By Ed Leahy
Six points from six in the opening two games of the Euro 2012 qualifiers and the pain of the Paris play-off was – gradually – disappearing, as Giovanni Trapattoni’s second campaign in charge of the Irish team got off to a flier.
Watch Republic of Ireland v Estonia live on RTÉ TWO and www.rte.ie on Tuesday 15 November from 7.00pm. </notforsyndication>
But 50 minutes into the third game and the walls started to come tumbling down. Three goals down to Russia in the first real test of the group and the knives were being sharpened and pointed in the direction of the affable Italian pacing the pitch-side perimeter of the manager’s technical area.
A late rally at the Aviva showed the fighting spirit that the manager had instilled in his team and the ability to score two goals against a quality Russian side, once again, showed that this team can play a bit when they are let off their leash.
The Irish campaign continued with ugly victories against the weaker teams and missed opportunities against Slovakia, who were threatening to bump Trap’s team out of a play-off place.
The group was turned on its head on 6 September as Armenia joined the qualification party with a 4-0 victory in Slovakia, while Trapattoni’s Ireland put in the performance of the year to survive a Moscow mauling, leaving Russia with a point and an outside chance of automatic qualification.
Inevitably, Russia sealed top spot with an away win in Slovakia, but Trapattoni’s Ireland knew that maximum points from their final two games would secure the play-off place.
Those last two victories never appeared in doubt and Mr Lucky, Trapattoni, struck again, landing Estonia in the play-off as Ireland looked to end their ten-year exile from the big summer tournaments.
But was it really a lucky campaign or is the ‘wily old fox’ not getting the credit he deserves from the public, or media, for turning around the fortunes of an Irish team that was in disarray when he took up the position back in 2008?
When Trapattoni agreed to manage the Ireland team, there was widespread agreement that the FAI had landed a top quality manager, boasting a CV packed full of league and European titles at some of the biggest club sides in the world.
But the Italian would set his own agenda, do things his own way and pay very little attention to the demands of the media and television experts telling the manager the players that should be in the squad and what system he should be playing.
Performances have been far from pretty but end product is Trapattoni’s main concern and when you break it down, the Italian has delivered two successful campaigns from two attempts.
World Cup 2010 qualification should have been nothing more than an experimental, transitional period for the new manager. But an unbeaten campaign – including two very respectable draws with reigning world champions Italy – sent Ireland into a play-off with France.
The palm of a hand away from a place at the World Cup in South Africa, the FAI, and the Irish footballing fraternity, appeared more concerned about getting cheated out of a place in the tournament rather than heaping praise on the manager who brought belief back to the green jersey.
Campaign number two for Il Trap and Ireland found themselves third seed in a six-team group. So what sort of return is expected from a manager in that scenario?
Beat the teams below you and hopefully sneak past the second seed for another shot at the play-offs?
Well sure enough, Trapattoni delivered again. Six wins from six against the bottom teams and two draws with Slovakia, the second seeded team, and yet many remained unconvinced that Trapattoni was the right man for the job.
So why so hard on Signor Trapattoni?
Yes, his salary is substantial for an international manager of a lowly ranked side such as Ireland, yet so are other salaries within the FAI, and a huge slice of the manager’s wages are, at least, paid by a wealthy business man.
There is also the perception that the manager does not go to watch his players playing at club level and because he lives in Italy, he is out of touch with what kind of form his squad are in ahead of international games.
Another unsubstantiated claim is that his communication skills with the squad is unsettling and a cause for concern. Yet any issues have been with players who are not regulars in the squad, while those who are named and turn up at every opportunity have not reported any breakdown in such communication channels.
So how has Giovanni Trapattoni brought this group of players to the brink of qualification to the European Championships, a tournament that Ireland have only qualified for once before, in 1988?
One of the manager’s best attributes is his loyalty to his players. From a footballer’s perspective, there is probably no better trait than knowing that your manager believes in you. The Irish squad on a man-to-man basis are not world-beaters, with most playing there football with teams in the bottom half of the Premier League in England, the Championship or the MLS in America.
Many of his current squad have, at times, struggled to keep their starting places at their clubs, while others have had to move down the food chain to smaller clubs or lower divisions, yet they remain in Trapattoni’s thoughts because they have done a job in the past and he knows they will do it again when asked.
Look at Andy Keogh or Keith Andrews. Both have found themselves at average teams in the second tier of English football, and yet Keogh still keeps Everton starlet Seamus Coleman off the subs bench in Estonia, while Andrews puts in a man of the match performance in the centre of midfield, scoring the vital first goal in the process.
One of the first things that Trapattoni picked up on when he took over the Ireland team was the players’ passion for the jersey. There are few, if any, international sides that can boast the team spirit that this Ireland team possesses.
Trapattoni has nurtured that passion and, as a result, certain performances and results – like the away draw in Moscow – can only be attributed to that belief that the current Irish team has in both the jersey and the manager.
Opposition sides know exactly what to expect when playing Ireland. Yet with only one goal conceded – a consolation for Armenia in the last few minutes of a certain Irish victory – in the last eight games proves that no team is comfortable playing against the Trapattoni system.
The current Ireland side will not get many comparisons to Arsenal or Barcelona, yet the one thing they have in common is the players’ understanding of what is required of them when picked in the starting eleven.
Speaking before last week’s encounter, Glenn Whelan admitted that he would prefer to play a certain way from a personal point of view, yet acknowledged that if he didn’t play the way the manager wanted, then there was plenty other lads who were willing to do so.
And while Trap’s system might not be to everyone’s liking and can result in opposition teams owning the ball for large periods, one thing that the manager must be commended for is his belief in the flair player who can provide that moment of magic that could turn a game in his favour.
Any team with Aiden McGeady, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane in its starting eleven is always likely to create something out of nothing, grabbing a goal or winning a penalty. The flip side of such selection policies is that the other seven outfield players have to be more disciplined to allow the flair players that little bit of freedom.
But while Trap has relied heavily on this magic-man type of player, he must also be commended for other choices that he has recently made in relation to the Irish approach.
In Friday’s game, both full-backs, Stephen Ward and Stephen Kelly, appeared to be given licence to push on into attacking positions, while Jonathan Walters is far more than just a physical presence, as he possesses great ability on the ball and a welcome willingness to run at defenders and shoot on sight.
And so it all boils down to what you want from your football team. From a personal point of view, I have never been overly enamoured by the Trapattoni style of playing football, yet I have come to appreciate exactly what he has achieved with this team and for Irish football in general.
For most, next summer will be all about being part of the biggest show in town. Matches will be watched in crowded pubs with limited views and blurred memories will recall little other than the result, especially if it is favourable.
The television experts will, as it is their jobs to, point out the limitations of the side or the players or the system. But, as proved last Saturday, when a limited, yet hard-working, England team beat the world champions and purveyors of the beautiful game, Spain, it shows that anything can happen in international football.
And thanks to the resilience and passion of Trapattoni’s side, Ireland will go into the European Championships as a team to avoid rather than a soft touch for the big boys of the international game.
Nobody believes that it is going to be pretty. But the country is set for another roller coaster ride of Italia ‘90 proportions next summer and that would certainly not be possible without that wily old fox steering the ship.
Grazie mille, Signor Trapattoni.