Shrewd Trap beats Blues
Boss deserves massive credit as win over Italy lifts morale for qualification tests ahead
THEY didn't know whether to hug him or hit him. Most Italians love Giovanni Trapattoni but it's bitter sweet now after a night in Liege which will linger for a long time in the thoughts of those who were there to witness a remarkable Irish performance and a win nobody predicted.
Beating Italy is a rare enough event in itself for any national team and the celebrations after Ireland had humiliated the Azzurri in front of 20,000 emigre tifosi made it feel like Euro 2012 points were at stake.
Of course, when it came down to the nitty gritty in the last World Cup qualifying, Italy went to South Africa and Ireland didn't, but if this a statement of intent from Trapattoni and his players, the autumn campaign is loaded with potential and suddenly, qualification for the Ukraine/Poland tournament final looks a lot more likely than it did even after beating Macedonia in Skopje.
Trapattoni has been lucky these past few weeks. He made an example of stay-away players like James McCarthy, Marc Wilson, Darron Gibson and Jon Walters and made a lot of noise about what he sees as a lack of commitment to the shirt.
It could have backfired badly if results went against him but it is impossible not to be impressed by the level of effort he dragged out of players who did show up; many of them with injuries which needed treatment and not senior international football.
None more so than the great Stephen Hunt, a player who is a living, breathing example of what happens when you match an indomitable heart with talent and sheer bloodymindedness.
There was wonderful moment which summed up Hunt's performance and it came late in the game.
Italy had just brought on Gilardino, the scorer of a crucial equaliser in Croke Park during the World Cup qualifying campaign, who trotted toward the centre circle in that arrogant way which Italians do as easily as breathing.
Hunt started shouting at him when he was 20 yards away and kept up his patter until Gilardino had run by, leaving him under no illusions about the scale of the challenge he was walking into.
He was at it all night. Biting into tackles, ripping possession from under their noses and constantly barracking any Italians who came within range.
To crown it all, he ran 50 yards at full bore in the very final moment and had enough pace to skip past a challenge before squaring for Simon Cox to score a punishing second goal. In that little cameo, Trapattoni's judgment was revealed.
Hunt gave us the heart and Cox the wit to see what was possible before it happened. His run to get on the end of a brilliant cross was perfect. Cox is the big winner from these past couple of weeks.
Unheralded before the squad was assembled two weeks ago, he is now first choice beside Robbie Keane.
The big loser was Shane Long who looked leg-weary and ill at ease against Italy and was less than impressed when he was called ashore to make way for Cox.
It has been a bad end to the season for a player who has been shooting the lights out in the Championship and was tipped by Marco Tardelli to be one of the big transfer stories of the summer. He needs to take a break now and regroup.
The next month will bring some clarity to his club future, and Premier League football will help him develop even further.
He certainly should not be written off by anyone. While Long struggled, there were many, many performances from team mates which will give Trapattoni a great deal to ponder while he enjoys his summer. Darren O'Dea was magnificent at the heart of the Ireland defence and beside him, Sean St Ledger rose above the fact that he hasn't played in 10 weeks and threw himself into the task of holding out the Italians.
Seamus Coleman hit the ground running, too, and clattered into Andrea Pirlo in the first few minutes, setting the tone for the rest of the players and showing Trapattoni that this is a young player whose time has come.
Skipper Paul McShane was excellent and Stephen Ward, helped at all times by Hunt, can look back on the past 10 days with great satisfaction. Most of all, however, Trapattoni deserves a pat on the back himself.
He delivered four consecutive wins, 10 goals and not one conceded. In the middle of the run, he banked three points in Skopje and kept pace with Ireland's main rivals at the top of Group B, lifting morale sky high for the huge tests which lie ahead against Slovakia at the Aviva in September and then Russia in Moscow.
But it is worth remembering that at least six of his best men were absent from this win over Italy and there is now serious competition for places within the squad.
Whether you agree or disagree with his method of dealing with young players like McCarthy, there is no argument against Trapattoni's methods which makes any sense when stacked up against the results he has delivered at the end of a long season.
The players who did turn up will walk over hot coals for him and that is admirable. We may not like the way Trap's Ireland play but he must be given the credit he deserves for turning a team of no-hopers into one of the hardest to beat in Europe. For that, grazie Giovanni.