The Irish football team all but secured their place in Euro 2012 in Tallinn on Friday. Ryan Mackenzie gives his verdict on the man who got them there
Last Friday night was undoubtedly the best football result the Republic of Ireland has had in nearly a decade. We beat a tricky Estonian side by four goals, away from home and under the most pressure felt since that dreadful night in Paris two years ago. Not since we drew with Germany in Ibaraki way back in the 2002 World Cup have we done ourselves so proud. We are on our way to our second European Championships and our manager is the reason.
However, Giovanni Trapattoni still finds himself under pressure and criticism from the Irish public. Much of this negativity is born out of his less-than-entertaining style of football. The nature of international football however, is all about winning, not entertaining – not to mention the fact that his side simply do not have the ability to hold on to possession for more than two minutes, let alone play an expansive game.
The “wily old fox”, as he was so eloquently dubbed by his ex-assistant and Serie A legend Liam Brady, has been around the block a few times. Thirty years ago the thought of Trapattoni managing the Republic of Ireland would have been beyond laughable. He was working in Italy for some of the biggest clubs in the world and winning pretty much everything he could. Meanwhile, the Irish team were yet to reach a major tournament and didn’t look like improving, despite boasting some fabulous players.
It wasn’t until Jack Charlton took over in 1986, the same year that Trapattoni moved to Inter Milan, that we started to enjoy some success. The big man finally got us to a major tournament when we reached Euro ’88, where we beat England, before reaching two World Cups in ’90 and ’94.
But Charlton’s time as manager has since been unfairly immortalised. It seems as though nothing can equate to his success and anything that comes close is immediately compared to that famous night in Genoa and dismissed accordingly. But Charlton did very little different with his side than Trapattoni is doing today. The only difference is that the Englishman did it out of choice, while the Italian is doing it out of necessity.
It is seldom mentioned how good the Irish squad was back in the early nineties. The side boasted a number of Premiership stars such as Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, Roy Keane and Denis Irwin, to name a few. However, they were tied to a game plan that involved very little football at all. As a result we scored few goals but didn’t concede many either. We were adequate but, in hindsight, we underachieved considering the talent we had to work with.
This is not the case today. Unfortunately the current group of players we have are very limited and this is telling, notably in midfield. Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan are about as poor as a central midfield duo get at this level, and will no doubt struggle at Euro 2012. Aside from Robbie Keane up front, our attacking outlets are in short supply and we usually pose little threat to opposing defences. What we do have, however, is a solid defence, with a fantastic goalkeeper in Shay Given, and Trapattoni knows this.
When he took over in 2008, fresh off the appalling tenure of Steve Staunton, the national side were as bad as they had been since the pre-Charlton era and much of the country had lost interest in them. What’s more, the pool of players to choose from was less than appealing. This led Trapattoni to select a side that fit the only game plan that could give us any sort of success, rather than the best eleven players available.
The turnaround in form was astonishing and almost instantaneous. After six years of failure under poor management, the side started to win. In just two years we went from a team that lost 5-2 away to Cyprus, the darkest day in Irish football, to just missing out on a World Cup spot in a play-off because of an infamous extra-time handball. Had this been the only highlight of the Italian’s term as manager, it would be acceptable to condemn some of his stubborn tactics, but this is not the case.
The side built on this success and grew as a team. Out of a tough group they secured another play-off spot and a place in Euro 2012. This is down to their manager instilling a sense of belief in the squad, a consistent game plan for them to execute and camaraderie amongst a team that was allowed to play alongside each other game after game.
The seasoned Italian is the best manager the country has ever ever had. He knows the game and has implemented a system that is getting the most out of a limited side. It is remarkable to think what he could have achieved with Charlton’s team, but at that time he was otherwise occupied with winning the European Cup and multiple league titles in two countries.