Time for Trap to endure white-knuckle ride


SIDELINE CUT: Football logic needs to be turned on its head tonight and again on Wednesday evening in Paris if our World Cup dreams are to be realised

THE FRENCH football team can be forgiven for believing that they will beat Ireland because they are the French football team. That is what the rest of the football world believes. Deep down, it is what everyone here fears.

Hours to go, now. Mr Trapattoni does not know what he has got himself into. He may be on the verge of a week that will utterly transform a world view built upon a stellar career in the most sophisticated football league on earth and a life that began before the Second World War. Mr Trapattoni is 70 years old and is entitled to believe he has come to understand a thing or two about the world.

But he cannot have any real comprehension of what happens in this country when Ireland qualify for a World Cup. It ought to be mandatory for the FAI to show all potential national coaches archive footage of the kind of madness that prevailed here during the torrid weeks of Germany ’88, Italia ’90, USA ’94 and the Saipan Crisis of 2002. They should hear the soundtrack of those eras, bear witness to the collective daftness, the television tantrums and the songs, the awful songs.

There is a generation of Irish people for whom the opening bars of the Horslips Dearg Doom– which was sampled for the opening of the unofficial Irish football anthem Ole Ole Ole– triggers a series of flashbacks not unlike those experienced by war veterans. It takes them back to those international nights when the entire country tingled in anticipation of what the Irish football team may or may not do. It hardly mattered that what they invariably did was to draw either 0-0 or 1-1.

The tingles were not often caused by the quality of the football. In many cases, they were brought on by the prodigious and unholy consumption of drink. They were also caused by the sensation that every man, woman and child was skiving school – skiving life – for the day and there would be no consequences to pay for it. Fifteen years ago, if Ireland and France were meeting on a Saturday night play-off match in Dublin, this place would have pretty much gone berserk by now.

Everyone was a bit loco about the old garrison game then. People were going around with a wild light in their eyes and the considered view of Jack Charlton was the talk of many towns. It is not like that any more.

The hype around tonight’s match has been lively but in comparison to, say, the preamble to the match against Northern Ireland in Windsor Park, 1993, tonight’s game feels like a mild diversion. Trapattoni’s managerial style has been firm, assured and ultra-professional. But the Italian legend has kept his distance.

There has been little evidence that he is much bothered about Ireland beyond the capabilities of the national football team. In comparison to previous managers, Trapattoni is untouchable. In RTÉ, Eamon Dunphy does his best to bang the drum of indignation about the ongoing exclusion of poor Andy Reid but Trapattoni seems serenely oblivious to the views of Mr Dunphy or John Giles or any of the Montrose critics. ‘Trap’ doesn’t really engage with Ireland’s opinion-formers.

Think back to the scandalously cheap treatment meted out to Steve Staunton, who was mocked for his speaking style and his accent before the results began to go pear-shaped. Or to the hugely unlucky reign of Brian Kerr, whose stewardship of the Irish team should, with any reasonable slice of luck, have guided the team to the World Cup in Germany. Or to the tumultuous reign of Mick McCarthy who, after two close calls, finally led Ireland to a major tournament only to see the whole thing mutate into a national identity crisis. Trapattoni’s reign has so far been characterised by a sense of calmness that is out of kilter with the Irish football story.

That may be about to change. The first sign the nation may be on the verge of another national breakdown manifested itself in the Taoiseach’s deliberations on the French match, which has appeared on YouTube.

Yesterday morning, former manager Eoin Hand was on the radio reminiscing about the gripping Ireland-France qualifying games for Espana ’82, when the French edged us out of an historic World Cup finals placing on goal difference. You could still hear the pain in Hand’s voice and the demons of what might have been. And there was a sense of the haunted too about Liam Brady’s public calls for officials for this play-off to call the game with an independent spirit. There are more recent reference points.

When the French last visited Dublin, Ireland’s honesty and bravery came to nought because of Thierry Henry. The striker made a technically brilliant and audaciously executed strike look like child’s play. He then turned his back and faced the camera with a look of blithe indifference, as if he knew that that goal would come because this was France against Ireland and the gods decreed there could only be one winner. It was a beautiful, stinging reminder of the enduring role the French command in world football and of their singular ability to make their more staggering football moments seem effortless. Fate and history will be stacked against us tonight and on Wednesday evening.

During the week, the incomparable Zinedine Zidane paid fulsome respect to the Irish qualities and then suggested that is was ‘logical’ that over two legs, France should win this contest. That seemed fair and it may have revealed the key to Ireland winning.

Logic needs to be turned on its head tonight and again on Wednesday evening in Paris. That defiance of what makes sense has always been the source of Ireland’s lion-hearted, improbable nights of international football success. Croke Park needs to be mastered by the Irish fans tonight: the place must be loud and hostile from the off. Some unholy row must break out in the RTÉ studios – anything to get the phones ringing and pulses racing. On the field, Damien Duff needs to remember he has magic in those feet of his.

Some strangeness will have to take hold of the old place on Jones’s Road tonight and Mr Trapattoni will have to feel it in his bones and go with it. A good performance – even a glorious, white-knuckle 0-0 draw – will bring about a mood of expectation that is at least reminiscent of that delirious, boozy and heartfelt national pride of yesteryear. Ireland need to take the field in Paris fully aware of that intoxicating surge of hope and need that propelled the famous green teams of the 1990s to unimagined heights. If that can happen, then Irish joy in Paris, while illogical, is not impossible. For once, the French could find that being French is not enough.