by Ciaran O’Raghallaigh
And now, the end is near; and so we face the final curtain.
Yesterday was Ireland’s last day in Gdynia, and the players trained with the enthusiasm of a man on death row, pondering his final meal.
The green mile has been a long, painful walk this past few days.
After their 4-0 hammering by Spain – the first game won by four goals or more at a Euros since 2004, every Ireland player rushed to hold their hands up.
It was like a rave for the repentant.
“Sometimes you have to hold your hands up,” they said, one after another.
“We’ve just played the best team in the world, the best team I’ve ever come up against”, Robbie Keane said.
Richard Dunne said he had ‘no idea’ how to stop them. Clearing the ball when you’re in the box is a good start, I’d imagine.
Regrets, we’ve quite a few; In fact, too many to mention.
For the second time in as many games, Ireland conceded a goal before the ITV commentator was even able to mention 1966 or Gazza.
Dunne claimed that the players hadn’t ‘turned into bad players overnight, we’re still the same players doing the same things’. The player in Moscow would not have let this happen.
Something went awry, and it’s hard to know for sure just what.
Was it fear? Pressure? Had they trained too hard?
Rumours abounded that players were unhappy with the level of pre-tournament training done, that it felt like a full pre-season.
None of which explains why you’d be tired 300 seconds into any match.
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew when I bit off more than I could chew.
Playing Croatia, Spain – and on Monday, a resurgent Italy, was always likely to challenge the best of teams. Never mind one that has scraped its way to the tournament.
But was there too much expectation, too much hype?
“We came with the aim, and the dream, of winning the competition,” Dunne claimed. Really?
Now, we know Giovanni Trapattoni is better getting inside player’s heads than a Nando’s hostess, but did anyone honestly think they could lift the trophy?
There seemed to be a habit of pointing to freak results in recent footballing history to back up the point, which only made it more ludicrous.
Freakonomics is not something to build any foundation on.
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, Italy.
Ireland have played the Italians three times under Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli, and remain unbeaten.
This is the kind of record that sent us to Poland with hope. 1-1 in Bari, 2-2 in Dublin and 2-0 in Liege show an excellent record against one of the true heavyweights of world football.
That’s not even mentioning the 1-0 in 1994.
Ok, so basically, what’s coming now is a revenge mission that would usually have Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and Jason Statham up front.
Italy are going to be desperate to beat Ireland (not just revenge, of course, I’m sure they want to qualify too), and coach Cesare Prandelli will be determined to get one over his old mentor Trap.
Italy are likely to go for a 3-5-2, and why wouldn’t they? Trap knows it’s a formation his team struggles against, yet he does nothing to counter this.
As exercises in futility go, it’s the equivalent of being in debt and asking for another loan. Oh wait…
The record shows I took the blows – and did it my way.
Trap has taken the blows, but he seems remarkably stubborn.
The players, we know, are not world class.
Some of them don’t even have clubs right now. But Trap has remained loyal to them, and is rightly proud of their achievement in getting to the Euros.
But one can’t help thinking even a small amount of flexibility could have gone a long way.
Player selection, substitute selections and the admission that he expects his midfield duo to be over run against a five man midfield, all baffle.
The Italian is almost certain to be in charge when the World Cup qualifiers come around later this year – will the fans still be singing then?