A big job of reconstruction is ahead for the Republic of Ireland team after the heavy disappointment of two defeats in their opening games in Euro 2012 - even if those defeats were far from unexpected, writes Martin McGinley (Andrew Quinn is in Poland).
It’s arguable that Ireland’s greatest talent is now on the bench - and that’s not James McClean but Giovanni Trapattoni. Okay, Shay Given is still among the top goalkeepers, but after that you’re struggling to make a case for outstanding ability. McGeady can turn it on, at times, and Richard Dunne can perform heroics, but the best years of the likes of Robbie Keane and Damian Duff are behind them, and after that it’s a case of Sean Who?
Trap was putting a brave face on it after the 3-1 defeat by Croatia, pointing to the fact that while we might have no points, Spain and Italy only had one apiece. But that could only draw a chuckle from anyone who saw Spain and Italy play out their 1-1 draw - the gulf in class compared to the brave Irish was all too clear.
There are those who’ll argue that a small footballing nation like Ireland will always be relying on heart and fighting for the green shirt, and indeed there’s no faulting the efforts of the players in the two defeats. In fact, against Croatia, while Ireland were in no way the better team, if they’d got the proverbial ‘Rub of the Green’ it could have been a whole different story. Croatia’s first goal was almost as embarrassing as my last in the Donegal League, the second should never have been allowed, and Ireland were denied a stonewall penalty.
But to be facing the world number one, Spain, needing at least a draw, was always going to be too big an ask, even with 30,000 Irish fans in the stands. The only hope was the Chelsea hope against Barcelona - park the bus, pray they’ll get frustrated, and wait for something miraculous on the break.
The early Spanish goal put paid to that approach, the second ended the game as a spectacle. It was no surprise to see Torres continue his comeback - he has been looking a lot sharper in recent weeks, and could have had three against Italy.
All that’s left for the Republic now is tomorrow’s game against Italy which doesn’t promise to offer much in the way of consolation, given how they’re progressing in the tournament so far.
Some commentators have been critical of Trapattoni for his caution in the run-up to the Euros, although they were keeping quieter as the unbeaten run stretched on to fourteen games, with eleven clean sheets. And, despite these two defeats, Trap’s approach has been vindicated. He correctly assessed the standard of what he’d got, relative to what’s around in international football, and gave his players the system which made the most of their strengths, pride and hard work, and disguised their individual weaknesses. He played the percentages, and at least got Ireland to the finals of a major tournament for the first time in a decade.
At one time, the country seemed to be off on one, calling for James McClean to come in. The hope is that he will indeed develop into an even bigger star in the game, but you can see why Trap is cautious. James has got speed, strength, character and ability, he’s a positive attacking force and he’s willing to work when the team hasn’t got the ball. But he’s still a bit raw at this level, and Trapattoni certainly won’t have been impressed by his tendency to give the ball away occasionally in danger zones.
For Ireland, as for many small nations, the reality has always been that the team will mostly be made up of good-hearted workhorses. What you’re hoping for is the presence of a sprinkling of players of genuine international class who can lift the team to a higher level - the likes of Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, Robbie Keane in his pomp, Shay Given and the rest. The worry is that as Trapattoni looks to a re-building job, those players seem thin on the ground.
(By the way this column was written entirely on Tuesday! Off to the bookies for Italy game!)