herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Duffer can be Irish 'ace in the hole'

Cottagers star should be moved inside to halt Spanish inquisition

GIOVANNI Trapattoni is desperately seeking a way to plug the gaps and contain Spain's rampant midfield but has he looked hard enough at his squad for alternatives?

What about John O'Shea and Darron Gibson, or could Damien Duff change his spots and move inside to do the job?

There has been a great deal of soul-searching about the fact that Trapattoni has failed to address this glaring weakness in his system.

A number of national teams favour five across the middle with one or more playmakers pulling the strings. Trapattoni's inability to deal with this reality has been a gnawing worry since Russia dismantled Ireland at Lansdowne Road and then in Moscow during the qualifying series.

The fact that Slovakia were able to do it too should have been an even bigger wake-up call but not for Trapattoni, who sticks doggedly to his system and dismisses any alternative.

So far, Trapattoni has looked to his strikers for a solution but without much success, it must be said.

Oddly enough, the man he feels coped best with the task is Andy Keogh, who is currently sitting on a beach somewhere and wondering about what might have been.

In Liege this time last year, he was given the job against Italy and became the reference point Trapattoni uses to illustrate how well a striker can manage the role without completely abandoning all attempts to supply an attacking threat as well.

But wind back to the very start of Trapattoni's time in charge of Ireland and you'll find the main reason he is reduced to using what can only be described as bandaid on an open wound.

The moment Trapattoni exiled Andy Reid and made it very plain that he did not trust his commitment, he sent a signal that Ireland would be an imagination-free zone.

Ever since, any player who likes to use his brain as well as his feet has been given short shrift, and even if most agree that Stephen Ireland should not be accommodated in any Ireland squad without a serious amount of humility on his part, he too is a man who could do the job Trapattoni is currently trying to fill.

Likewise James McCarthy, who quite rightly and understandably chose to devote his time to his father this summer instead of making the trip to Euro 2012.

Trapattoni's relationship with McCarthy has never been right, to the point where it seemed like there was a wilful attempt to alienate a young man who pushed through a fog of sectarianism and hatred to declare for the country of his grandfather's birth.

Even after Trapattoni publicly questioned his commitment to the shirt, McCarthy stuck to the path he had chosen and was still treated poorly. The broad consensus that Ireland now had a real prospect in midfield was ignored, almost to the point of petulance.

Others like Wes Hoolahan haven't even had the time of day from Trapattoni, who ploughs on in his own inimitable way and, in recent weeks, has become increasingly patronising about Irish media attempts to explore his justification for ignoring a problem identified two years ago.

"They don't have a league, so they don't understand 'the result'," he said to Italian journalists last week, who all had a mighty big laugh at our expense.

The above may well be a long-winded way of introducing Damien Duff as a possible ace in the hole, but it was worth doing simply to point out that Trapattoni's difficulty is to some degree self-inflicted.

So why Duffer? Two words - Ryan Giggs!

Alex Ferguson saw more in Giggs than the archetypal flying winger and when Paul Scholes' legs began to flag, he offered his Welsh wizard the opportunity to broaden his horizons as a midfielder.

It worked remarkably well and has helped prolong Giggs's career beyond the days when his pace and trickery hurt opposing teams.

Duff has the equipment. He can use both feet, sees a pass and is more than fit enough to track a player like Iniesta around the pitch but also to provide attacking possibilities for Ireland.

Of course, all of this is qualified by the fact that for Duff to have any chance of blossoming in a new role, the groundwork needed to be done a long time ago. From a standing start, it would be a big ask for a player who has never strayed from the wing.

But, for the first time in many moons, Ireland have a surfeit of left-wingers. All four in the squad - Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt and James McClean - favour the left flank.

So it should have been possible at some point in the last two years for Trapattoni to try the experiment in a friendly without weakening his team in any significant way.

For now, a more realistic option could be O'Shea, who has plenty of experience in midfield and played there when Ferguson was searching for a replacement for Roy Keane.

O'Shea's fitness has been an issue for a month but he came through the game against Croatia intact and has the right level of experience and mental strength to deal with such a difficult task.

And then there's Gibson, who has never looked less than surly and hasn't uttered a word to the outside world since he linked up with the squad almost a month ago.

He is the most naturally gifted midfielder left in Trapattoni's squad but he was given the chance to put down a marker against Bosnia and failed the test.

He has never been tried as a fifth man in midfield and might well have found his feet at international level supported by Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.

Tomorrow, against Spain, the odds are good that Trapattoni will ask Jonathon Walters to fill in around the middle and drop Kevin Doyle.

From his own words in the last few days, it appears that Trapattoni feels that Walters is the best suited among his strikers to the do the job, but if that is the case, why did he wait so long?

Promoted articles

Entertainment News