Eurospot: Idealism a victim of Irish success

Eurospot on Ireland


Whether it be the historic battle between the nations of Netherlands and Germany, the more recent feud between the Barcelona of Guardiola and the Real Madrid of Mourinho or the tactical opposites of Tiki-Taka and Catenaccio, the competing philosophical strands have been in a constant state of tension almost since a ball was first kicked.

When examining the modern history of the Republic of Ireland national side - particularly under dogged Giovanni Trapattoni and the dogmatic Jack Charlton - those two concepts have become entangled in a battle for the soul of Irish football and continue to frame an ongoing debate about whether a robust team identity has come at a cost to individual expression.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this internal struggle came in September 1989 with a pre-World Cup friendly against West Germany. Ireland - who by that point had already embraced Charlton's uncompromising style, which had taken the country to the 1988 European Championships - decisively shunned cerebral, elegant football in very public fashion.

A little more than 30 minutes into the game at Lansdowne Road, Liam Brady - Ireland's greatest ever player and a former employee of Arsenal, Juventus and Inter - was humiliated when being substituted by Charlton. It was a severe judgement on the kind of intuitive player that Brady, though ageing, was, and a statement about the characteristics Charlton desired.

Indeed, it was suggested Charlton even staged the substitution as a very deliberate rebuke to Brady, who retired from international football soon afterwards and did not travel for the 1990 World Cup in Italy as Ireland made the quarter-finals thanks to their asphyxiating brand of football.

A largely diplomatic Brady later reflected: "If Jack wanted me out of the way, and if he stage-managed the situation by subbing me against West Germany, then it was diabolical. But that's in the past, and anyway, it's important to remember that I played some of my best football for Ireland under Jack. I admired him as a manager, he was decisive, he had a plan, he could handle pressure.

"Admittedly, there was no chemistry between us, and his style of football was completely alien to the way I believe the game should be played. But, no, I don't blame Jack for what he did, because that's just the way he is. I'm not sure he showed anyone any respect, but he got results that hadn't been achieved before. The players were desperate to get to major finals, and he led them."

This compromise between process and outcome was something that even Brady, who bore the brunt of Charlton's approach, could understand as it brought the country tangible success. To a rather less acrimonious degree, Trapattoni's five-year reign has also seen the struggle between art and industry become a constant refrain.

Though Ireland have lost just two of 24 competitive qualifiers under Trapattoni - and are unbeaten in 12 games overall including friendlies against fellow Euro 2012 competitors Italy and Croatia and an away qualifier against Russia - his is a rather unloveable team, if admirable in its determination and application.

Founded on a back four best termed uncompromising - led by the bloodied and bruised hero of Moscow, Richard Dunne - and screened by two holding midfielders in Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, the watchword for Trapattoni's team is caution. As the old Italian himself stated, in rather bold terms: "If people want to see a show, they should go to La Scala. Show is show … result is result."

Trapattoni has also made clear that his model in approaching the tournament is Greece, whose suffocating tactics helped them enjoy an entirely unexpected victory at Euro 2004. “In football at the moment, anything is possible,” Trapattoni said recently. “The teams are very strong. Spain, England, Holland, Germany - usually these four, but I remember Greece."

Few could dispute that his approach has been successful: Trapattoni's Ireland were within a Thierry Henry handball of possibly reaching the 2010 World Cup finals, while Euro 2012 will be only the fifth major tournament in the country's history, with three of the previous four being contested under the Charlton regime.

Yet unlike under Charlton - a man of whom it is famously said never needs to dig into his own pockets to purchase a drink in Dublin - Trapattoni's similarly reductive approach to football has not been as universally accepted. Grudging respect has been mixed with a tinge of regret in some quarters.

This has been most evident in Trapattoni's handling of James McClean since the winger's brilliant emergence at Sunderland since the turn of the year. Initially sidelined, to some consternation, for February's friendly against Czech Republic in Dublin, the 22-year-old was then brought into the fold and, when he strode on to the pitch after 79 minutes, the international debutant was greeted with a standing ovation.

Wigan's gifted young playmaker James McCarthy is a regular in the squad yet has won only three caps, while another small yet technically proficient central player in Norwich's Wes Hoolahan - scorer of a lovely goal against McCarthy's Wigan at the weekend - won a cap in a game against Colombia in 2008 yet has been studiously overlooked since. And this despite being shortlisted for the Professional Footballers' Association of Ireland overseas Player of the Year award in November.

Though Trapattoni's desire to demonstrate loyalty to those players who secured qualification is certainly admirable, it has also left him open to accusations of inflexibility, stubbornness and even short-sightedness.

RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy - notoriously outspoken on all manner of issues - was particularly vehement in his criticism of Trapattoni following the 1-1 draw with Czech Republic.

"It was a very disappointing performance", Dunphy said. "We were completely outplayed by a pretty ordinary Czech side who struggled to qualify (for Euro 2012). It was embarrassing at times the amount of possession they had. They looked like Barcelona. It was a badly set-up Irish team and a bit of a shambles. If we play like that in the championships we will be humiliated and embarrassed.

"James McClean is a fantastic kid and he was treated very badly by Giovanni Trapattoni. In my view he should have been given 90 minutes, or at least 45 minutes. To give him 11 minutes at the end was insulting. Obviously the kid was thrilled but (how he was treated) was not professional. It was baffling both tactically and in terms of personnel. Putting Paul Green and Stephen Hunt on before McClean and James McCarthy was stupid and there is no reason to it.

"This coach thinks he knows more about football than we do but he doesn't. He is making grotesque mistakes. He was fortunate to qualify, and he has very little support amongst the football community in this country now. He is arrogant because he thinks his system, which has been shown up repeatedly, and again by the Czech Republic, is the key to our success. He does not respect our players. He thinks he is managing Mongolia, or that we are some third-world footballing nation.

"We have some outstanding players and we should be able, and confident enough, to go out and play good football, as we tend to do when we need to get a goal. The way (Trapattoni) has the team playing is a disgrace and it is wrong. It is not popular to say this because he managed to qualify for Euro 2012, but if we go to the championship we need, in the interest of the game in this country and the players, to do things differently to the way they are being done right now."

Dunphy has fallen down on this particular side of the debate before. He was a persistent critic of Charlton's reign and as the two fought an ideological battle for the soul of Irish football t-shirts were even produced that depicted the tussle in pictorial form.

The man who now sits alongside Brady - that former sacrificial lamb to pragmatism - in a television studio found himself on the wrong side of history on that occasion as Charlton led Ireland to relative success, but the team's performances at Euro 2012 - where they will face Spain, Italy and Croatia - will determine whether he, and those sceptical of Trapattoni's approach, are right some 20 years on.

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