We Are Ireland

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was June 1st 2012. I post it here as a reminder to myself and others to never let sentiment sway your expectations too unduly. 

We Are Ireland

“Spanish goal. Irish heartbreak.”

-Peter Drury, ITV commentator, Spain 1-1 Ireland (3-2 PSO), World Cup 2002, Second Round

 

This time ten years ago was the last time that Ireland were preparing for a major tournament. Back then, the only story worth talking about in relation to the Irish team was Roy Keane and his acrimonious departure from the squad (referred to, rather dramatically, as the “Roy Keane incident” on Wikipedia). Things are rather smoother in that respect in the lead up to Euro 2012, notwithstanding the late and cruel exclusion of Kevin Foley for reasons of squad depth reorganisation. The Roy Keane saga was Ireland’s second civil war, dividing opinion in this country in a huge way. The arguments were plentiful, I remember. My mother still hasn’t forgiven McCarthy. I may never forgive Keane.

But there are plenty of other differences. The squad of 2002 contained young Ireland stars like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, today the old guard of the team. In 2002 Ireland were known for a more aggressive mindset, that had seen them beat Holland with just 10 men in the qualifiers in an utterly enthralling game of football, while today Ireland are the epitome of the defensive shell team. Ireland went into World Cup 2002 with a not unreasonable confidence, even without Roy Keane, of making it out a group containing Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia – today, they face Spain, Italy and Croatia, with the smart money describing them as wooden spoon candidates.

A lot has happened for Ireland since they lost a penalty shoot out against Spain in the second round of the 2002 World Cup. Four successive failures to reach a major finals, four managers, the return and second departure of Roy Keane, the bizarre Stephen Ireland saga, the underachievement of Brian Kerr, a humiliation in Cyprus, a new Italian style of football introduced with plenty of detractors, a deliberate handball in Paris, an unexpected rout of Estonia, and here they are. Back on the big stage.”Trap’s Army” will take to the field against Croatia on June 10th, having completed an extended stay in the footballing wilderness marked by a radical downturn in the country’s fortunes, frequent frustration and continual heartbreak. There have been many tears over the last decade. The football hasn’t been great either.

But that is in the past. All that matters is what Ireland can accomplish on the field in the next few weeks.

“And we’ll really shake them up

When we win the World Cup

Cause Ireland are the greatest football team”

Put ‘Em Under Pressure, Official Ireland song, World Cup 1990

 

The team has certainly gotten used to a classic Italian mindset in terms of tactics, becoming a nation that is content to sit back and soak up pressure, grab early leads and defend them, play for draws in the tougher games and cultivate a thinking that is fixed on eliminating risk. Trappatoni rarely lets Ireland off the leash (the second leg in Paris in 2010 was a very rare example, the implications of which still divide some Ireland fans) and the current squad has mastered that form of football to the extent that they are capable of doing so. The heroic display of the back line away to Russia in September 2011 is the foremost example of a team that has become comfortable at stifling the play of the opposition, killing games off and getting the required results. It has been nice seeing Ireland get those results.

And in a group containing the attacking prowess of Spain and Croatia, that skill is going to come in handy. Trappatoni has recognised the inherent problem with Ireland and its limited pool of talent, and taking his cue from the likes of Greece in 2004, has moulded a squad that has been able to set itself up on a level pegging with teams nominally far above them in terms of skill (though Ireland struggles to surpass them, even in individual games). Having spent the better part of four years practicing and honing this brand of football, Ireland are as ready as they ever could be to take on the attacking might of the defending champions.

The squad itself is a decent mix of experienced veterans perhaps playing in their last tournament and the younger guys who will, hopefully, play in a few more. Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea Damien Duff and Robbie Keane are the backbone of the team from goal to the forward line, and provide the big match – and big tournament – know-how and calmness under pressure. Lining up around them is the new crop of Irish footballing talent – the likes of Sean St Ledger and Darren O’ Dea in defence, Glenn Whelan, Aidan McGeady, Darren Gibson and James McClean in midfield, Simon Cox, Jonathan Walters and Kevin Doyle up front. While few of the Irish team are lighting the world on fire at club level, they are all consistently decent players, even those that ply their trade at lower ranked clubs. Ireland have never been able to call upon real superstars, but what we do have is hard-working, honest individuals to pick for the side. Trappatoni’s man management skills are a subject that could be debated, after run-ins with James McCarthy, Gibson and  now Kevin Foley that seem less than professional, but he has brought together a squad that is displaying none of the factionalism and bickering evident ten years ago.

Ireland also go into this tournament with little pressure on them. Only rated higher than the hosts and the Czech Republic according to FIFA, few expect Ireland to actually do much, which is typically something to be considered an advantage to lesser teams. Ireland will be hoping that their Group C opponents underestimate them, as Russia did, as France did. Spain have been caught in such a manner before, by Switzerland at South Africa 2010, an experience that Ireland would love to emulate. With little expectation to meet, both from the support at home, who generally recognise the limitations of the team without letting go of hope, and the world in general, Ireland can go to Poland and play with a slightly more relaxed mindset then their opponents – Spain have the pressure that comes with defending trophies, Croatia have been fingered as a dark horse by many and Italy will always be expected to do well by those at home – as Trappatoni, at the helm of his native country during the disasters of 2002 and 2004, knows all too well. Ireland have the opportunity to capitalise on such feelings, with the knowledge that failing to do so is unlikely to be seen as a disgrace by those back home, ecstatic enough to have seen the team get this far.

“Don’t say cat until you’ve got it in the bag”.

-Giovanni Trappatoni, Ireland manager

 

Ireland have plenty going against them though. There is a certain toothlessness to the side, who have a tendency to score early and then sit back. Ireland’s 4-0 victory over Estonia was largely such a shock because Ireland have become a team accustomed to one and two goal victories, and are certainly not familiar with routing opposition. That scoreline, gained against an opposition who had two men sent off and seemed to lose the plot under pressure, was not representative of typical Irish play – the 1-1 draw of the second leg in Dublin was more like it and that was more a party than a football game.

It isn’t just the defensive tactics that see’s the Irish fail to greatly increase the “goals scored” category. Robbie Keane, while a talisman for the squad, is past his prime and misses far more often then he scores, Doyle has had many injury problems, while the younger group of forwards are yet to really stamp their authority as consistent goalscorers in an Irish shirt. Ireland do have attacking possibilities, especially from the more forward minded midfield players in the squad (McGeady, Hunt, McClean), but have a tendency to not pursue an attacking option to the full, especially if already leading. Such an ethos comes with its own inherent risks, that have always plagued the catenaccio style of play, namely the lack of a plan B when things go wrong – when Ireland concede first, they struggle to rectify the situation, painfully brought to light in the 3-2 loss to Russia in qualifying, the 1-0 loss to France before that. Ireland were capable of an unexpectedly potent attacking game away to France in 2009 when nothing else would have done, but it has never been proven if that was a successful fluke or something that can be easily replicated.

While Ireland pursue a policy of stepping off and absorbing pressure, sometimes it simply comes down to a weak central midfield. It is a long time since Roy Keane utterly bossed the centre of the pitch in a green shirt, and Andrews and Whelan, the first choice pairing for that position, routinely struggle to have much of an impact. Trappatoni’s long ball game leaves them isolated, and Ireland’s centre is easily exploited by superior teams, who show little fear of what Whelan and Andrews represent. You can expect that to be replicated at Euro 2012, but it isn’t always a bad thing – Andrews and Whelan could try and play ball against Spain, but they wouldn’t last long. Maybe we could have (and did) in 2002, but that team doesn’t exist anymore (mores the pity).

While experienced players are a boon to this team, they also come with a plethora of lingering injury doubts, with Given, Dunne, and Keane all undergoing scans to probe potential problems ahead of the finals. The very fact that most of Ireland’s first choice midfield is recovering from recent knocks was behind the rejection of midfielder Kevin Foley, in favour of additional cover in the form of defender Paul McShane. Ireland have a lack of depth in terms of quality starters, and will probably need to rely on a second, or third choice player to fill a gap before the group stage is even finished. In the case of players like Given or Dunne, such an absence will probably prove decisive.

In terms of entertainment value, Ireland have another weakness, in that they will bore spectators from Galway to Gdansk. Few claim to like the way Ireland play from an aesthetic point of view, with the results it provides being the focus of praise from the Trappatoni faithful. As is often the case with such tactics, plenty at home and abroad have found cause to criticise the “anti-football” style of Trappatoni and the fun-killing image it presents. If catenaccio is a “door-bolt”, then Ireland have kept it mostly shut. If you thought listening to those criticising Chelsea in the wake of their victories over Barcelona and Bayern Munich was eye-opening, try living with it for several years.

Of course, such football is nothing new, not even for Ireland, who rode a wave of such tactics to the World Cup quarter finals in 1990. Trapptoni’s style of play is awful to watch, often infuriating when Ireland seem uninterested in pursuing offensive options, but it cannot be denied that it has worked. Ireland probably should have made it to a World Cup under the Italian and his master plan already, save for the fluke circumstance engineered by a witting Thierry Henry and an unwitting Martin Hannson, and it has now gotten Ireland to the top European stage. It’s really big test is emerging, as Ireland go into a situation where a win against a bigger side – something Trappatoni’s tactics has not been able to provide during his tenure, failing to beat any team seeded above them in ten competitive attempts (three defeats, seven draws) – is going to be required whether it is against Croatia, Italy, or far less likely, Spain. Ireland will play for draws in at least two of those games and it remains to be seen if they have to capability to win the other, or to reverse a losing situation. Trap’s army can look to the example set by Greece in 2004 and Chelsea this year as something to follow. It looks ugly and the world will spit at you for it, but success is success.

“Poland and the Ukraine, are you ready for us?”

-Daragh Maloney, RTE commentator, Ireland 1-1 Estonia (5-1 aggregate), UEFA 2012 Play-Offs

 

What can Ireland expect then? I believe a draw is something we are capable of gaining out of the Croatia game, the surprising trend of opinion within my country that we can beat them probably being borne out of ignorance of the Balkan nation’s current strength. Against Spain, it will be a turtle job, an attempt at survival that will be Greece 2004, New Zealand 2010 and Chelsea 2012 combined. It is against Italy, who Trappatoni knows so well and whom Ireland played against so well in the 2010 qualifiers that I believe a win – one provided by a snatched lead that is then well defended – will be sought.

Ireland are capable of beating the odds and getting four points from this group. Such a number may not be enough to grab second place and a quarter final spot, but it is as much as Ireland can dare to hope for. More likely, comparing the teams, is a failure to reach that goal, but Ireland are unlikely to leave the tournament without leaving a substantial mark.

Because that just isn’t our style. Ireland have taken part in four international finals, and done something extraordinary in all of them. Beating England in 1988, getting to the last eight in 1990, beating Italy in ‘94, grabbing that last minute equaliser against Germany in ’02 and being a hairs breath away from the quarter finals despite the heralds of woe that accompanied Roy Keane’s departure – Ireland has a historical record of providing at least one shock, one memorable moment. It’s our thing.

There is something about the Ireland team, they way they revel in being far from favourites, in punching the big guys nose, of being the team that the neutrals tend to be drawn to. The football team of this country has consistently brought upon itself the characteristics of the nation – underdogs, playing ugly but persevering, not giving up, heart, character, pride and just giving it all when it is required. No Irish team has ever come back from a tournament with bowed heads and I do not think that will change. There are degrees of failure that I would consider unacceptable, but Trappatoni has given me no fears that Ireland will plump to those depths.

Because we are Ireland. We play awful football and we ride our luck and we score sneaky goals and we defend for our lives and we have some really dodgy players and some really dodgy tactics and we sing Spanish chants even when we’re losing and we laugh at Trap’s English but somehow it all just works out. We just believe. There is that tremendous sense of faith around this team, from the four million watching at home, who look at those who face the tricolour and just know, in their hearts, that something unexpected  can happen, that we can rewrite the script that UEFA is putting out. We are Ireland and we can do something special over there.

“Come on you boys in green”

-Me and everyone else, 2012

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