Trap has to accept flak
Italian deserves the rap for Russia shocker as Dunne reignites Ireland debate
"We didn't close them down and our only game plan seemed to be hitting it long. When that didn't work, we didn't have an answer. We were not brave enough to have confidence in passing the ball. Going long is the easy way out for some people and it is never going to be good enough."
-- Richard Dunne tells it like it is
"He's got really good energy. If you look at the stats at the end of games, then the distance he covers is usually higher than most players. He never shirks the responsibility of hard work. Equally, when he gets the ball, his quality on it really shines through."
-- Dunne talking about Stephen Ireland
ON cue and with barely three days gone to digest the implications of a third consecutive dreary performance from Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland, up pops the now inevitable story about another Ireland -- Stephen.
Put Richard Dunne's scathing assessment of Ireland's performance against Russia alongside rich praise for his new Aston Villa team mate and salt grinds into the wound opened up by Dick Advocaat's team on Friday.
The very player who could challenge Trapattoni's certainty that Irish footballers must be corralled in a system which is heavy on simplicity and light on creativity is given a clean bill of health by Dunne and a surprisingly warm character reference as well.
If it was anyone other than Dunne, his words would quickly be shoved into the shredder and ignored. Stephen Ireland has dug a sizeable tonnage of the hole he's in and insists on excavating further with every crass statement he makes.
But Dunne is too smart and straight to give Ireland such a glowing report without reason. The timing of the quotes is a coincidence but, packaged with the result against Russia, the impact is considerable.
Most pointed is Dunne's reference to Ireland's appetite for hard work, a central principle underpinning Trapattoni's system. Guile with graft -- the ideal combination in a footballer.
Should Trapattoni give Ireland a call? No. Would Ireland be better with Ireland in the team? Yes. Is Trapattoni happy that Ireland won't play for Ireland? Absolutely.
It is difficult to be certain about whom, exactly, Dunne was referring to when he spoke about the ultimate futility of the long ball game, but it would be fair to say that Trapattoni is the font from which the Irish system gushes and must therefore shoulder the responsibility.
That's a long winded way of saying the buck stops with Trap. How hard we find it to wind up to indignation in his company.
Even the boys on RTE defer to his CV while hammering his football belief system; never, ever rising to the strident levels achieved when Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton held the fate of our team in their hands.
Remember what happened to McCarthy when he lost a chaotic game 4-2 in Moscow? Hammered for losing an away game to a ranked nation -- and this newspaper did a good deal of the hammering.
Those were very different days and different circumstances. Hindsight tells us that we all threw some bitter words around at the time and, often, about great servants of Irish football who lost their way.
Trapattoni slides through it all wearing his reputation like kevlar against criticism and failure. Age, venerability and language form a buffer zone around him.
On the morning after Russia gave his team a hiding, his eyes widened when Dunne's comments were read to him. But he slid around the issue, and when someone suggested that the long ball was Ireland's weapon of choice, he feigned shock.
"Noooo. Have you seen the games? How many times do we use the long ball? No, we play," he said with great certainty.
Occasionally, you get the impression that Trapattoni is having a good laugh at the lot of us, trousering a ridiculous amount of money for the shortest working week in world football.
He watches football obsessively, according to himself, so we must assume he'd be doing it anyway -- even if he wasn't gainfully employed.
Great gig really. Day after day watching football on the box and, instead of FIFA10, you get to do it with real players in a spacey new stadium and luxury on tap.
For all of that, however, Trapattoni must take the hit when things go wrong -- and things went very badly wrong against Russia. But no hit. Not even a wet fish.
Trapattoni told us back in July that his players were now fully on message, that they understand exactly what he wants from them.
In the past few weeks, and with six points in the bag, he repeated his mantra and told us that he was more than pleased to sign up for another few years and not take up any one of the many offers which have been scattered in front of him since Paris. In short, all good.
Trapattoni reassured us that the blatant disadvantage caused by squad rotation and the painful fact that our best players are no longer rated among the best in the Premier League would not hinder the effort.
"They can play 90," he repeated over and over, hoping that he was correct but nowhere near sure.
Lack of match sharpness can go some way towards accounting for the worst three performances since Trapattoni took over, against Armenia, Andorra and now Russia, but Dunne's willingness to voice distaste for the long ball points to something else. Trapattoni, for all his protestations to the contrary, condones the use of the long ball but without the pressing urgency to recover loose possession high up the pitch required by the Charlton model.
Despite his half-hearted suggestion that he might shuffle his team into a 4-5-1 in Zilina, he has no intention of changing. The system must stand, so we will see more of the same against Slovakia. Perhaps this is unfair to Trapattoni. Perhaps Dunne's suggestion that someone was too fond of the easy option referred to team-mates.
Maybe the players have been straying from the coaching commandments and that the fault for three poor performances lies with them rather than a system which contradicts Dunne's instinct to get the ball down and pass it.
But players don't run the team. Trapattoni was caught cold by Advocaat and left floundering for an hour before he realised that more of the same would not haul back a 3-0 deficit. That had nothing to do with the players.
Maybe they should take the heat for allowing Russia to rip them apart for much of that hour but certainly not for the fact that the coach requires rigid adherence to his code and that those who stray from the path or show signs of imagination or "fantasy" as Trapattoni calls it, have been shuffled to the sideline or unceremoniously dumped.
Which brings us back to Stephen Ireland. It would probably appeal to his fickle nature that Trapattoni would be presented with a major difficulty if he asked for forgiveness and a jersey.
James McCarthy's tender years allow Trapattoni to justify his continuing involvement with the U21s, despite the fact that Roberto Martinez is building a Premier League team around him at Wigan.
But if Ireland made himself available and the rest of the players had no objection, his return to the squad would force Trapattoni to consider something new.
That really is "fantasy". The cold reality is that Slovakia have been handed a roadmap by Russia, and Vladimir Weiss would be stupid to ignore it.
The sense that Trapattoni has backed himself and his team into a tactical cul-de-sac is growing with each game.