Trapped by fear of failure: Republic’s players labouring under manager bereft of vision
Rather than aim high and allow for a fall, the side is fixated on avoiding mistakes at all costs
A dejected Robbie Keane after the Sweden game. Photograph: Inpho/Kieran Murray
A few minutes before the 2009 Champions League final is due to kick off at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, Pep Guardiola gathers his Barcelona players together in the dressing room and turns down the lights. He has something he wants to show them.
The players fall silent as Guardiola rolls the video. They hear the thudding whirr of rotor blades. They are floating above a Roman nightscape, the ancient capital’s great buildings lit up and glorious, the Colosseum, the dome of St Peter’s, the Olympic Stadium itself.
Now they are deep inside the stadium, moving through a tunnel towards the light. On either side, silhouetted gladiators chant and raise their fists. The gladiators become a crowd of football supporters with arms aloft. The players see the face of Russell Crowe as the gladiator Maximus, teeth gritted behind his steel mask. Russell Crowe’s fingers are trailing through ears of wheat as Lisa Gerrard sings the nonsense lyrics of Hans Zimmer’s Now We Are Free.
The huge figure of Didier Drogba appears, bearing down on Barcelona’s goal, but Victor Valdes takes his shot in the midriff and springs back up to block the rebound. At Stamford Bridge Drogba shoots again, Valdes saves again and grabs the net in celebration.
And so on, with moments from Gladiator interspersed with images of Barcelona players running, leaping, shooting, scoring, celebrating. Now We Are Free segues into The Barbarian Horde and an image of the Colosseum at dusk cuts to the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. As Russell Crowe battles Joaquin Phoenix’s evil, white-clad Emperor Commodus, Barcelona slam six goals past Real Madrid.
The music now is Nessun Dorma. The players see their own faces in close-up, they’re in the tunnel, gazing out at the stadium lights beyond. The gladiators enter the arena as Pavarotti sings the climactic Vincerò! which most of those players would have understood means, “I will win!”
As the screen fades to black, a message appears: “We are the centre of the field, we are our precision, we are our effort, we are attackers who defend, we are defenders who attack, we are our speed, we are respect for our rivals, we are every goal we score, we are those who always seek the opposing goal. WE ARE ONE!”
Before Friday night’s World Cup qualifier in Dublin, the Irish team watched a different kind of pre-match video.
Giovanni Trapattoni showed the players clips of the 0-0 draw against Sweden in Stockholm. He wanted them to see “how many opportunity we had in Sweden. Three great opportunity. Missing the goal. In front of goal. Shane Long . . . ”
Indeed, Long’s miss that night sticks in the memory, the run, the shot, the ball ballooning high over the bar. You imagine it sticks in Long’s memory too, though he probably tries not to think about it too often.
Trapattoni, presumably, had his reasons for dwelling on those misses: to show the players that they could create chances against Sweden, and to remind them that they shouldn’t miss those chances.
This was the wisdom, condensed from 40 years of experience, that Trapattoni sought to impart: Don’t miss. Score.
It sounds rather obvious when you think about it. You wonder how long Trap spent weighing the value of reminding his players that the point of football is to kick the ball into the goal, against the risks of sending them out to play with images of failure fresh in their minds.
Only Long can say for sure how Trapattoni’s video made him feel. All we know is that on Friday night he looked like a player who was too anxious not to make a mistake.
The worst moment of his night came in the second half, when he got into space on the right with the ball invitingly positioned for an early cross that could have given the unmarked Robbie Keane a simple chance from point-blank range. We’ve seen Long expertly exploit similar situations for West Brom, hitting first-time crosses with conviction.
This time he hesitated, tried to cut back on to his left foot, and the chance was lost.
In Trapattoni’s view, it all comes down to quality. As he told the press on Saturday, either you have a Platini or a Tardelli or a Messi, or you don’t. The teams that don’t just have to accept that they won’t win many games against the teams that do.
Four years ago in Rome, Guardiola had Messi, and other match-winners besides. He evidently thought that even Messi might benefit from some cheesy emotional manipulation to put him in a can-do frame of mind. He could have showed his team clips of them missing chances against Numancia, where they had lost their first league game of the season; he could have reminded them not to miss those chances again. For some reason, he chose to focus on the positive.
Trapattoni says he’s done a “great job, not a good job” in steering Ireland to fourth in the group. That’s how bad he thinks these players are. He believes they are so limited that there’s little point even trying to fool them into thinking they’re better than they are. All he can do as a coach is remind them of the rules and send them out to face the inevitable.
We can only hope that the next manager of Ireland believes that these players, whatever their limitations, are worth a little more effort.