Image via Broadsheet.ie.
Image via Broadsheet.ie.
Last time you joined us on the Magical Misery Tour, Ireland's Euro 2012 campaign had gotten off to a start several stops short of adequate. Our boys in green (with white pinstripes, for some reason) rocked up in Poznań, fell asleep, and had that dream in which you have an exam to do but you haven't studied for it. When they woke up, Croatia had won 3-1, and Ireland's notions of doing something not completely shite at the Euros had gone from foggy to just plain vaporous. We were left facing the prospect of a game against Spain: the best international team in the world, mostly made up of players from the two best club teams in the world. Assailed by hope, the last refuge of the damned fool, we ventured forth, ventured back again, conceded an early goal, then conceded three more. We never got near them. They spent most of the first half looking like they could kill us—actually, honest-to-God kill us—if only it weren't such a terrific bore. In the second half, they just got on with it. It hurt. Everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but that doesn't salve your rack rash.
The 2-0 defeat to Italy on Monday wasn't all that much better, but at least Ireland avoided drowning in incompetence this time. They were outplayed, but there were times in the game when they actually, y'know, played. There were times when they remembered that the central midfield could play ball and not just be a hinge in the Amazing Collapsible Defence ("neatly folds away for easy storage in your playmaker's pocket!"). If you held the game to your ear, you could hear a tiny echo of the fabled World Cup play-off against France in Paris in 2009. That game is mainly remembered for THE HANDBALL, and it's sometimes forgotten just how wonderfully Ireland played; it was their best performance in a generation, if you gloss over some of the finishing. There was some of the spirit of Paris in the display against Italy, but whereas back then it inspired a wounded but proud team to reach new heights after a first-leg defeat , this time around it provoked a team in shreds to do a little dance and fall over.
It's all the more poignant because such positivity as there was in that match went against the team's default mode under the management of Giovanni Trapattoni. This mode can be likened to Homer Simpson's boxing strategy, as devised by Moe: "Now, no matter how much he hits you, you don't do nothing, okay? You don't wanna get drawn into a boxing match." If you try to throw a punch, who knows what hell you might unleash upon yourself? Ireland's players aren't to be trusted, apparently. Their little pixie heads can't accommodate more than one tactical plan, which is to be adhered to in all circumstances. It's inflexible, but it's brittle, and seems to be useless if Ireland concede first. At least, Trapattoni is one of many who have bemoaned Ireland's habit of conceding early goals in this tournament for this very reason. But Ireland fairly quickly equalized Croatia's third-minute opener in the first game. So they had the chance to revert to the original plan, which, as it turned out, was to sit back and let Luka Modrić have as much of the ball as he could stand without getting sick of it.
An approach that is supposedly born out of pragmatism seems actually to be a faith. Its repeated enactment has come to resemble a ritual performed by some battered tribe trying desperately to hold back the malevolent forces of the ever-shifting outside world, while unable or unwilling to understand that the outside world couldn't give a toss.
You wonder what impact this has on the players' thinking. The plethora of individual errors that blighted Ireland's games can't be attributed to one factor alone, of course. Several players were playing hurt, some were playing old, some were apparently stricken with nerves, some exhibited a combination of these factors. But it's not hard to imagine that four years playing under a coach whose almost every decision has been a cautious one might have an inhibiting effect on a player. It should be noted that, despite very occasional signs of disquiet, the players have always supported Trapattoni (those who have always been in his squad, anyway—those who aren't amongst the alarmingly high number of players who Trapattoni has fallen out with, who he has overlooked, or whose existence he has forgotten about). With him around, they certainly found the confidence they had lost somewhere in the wreckage of Steve Staunton's tenure. But in the long run, could being told (sometimes in so many words) that you're not much cop make you start to believe it, consciously or not?
Trap has often stressed the importance of the results over the "show." Leaving aside the false opposition (not to mention the results in these finals), there's something missing here. This isn't about aesthetics. It's about attitude. At whatever level, no team achieves anything without exceeding itself. One could define success as going beyond your natural station. There were hopeful pre-tournament comparisons made between this Ireland team and the Greeks who won the 2004 edition. Greece were defensive and a bit rubbish (supposedly)—if they could make a splash, so could we! But while what Greece did may not have been pretty, it was glorious. They weren't content with what they had: they were set on making the most of it. They weren't just defensive—they were smart with it too. While sticking with a particular philosophy, they had plans B, C and D ready to go. We hardly even had a plan A ½. They multiplied the effect of what they had. Ireland's approach has been based on holding on to what they have for dear life. It's about trying to cover up deficiencies rather than building something you can take pride in. It's about being yourself when you should aiming for an out-of-body experience. It's about shrinking ambition until it winks into nothing. It's about casting yourself to the wind and seeing what happens. This has been the guiding principle throughout Trapattoni's time in charge. The performances in Poland are merely what happens when a light is shone on it. Victory can hide a multitude.
This is the knot in our gut right now. Looked at in one way, qualification for the finals is a magical thing; it means that you are (however temporarily) a part of the elite. Looked at in another, it just means you've landed on the right side of an arbitrary cut-off point. We made it to Poland not through devilment or resourcefulness, but through being a little less crap than our opponents. But our emotional response to qualification—our official response, that is—was drawn more from the old days, when that kind of success was a battle and a true adventure. It's not like that anymore. Now that the novelty is gone, we see that the magic doesn't just appear. You have to summon it. Whether or not Trapattoni's approach acts as a depressant on the players, it does on the fan. Nothing is more dispiriting than seeing your team be so thoroughly pessimistic in their play (if not in their words). But we had the option since November of pointing towards the fact that we were at least going to be there and convincing ourselves that things were therefore tickety-boo. And in some measure, most of us bought into it. We were sold a pup. Or perhaps the emphasis should be different: we bought the pup. Now, Pooch is in a coma.
Trapattoni is staying on, vaguely hinting at change, like a permanent secretary. You never know. Well, you do, really. Still, it's not all bad. I mean, if two negatives make a positive, imagine how many positives lots of negatives make!