To be Irish in Poland right now is not a great feeling. Having witnessed Ireland versus Croatia in the press centre adjacent to the Gdansk stadium I can safely say that of the twelve teams that have played so far in the competition, Ireland’s performance last night was the poorest we have seen.
It wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of the players. It certainly wasn’t because of a problem in the preparation. The support was magnificent and at a fever pitch that could only inspire the team and the nation as a whole.
So what went wrong?
You might argue that this was a once off, unlucky outcome. We didn’t get the breaks on the night; their goals were almost freakish: a looping header that caught Shay Given unawares; a ball that came off the post and in off Shay’s head; a dodgy effort by Jelavic with questions of offside about it; the penalty that should have been given. All of that only papers over the cracks of what was a disjointed performance by Ireland.
You might say that the Croatian team is not that good; that we can improve and still have a chance against Spain and Italy. But on the basis of the game that Brian Kerr and I witnessed in Gdansk between Spain and Italy – a match of the highest technical standard between the last two World Cup winners - there is only the remotest of chances that Ireland can get a result first against Spain in Gdansk on Thursday, and then against Italy in Poznan next Monday.
Spain and Italy produced football of contrasting styles that was at a level that is way beyond this Ireland side. It would take another miracle like Moscow for Ireland to come back in Group C. As long as there is hope we can only dream… but should we be surprised that we have failed our first examination on the highest stage.
After years of putting up with Giovanni Trapattoni’s old-fashioned tactical plan, and seeing the Irish players selected to fit that system, it was depressing to see us produce the worst competitive performance since the Italian took over.
The fact that our team played in shirts numbered 1 to 11 was not an accident. Trapattoni does not like change. Despite problems for several players with injury and form in the build-up to the tournament, Trap had this team picked weeks ago - and he was not going to waver from that.
How did that make numbers 12-23 feel? Are they just bit part players in this Irish drama? And most importantly, will Trap make any changes for the game on Thursday, as he surely must? Will he, as he might have last night, use James McClean? How will he freshen up the midfield that at no point last night kept control of the game? And if players are not 100%, will they be replaced with fresher, fitter alternatives?
We always live in hope and that will keep us going until we meet Spain on Thursday. It would take a performance of herculean proportions for Ireland to get the draw we need. The chances are slim against a superior force – but we know that the players have it in them as we have done it before, against France in Paris for example.