Saturday, April 4, 2009
"Football is a beautiful game, and it should be played beautifully" - Brian Clough, The Damned United
If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country.
You don't qualify for most tournaments. When you do, you don't go very far. Because of this you get horrible seeding, which means you get awful draws in qualification groups, so ensuring that, yet again, you don't qualify. Each generation has a maximum of two top-class players, if you're lucky, and none if you aren't. This lack of quality encourages coaches to opt for percentage football - style is sacrificed. Results are paramount. The football is dire. Your club sides are terrible, the play unexciting, the best players swept off to bigger, more lucrative markets at a young age. You, like most lovers of football in this small country, look abroad for entertainment, for a team to care about. But you still love your national team. How could you not? Even though its an ugly beast. Its your ugly beast, dammit.
Ireland haven't qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Under Manager Brian Kerr we came very close. In a tough group with France and Israel, the team played nice, attractive football, but choked in the big games and narrowly missed out on qualification. Under his successor Steve Staunton Ireland hit a nadir - the worst results since the Charlton era, bad football, a lack of any tactical nous, and awful results. So Giovanni Trappatoni, legendary and incredibly experienced septegenarian Italian coach, was given a Big Money contract. Results immediately improved. Trappatoni knew exactly what he wanted and he knew how to get it. He placed two holding midfielders at the centre of his team, leaving the flair to the wingers and the forwards, knowing that his two midfielders provided security to the defence above all else.
In theory this is not an entirely bad idea. But it depends on the calibre of the playing staff for its success. A key player for Ireland in this system would be Blackburn midfielder Steven Reid. He is a good example of the modern central midfielder; strong, fast and incredibly fit, he has the stamina to run all game, to cover the entire pitch, to go ceaselessly from box to box. He is good at almost everything - he can tackle, run the ball, shoot from distance, his awareness is good, his passing varied, and he is fine in the air - but exceptional at nothing. He would work beside a journeyman destroyer in such a midfield, because his energy and pace would allow him to join the attack when required, and he can be a danger in the opposition half, but he would also so his share of defensive work. The destroyer could hold back all game, making Trappatoni happy.
But Reid is injury-prone, and he is suffering from a long-term injury at present. So Trappatoni has been forced to use lesser players in the midfield roles. Players like journeymen Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Or Darren Gibson, a Youth team player on the fringes of Manchester United's first team, who had played for Ireland at senior level before he ever played in a serious competitive match for his club. Or Liam Miller, who has consistently had to drop down a level to the Championship to find first-team football. None of these men is really fit to play in a midfield that has, over the years, been filled with the likes of Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and Roy Keane. Meanwhile, Ireland's two most creative Midfielders are absent from Trappatoni's Squads. Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland.
Lets start with Reid. Arguably the most creative Irish player of his generation, he is perhaps better known for suffering from recurrent weight problems than for having one of the best left feet in the Premier League. Not only that, but Reid knows how to use it, deploying a range of passing that seems more Latin in its variety than Northern European. Indeed, when he signed for Charlton Athletic a few years ago, a profile in a club match programme claimed that early in his career he was called the "Irish Maradona". I don't remember anybody ever being called anything so silly, but Reid's sheer talent has never really been questioned (and during his stint as Irish Assistant coach/Advisor, Bobby Robson echoed the sentiment by claiming that if Reid was Argentine, the media would rave about the purity of his technique). His first coach at Charlton, Les Reed, compared him to Ferenc Puskas. On a good day he has the kind of gift that inspires these sort of comparisons. He can pass accurately over distance or can play a rapid short game as well as anybody from these islands since Paul Scholes. He also takes a mean free kick, his control and touch is lovely, he has a few close control tricks in his arsenal, and his shooting is ferocious. That all makes him sound like a luxury player, a lightweight technician of the type the modern pragmatic Coach has little time for. But no, Irish football culture prizes effort as much as (if not more than) skill, and so Reid closes down, clatters into tackles and generally runs himself into the ground for his team.
The problem is his build. He is typically Irish - short and squat, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered. He would need to be super-fit to even look like he was moderately fit, and Reid generally looks a little out of shape. Paunchy. Carrying a half stone too much weight. Sometimes he obviously is out of shape, but the point is with his sort of build, he always looks tubby, no matter how hard he works or how much ground he covers. For Nottingham Forest and Spurs he usually played on the left-wing, and people expect wingers to look a certain way: whippet-thin, rangy, all angles and bones. They also expect wingers to operate using pace above all else. Reid was never about pace. As a winger his game resembled (to a certain extent) David Beckham's - he could send in a brilliant delivery with the minimum space. He could lose a full back with a trick and shoot from outside the box. The main comparison he endured was to Forest legend John Robertson. At Spurs, the crowd got on his back early, he struggled with his fitness, and despite securing a regular place in a team with far too many midfielders in its squad he never seemed to settle, and he was moved along relatively quickly. Charlton embraced his talent more enthusiastically, and he thrived once more in the Championship. Partly this was he was given more freedom in his role. He drifted infield in possession, his passing able to damage teams, his confidence increased by the trust placed in his creative ability. His form earned him a move to Sunderland, where he was a key player in keeping the club in the Premiership, as manager Roy Keane acknowledged. Reid had the ability to put his foot on the ball and use it intelligently, something missing in all too many struggling teams, who descend into panicked kick-and-rush. Take this Daryl Murphy goal against Wigan. Reid had just come on as substitute, and this is effectively his first touch:
Steve Staunton, for all of the horror and ineptitude of his stint as Ireland coach, placed similar faith in Reid's ability. He played Reid as playmaker - surely the position he was born to play - in a European championship Qualifier against Germany at Croke Park. Reid virtually ran the game, pinging first-time passes across the pitch throughout, fighting a strong German midfield for possession and holding his own, and setting up numerous chances for the strikers with his astute through-balls. But his development in the position was not enough and Staunton's replacement by Trappatoni sealed Reid's fate. Included in the first few squads selected by Trappatoni (presumably at the behest of Assistant coach Liam Brady, a confirmed fan of Reid) he went unused and had a screaming match with the Coach after a late-night singalong went on past curfew. He has not been selected since, altough Trappatoni says that this is because Reid does not fit in with the system he uses. He doesn't work hard enough, in other words, he is too creative, too much of a passenger. Setting aside the fact that this is not the case, games like the recent 1-1 draw with a 10-man Italy in Bari were crying out for a bit of creativity, for somebody - anybody - to put their foot on the ball, look up, and find the right pass. Instead, Ireland's 80th minute equalizer came from a long ball lumped upfield. without the injured Damien Duff, all of the other creative players were either stifled (Robbie Keane) or not creative enough (Stephen Hunt). Where was Reid?
At home, thats where.
As was Stephen Ireland. His case is more complex. Primarily, he is obviously a young man with some issues. In brief - he fell out with Irish Youth team Coach Brian Kerr over an incident with the Under-18 team after being dropped from two successive games. Kerr told him he would never again play for Ireland while Kerr was Coach. Kerr then became Coach of the Senior National team, and Ireland has claimed that at that point he considered declaring for England or Italy, for both of whom he has eligibility. However, Steve Staunton's appointment brought Ireland into the team, and he scored a couple of important goals and delivered some impressive performances in his first few games in an Irish shirt. Then, on an away trip to play the Czech Republic in a crucial european Championship Qualifier, Ireland spun a ridiculous web of lies in order to leave the team camp on compassionate leave. His girlfriend rang and informed the squad officials that Ireland's Grandmother had died. Ireland backed this claim and a private jet was chartered for him. However the Irish media soon discovered that this story was untrue. Confronted, Ireland claimed it was his other Grandmother. Again, the media disproved this story. Ireland now claimed it was a Step-Grandmother by Marriage before finally admitting that his girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage, and that he had hastily lied out of a stress-induced panic, believing that the Grandmother story would more easily provide the compassionate leave he sought. The Irish public and the rest of the squad was baffled, the team lost the game, Staunton was sacked, and Ireland has not played for his country since.
There have been rumours of bullying in the camp - Ireland is plainly a highly sensitive individual, and mockery of his hair (or lack of it) are alleged to have disturbed him enough that he is reluctant to return. But he is desperately needed. For, despite his stupidity in the Granny-Gate affair and his silly goal celebrations, he is an outstanding young footballer, an outside candidate for player of the season this year, and he seems already twice as effective as he was when last he played for Ireland. In my dream Irish line-up, he plays in a three-man midfield alongside the two Reids, with a front three of Keane in the centre with Duff and McGeady on the wings. Ireland is talented enough to make such a formation work. He is almost as gifted as Andy Reid in his passing, has a pleasing directness in possession, and is increasingly adept at nicking the ball from opposing players with quick challenges and hard running. His football brain is excellent, and the way he has linked up with the likes of Robinho and Elano at Manchester City in the last two seasons displays his true level.
Added to that is his habit for scoring insanely spectacular goals. Last minute volleys of balls crossing his body? No problem. He has a cavalier flair to his game that is balanced by his work ethic. Trappatoni has admitted he would love to have Ireland back in the team. He and Liam Brady have met the player, and were informed that he would come to them at such a time as he was ready. That has not happened yet, despite the comments from his fellow Irishmen in the Man CIty team.
To an Irish football fan, none of this is news. The absence of these two players has been the biggest story of the early portion of Trappatoni's stint as Ireland Manager. Irish football journalists want to see both of them in the team. Reid is highly rated at home, and Ireland's form is impossible to ignore. Pressed on the issue at a recent Press Conference, Liam Brady lost his temper and said "Have some pride in your country" in apparent reference to Stephen Ireland. Trappatoni, meanwhile, is unrepentant about the exclusion of Reid, and justifies his tactics with his results. He also claims that he doesn't believe Ireland will soon return to the national team, based on the players body language and attitude when they met.
Which means we will continue to play a plodding sort of low-risk football without any real beauty or imagination. We may qualify for the World Cup - we are big on fighting spirit, and sometimes that is enough, if a team is properly organised. But if we do get there, we will go out at the group stage. Or maybe in the first knockout round. We won't score many goals. We won't concede too many either. Ho hum.
If you love football, it can be really depressing coming from a small country.
The two gentlemen in question: