Martin O’Neill has built a new side out of the rubble left by Trapattoni era
Ireland team has changed dramatically since Italian led side to Euro 2012 in Poland
The inclusion of James McClean was the fairytale of the Giovanni Trapattoni’s selection for the 2012 tournament. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
When Giovanni Trapattoni announced his squad to travel to Poland for the Euro 2012 finals, among the players left hoping for a miracle or an injury on the stand-by squad were Seámus Coleman and Darren Randolph.
The inclusion of James McClean was the fairytale of the Italian’s selection. McClean had made his first-team debut for Sunderland just five months earlier and when the Republic of Ireland had played its first game, away to Armenia in September 2010, McClean had watched it on television in Waterford. He was playing with Derry City at the time.
Trapattoni’s two reserves started for Ireland against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Monday night and McClean was introduced as a substitute over both legs. In the three years since the Republic’s calamitous return to a major tournament, the composition of the first team has changed dramatically.
Of the Irish team which drew 1-1 in the second leg to compete a 5-1 playoff win against Estonia in Dublin on November 14th, 2011, only Glenn Whelan started in Martin O’Neill’s team which qualified for Euro 2016. There were extenuating circumstances: but for an injury John O’Shea would most likely have started the most recent match as well. Shay Given, the goalkeeper for both games against Estonia, seemed to have reclaimed the starting spot under O’Neill until he was injured against Germany.
The claims of Aiden McGeady and Darron Gibson have been muted by stagnant spells at Everton. Nonetheless, the squad has changed radically in O’Neill’s first two years in charge. The Republic’s midfield against Estonia was made up of Stephen Hunt, Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan and Damien Duff, with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle up front. Trapattoni used 25 players over the course of that 2012 campaign, with a further nine players on the bench for one game or more. In addition, Keith Treacy played in five non-qualifying games over 2011.
The Trapattoni era ended without any fizz after a 1-0 defeat in Vienna on September 10th 2013, which effectively ended Ireland’s ambitions of making it to Brazil for the World Cup. His final back four selection was Coleman, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea and Mark Wilson. In midfield were Jon Walters, James McCarthy, Paul Green and Anthony Pilkington. Shane Long played up front along with Keane. Sitting on the bench that night were three players who have become central figures over the closing phase of O’Neill’s campaign: Randolph, Ciaran Clark and Robbie Brady.
Despite his punishing first competitive start in that 6-1 lesson delivered by Germany in Dublin in October 2012, Coleman’s move from the periphery of Trapattoni’s thoughts to an automatic choice in the Irish back line has been one key shift between both championship qualifications.
He was one of four players – along with Whelan, McCarthy and Walters – to start in both O’Neill’s first qualifying game, against Georgia, and the final match against Bosnia.
Again, there are extenuating circumstances: McGeady, who delivered both goals in that 2-1 win, is a player in desperate need of more first-team football, while John O’Shea and Wilson, both starters in Tbilisi, were in the frame for Monday night’s game.
But others have faded from view, at least for the time being. Stephen Quinn has gone from starting that first game to sitting in long-term rehabilitation in Reading following knee surgery, which will keep him out of the game until late December.
Both O’Neill and Roy Keane were at the Hawthorns on the night that Gibson made a rare appearance for Everton as a substitute in a 3-2 win.
If the Derry man could somehow ignite what has become a dismally interrupted career with Everton, there is a sense he would have a bigger say in O’Neill’s plans. Robbie Keane’s loyalty and desire to stay involved remain as bright as ever but over the course of qualification, O’Neill has subtly but firmly all but removed him from the equation as a starter.
However, the most radical shift under O’Neill revolves around the revitalisation of Wes Hoolahan’s international career. All but frozen out by Trapattoni, he has established himself as Ireland’s chief playmaker despite not starting the first game against Georgia, the away game against Germany and conceding himself that he was unable to play the full 90 minutes against Poland in the concluding group game.
At 33, Hoolahan is in the strange position of being both in the first flush of his real international career while belonging to the senior age-group of Shay Given (39), Walters (32), John O’Shea (34), Glenn Whelan (31) and Robbie Keane (35).
Next summer in France will almost certainly be a swansong for some of this group. The task for O’Neill between now and the tournament is to think about replacements for the campaign to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.