For ‘The Third Man’ read ‘The Third Match’ (featuring, um, Harry Liam). So here we are back in Vienna where, this evening, your painfully punning correspondent will be making his third trip to the Ernst-Happel Stadion.
The first was for a beginning: the 2008 European Championship final defeat of Germany, through a clever Fernando Torres goal, which set Spain off on their stunning hat-trick of Euros, World Cup and Euros triumphs, an unprecedented sequence of serial success which rubber-stamped their claim to be regarded as one of the greatest football teams of all time.
My second visit was for an ending: the 1-0 loss to Austria in a World Cup qualifier in 2013 which marked Giovanni Trapattoni’s last game as Ireland manager. With Irish qualification hopes for Brazil already hanging by the slenderest of threads before kick-off, you could say the writing had been on the wall. Or, to be more precise on a tricolour draped outside Charlie P’s Irish pub in Vienna on the day of the game: “Is there anything to be said for saying another mass?”
After a David Alaba goal had sealed Ireland’s fate, Trappattoni was his usual gracious, if sadder, self at the post-match press conference, enough of a realist after his long years in the game to seem wholly resigned to what was coming even as he made one final appeal that he must have known was bound to fall on deaf ears.
“Now the FAI take the decision,” he said. “Give me the opportunity to continue for the next group and the next campaign. I am sure this team can increase very, very much. But for the other manager, maybe. It depends what the federation decides. I wait for the decision.”
He didn’t have to wait long.
By the time our media pack landed back in Dublin the following day, Trap was already on a flight back to Milan, and the hunt for his successor had begun.
On a purely personal note – and I know this is a view shared by a number of colleagues – I have always regretted we didn’t have the opportunity to shake his hand and wish him well. As a manager of the national team, his approach might have been divisive and his time might have ended in failure but, as a man, Trap was always a pleasure – if, occasionally, a baffling one – to deal with. And if you think basic human decency in our public figures isn’t worth celebrating, the incoming POTUS should make you think again. (While I’m on the subject, can I just say for the record it seems the only poll you can trust nowadays is Bobby Lewandowski).
In truth, for all the flak that came his way, Trapattoni’s record in the Irish hot seat was hardly shabby: one especially striking stat is that his final game in charge, that 1-0 defeat to Austria, was actually the only competitive away match he lost in three campaigns as Ireland manager. He also, of course, came agonisingly close to taking Ireland to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. What stains his record, however, is the terrible damage the Irish shipped in a handful of really big games under his command, not least at those Euro Finals in Poland when he and his players crashed and burned with a record of three defeats, nine goals conceded and one scored. I will always maintain there was absolutely no disgrace in Ireland losing 4-0 to an outlandishly gifted Spanish side – as already mentioned, that 2012 tournament would turn out to be their coronation as all-time greats – while the presence of their eventual fellow finalists Italy as well as a very strong Croatian team in Ireland’s group, meant the odds of claiming even one point, never mind progression to the knock-out stage, were always steeply stacked against Trapattoni’s side.
(Incidentally, our hosts tonight have some even more painful previous with the Spanish. In 1999, the Austrians suffered a 9-0 humiliation in a Euro qualifier in Valencia, prompting one radio commentator to issue this urgent clarification for his disbelieving audience back home: “We repeat: this is football, ladies and gentlemen, not skittles”).
The growing sense that Trapattoni’s innate tactical conservatism and over- reliance on loyal servants were more of a hindrance than a help to Ireland’s cause, was confirmed in the most brutal fashion in the following World Cup campaign, when Germany came to Dublin and inflicted a crushing 6-1 defeat on a dazed and demoralised team. For Trapattoni, though there were a couple of reprieves still to come, that night really was the unofficial beginning of the end which finally arrived in Vienna.
But even as the great Ferris wheel of football takes another spin back here in the Austrian capital this evening, you could hardly argue that, in succeeding Trapattoni, Martin O’Neill has sought to reinvent the wheel of the Irish game.
The Italian would no doubt argue – and with more than a little legitimacy - he sees much in the way the current team goes about its business which would be entirely recognisable to him from his own time in charge, even if the new boss is a bit more inclined to trust a flair player like Wes Hoolahan. (And, certainly, highly unlikely to set about the playmaker with a rolled-up Derry Journal in the way that, legend has it, Trap once upbraided Andy Reid with a copy of La Gazzetta della Sport).
O’Neill’s tenure has also seen the likes of Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Darren Randolph and Shane Duffy kick on in a major way, a generational change of a kind that was always going to happen once the old guard of Keane, Dunne, Given and Duffer had left the stage.
But arguably the biggest and most important change under O’Neill has been Ireland’s success in finally prevailing against top quality opposition. Four contrasting results, from then and now, tell the tale: from 6-1 to Germany in Dublin under Trap to 1-0 to Ireland under O’Neill and from 2-0 to Italy in the Euro Finals under Trap to 1-0 to Ireland under O’Neill.
We can fight the style wars from here to eternity but, in the end, right here in Austrian capital, it was coming out on the wrong side of a scoreline which finally did it for Trapattoni. By contrast, it’s Ireland’s capacity for coming out on the right side under Martin O’Neill which engenders confidence our return trip to the Ernst-Happel can be a more rewarding one.
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