The fashion in which the Republic of Ireland were outclassed by Croatia confirmed that, perhaps uniquely in this tournament, they have already achieved their goal. Getting to Poland was enough and as much as anyone could sensibly hope.
True, they enjoyed some good fortune on the way being drawn in a respectable but hardly life-threatening group (Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, etc.) and then getting Estonia in the play-off. Nevertheless, after a decade away from the higher-altitude of finals football, it is grand to see the Irish back.
That they are here at all is, in large part, due to Giovanni Trapattoni. The old fox might seem an unlikely chap to be managing one of what is, historically anyway, Europe’s footballing backwaters but he has brought all the nous accumulated in a long and distinguished career to asset the Irish cause.
Trap’s hiring, actually, was one of the last flickers of the Celtic Tiger. That happy-if-all-too-brief era when Ireland had more money than it quite knew what to do with seems long ago now but it was real enough and, whatever Ireland’s present distress, not all the gains have been lost. Even so, Trappatoni’s salary was too much for the Football Association of Ireland to swallow alone and so it was that he has been part funded by one of Ireland’s richest men, Denis O’Brien.
Despite the defensive lapses that crippled their effort against the Croats, Trap brought a familiar solidity to an Irish squad long on effort, but short of true class. How could it be otherwise with a squad drawn from the lower reaches of the English premiership and even such unlikely places as Leicester and Hull?
He’s been at it a long, long time now. I suspect that—at least in the English speaking world—Trap hasn’t quite received the acclaim he merits. But nine league titles with five teams in four countries is quite a record. Add a European Cup, a UEFA Cup Winners Cup and three UEFA Cup triumphs to the mix and you have a resume to contradict the fashionable thesis that managers make very little difference.
Granted, Trap has enjoyed good hands. Juventus, Internazionale Milan, Bayern Munich, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg are each good places to manage. Still, the Irish have tested his mettle and in Dublin he’s shown some ability to fashion bricks without straw.
Too bad the Irish have landed in a piranha-infested group. I doubt there’ll be a repeat of their epic 1994 victory against Italy in New Jersey and thus no call for an impromptu ceilidh on O’Connell Street in Dublin.
Still Trap, who made his debut for Italy a lifetime ago (in 1960 to be precise), has given the Irish a good run for their money and, these days, that’s as much as can be hoped for. They will not lack for effort or enthusiasm and they enjoy the backing of perhaps the best supporters visiting Poland and the Ukraine this summer. Alas, that won’t be enough, but getting to the party is just about good enough.