As a football fan you swallow all manner of unpalatable truths. The first is often the fact that your team plays awful football. If the results are good, it’s easier to weather the discomfort. That said, during the Charlton years, when I was still fairly young, I found myself disenchanted with the team’s style of play even while cheering their success. The results were ground out with minimal flair and it was always embarrassing to me how we reached a World Cup quarter-final with four draws and that we scored no more than four goals in two tournaments. For that reason, the team’s “mutinies” remain dearest to my memory. These include the match against the USSR in Hanover in 1988 when a fantastically talented Irish side outplayed one of the greatest teams of that era. The 1-0 win over Italy in Giants Stadium six years later is also a particularly fond memory, mainly because it was built on attacking flair as well as excellent defending (I’ll always remember Paolo Maldini’s resounding tribute to Paul McGrath in a post-match interview). That Italy match was the apex of the Charlton era, a win against one of the best teams in the world achieved stylishly which also showcased three of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic talents of Irish football: McGrath, a young Roy Keane and John Sheridan. The only way the match could have been bettered would have been if Sheridan’s deft chip mid-way through the second half had landed a few inches further below the crossbar instead of bouncing off the top of it. When Charlton bowed out after the 2-0 play-off defeat to the Netherlands in 1995, I was hopeful for better things. And to be fair, the less pragmatic Mick McCarthy did some fine things with Ireland, even if his team had a tendency to drop points far too often against weak opposition. Under Giovanni Trapattoni’s management, Ireland fans have had to reconcile themselves to a restored confidence and results of a sort while all the time admitting we are being forced to watch some unsightly football.
Trap’s method is also far from ingenious; Ireland are still as prone as ever to mess up winnable games — even Stephen Staunton’s team could take four points off Slovakia — and a coach less beholden to antediluvian tactics and possessed of a greater confidence in the players at hand would have been able to second-guess Croatia in the opening match of this tournament.
As you can tell, I’m not really a fan of Trap, regardless of whether he has got us back into a finals tournament or not. Getting to a finals should be expected as far as I’m concerned; we have reached the play-offs so often, Ireland fans are entitled to expect tournament football more often than we enjoy. Trap has to be commended for the level of organisation he has instilled in the Irish team but that wouldn’t be hard after the calamity of the Staunton era. The worst thing about his management though is the complete lack of faith he has in his players. As the godfather of Italian football pragmatism Nereo Rocco put it, catenaccio is the right of the weakest. The problem though is that Ireland’s players, for all their limitations, aren’t that weak. You sense that Trap is approaching the Ireland set-up with all the unfounded caution of a Frenchman dining abroad. It’s not even a question of undoing his defensive system — there’s a lot to be said for good, defensive football — but you just wish it were more adaptable than it is. The fact that Trap is still unsure of how to effectively counter three-man midfields reflects far more on him than on the players at his disposal.
Despite the horror of Sunday night’s performance — and let’s not cod ourselves we were unlucky to concede a goal just before half-time — and despite my and many other Irish fans’ disillusion with Trap’s style, I’m not completely despondent before tonight’s match. Spain are a type of team Trapattoni is far more adept at stifling than Croatia were. They will pass us off the park but they do find it difficult to penetrate parsimonious defences. They are also very dodgy at the back, even more so in the absence of Carles Puyol and lack the muscularity of Croatia, who were able to effortlessly weather Ireland’s jostling. A scoreless draw is really the best we can hope for but were we to nick a 1-0 win thanks to a set-piece goal I wouldn’t be too surprised either.
In Gdańsk, as in Poznań, the Poles appear to be all supporting Ireland. Ireland fans have returned the favour in mass, and it is especially easy to get behind a country that has been such a fantastically welcoming host and whose team plays attractive attacking football. I have to admit though I’d gladly trade in the ‘most loveable fans in the world’ tag for a team and a footballing culture everyone takes seriously. In France the words ‘fighting spirit’ (in English) are used to a wearying extent to describe Irish sporting performances. It’s not a bad attribute to be renowned for but there’s a resonant condescension in the tribute. Small countries like Denmark and Croatia have shown it’s possible to be regularly successful while playing good football. I don’t think it’s beyond Ireland’s ability either.
Posted by Oliver Farry