Nineteen eighty eight. The year Ireland first qualified for a major tournament. Jack Charlton, a World Cup winning Englishman, was at the helm. The tournament was the European Championships. The team, largely looking like misfits, held an unquenchable amount of enthusiasm—to a point where they could be depicted in the vein of a rabid bulldog. Under Charlton, a crude philosophy was born, ‘put ‘em under pressure’. The method of play, kick and rush, ushered in an unexpected amount of success for the Irish team. Given that Ireland is a small nation: two World Cup appearances and a European Championships in the space of six years, is a remarkable achievement. Victories against England (’88) and Italy (’94), on both occasions it was Ray Houghton on the score sheet, insured that Jack left a tough act to follow.
The man to follow Jack was Mick McCarthy. Captain of the Republic, in his day, Mick enjoyed a relative amount of success as the manager of Ireland. Qualification for the 2002 World Cup was both the highlight and the low light of his time in charge. Eight years had passed since ’94, during which time Roy Keane had been converted from a fresh faced promising midfielder to a world-class midfield enforcer. Now the captain of Ireland and Manchester United, Keane had put in a steady shift against Holland in the play-offs—not for the first time in his career, nullifying Edgar Davids. The team was flown out to Saipan where preparations for the tournament were to commence. It was in Saipan that everything spun on its head. An argument, over the state of the training facilities and method of transport, broke out between Roy and Mick. It resulted in Roy Keane’s exile from international football. The country endured a split of opinions.
When Giovanni Trapattoni took charge in 2008, Ireland was a different place. During the Jack Charlton era, it was the end of a recession, the beginning of a boom. Giovanni was introduced to a country firmly in decline. Financially the ship had sunk. The fact that an Irish millionaire, O’Brien, still pays half of the Italians salary means that, in football, it is no different. His first campaign, qualification for the 2010 World Cup, ended on familiar ground. A play-off defeat to France—Ireland is adept at making a qualification play-off. The biggest talking point of the campaign—perhaps, even bigger than Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in Paris—was the style of play the Italian had enforced.
A typical Trapattoni line-up is a rigid 4-4-2 with a pair of anchors to man the midfield. A side product, no doubt, of years spent playing in the infamous Catenaccio system. The Catenaccio system once reigned in terror over Europe— to a point, that once it was beaten, it ‘immortalised’ Jock Stein, according to Bill Shankly. The general concept of the old system was to restrict the opposition to few or no attempts on goal. As Gianni Brera, one of the systems biggest advocates, once put it: “The perfect game of football would end 0-0.”
The Italian’s obsession with lessening the likelihood of defeat—the schema—was to collide with the general perception of Ireland’s own footballing identity. The period in history that Trapattoni sees is a product of controlling the game. The plucky underdog image is not in keeping with this. Although many have accused him of forcing an Italian identity on an Irish team, this probably is not completely true. There have been leaks of the enthusiasm of old, the players, when they see fit, return to their roots. Especially under extreme circumstances—the playoff in Paris when they had nothing to lose is an example of this, they won 1-0 in 90 minutes forcing the game into extra time.
At worst, Trapattoni has harnessed that energetic approach. One of his more out spoken critics has been Eamon Dunphy, who is a pundit for RTE. Dunphy is the eternal crank, with a slightly perplexing sense of romanticism. Maybe his judgement is obscured by spending too much time watching Hollywood football — Barcelona and Real Madrid (he tends to use both as a measure of how football should be played). Not surprisingly, his assessment of Ireland’s fortunes in recent times has been damning. His calls for the free-flowing football of Spain are unrealistic; I have not seen an Irish midfield, so light on talent in my lifetime, as the current midfield is.
As it stands, Trapattoni is one for two. Qualification for this summer’s European Championships has still not generated the sort of momentum you would expect behind the Italian. In his own country, Trapattoni and assistant Marco Tardelli are seen as miracle workers for what they have done with Ireland. Irish fans, it’s not that exclusive, are a selfish breed. You give them the moon and they want the stars, the planets… the galaxy and everything in between. Even winning the Carling Nations Cup, a tournament composed of Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, has not won people over. The truth is you’re never going to win everyone over.
The ‘negative methods’ that people keep harping on about are paradoxically positive. The goal of the game is to win. Trapattoni knows this as well as anyone else. Only Sir Alex Ferguson has a CV that could match the Italians—when it comes to winning trophies. He has a point to prove at international level, especially at major tournaments and when better to prove it than in a group that his home nation will compete in.
On a broader scale, the qualification has an even more significant meaning. It is a chance for Ireland to forget the decline of recent times. It is a chance to put the shadow of Saipan firmly in the past. it’s only taken ten years for that to happen. It’s about time that the football team shouldered some of the burden that has falling squarely on Rory McIlory and the Irish rugby team’s shoulders.