What happens when a kid comes from Gaelic training on Tuesday urged to play long ball, then at soccer training Wednesday, his coaches tell him something very different? The departure of Giovanni Trapattoni has sparked a bout of soul-searching among Ireland’s football community. The refrain “We just don’t have the players” has focused the attention on just what is happening at grassroots. As the main criticism of Trapatonni centred on Ireland’s manner of play, the issues run far deeper than the senior team. Diarmuid o hAinle explores a uniquely Irish state of affairs and the influence of Gaelic Games on young players.
So now we know. Ireland will not be playing at next year’s World Cup. Put another way, we’ve found out Ireland are not good enough. Prior to the last two defining games, the knives weren’t so much out for Giovanni Trapattoni, more sat down on a tabletop due to arm ache and ready to picked up at a moment’s notice. He took Ireland to Euro 2012, the nation’s first appearance at a tournament in ten years, albeit overseeing a disappointing showing there, and could have taken the side to South Africa two years earlier, but for a Thierry Henry handball, and yet he still came in for criticism.
The reason was the style of play. Irish football fans want to see their nation play good, attractive football, or at least football which can give them a chance of competing against the best in the world. Trapattoni was perceived as a manager that plays to his team’s strengths, and with Ireland that meant resolute defensive play with direct attacking, often by way of a long ball, and combative defensive-minded midfielders – regularly bypassed in attack – rather than the creative alternatives at his disposal.
His detractors suggested this would only allow the team to continue to get the better of lower ranked countries, and narrow defeats against the likes of Spain are the best that can be hoped for. Drawing recently against England in London, whilst gratifying, was deceptive.
Trapattoni’s style invited comparisons with that of Jack Charlton’s glorious era, when a “British” approach led to qualification and respectable runs at three major tournaments. In 2013, however, the long-ball game risks giving up possession all too easily, when the best in the world are keeping hold of the ball. A draw with a British nation doesn’t necessarily indicate progress. The hope is now that Trapattoni has left the helm, the Irish game can develop thanks to youth and grassroots coaching ensuring players who can play possession football are coming through. Unfortunately, the current consensus is that these are few and far between, and Ireland are in danger of falling even further behind. The problem may have its origins in a uniquely Irish state of affairs.
The future stars of the Aviva are a multi-discipline breed, as have been so many of their predecessors, and this may be a time when this versatility is stifling their progress. There are many soccer coaches in Ireland who believe in possession football, who aspire to instill the ethos of “tiki-taka” in the youth footballers. They train the youngsters based on this purist mentality, ensuring the defenders and midfielders keep hold of the ball, play simple short passing and are not afraid to go sideways or backwards, building attacks patiently from the back, always prioritising possession. Enter the Gaelic football coach.
So many of the kids, who are being implored to be patient and prioritise possession over urgency one evening, a couple of nights later are told something quite different. The purist GAA trainer studies the tactics of Donegal manager Jim McGuinness – he of recent soccer employ at Celtic, who historically and currently favour a pass-and-move game – and, at the behest of pundit Pat Spillane, teaches the opposite. The GAA analyst has said McGuinness’s short, sideways (hand-)passing is killing the sport, that end-to-end football is the way the game should be played, with longer – accurately placed, granted – kicks into space upfield. The end-to-end game is what the people want, so the idealist coach looks to give it to them.
Of course they’re different sports. But the similarities and overlaps, and transferable skills, can confuse an impressionable mind. Yes, some youth players will be taught tiki-taka and The System, some long ball and long ball, but rather than negate the issue, this exacerbates it when the players, with differing skillsets, are lumped together as trialists and within youth systems. There are often contradictions with good reason – long ball or direct play coaching may suit soccer too, if we could score a third of a goal each time we cleared the crossbar from thirty yards.
“But where GAA is adapting to counteract McGuinness’s play (as seen to devastating effect this summer) – with a pressing game, more physicality, better long-range shooting – soccer in Ireland seems to be digging its heels in, as if there’s no chance of being able to compete with the passing game of the best sides.”
As with most things, compromise is the key. At the very moment that Barça and Spain have demonstrated their fallibility – and that of their play – and the dreaded accusation of being “boring” is being muttered, there is a backlash against The System in GAA, and significant defeats for Donegal. In both soccer and GAA coaching there should be appreciation and mimicking of all effective styles, which tiki-taka has proven itself to be an example of, and then an effort to take this a step further, to find ways of counteracting their effects and defeat all oppositions’ gameplans with creative and productive evolution of these ideas. Guardiola, Aragonés and Del Bosque should be respected and studied, as should their conquerers and those pushing the envelope, such as Scolari – assisted by sparing employment of the long ball – Heynckes and Klopp.
Equally, McGuinness should be lauded for dragging the GAA game forward, increasing fitness and efficiency and forcing the rest of the sport to adapt or die – and those who have found the key to unlocking The System will be rightly held in some regard nationally. The parallels and astonishing synchronicity are there and Ireland finds itself in a uniquely advantageous position where two sports – more similar than many dare suggest – can, with an organisational consistency and discourse, fuel an elevation of standards across the board.
Trapattoni’s pragmatism has undeniably produced results, and he was unfortunate to not have Roy Keane controlling a midfield, or Robbie Keane and Damien Duff at their youthfully exuberant best, but Ireland rarely went into an international match before his reign assuming defeat, and nor should they ever. The contradiction in playing styles in Ireland can be a thorn in the side for all concerned or the turning point which improves Gaelic football for the devotee, and propels the Irish national soccer team to regular tournament finals appearances and competitiveness at each. It may well be that coaching in each code can complement the other, and maybe a GAA influence in the development of soccer players isn’t such a ridiculous idea after all.
Diarmuid O hAinle is the author of ‘It Started with a Handshake’ – An alternative look at Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign. Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Saipan and what might have been.