If one phrase summed up the Giovanni Trapattoni era — it was his infamous comment that “we are Ireland”. Essentially implying: why should we strive for high standards when we’re fairly rubbish at football?
More worryingly, Trap’s disconcerting philosophy seemed to influence his side unduly. The more he criticised his men, the worse and less confident their performances in the big games seemed to become. Even the players themselves eventually seemed to accept the Italian’s opinion as fact, with both Stephen Hunt and Robbie Keane at various points suggesting the side were incapable of playing in an attractive manner.
Yet such claims ignore this nation’s fine history of producing technically adept players including John Giles, Liam Brady and Roy Keane. And even ignoring those illustrious individuals, the football that the team produced was not always negative. In the four games that Ireland played at the 2002 World Cup, they had the following possession statistics:
Ireland (46%) 1-1 Cameroon (54%)
Ireland (58%) 1-1 Germany (42%)
Ireland (51%) 3-0 Saudi Arabia (49%)
Ireland (55%) 1-1 Spain (45%)
Some people will suggest the side had much better players back then, but did they? The midfield comprised of Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland — two footballers who were good, but hardly great. Are James McCarthy and Darron Gibson that much worse?
Fast forward 10 years later to the Euros and the picture is considerably less rosy:
Ireland (45%) 1-3 Croatia (55%)
Ireland (34%) 0-4 Spain (66%)
Ireland (40%) 0-2 Italy (60%)
The pertinent question is: what was the cause of this seismic shift in standard over just a decade of international football? Had Ireland gotten much worse, or had everyone else become much better. Certainly, the Spanish first XI has improved significantly since the early 00s, but they weren’t exactly a bad team back then. Similarly, the German side that Mick McCarthy’s team dominated possession against ultimately reached the final of that World Cup. So if the standard of Irish players has not changed much, surely these recent setbacks have been down to other factors such as attitude and tactical incompetence.
Last night against Latvia however, the Italian’s managerial reign seemed a distant memory, rather than a bittersweet five-and-a-half-year affair that finally came to an end just two months ago.
Under Martin O’Neill, Ireland looked purposeful and re-energised. It was the philosophy rather than the personnel that had changed radically. Indeed, it is not totally inconceivable to imagine Trapattoni picking the same team that O’Neill selected (even Wes Hoolahan started a friendly under the Italian against Georgia back in June).
(Ireland’s assistant manager Roy Keane congratulates Robbie Keane as he’s substituted — INPHO/Donall Farmer)
There was little innate caution and sense of hesitance in their play. The full-backs showed no reluctance to cross the halfway line and the Irish side pushed much higher up the pitch than was normally the case under Trapattoni. In addition, the attendance was approximately 42,000 — against Kazhakhstan it was 20,000 and against the Faroe Islands back in June it was 19,000. Even the home World Cup qualifier against Germany — at the start of the last campaign when optimism should still have been relatively high — attracted 2,000 less spectators.
The fact that over twice as many people showed up for a friendly against one of the worst sides in Europe than two recent World Cup qualifiers (of which one took place when the Irish side were still well in contention for qualification) is a testament to the feel-good factor and sense of optimism created by the appointments of O’Neill and Keane.
Accordingly, compare the possession stats of Ireland-Latvia match to the side’s home World Cup qualifiers against Sweden and Austria:
Ireland (40%) 2-2 Austria (60%)
Ireland (47%) 1-2 Sweden (53%)
Ireland (66%) 3-0 Latvia (34%)
Granted, there are obvious problems with these comparisons. Namely, last night’s game came against a team who are the eighth worst side in Europe, according to the FIFA rankings, and who finished second from bottom in their last World Cup qualifying group. And naturally, it showed last night — even if Ireland did manage to put two more goals past them than a World Cup-quality side such as Greece managed in both their qualifiers. Moreover, there were occasional times under Trap when Ireland did have considerably superior overall possession to their opponents, such as the aforementioned game against Georgia.
But it was the manner of the performance against Latvia, rather than the result or possession statistics, which was truly important. Ireland rarely played so well or in as controlled a fashion — even against similarly low-calibre opposition — under Trap. And while the performance yesterday was hardly Barcelona-esque, with long balls and misplaced passes still conspicuous, it was certainly preferable to getting passed off the park by Armenia, among other indignities suffered amid the previous regime.
Sceptics will, perhaps justifiably, remain unconvinced that all the recent hype is warranted until Ireland play with such vigour and occasional panache against a top-level side in a competitive setting. However, if O’Neill really did start as he meant to go on, then last night’s match could be the beginning of something special. That said, the same was suggested the last time an Irish manager got his reign off to a promising 3-0 start. His name? Steve Staunton.