herald

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Time Irish cracked the code

IF there is one solid reason to feel fear and apprehension about this Euro 2012 play-off against Estonia, it can only be rooted in the brittle past of these Irish players.

They have been to the well many times and have always gone home thirsty.

But it is difficult to feel any great trepidation about the two games Ireland must play against Estonia, it must be said. Each obstacle raised is knocked down by logic and the simplicity of form.

Unlike past occasions when heart and mouth were in close proximity for much of the build-up, this time we have cruised through the week without controversy or rancour.

Yesterday, Giovanni Trapattoni turned on the charm and strayed from his customary approach. He found names for journalists who up until that point were nothing more than faces in the crowd.

Was he building support for a moment when he might need the backing of lowly hacks to secure a new contract or was he simply displaying a new side of Trap?

He went to some effort to make sure he pronounced names correctly, something completely at odds with the last three years when words were mangled in three different languages and even his players could not be guaranteed the correct name check.

After three years, he still talks about Shay Givens and John Shea yet this time, he made sure he had everyone's name right -- even as far as asking his translator, Manuela Spinelli, for assistance in identifying which hack was which.

The cynics among us saw a naked attempt to gather support in case he needs it in the next week, but the truth is Trapattoni doesn't need help from anyone.

He knows exactly what he is doing and has done since the moment he walked into The RDS amid great fanfare.

The only real question now is whether his players can make the same boast. Do they know what they are doing and how confident should we be that men who have singularly failed to find a way to the finals of a major tournament since 2002 have now cracked the code.

Over many years and many matches, they failed when the pressure cranked into the red zone. Since 2002, they have faced many big, big games and let's be honest, they bottled it.

For all the stupidity which followed Paris and the ridiculous behaviour of the FAI, Sepp Blatter, Thierry Henry and Raymond Domenech, the simple fact was that the damage to Ireland's World Cup ambitions was done in Croke Park when a poor French team walked away with a win they didn't deserve.

Football's innate cruelty allowed Ireland supporters to feel hope beyond belief for most of the return game in Paris when everything Giovanni Trapattoni had preached for three years was pushed to one side and something wild and unpredictable took over.

Now, the agony of favouritism is upon us. This is a state of mind which has never sat well with the Irish psyche and never will, yet everyone firmly believes that Estonia will roll over and do what all underdogs do; some loud barking but not a lot else.

During the last 10 years, gilt-edged qualification opportunities were squandered against Switzerland and Israel. During Steve Staunton's time, opportunities were spurned in Bratislava and, of course, Cyprus.

In Bari when Italy folded and lost their discipline, Ireland could not administer the killer blow and once again at Croke Park against the Azzurri, a winning position was tossed away through indiscipline and a wild departure from the script Trapattoni has tried to imprint on his players from the moment he arrived in Ireland.

Each big game, each major moment found Ireland's best footballers wanting and if that is hard to stomach for the players, it is nevertheless true.

Men like Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Damien Duff should have been touchstones for success after the experience they gained in Japan/Korea but for whatever reason, they could not do the job properly and as a result, the team and the supporters have been starved of big-time football every two years for the last 10 summers.

Some have suggested that Saipan still casts a long shadow and that players who were just out of their teens when those fateful events unfolded in the Far East were seriously damaged by the circumstances they found themselves in.

That may be true, but surely not anymore. There has never been a better chance to qualify for a tournament final and it doesn't matter how often Trapattoni tells us that Estonia should be respected and treated with caution.

Not long ago at all, Estonia sat nicely in the minnows bracket and there is every chance that they will sink back into that pond soon enough.

This is not France or Holland; not a major power in the world or European game and certainly not a team to be feared no matter how many eyebrows Trapattoni raises every time he senses complacency outside his camp, never mind within it.

This is Estonia and Ireland should be able to win pulling up. If that doesn't happen, it will be the single biggest failure in Irish football history and Trapattoni will be remembered as the man who cost a lot but delivered nothing.

Prediction: Estonia 1 Ireland 2

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