6 October ~ Anyone glancing across the Premier League teamsheets last weekend could be forgiven for thinking that the Republic of Ireland was in trouble going into the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifying games against Russia and Slovakia. Only four of the Irish squad - John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Kevin Doyle and Kevin Foley - managed to complete 90 minutes. Of the others who started, Damien Duff limped off injured, Seamus Coleman is uncapped and Keith Fahey was substituted after a disappointing display.
The Irish team’s two most important players - captain and record goalscorer Robbie Keane and vice-captain and joint record caps holder Shay Given – warmed the bench due to the stubbornness of Harry Redknapp and the form of Joe Hart. Glenn Whelan can’t get in the Stoke team, Aiden McGeady has featured intermittently so far for Spartak Moscow since his August move from Celtic, Keith Andrews has 25 Premier League minutes so far this season, Darron Gibson has three. No Irish squad member has scored a Premier League goal and it’s already October.
And yet, there is a feeling in Ireland that this lack of playing time for players doesn’t really matter. Under Giovanni Trapattoni, which individuals take to the field seems almost irrelevant. The defence against Russia on Friday evening will more than likely include Preston’s Sean St Ledger and Kevin Kilbane of Hull City’s bench. Derby County’s Paul Green and Portsmouth’s Liam Lawrence are set to start in midfield.
These players will undoubtedly line up in Trap’s preferred system, a ramrod rigid 4-4-2 with Green and Whelan as disciplined central midfielders who press, tackle, harry, get stuck in and keep their shape, but do not pass the ball particularly well. Discipline, for Trap, is the most important attribute for a player, especially a midfielder. Anyone who shows a lack of this discipline – such as James McCarthy who cried off an end-of-season training camp or Andy Reid who lead a late-night singsong at the team hotel – do not get a look in. Gibson will be on the bench, after Trap openly explained that the Manchester Utd midfielder hasn’t got enough experience tackling because his club team is too good. The less said about Steven Ireland in relation to discipline the better perhaps.
Those who like their midfielders to show a little more creativity and individuality – including RTE pundits John Giles and Eamon Dunphy – have criticised Trap’s systematic approach, but the results so far have been difficult to argue with. We were unbeaten through the qualifiers for the last World Cup, drawing home and away with Italy, only losing to Thierry Henry’s late handball in the play-offs. The current qualifying campaign began with solid but unspectacular wins against Armenia and Andorra. Russia at home and then Slovakia away on Tuesday are likely to be stiffer tests, but despite the concerns over the form and fitness of the squad, most Irish fans are not that worried. For Trap’s Ireland, it seems, you can’t beat the system. Dermot Corrigan