First things first: supporting the Republic of Ireland is not exactly what one would call an enjoyable experience. We are rag-tag. There is an almost total absence of offensive style or anything resembling the complex tactical formations the contemporary football fan expects. Like this year’s remarkable defensive feats from Chelsea Ireland are a team that rely heavily on grit. If they can pick-pocket their opposing numbers then all-the-better. This can make for ugly viewing to be honest. It can all the same, on rare occasions, be inspiring as was the case against Russia during qualification.
But I’m not sure the neutral would normally find him or herself scanning the schedules and picking out Ireland as a team to watch. And yet, given the teams we face – Croatia, Italy, and Spain – we may well find ourselves under the gaze of those filling an afternoon or two. In the case of Spain there is little cause for hope. The general feeling is that a win against Croatia is absolutely essential. Some kind of result against Italy could make the difference. And against Spain we’ll hope for a miracle (or two).
Our secret weapon is Trapattoni. His immense experience has done wonders for Irish self-belief on the pitch. He runs a tight ship. His approach is simple enough: positions are rigidly set (4-4-2) and he judges players by their ability to maintain structure. This can be frustrating to watch. Trap will rarely change formation to accommodate player-quality. This can lead to baffling substitutions and squad selections. For instance, Paul Green, currently out-of-contract (having previously dazzled fans at Doncaster Rovers and Derby County), has a place based, one is forced to infer, because he can play in a zone where Ireland are often weak i.e. central midfield (he does have one saving grace and that is versatility since Green can also play right-back).
Rather than test out different formations over the years so that we might have shifted the burden from central midfield Trap has frustratingly insisted on sticking to his guns and so we are saddled with the mediocre Green. But although Green elicits sighs when his name crops up we have seen a new hero emerge who elicits precisely the opposite reaction, Sunderland’s James McClean. It’s hard to know if McClean will get any action this summer, but his emergence is promising. He is at the mercy of Trap’s uncompromising vision, but is just the kind of player that might weigh on Trap’s mind if things are going badly. It’s unlikely, fans of Ireland have seen his refusal in action too many times to be hopeful, but it’s a nice thought to have.
Stalwarts of the team will be familiar enough to those with an interest in the Premier League (certainly those with an eye for smaller clubs, but also those who remember these players from their glory days). Shay Given is our solid, dependable keeper. His loss, a possibility that has been hanging in the air for a while now, would signal disaster. His legs are often stiff and he regularly plays only due to the pain-relief afforded to him with injections, but our other options are terrible. Dunne, O’Shea, St. Ledger, Ward & co. constitute our decentish defence. O’Shea is no longer of the United-style quality he once was, but he remains indispensable for us. Dunne becomes a different animal in a green jersey. His performances drive the entire team; often tipping the balance in our favour. Against Russia he singlehandedly threw himself in front of so many chances and leaped into so many tackles that by the end of the game he was bruised and battered – his number hand-drawn on (!).
Our central midfield is a little ropey. Options from Whelan, Gibson, Andrews, and Hunt are hardly inspiring. There is not much to say here. It’s a frustrating midfield with almost zero creativity and with tendency to give the ball away. This places the burden out onto the wings where Ireland are not so badly serviced. Duff and McGeady are amongst Ireland’s most creative players and can be a source of mischief at times. Duff is no longer the man he was, but he is always lurking and he and Keane have an understanding that can just about click on the right night. With stronger teams a player like Duff can be easily marked out of the game. McGeady continues to surprise in recent friendlies. By no means an astounding player he is perhaps the man I expect most to do something surprising. McClean, as mentioned, is our quiet option.
Up front Keane remains our star-player. Although now plying his trade in the MLS he still stands out amongst the team; there is always a goal in him. With Doyle, Cox, and Long all alternate choices we are not ill-served here. By no means amazing players they are all reliable. Walters is a favourite of Trap and I admit to having a soft-spot for his style which often seems at odds with the conservatism of the Irish team (any future Irish manager will need to take players like McClean and Walters into account, and alternate accordingly; they often seem out of sync with the lumbering solidity of the current set-up).
So all in all I am cautiously optimistic about our prospects. It’s not a great team, but not terrible either. There are moments of sporting heroism – and I mean that word precisely - that have come from nowhere with this set-up and Ireland have a way of running down the patience of teams until they slip-up or just plain waste chances. This tends to lead to the goalless draws or the 1-0 victories so commonly associated with Ireland. It’s a sort of grind out the result approach, and it is difficult to know whether this will have a real effect on properly attacking teams.
My wager is that Ireland might actually get one over on Italy and not just because Trap has an insight into their character, but also due to a general implosion of Italian football that will surely be on their mind. Croatia I fully expect to give us a hard time; perhaps a draw, but we might lose (the option of winning not quite seeming realistic to me at the moment). Spain I’d rather not think about. It’s require a Chelsea-esque performance – to say the least…Hopefulness is the defining characteristic of the Irish fan, but the ‘luck of the Irish’ covers over something a little more subtler – the graft that although unappealing has a trickle-down effect. The match begins and Ireland look doomed, the clock winds down, 70 mins in and still no breach…and so it goes.