The Irish Conundrum

One of the finalists at Euro 2012 will enter the tournament on the back of a fourteen match unbeaten run, during which time only three goals have been recorded. Their two star players have amassed an incredible 236 international caps between them, and they are managed by one of the most decorated tacticians in the history of the game. Yet, success for this team would be to win a match. Just what is the problem with the Republic of Ireland?

They will be immediately disliked by the neutrals, with their almost militaristic attention to defensive detail. Their biggest annoyance is also their greatest strength, implemented by a genius. Giovanni Trapattoni may have failed in his spell as Italian national team manager, largely due to a contentious referring display by the now incarcerated Byron Moreno in 2002, but he commands respect, and in the swansong of his career, reaching the quarter finals may be considered one of his most satisfying achievements.

Let’s face it, Ireland are not a very good team. Solid, yes, but not good. Defensively, they are sound but yet showed against Russia that a fluid, counter attacking side can expose serious weaknesses. Trapattoni’s rigid 4-4-2 formation is wholly dependent on the creativity of the two wide players, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff. The latter, at 33 years of age, is a capable but now limited Premier League player. The central midfield offers not an ounce of creativity, and is designed to stop the opposition from playing. Unlikely to succeed against Spain, this unyielding approach may just catch Croatia and Italy cold.

Today, articles appeared hinting at dissent in the camp, with certain players unhappy at Trapattoni’s intense training regime. Echoes of 2002, or justifiable concerns? One of the main concerns with international teams is the limited preparation time. Trapattoni is a manager who inspires unquestionable loyalty, but this is far more straightforward to achieve with daily training sessions at a club side. Adopting a severe training schedule at the end of a long season may be counterproductive, yet paradoxically necessary for a team of limited ability to succeed beyond expectations.

The Irish will have a not so secret weapon, their supporters. An estimated 20,000 will travel to Poland, and they will comfortably be the most backed team in the group. Does this make a difference? Certainly, a passionate support can help raise performance, whilst it can also raise expectation. Unlike the English, Ireland’s supporters have a reputation for partying and integration. Win or lose, Ireland will light up the tournament off the pitch.

In 2002, Shay Given and Robbie Keane had outstanding tournaments during the World Cup. They, along with Richard Dunne, form a formidable backbone of the side. Underneath the surface, however, the tide is shallow. Kieran Westwood, a wonderful shot-stopper at Coventry City, cannot even make the Sunderland bench. West Brom duo Simon Cox and Shane Long are also reserves at their clubs, and in defence, Sean St Ledger is error prone. Those who saw the fascinating documentary Big Ron Manager will also know that the Leicester City defender has a questionable temperament. With Trapattoni in charge, this should not be an issue, but a vital question to consider is whether a man whose golden age came in the 1980s can win his second international title, after the coveted Nations Cup?

In the thoughts of most rational thinkers, the answer is no. However, the European Championships are wildly capricious. Greece’s 2004 triumph will be used as the template for defensive triumph, although Denmark’s 1992 triumph was also startling. With an admirable unbeaten record, and a captain in Robbie Keane who has scored 53 international goals, could Ireland go all the way? My prediction is that they will score more points than goals, but just be eliminated in the first round.

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