The Republic of Ireland will officially bow it in their final group game against Italy tonight, after unofficially ending their tournament with a 4-0 defeat to Spain last week that left them with no chance of qualifying for the quarter finals.
Of course the Irish were on a hiding to nothing in their very own Group of Death, facing reigning world and European champions Spain, former 2006 world champions Italy and regular tournament dark horses Croatia. No one expected Ireland to pull up any trees and they didn’t, soundly and rather easily beaten by both the Croats and the Spanish, leaving only pride to play for against their elderly manager’s home nation in the final game. Giovanni Trapattoni will be hoping his troops can gain at least a point against his homeland to avoid the ignominy of three defeats as well as the inevitable accusations of divided loyalties and collusion should his team collapse and allow the Italians an easy passage out of the group.
Wanting at least a point and getting one against an underrated Italy team are two different things, of course. The man they call “Trap” has, unsurprisingly, stated that he will go with his strongest team against Italy in order, he says, to do what’s right by Spain and Croatia and to pay respects to the players who qualified for Ireland’s first international tournament since the 2002 World Cup. This leads to the problem with Trapattoni though – it’s all too predictable. We all knew the team for the game against Croatia weeks in advance, we can name the team for tonight already: Given; O’Shea, St. Ledger, Dunne, Ward; Duff, McGeady, Andrews, Whelan; Keane, Doyle. Ireland’s lineup against Croatia was that rarity in modern football, numbered 1 – 11, leaving everyone in no doubt as to who were the manager’s favoured players and who were reserves. Against Spain, when the manager refrained from naming his team early and insisted places were up for grabs he made just one change, Simon Cox – a Trap favourite despite playing only 7 times for his club last year, and brought on in the first game – came in for Kevin Doyle.
What Ireland need is a change, some youth and unpredictability. Their 4-4-2, as rigid as a plank of wood, has been found out against more fluid teams; McGeady and the ageing one-paced Duff have been unable to threaten their full backs and Whelan and Andrews – despite the latter’s admirable efforts – provide little thrust or attacking support from the middle. Robbie Keane is the talisman but it’s quite clear he is no longer the player of old and a low on confidence Kevin Doyle, after a poor season with Wolves, is hardly going to have international class defenders quaking in their boots.
At the back O’Shea is a versatile and willing performer but injuries have robbed him of regular football for Sunderland, while alongside him Richard Dunne’s legs are going, as illustrated by Spain’s first goal when he rose from a sliding tackle like an elderly man getting out of a bean bag, allowing Torres to slam the ball home. Sean St. Ledger is something of a folk hero but he is a Championship defender with Leicester, while Steven Ward will run all day but you would find very few who would suggest the forward-cum-winger-cum-left-back is of international calibre. Shay Given, meanwhile, has been criticised for some of the goals he has conceded and has had a tournament to forget. Don’t be surprised if it is his last and he could be followed into international retirement by the likes of Dunne, Duff and Keane too.
There are youngsters waiting in the wings but it remains to be seen if the elderly, conservative-minded Trapattoni – assuming he stays – is willing to put his trust in them. The biggest Irish cheer of the night against Spain came when Sunderland’s 23 year old winger James McClean came on as a 75th minute substitute. The flying winger was one of the breakthrough stars of the Premier League last season and can inject pace, directness and unpredictability – qualities Ireland have sincerely lacked in Euro 2012 – but was winning just his second cap and appears to have much to do to win over a manager who seems to favour the tried and tested “big names” of McGeady and Duff over a player in scintilating form. It says a lot for their manager’s lack of trust in youth that McClean, at 23, is the squad’s youngest member. Alongside him in the youthfulness stakes sit Darron Gibson, seemingly around forever but only 24, and West Brom’s livewire striker Shane Long (25). Gibson was derided at Old Trafford but looks to be establishing himself at new club Everton with regular first team football in the second half of last season. He may not be of Manchester United quality but he could do a job for Ireland in the future, his rocket shot from range may give them a badly needed source of unexpected goals. Long meanwhile fizzled out after an excellent start to the season but is still a good prospect. He’s pacy and can lead the line, capable of playing as a lone frontman and thus giving Ireland the chance to move away from 4-4-2. As well as that Sunderland’s highly rated ‘keeper Keiran Westwood is waiting on the fringes if Shay Given calls it a day; at 27 he’s hardly a youngster but has won only 8 caps due to Given’s endurance but his quality means the Villa stopper may not be missed as much as you may expect.
There are up-and-coming stars who have not made the squad, too. Wigan’s Scottish born James McCarthy – one of the best young central midfielders players in the Premier League in my opinion – missed out through no fault of the manager’s, he would have been in the squad were it not for his father’s diagnosis with cancer, which resulted in him requesting to pull out the squad. That said, even if he had been in, would he have played? Trap has his central midfield favourites and it’s highly likely McCarthy would have joined McClean in kicking his heels on the sidelines. Everton’s flying right winger (and occasional right back) Seamus Coleman is another to miss out; the pacy youngster is nowhere near the finished article but would have provided a good option with his speed and versatility and could have caused problems for even the best defence. If I were a full back I know I’d rather face Duff than Coleman and McGeady than McClean. Trapattoni could have brought a couple more wildcards along too. Manchester United midfielder Robbie Brady impressed on loan at Hull City last season and was the U-21 player of the year for 2011. Some tournament experienced would have stood the 20 year old in good stead. Likewise the young Crystal Palace winger/striker Sean Scannell – called into Trap’s first ever Ireland squad, but still to be capped – would have injected blistering pace and no little skill into the squad. He again was overlooked and no one was surprised. Sure, at 21 he has years left to break into the team, but how many tournaments will Ireland qualify for?
It’s a shame that the Republic of Ireland are waving goodbye to Euro 2012 tonight but frankly they have lacked fight and been too predictable. The old guard have found the tournament a step too far. Their legendary boss was unwilling to gamble on youth but it should be clear to him that some of his squad have gone on too long. Will he trust in youth for the World Cup qualifiers? I’d like to think so but I have a horrible feeling that the likes of McClean, McCarthy, Long, Gibson and Scannell will be waiting on the sidelines as Duff, Andews, Keane et all are called on again and again by a manager more who seems to put more stock in reputation and past achievements than form and ability. I hope I’m wrong and that the old timer of a manager will invest in Ireland’s future.