By Ed Leahy
Ireland entertain Poland in an international friendly at Aviva Stadium tonight and, throughout the build-up to this game, it had appeared that manager Giovanni Trapattoni was singing from the same hymn sheet as the Irish supporters and media.
Live radio coverage of Rep Ireland v Poland on a special extended Game On on RTÉ 2FM from 7pm (live streaming available worldwide). Highlights on RTÉ Two television from 10.25pm (live streaming RoI only)
The importance of this Poland clash has proved paramount due to the proximity of the two vital World Cup qualifiers next month against Sweden and Austria.
Trapattoni had been urged by the media and supporters alike to use this friendly clash as a springboard for the upcoming competitive games. And after naming several new players in the squad, it looked like the manager had duly obliged.
The never-changing team that qualified for Euro 2012 has started to fall apart due to retirements and long-term injuries, so the manager’s hand has been forced into introducing new players to that inner circle.
And to his credit, Trapattoni has spent the winter weeks traipsing the towns of England getting to watch many Irish players at first hand, whether Anthony Pilkington at Norwich or a host of young guns at Pride Park in Derby.
Jeff Hendrick, Richard Keogh, Pilkington, David Meyler, Conor Sammon, Stephen Henderson, Ciaran Clark, Alex Pearce, Greg Cunningham, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady – a welcome burst of new talent to the Ireland set-up.
So fast forward to Tuesday afternoon and a real sense of excitement existed as the manager arrived to announce his starting eleven.
No surprises to hear that David Forde got the nod to play in goal, as had been suggested over the weekend.
Likewise, Sammon has caught the manager’s attention playing regularly for Derby County in the Championship and has been named to start up front.
In defence, Paul McShane, Ciaran Clark, John O’Shea and Greg Cunningham make up the back four.
With Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger unlikely to prove their fitness in time for the qualifiers and Stephen Kelly apparently snubbed by the manager, this could well be the starting back four for the important clash in Stockholm, although Seamus Coleman should be fit in time to take up the right-back position.
In midfield, Robbie Brady and James McClean will play the wide roles, while James McCarthy will partner Glenn Whelan in the middle of the park. Shane Long was named as the second striker to partner Sammon up front.
This starting XI proved that Trapattoni was indeed planning for the Sweden clash, however, and this is where the hymn singing ceased, he also confirmed that he was going to do it the old way.
In terms of formation, Trapattoni’s selection has 4-4-2 written all over it.
The absence of Wes Hoolahan shows that the manager is not ready to change his system and will continue with his tried and tested regime, which he believes is best for Ireland.
Trapattoni will always point to his Euro 2012 qualification as justification that he is doing the job that he was asked to do.
But while the manager was plucking new talent from the second tier of English football, the aforementioned Hoolahan was strutting his stuff amongst the game’s elite in the Premier League and never once looking out of place.
Yet Trapattoni cannot find a place for the mercurial Norwich playmaker as he would have to play with a 4-3-3 and it looks like the manager just doesn’t believe that the players at his disposal have the ability to prove competitive in such a scenario.
RTÉ football analyst Kenny Cunningham has been a big advocate for Hoolahan’s inclusion and for a change of system.
Cunningham said: “I would like to see the manager show real commitment to Hoolahan and actually give him 90 minutes because I think that he is the type of player who can change the whole dynamic in the team when he is actually playing in that central area of the pitch.
“It’s an easy fit for me. But the way Hoolahan plays, you’re committing to a 4-3-3 formation as I see him more of an attack-minded central midfield player rather than an out and out second striker.
“I think that central area of the pitch has always been a concern for us especially in terms of our ability to dominate that part of the pitch and retain possession of the football.
“Everybody knows what type of player Hoolahan is and I’m not talking about his form in the previous weeks and months, I’m talking about the last year or two and I think people realise the attributes that he brings to the team.
“Most of the lads in the squad haven’t been brought up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation and in fact a lot of them would actually be very comfortable in a 4-3-3.”
Trapattoni’s tactics have brought success to Ireland throughout his five-year tenure as the team proved hard to beat and many memorable occasions were a welcome return for the success-starved Irish football fan.
Crazy nights in Paris with Thierry Henry playing the role of villain; summer sojourns in Poland at the top table of European football; these are all a product of the Trapattoni way.
But quality international teams have worked Ireland out. Croatia, Italy, Spain and, most recently, Germany; they have realised that Ireland will sit back and defend with their lives, but also give the ball away cheaply and lack any creative outlet, apart from the sometimes-tricky wide players.
Patience appears to be the way to beat Ireland, yet another sterile, unimaginative performance by Trapattoni’s side down at the Lansdowne Road venue tonight will test that very same characteristic of every football-loving Irish fan.
But what if Ireland were to come back from Sweden with a result and beat Austria a few days later? Should the lure of a potential World Cup appearance next year in Brazil be enough to, once again, row in behind Trapattoni and his seemingly outdated approach to international football?