On Friday evening in Tallinn the Republic of Ireland will be 180 minutes from qualifying for their first major tournament since 2002 and only their second ever appearance at the European Championships.
Regardless of whether qualification is achieved or not the performance of manager Giovanni Trapattoni will be the subject of much debate. If we qualify some may argue that it was done the hard way and quite possibly another manager could have the job done by now and not needed the lottery of the playoffs. Two points were dropped away in Zilina when Ireland escaped with a draw when the game was there for the taking. The home performances against Russia and Slovakia drew much criticism also. Against the Russians Ireland were torn apart on a home pitch in a fashion rarely seen. The visitors were so far ahead of the Irish side that night that their 3-0 advantage on 50 minutes was kind to the home side. The fact that the game finished 3-2 merely puts a nice gloss on the records, Ireland were annihilated that night. The midfield were constantly outnumbered which allowed the Russians to pass their way to goal time and time again. Many questioned why changes weren’t made earlier in that game to redress the numerical imbalance in the engine room.
The home game against Slovakia was another let down for Irish supporters. The night promised much, a home win and we could have conceivably topped the group. Ireland displayed in Zilina that we have players that are more than a match for Slovakia, so three points at home should be well within our compass. What followed was one of the worst home performances seen for years, and only for a heroic block by Sean St. Ledger Slovakia could have plundered the Aviva for all three points. Few would have said that they did not deserve them.
If we don’t qualify the knives will surely be out for the Italian manager.
Trapattoni could argue that a place in the playoffs is a decent return for the players at his disposal, and his much criticised tactics are designed around the players he feels are worth their place in his first eleven.
It is worth comparing the squad that qualified for our first appearance at the European Championships in 1988 to the current crop. Of the players picked by Jack Charlton for those qualifiers seven were in the squads of the top two finishers in the top division of English football in the summer of 1988. Jim Beglin, Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge were on the books of the champions Liverpool. Aldridge was their top scorer in that title season. Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath were with second place Manchester United. In addition to this Frank Stapleton had left Manchester United for Ajax in 1987 and Kevin Sheedy was plying his trade with Everton who finished fourth in England that summer.
The late eighties were during the period when English clubs were banned from European competition so the English game was not awash with continental and South American stars as it is today. However it was only four years previous to 1988 when Liverpool were crowned champions of Europe. So that illustrates that the league, even with its exile from European competition, still contained some of the top sides on the continent. In today’s terms this would be the equivalent of seven of our squad playing for the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea.
Darron Gibson is on the books at Manchester Untied but he is very much a fringe player at Old Trafford and has also fallen down the pecking order with the national squad.
In 1987 Liam Brady returned from his seven year stay in Italy. This was when the Italian league had a two foreigner rule for each squad so only the finest players were imported into Serie A.
Trapattoni can only dream of the resources available to Jack Charlton in 1988. Our current squad are found in the middle to lower reaches of the English top division. Of the team that will probably take to the field on Friday night two, Keith Andrews and Sean St. Ledger, play in the second tier of English football. The mainstays of the current squad are more likely to be involved in the relegation fight in the English Premier league rather than the title chase. Our captain plays in the MLS, a league which is realistically a retirement home for European stars or a staging post for U.S. and Mexican players looking to attract the eye of suitors from European clubs. However that move can be dressed up it is highly likely that if we qualify that Ireland will be the only side at Euro 2012 whose captain plays in the U.S. league.
The current squad contains some talented players and some excellent prospects for the future, Aiden McGeady being an example of this. Many of our better players, Keane, Duff, Given and Dunne, are in the autumn of their career. Although Richard Dunne’s recent performances would suggest that he is in the form of his life. Trapattoni is certainly no miracle worker and despite the erratic results that were a feature of the closing stages of the Euro 2012 Group B Qualifiers the Irish players are certainly good enough to finish where they did, and are full value for their place in the playoffs. There are certainly other managers who could also have steered Ireland to a playoff spot but there are many more that would have floundered and it would have been another campaign of “what ifs”.
Too often he is accused of not getting the most out the players available to him and imposing a defensive straightjacket on players. The players that Trapattoni does not pick is another stick that is issued to beat the Italian. At the start of his tenure there was an outcry for Andy Reid to be employed as a lynchpin of our midfield. The subsequent decline in Reid’s club fortunes may hint that the correct call may have been made here by the Italian. Other names suggested that would improve the team have been James McCarthy, Wes Hoolohan and more recently Leon Best. There is also he who should not be mentioned.
Too much time is spent musing over the players that he could or should call up without a thorough evaluation of how they would really improve the side, Stephen Ward being a recent example of this.
Many Irish fans will quite rightly expect the national side to progress past Estonia and book a place at Euro 2012. If that does happen Trapattoni should get the praise he deserves. Some level of realism needs to be engaged when evaluating the players he has available to him.