Belief the key to revival in Republic of Ireland’s fortunes

The difference in approach between Trapattoni and O’Neill was evident in the first few minutes of Friday’s game against Latvia

Prompted from the front by Wes Hoolahan, a patient Irish team completed 90 per cent of its passes on Friday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne

Prompted from the front by Wes Hoolahan, a patient Irish team completed 90 per cent of its passes on Friday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 12:00

Poland have played Ireland twice over the last few years so they probably think they know what to expect tomorrow night in Poznan: drunk fans, long balls. Are they ready for the onslaught of total Irish football?

Comparisons between Ireland and Barcelona are perhaps premature and there’s no doubt that last Friday, Latvia were a terrible team. But under Trapattoni, Ireland played several terrible teams without ever dominating possession to that extent, or completing 660 passes.

In his press conference on Thursday, O’Neill professed scepticism about statistical analysis: “I think they’ve got statistics for picking your nose.” But the numbers from Friday’s game reflect well on his side.


Statistical distraction

Prompted from the front by Wes Hoolahan, a patient Irish team completed 90 per cent of its passes. When Ireland drew 2-2 with Austria in March – the result that O’Neill has pinpointed as the key failure in the qualifying campaign – the figure was 65 per cent.

Trapattoni likewise had no time for statistics. He understood the game as a series of discrete moments – “little details” – and believed that winning or losing came down to how well you applied your know-how in those moments.

Many times in the months following that draw with Austria, Trapattoni would disbelievingly refer to the way that Jon Walters and Paul Green had contrived to lose possession near Austria’s corner flag in injury time, with Ireland leading 2-1.

When an Italian team that is leading by one goal going into injury time wins a free-kick near the opponent’s corner flag, they will not take that free-kick until they are sure the referee is about to send one of them off for time wasting. When they are eventually forced to restart play, they will roll the ball to the corner and brace themselves around it in what the Romans used to call a tortoise formation. The ball will only come out of that corner over their lying on the ground feigning injury bodies. This is the kind of basic football behaviour that Italian kids acquire around the same time they are learning to tie their own shoelaces.

Instead, that night against Austria, Green played a short free-kick to the isolated Walters, who was robbed of possession by a pack of opponents, and the ball set off on its inexorable journey towards the back of Ireland’s net.


No hopers

For Trap, that moment proved what he had been trying to tell us for years: Irish players don’t really know how to play football. No league, no titles, no history: no hope.

The day after Ireland lost the third match at the Euros, Trapattoni shouted at the press: “I am proud to qualify! With these players! With this team!” It was one of the few moments when he lost his cool in a conference. Looking back, we can understand why. Trap probably felt it was like he had successfully trained a chimp to fly a fighter plane, and now people were having a pop because the chimp couldn’t do a barrel roll.

Everything about Trapattoni’s Ireland makes sense if you accept that he believed the players couldn’t really play. That founding principle dictated all his subsequent decisions.

We could see that O’Neill is different in the first few minutes on Friday, when Ireland took a goal kick. John O’Shea and Marc Wilson moved wide and Glenn Whelan dropped deep to receive a short pass from Keiren Westwood.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a goal kick like this never happened under Trap. He believed that Ireland had to keep the ball out in front of them – and preferably high above them – since they could not win a contest of wit and passing in the midfield.

Later on Friday night, Robbie Keane pointed out that with him, Hoolahan and McGeady in three of the front four positions, James McClean would have been the only realistic target for long balls from the goalkeeper.

So Ireland had no choice. They had to use a short-passing build-up because they didn’t have the players on the field to play any other way.

But Ireland did have a choice: it was to play Hoolahan, who, as anybody can see, is one of Ireland’s best footballers. Trapattoni’s thought process was – we have to play long balls, therefore I need someone like Sammon in the team. O’Neill’s was – I want Hoolahan in the team, therefore we will play out from the back.

The Irish players now have a boss who is prepared to believe in their ability – at least until they prove him wrong. Yes, Latvia were the perfect chump opponents, but there were signs of a real change in attitude. At one point in the second half Andy Reid produced a Cruyff turn that caused a visible ripple in the crowd behind the goal, as the supporters leapt to their feet. Ireland’s third goal was magnificent, showcasing the potential of Seamus Coleman’s overlapping runs, an offensive weapon that Trapattoni never used.

As the last minutes ticked by an unfamiliar feeling crept around the stadium: most of us didn’t want this match to end. Some groups of fans were still singing as they walked out of the stadium; typical at many grounds, but virtually unknown at the Aviva. O’Neill’s team won’t play a competitive match for nearly a year, but if they can get us enjoying the friendlies in the meantime, they’ll already have achieved a lot.

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