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Reflections on Ireland's UEFA Cup performance

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A group of excited Irish soccer fans at Dublin Airport heading out for the European Championships earlier this month.  

Sitting on the sofa beside my resident soccer expert watching the Ireland-Italy game on Monday night was both emotional and frustrating.  

The soccer expert -- "it's football, not soccer, Dad" -- is 18 and one of two of my kids doing the Leaving Cert (high school graduation exam) this month.  Which explains why we were not camped out in Poland with the rest of the fans.

Ireland was out of the tournament already, as you know, so all there was to play for on Monday night was honor and pride. And we played our hearts out.

That was emotional.  Somehow even 2-0 did not seem like a defeat.  Watching the crowd in the stadium in Poznan, it looked like a party rather than a funeral for Irish football. Once again the Irish supporters were magnificent.  

The commentator said that the Irish had filled four-fifths of the big stadium, with the Italians taking just one-fifth, something that was clearly visible in the sea of green on the screen. Given that we were out of the competition anyway, even if we had won this last game, that is extraordinary.  

And given that you can drive from Italy to Poland and that it's twice as far from Dublin to Poznan as it is from Rome to Poznan, it is incredible.  Our honor -- that of the team and that of the fans in the stadium -- is intact.
Our supporters showed the rest of Europe how to behave and celebrate even when you know your team is going home.  

So yes, it was emotional.  But it was also deeply frustrating because it was clear to me and to my resident expert that so much more had been possible.

Listening to the analysis by Ireland's best soccer commentator Eamon Dunphy after the game confirmed what myself and my own expert already knew.  We had been robbed, not by the opposing team, but by our own manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, who had sold us short.  Not just in this game or in this tournament, but since he took over.  

Coincidentally last week I was reading a new biography of the commentator Eamon Dunphy (yes, he's that famous) which has just come out here and is a fascinating read.  It's called Dunphy: A Football Life and it's an assessment of the veteran commentator's punditry career over the years.

The author is a young lawyer  (probably useful when quoting Dunphy) called Jared Browne, but before that he was a talented young footballer who had trials at Man United and Liverpool and played for Ireland at under-15 level.  So he knows his football, and as famous past player John Giles says on the cover, the book is "well written" and "very well researched."

It's also thought provoking and convincing, making it difficult for any reader to stick with the usual lazy cliché of Dunphy as a self-promoting curmudgeon who always ends up contradicting himself.

It's clear from the book that the author has a very high regard for Dunphy.  "Nobody does frustrating inconsistency and blatant contradiction quite like Eamon Dunphy," Browne says.

"But due to his footballing brain, razor-sharp wit and fearless incisiveness, he is, by a distance, the most important and fascinating football analyst to work in Ireland or Britain over the last three decades."

I agree.  I also agree with Dunphy's views on the Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni.  You can't teach an old dog new tricks, and Trapattoni's problem is that he is still living off the one trick he learned a long time ago.  
Dunphy first became famous -- or infamous, depending on your point of view -- because of the provocative stance he took on our last foreign manager Jack Charlton in the great Ole Ole years.

This was the era of Jacko's Army, when we qualified for the European Championships in 1988 in Germany and then for the World Cups in 1990 and 1994, during which Ireland came to a standstill and half a million people came out in Dublin to welcome the team home.

Charlton, "a large, belligerent, bloody-minded English toerag,” as Dunphy once called him, bullied his players into using the long-ball method.  Instead of playing the passing game (the ultimate exponents of which are Barcelona) and building up an attack on the ground from the back through midfield, you hoof the ball up from the back to land well into the opponent's half, and then you hope for the best.  It's an ugly game instead of the beautiful game.  

Despite having really creative players on the team, this is what Charlton did, "turning them into a pub side" who occasionally got lucky, according to Dunphy.   And Dunphy had the courage to say so even at the height of the Jacko's Army hysteria.

Dunphy was right then, of course.  And he is right now.

His assessment of Trapattoni is similar to that of Charlton, and when you think about it the parallels are striking. Dunphy calls Trap "the poor man's Jack Charlton," fixated on a defensive method that has no place for creative playmakers.  He points out that the real story of that unforgettable Ireland performance in Paris during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers was not Thierry Henry's handball, but how brilliantly Ireland had played when they had nothing to lose and started to pass the ball around and go for it.  

As Dunphy said at the time, it showed that so much more had been possible if Trap had been more flexible at an earlier stage.

Dunphy believes that Trap prefers ordinary players "unburdened by talent" who have a defensive mindset because they will do exactly as they are told.  The defensive Trap method, he points out, can work effectively at certain times over a long season in league football.   But it's different at international level.

Dunphy pointed out that the Trap method sank Italy's chances at Euro 2004 when they had the chance of going further and it has done the same to Ireland.  Dunphy, like his former hero Roy Keane, thinks we are capable of much more and so do I.

Keane, of course, has stirred things up by his comments after the game, which I see are already on Irish Central.  "I think the players, and even the supporters, they all need to change their mentality," Keane said.

"It's just nonsense from players speaking after the games about how great the supporters are. The supporters want to see the team doing a lot better and not giving daft goals away like that...I'm not too happy with all that nonsense.

“Let's change that attitude towards Irish support as well...They want to see the team winning as well, let's not kid ourselves. I know we're a small country and we're up against it, but let's not just go along for the sing-song every now and again."

This was misinterpreted by some of the media as an attack on Irish supporters.  But if you read carefully what
Keane said, it's an appeal for us to be more ambitious rather than settling for being good losers who are always up for a party no matter what.  It is also a clear indictment of the Trapattoni approach.

What matters now, of course, is the future.  It's worrying that (a) we have just given Trap a new contract and (b) we have only one friendly against Serbia before the World Cup qualifiers start in September.  There is no sign that Trap has any intention of changing his approach.

In contrast with other international managers, Trap rarely sees his players in action.  They all play in the U.K., and Trap had it written into his contract that he would not be expected to go to see them in action during the year as they played their league matches week by week.  He delegates that to others, and he stays at home in Italy unless there's an Ireland game coming up.

Which is nice work if you can get it when you're being paid 2m a year. But it's hardly the best way to monitor the progress of individual players or to identify potential players for the future.  

Since Monday night there's been a lot of talk about changing from our current defensive default approach to the creative passing and attacking style that most of our players are using every week for their clubs in the U.K.  There's been talk about older players being phased out to make room for the next wave of younger players.  But what we really need is a younger, more creative manager.

FOOTNOTE: The following gem from the book Dunphy: A Football Life gives the pundit’s comment on
David Beckham's lucrative move to L.A. Galaxy in California: "I think it’s an awfully vacuous way of living. What can you do with money? You can put it in the bank but you can’t talk to it. You can’t play football with it and you can’t make love to it.

“What good is it to you? You get all that money but you have still got to sit in your house at night in L.A. and you have got to say to yourself, ‘What are you doing? What is my life about?’ Where he has gone now is a pretty empty place."

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