herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Trap forced to chance it

Armenian intransigence means Irish face UEFA's fixtures lottery in Tel Aviv

THERE was a time when we would have moved tanks onto the Armenian ambassador's lawn over a disagreement at a Uefa or Fifa fixtures meeting.

These things used to be much more important to the Irish nation and, in truth, carried a lot more significance in times past. Newspapers sent their best men to wait for white smoke.

Not this time. After Paris, all anyone wants is a competitive football match somewhere, and we'll have to wait until the autumn for that, and it doesn't much matter which country is in the firing line. Much spleen has to be vented.

But let's spare a thought for our Armenian friends, people who live on the edge of Europe and probably saw the fixtures meeting as a part of the whole qualification process and therefore a competitive arena.

Not so long ago we thought the same. The fixtures meeting was the sabre rattling before the main event, even if the reality was often a discussion about the quality of the veal cutlets rather than shredded diplomacy and voices raised.

Honour had to be satisfied, however, and doubts assuaged. The FAI delegation generally returned with tales of hard bargaining but ultimate victory.

Rampant and sometimes fully justified paranoia gave football supporters in this country a unique perspective on both Uefa and Fifa, entities both powerful and mysterious. We watched every formal movement they made like hawks, sniffing for any sign of favouritism.

Fixtures meetings offered all sorts of possibilities for chicanery and frightening outcomes like Moscow in February or Istanbul in a heatwave -- or, most treacherous of all, Spain against Malta in the last game of the France '84 qualification series when they needed muchos golas and scored 12 of them while we watched slack-jawed.

Jack Charlton had some ideas about the way a group should unfold and never fancied games early in the year or in late May or June.

There was a huge sense of optimism surrounding his team and the mere drawing of a set of fixtures was enough to set the imagination racing.

Atlases were thumbed and cash counted before the fine mathematics of prediction filled the days before the first game of the new series.

Mick McCarthy had an all-in kind of approach to the drawing of a group, instructing several FAI CEOs to front load the pain against higher seeds in the first few months of a campaign.



DOGGED

It was a strategy which backfired in Moscow in 2002 and allowed Brian Kerr a year's grace before he had to list his preferences for the Germany 2006 qualifiers. Dogged negotiations secured most of what he wanted and, at the time, everyone was delighted that the FAI played hardball. In the long run, though, it counted for nothing.

After that, it's a bit of a blur. The brain has edited out most of the two years when Steve Staunton held the fate of our national team in his hands on compassionate grounds and, in the end, it didn't really matter which way the fixtures spun out.

We've heard Giovanni Trapattoni say in the past few days that he's not so fussed about fixtures meetings or Armenian intransigence.

The job of horse trading for any advantage possible in such an environment can't be good for the nerves, and the FAI delegation returned with nothing to show for their trip to Moscow other than a date with some software in Tel Aviv next week.

Anything can happen when Uefa or Fifa generate random fixtures and nobody wants to see a long list of away ties at the start of a campaign.

It would be a pity to see a spangly new Lansdowne Road hosting some very lucky pigeons, a few corporate lunches and, with all due respect to our friends in the IRFU, a lot of rugby while Trap and the team campaign in foreign lands far from home.

There is also the issue of weather in its extreme forms and the impact it can have on pale Irish skin, turning it various shades, including and between bright red and deep blue

Moscow, Skopje and Yerevan all offer the potential for heatstroke and exposure at different times of the year, a prospect about as appealing as the travelling for Trap and the squad.

Brian Kerr always believed in details and Trapattoni is just as devoted. Whatever he has said publicly about the vagaries of fate and the fact that every team in the group will have to be played at some stage -- home and away -- he certainly won't want to be in Yerevan in August or February for that matter.

In that context, the Armenians could yet be saints or sinners depending on the way the random generator generates.

A decent spread of fixtures and all will be forgiven but, if the dice fall badly, we might yet throw them into the vault of grievance with Joaquim Fernandes Nazare, Alphonse Constantin, Thierry Henry specifically and France generally.

Time will tell and until we know the list, mouse pointers will hover over cheap flight options on airline websites and quiver at the notion of nailing the last room in Yerevan.



PROGRESS

In the meantime, we continue to occupy our minds with our youngest Premier League performers, most notably the progress of James McCarthy and David Meyler (all good) and the progress of the Irish U21s (all bad).

McCarthy was distraught when he flicked into his own net and cost Wigan three points against Aston Villa on Monday night, but he caught the eye of John Aldridge who suggested that Liverpool should make an immediate move to line him up for a summer transfer "before Manchester United do".

While interest from Liverpool is always welcome, McCarthy needs games and he is unlikely to get many at Anfield. Benitez has a habit of buying and then mothballing players -- never mind the treatment he handed out to Robbie Keane.

Meyler has been working away quietly after an injury-troubled six months and appears to have won Steve Bruce's favour. A settled run from now until April would be perfect.

This is all good news and will add considerably to the pallet Trapattoni can use for the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign -- which brings us to the U21s and the task of producing more McCarthys and Meylers.

It should be a simple call. Results dictate the course of action the FAI should take and, even if the job spec for Don Givens is based around the grooming of good young players for the senior squad, winning a game here and there should also be a requirement.

When Dutchman Wim Koevermans, the FAI's international performance director, completes his review it is difficult to imagine any recommendations other than a change in management for the Irish U21s.

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