
Yes, we’ve been to a few dark places with the Boys in Green down the years so little wonder that ugly flashbacks should assail the mind at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday as Andorra wildly and deservedly celebrated their bolt from the blue and, moments later, red-faced Ireland trudged towards the half-time dressing room with their lead at home over the team ranked seventh worst in the world cut to one.
Thankfully, Ireland’s superiority on the pitch was reasserted on the scoreboard by Robbie Keane and any residual fears of a new nadir in our football history receded. On the back of the hard-won win in Yerevan four nights before and Slovakia’s surprise victory over Russian in Moscow, it meant that there was no foul hangover on Wednesday as the updated European Championship stats showed Ireland sitting pretty – well, sitting, at any rate – atop Group B.
And that was enough for Giovanni Trapattoni, even if he did state the obvious in allowing that his team will have to up the overall quality of the performances we saw in the first two qualifiers if they are to successfully meet the tougher challenges of Russia and Slovakia next month.
Notwithstanding the mercurial English which makes many of his utterances hard to pin down, there is really no mystery about what Trapattoni wants and how he intends to get it.
The system is locked down. The goalkeeper, the back four and the central midfield are primarily charged with minding the house. The onus for attack is on the wingers and frontmen, though they are also expected to do their bit in manning the pumps when the good ship Ireland is in danger of going under.
That’s the means to an end which is just as clear-cut: three points on the board, but if three points is not possible than one will do. And, it’s that underlying obsession with avoiding defeat at all costs, which, as Trapattoni would see it, entirely justifies his cautious, low-risk approach.
John Giles argued this week that the Italian’s version of the long-ball game is not the same as the gaelic football version which, ironically, an Englishman brought to Irish soccer. Commenting after Ireland’s win in Yerevan, Giles noted that Shay Given tended to send the ball straight down the middle towards Kevin Doyle, whereas Jack Charlton liked the long ball from his ‘keeper directed into the corners for John Aldridge to chase. Coupled with the order to close down the opposition full-backs, it explains why Aldo himself once observed that his legs were worn down to stumps playing for his country.
But, apart from the geometric implications, I’m not sure we’re exactly talking chalk and cheese here. Certainly, for the opening 30 minutes or so in Yerevan, Shay Given more or less reprised Packie Bonner’s ancient role as Ireland’s playmaker, albeit that it was a tactic justified by the evident discomfort of an Armenian defence which was twice easily breached under the high, dropping ball by Robbie Keane.
The big difference, arguably, is that once Trapattoni’s Ireland get on the ball in the final third, they strive to be a more imaginative than were Ireland under Jack, when the intention was rarely anything other than to hoist another one into the box as quickly as possible. Of course, there were exceptions to the rule and, quite apart from those transcendent big tournament wins over the likes of England and Italy – when, let’s be frank, the means to the end didn’t matter a hoot – I can recall with pleasure some genuinely classy displays in the Charlton era in places like Hanover, Seville and Poznan.
But, boiled down to basics, Trap and Jack have more in common than they have separating them. When the Italian speaks of attaching more importance to “the result than the show”, he is essentially echoing the Geordie’s satisfaction with football that was “not pretty but effective”. And when Trapattoni talks of fitting the players to the “schema”, he is no different in his priorities to Charlton when he used to speak lovingly of his “method”. And, as Dave O’ Leary and Liam Brady found out under Jack, and Andy Reid and perhaps now Darron Gibson have found out under Trap, it’s my way or the highway.
That Ireland’s performance in Paris stands out in the Trapattoni era for its sheer sense of adventure, requires no recourse to conspiracy theories of a player revolution on the night. The simple fact is that, trailing from the first leg and at the point of no return in the Stade de France, neither the manager nor the players had any option other than to go for it. Avoiding defeat simply wasn’t an issue. Only victory would do.
And while it would be nice to think that the same boldness of expression could be encouraged well before Ireland again reach the last-chance saloon, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. There is much to admire in the Trapattoni project and a fair bit to quibble with as well. But, as long as the results keep going Ireland’s way, the manager will remain on-message and bullet-proof.
Yes, even when little Andorra get one right on target.
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