Robbie's call to arms
Captain shows badly needed leadership as Ireland prepare for do or die clash with Russia
WHEN the clenched fist and call to arms finally came, it was Ireland's captain and not Giovanni Trapattoni who hit the right note.
Robbie Keane's defiance offers some hope in Moscow tonight.
But not much. With the new season just a month old, Ireland's big names already look bruised and battered and Trapattoni needs everyone at their very best for this one.
While Keane rallied the troops, Trapattoni chose to defend his reputation against accusations of negativity, claiming that he could never have been so successful as a manager in such circumstances.
But there is one obvious flaw in his argument. While his club credentials are untouchable, he has failed so far as an international coach.
World Cup 2002 was a humiliation for Trapattoni and Italy, and two years later in Euro 2004, the Azzurri flopped again.
Now, he stands on the brink of another failed international experiment unless the players he has so carefully moulded in his image can somehow fashion a small miracle and beat Russia in the Luzhniki Stadium.
Keane doesn't do passion that well but there was a raw edge in his voice which carried echoes of another pre-match press conference in Paris three years ago.
Most of us who went to France for that game travelled with little reason for optimism. But in the pre-match briefing, there was a hint of what was to come when Keane called for stern resistance and displayed the kind of self-belief required of a captain in such bleak circumstances.
Rumours sprang up about impromptu squad meetings at the back of the team bus and at breakfast in the team hotel, suggesting that the players were ready to break out of Trapattoni's system and take the game to France in the second-leg.
They did just that but the debate about who should get the credit for what was a fantastic footballing performance in the Stade de France has never been resolved.
Was it simply Trapattoni's work bearing fruit or a communal decision by the senior players to shift gears, throw caution to the wind and have a right go at the French?
Spice was undoubtedly added by Lassana Diarra's tussle with Keith Andrews and Richard Dunne after the final whistle in the first game in a sold-out Croke Park (those were the days) and the needle between both sets of players was palpable. But that alone could not account for the way Ireland played on that infamous night.
There is no such animosity between Ireland and Russia but the stakes are even higher for men like Dunne, Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given. Brazil must seem a long, long way off at this moment in time for Ireland's veterans and, logically, they must be thinking that this is something of a last hurrah.
Given, Duff and Keane have 2002 to cling to but Dunne has nothing but bad memories from Japan/Korea and if there is to be another quiet revolution among the players before tonight's huge collision with Russia, it will be led by him.
He was the seed for the performance in Paris and if there is to be another like it in Moscow, Dunne will again be the touchstone.
Trapattoni would probably say and believe that what happened in Paris was the culmination of his work; that he gave the Irish players a framework and they found their own voice within it.
But the system he has imposed on Ireland only works properly when every cog in the machine is well-oiled. This was not the case against Slovakia or indeed against Russia at Lansdowne Road a year ago.
He has worked hard to find alternatives in every position and Stephen Ward, Stephen Kelly and Darren O'Dea are living proof of that.
Both he and Marco Tardelli claim that they now have much greater depth in the squad and "trust" the fringe players. They never tire of saying "the players change but the system stays the same".
But when the system fails, they cannot adapt and Trapattoni had nothing to offer when he found himself tactically out-manoeuvred by Russia boss Dick Advocaat and Slovakia manager Vladimir Weiss at the Aviva during successive Septembers.
On a practical level, there was a question mark over Trapattoni's decision to play John O'Shea and Aiden McGeady against Slovakia on Friday night when other options were available.
O'Shea, a shadow of his best from the first kick in the Aviva on Friday night, is now back in Sunderland, no doubt the object of much fretting by Steve Bruce, but McGeady is in Moscow and has once again been preferred over a game-hungry Stephen Hunt -- probably the freshest and maybe even the fittest player in the Irish squad.
Hunt lifted Lansdowne the moment he came on the pitch five days ago and even if he might hammer into a Russian in the first minute and take an early bath, Ireland needs the kind of demented commitment he brings to the pitch on a night like tonight.
Maybe a bit of madness is what is needed to breakthrough the mental block which overcomes these players when they are faced with a top-ranked nation in a make-or-break game.
Against the background of do-or-die stuff and maybe a bit of madness in Moscow, Roy Keane's sudden emergence as one of the top trending stories of the day linked with the Iceland job was surreal.
Images of volcanoes and ice fields fit his mercurial personality perfectly and it would be pure box office if the story comes to something. There's definitely something bubbling up in the North Atlantic.
It should be noted here that if Keane did sign on as Iceland boss, he would be just one letter away from taking over as Ireland manager.
He would put bums on seats in the Aviva like no other, but could we handle the angst?
Russia to win by the odd goal.