What a difference 12 months can make.
This time last year Irish soccer was on a high. The Republic of Ireland had successfully navigated a play-off against Estonia to book a place in Euro 2012. The national team was held in high esteem.
That lasted until the third minute of the opening group game against Croatia and Giovanni Trapattoni’s men would be home before the postcards.
It was a chastening experience followed up by a narrow escape against Kazakhstan and a humiliating 6-1 home defeat to Germany. Yet those results haven’t stopped Trapattoni’s assistant Marco Tardelli from declaring the year “fantastic” for Irish soccer as the team reached a major finals for the first time in 10 years.
The comments bemused everyone but for former manager and player John Giles the statement showed a lack of belief in Ireland’s ability.
“That’s just silly,” Giles said. “I don’t know what he’s trying to prove. Is that the end of the world?
“That was my argument. Qualifying for the first time in 10 years is only the first step. You’re building. You don’t say, ‘we got to the European championships, that’s great’. Let’s go and make a show of it. You have to build for the future.
“It’s not the be all and end all to qualify. It was great but when you get to the European championships we’ve got to make a showing in the European Championships. Not make a bad showing and then say, ‘well we still did great because your country didn’t qualify for 10 years and we qualified you’. Qualifying for the European championships is only the beginning.”
Since the chastening experience against Germany, Giles has detected a new approach since the 4-1 win over the Faroe Islands and last month’s narrow friendly defeat to Greece.
However, he fears Trapattoni will revert to his defensive system when the crucial qualifiers against Sweden and Austria come around in March.
“Since the European championships and the disaster against Germany there have been signs of change.
“There was a bit of freedom about it. I remember watching the game against Kazakhstan. We had Coleman, McClean, Wilson, Long and Doyle on the bench. I think they should be in the team. And he has put a few of them in and there was a freedom about it. Now, the big talking point is: is he going to change back when it comes to the competitive matches or is he going to go with what he had?
“I think if he plays these young players and allows them to express themselves, I think we’ve got a chance [of qualifying for Brazil 2014]. My fear is he’ll revert to type when it comes to it because he might honestly believe that’s our best way of doing it. I just think if he does that, we won’t [qualify].”
Giles doesn’t believe Trapattoni will get another contract but believes there’ll be no shortage of managers willing to succeed the Italian when the time comes.
‘‘There’ll be few who’ll want the job. It depends how it falls at the time. Mick McCarthy would be a runner. I believe he has a clause in his [Ipswich] contract if the Irish team come along. Owen Coyle still is a contender. Harry Redknapp was a contender, he might still be when it comes to it.”
After a bad start, Chris Hughton is impressing at Norwich this season, with Saturday’s win at Swansea stretching his side’s unbeaten Premier League run to nine games. Giles feels the former Birmingham and Newcastle boss could be a viable option.
“Chris has done great. Chris is, and has been, a very quiet individual with plenty of class,” Giles said. “Why not? Most managers shout their mouth off. Chris is understated and I like that. That type of lad could be a contender if he was interested in doing it.”
Roy Keane would have supporters too, but Giles feels he needs to prove himself again after an unsuccessful spell at Ipswich.
“Roy needs to get back into domestic football. He had a bad time at Ipswich and he hasn’t come back into it. I think Roy, if he was interested in the Irish job, I think it would be more difficult for Roy to come in than say Chris Hughton or Owen Coyle or Mick McCarthy, who have been in the game for the last couple of years.
“Roy Keane did a great job at Sunderland when he first went there. Then it went a bit sour. Then he went to Ipswich. It didn’t work out. He’s got to come back from that. When you’re appointing anybody what you’re doing is taking the least gamble that you can. That’s the way it works.”
Giles was speaking at Eason’s in Cork where he was signing copies of his compelling new book The Great & The Good. The initial motivation behind the book was Giles’s frustration at not getting satisfactory answers when he asked people about what made the players of his youth, Wilf Mannion, Tommy Lawton, Len Shackleton and Jackie Milburn, such great players.
“What they all had in common was effect. Whatever they did, it had to be effective. They’re all different. They had the great thing in common that they could score goals, they could make goals, they had an effect on the pitch.”
At one point in the book Giles refers to the emergence of the Netherlands as a major power in the ’70s but bristles at the ‘Total football’ tag, arguing the often maligned Leeds team he was part of was doing the same thing.
“They encouraged the full-back to come into the game and people were saying, ‘it’s brilliant and its total football but what I say in the book is at Leeds we had Paul Reaney and Terry Cooper, full-backs coming into the game all the time.”
Giles admits the perception of that Leeds team continues to irritate.
“Leeds had a reputation of being a tough, tough team which they were. And certainly in the early days they were accused of gamesmanship, bringing the ball into the corner, Big Jack going under the bar.
“All the teams started doing that. They’re still doing it today. But because it was Leeds — they say give a dog a bad name — whatever we did wasn’t right. When the Dutch team came along it was total football but we matured over the years.
“When I went to Leeds first I was only 22, Norman Hunter was 19, Billy Bremner was 19. We were a rugged team all right, with a great player in Bobby Collins, but we became a great team from 1968. Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968 but Man U were on the way down. We were on the way up.
“We dominated Manchester United and Liverpool for about five or six years after that so we came on to our best at that particular time. We were playing great football at that time but we still had the tag.”
And luckily for Irish soccer viewers we still have a pundit of the calibre of Giles.
* John Giles: The Great & The Good published by Hachette books Ireland is on sale now at a cost of €19.99.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved