Ireland prepare to fall into 'Il trap'

Irish players salute the army of fans that travelled to the 2002 World Cup to support their team. (GETTY IMAGES)

The sound of Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma coming from the television set downstairs was drowned out by my stereo's subwoofer blaring Big Jack's war cry to the nation. It was Italia '90 and Ireland were playing in their first World Cup. That meant our first World Cup song and Jack Charlton, the Republic of Ireland's popular coach at the time, provided the lyrics to what was to become our own classic anthem, "Put 'em under pressure".

The rousing tune captured the collective spirit that cheered and chanted Ireland to their first appearance on the world stage. Enthusiasm for the game in the modest country was at an all-time high; the Irish had qualified for their first major finals in the 1988 European Championships and followed up with qualification for successive World Cups. And fans travelled the world to lend their support.

However, times have changed. The Green Army have watched dust gather on passports as five of the past six major finals have passed without their participation. A calamitous series of appointments has led to standards dropping, results discouraging, and players distancing themselves from the blame.

Now, though, the FAI (Irish Football Association) has appointed a proven winner, a man with the experience and fortitude to give Irish eyes reason for smiling once again. Giovanni Trapattoni, the Italian with a fierce reputation, has been thrown the gauntlet of guiding Ireland to the World Cup in 2010.

His new side take on Serbia at Dublin's Croke Park tomorrow night and Irish football legend, Ronnie Whelan, thinks his priority should be reducing the chasm that has developed between the team and their support.

"You know what it's like in Ireland," begins Whelan after his round of golf at The Montgomerie. "It's a different culture there. Irish people don't like prima donnas; they don't like not being able to get near the players.

"I understand they're professional footballers earning thousands of pounds a week but they don't have to be too far away from the fans. It seems like a gap has emerged over the past few years between the players and the supporters and, if I was doing the job, I'd try to bring them a little closer together."

The man charged with doing that faces an uphill task after the ill-conceived tenure of Steve 'Stan' Staunton. The decorated international had been capped a record 102 times for the Irish, but was a surprise appointment in 2006 given his limited managerial experience. His five-month stint as assistant manager of English League One side Walsall hardly fulfilled the FAI's publicised criteria for a "world-class" coach.

Staunton lasted one qualifying campaign, humiliated by a 5-2 loss to lowly Cyprus and needed an injury-time Stephen Ireland strike to save his blushes in San Marino. In addition, his handling of the press was as astute as his tactics. Whelan reflects on the infamous short press conference in which Staunton steadfastly stated, "I'm the gaffer" before storming out.

"Stan didn't know how to play the press," says his former international and club team-mate. "It doesn't matter who you are, you've got to be able to deal with them. Stan didn't endear himself to them straight away and somebody, be it his agent or someone, should have prepared him for the press.

"You don't go in, do a 25-second interview and walk out. Because they're going to slaughter you. And that puts pressure on everyone. You're under pressure to get a result, the team don't perform due to the strain and the fans get on your back because you don't talk to them through the media."

When Staunton's reign came to an end in acrimonious fashion last October, the FAI promised to choose his successor carefully. After a four-month search, Trapattoni was announced as the man to succeed where Staunton failed, and was unveiled at the start of this month after fulfilling his commitments to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.

In stark contrast to the evasive Staunton, 'Il Trap' – addressing the gathered media candidly in broken English, and at times a little German – exuded a confidence and charisma that was sorely lacking in the previous reign. The passion the 69-year-old still portrays on the touchline was mirrored by the enthusiasm he conveyed for his new job. And Whelan was impressed with what he saw.

"He's experienced enough to get the press on his side," says the Irishman, his accent tinged with a hint of Scouse. "He's been through it all; you know what the press is like in Italy, they can kill you over there – so I think he'll be more than experienced enough to handle it. And with a backroom staff including Liam Brady and Marco Tardelli [assistant coaches who both played under the Italian at Juventus], they'll be able to deal with it better and take all the pressure off the players.

"But I do think Liam will have to tell him a bit about the Irish fans, where it's not the same as in Italy. He would have to say 'Listen, they're a different breed here. They want to be part of this and the closer we can get to them the more support they'll give'.

"Look at the support we got in 1988, 1990 and 1994, they played a big part in the whole atmosphere. The fans always felt they were part of it, like we're all in it together, but it's moved away from that now. And that's why the fans started getting on the players' backs."

The growing distance from the fans and a series of disappointing results have dampened the optimism that once helped Ireland compete on the big stage. Ranked ninth in the world in 1994, the country now sits sandwiched between Chile and Mali in 41st, prompting Mark Lawrenson, another ex-international, to suggest that Ireland would not qualify for another major tournament in his lifetime. He is only 50. And while some scoffed at his comments, Whelan recognises why he said it.

"The results we're having means we're dropping down the rankings, so when the qualifying groups get drawn, we're fourth seeds with three major teams above us. Only two of those can go through so we're battling against the odds.

"Are we going to start winning enough games to get up the seedings so that we're in the top two and get weaker teams in our group? I hope so but it's going to be difficult. Everything that was built up over Jack's era has gone down again with Brian Kerr [manager from 2002 to 2006] and Stan, so we're right back where we started. It's a matter of trying to get us back up there again and hopefully Trapattoni can do that."

The former Italy coach will understand Whelan's concerns, but some solace can be found in that he shares some similarities with the successful Charlton. Both men are known for their commitment to discipline and their refusal to entertain egos. Whelan thinks that the selection panel have chosen well.

"I said when Stan left that we've had Kerr, we've had Stan – two very inexperienced managers at international level – what we need now with such a young squad is a manager who's been around and knows European football. Trapattoni comes into that bracket.

"He, like Charlton, knows his football and they'll both do it their way. The players have become a bit mollycoddled and it takes someone, like Big Jack, to say 'I'm the manager here and what I say goes'. And it doesn't matter who you are or who you play for, everyone should be treated the same.

"If Jack said to do something, you made sure you did it. His way was to put the ball into the corners and chase it; it wasn't brilliant football but it got results. And if Trapattoni, with all his experience, comes up with something that gets us success you just have to do it. I hope he does. It's time we started winning more games than we lose and qualifying for major championships again."

If the Italian with 23 major titles under his belt can give Irish supporters a South African adventure in 2010, we might need to pen a tune more slightly more refined than "Put 'em under pressure".

 

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