Why it’s wrong to label Trap a magician

STEVE STAUNTON was obviously disappointed.

But he wasn’t exactly crushed. Just 19 at the time, a call-up to Euro 88 would have been a bonus. And, in any case, Jack Charlton lent the young Staunton his car for a month to compensate for the omission.

Different times. In many ways.

Because, in truth, Charlton barely had a tough decision to make ahead of announcing his Euro 88 panel. Of the eventual 20-man squad, a fifth actually played in the English second tier or below. It was hardly rich pickings beyond an admittedly stellar first XI.

In 1990, that proportion had actually grown. Six of the 22-man squad played outside a top division while a further two — Mick McCarthy and John Sheridan — had just been relegated. And the only man deemed unlucky to have missed out, Gary Waddock, also went down with McCarthy at Millwall.

Four years later, then, only 18 of Ireland’s squad played in the Premier League or a similar level. While, in 2002, a considerable seven of 23 were lifted from lower leagues to play on football’s greatest stage.

At the moment, in vast contrast, Giovanni Trapattoni can pick from 25 players who have appeared at Premier League level in 2011. A 26th, Aiden McGeady, has played in the Champions League with Spartak Moscow.

Those are facts that put a different spin on the recent argument that Giovanni Trapattoni has had to work with one of the worst groups of Irish players in history. Sure, the top end of the team may not be anywhere near as talented. But there is at least a strong point that the pool has never been deeper.

None of this is to take away from Trapattoni’s inevitable qualification tonight. Regardless of style and standards, to bring a country to only their fifth international tournament ever and first in a decade is an achievement to be admired and celebrated. But it’s not quite a case of the manager performing a feat of alchemy with a group of nobodies — as a minority continue to argue.

Indeed, although his first XI is nowhere near as fearsome as those of 1988-94 or 2000-01, Trapattoni has one advantage over pretty much every Ireland manager in history: there’s no significant drop-off in the quality of reserves. Whereas Charlton had to scour lower leagues, McCarthy had to derive more out of discarded club men like Gary Breen and — in a nadir — Brian Kerr’s only offensive tactic against France was to put Gary Doherty up front, the current manager doesn’t have to resort to such extremes.

In almost every position, there is a replacement of relatively equal quality. That’s most evident up front where, beyond Robbie Keane, Trapattoni has five Premier League forwards from: Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Jon Walters, Simon Cox and Leon Best.

The key outcome of this is consistency. Injuries or suspensions are never going to result in too much of a drop-off in form because a ready-made replacement can step in.

Indeed, the only player who seems indispensable is Richard Dunne.

And that does reflect the real major flaw in Trapattoni’s Irish squad. For arguably the first time since the 1930s, Ireland don’t have a world-class player. A lineage started by Johnny Carey and continued by Billy Whelan, John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane has been broken.

But, ironically, Keane’s departure from the 2002 World Cup also coincided with a watershed in international football overall. Results in tournaments since that time point to a period when having world-class players has never mattered less. International football is more open than ever before. And, even aside from that, the current Irish squad is better than a series of European qualifiers from that time when you go through them man for man: Greece 2004 and 2008, Switzerland 2004, Latvia 2004, Poland 2008, Slovenia 2010.

Furthermore, a core of Dunne, Shay Given, John O’Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane would bolster most teams in international football. The key now, of course, is that Trapattoni has given those men discipline and a minimalist yet productive system. But he has benefited from a deep pool of decent — if not dynamic — quality.

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