No Country for Old Men

Trap & Ireland – A Living History. From despair to hope and back again. And so another chapter in the Irish football story closed early on Wednesday morning with the inevitable parting of ways with the man we all came to know only as Trap. Over the next few days, established scribes will jostle for position in drafting a definitive obituary over his reign and attempt to put into context what the Italian has done, what he has said, the way he made us feel and lastly how he will be remembered. So in the spirit of the documentation of living history, Damage Limitation add to the column inches and gives their own take on Trap the manager, Trap the man and his achievements over the past 6 years.

Living History, in many ways that is how we all saw him when he first was appointed after the final death throes of the Steve Staunton era. In an ever-changing and ever-chilling economic atmosphere of 2008, we were astounded that such a world football figure had decided to pitch up with what was at the time, a team and an association seemingly in constant crisis. He was a Celtic Tiger appointment in a post Celtic Tiger Ireland. Here was a man who had won leagues in 4 different countries across 4 decades. A man who’d won  7 Serie A titles, a few Uefa cups and a European Cup along with a host of other trophies for good measure. Bar maybe Alex Ferguson there was hardly a more gilded football man in the game worldwide. What, we asked ourselves, was he doing taking on the challenge of organising a rabble who could barely beat San Marino and who were damaged so badly in Cyprus.

Context and expectations as always are crucial in appointments and in early 2008, Trap exceeded the expectations of even the harshest of FAI critics. A nation depressed, bloodied and bowed after the traumatic Staunton years, we looked at him as the man who managed legends of the game like Platini, Matthaus, Del Piero and Totti. We saw a prophet who had come down from the mountain to lead our limited bunch of try-hards and journey men.

Perhaps though, we should have realised then that Trap saw it and called it exactly the same way.

parisI’m not going to delve into the respective campaigns and what went right and what went wrong. On the field my reflections are that he undoubtedly got us more organised and hard to beat. He did this by invoking a kick and rush style but was quite happy not to implement the rush element of this strategy. We lost out in a play-off with France despite turning in a super performance in Paris. The hand-ball more than anything allowed Trap and Paul McShane to relieve themselves of the blame. The former, in quite how we could play so confidently and assured in this one game when everything is on the line and the latter in allowing the ball to bounce in the area in the last minute of a world cup play off. All that potential analysis was lost for a time in the crazed atmosphere of a 33rd team, being laughed at by Sepp Blatter and generally making a bit of a fool ourselves on a global scale. From where we came from though, getting that far was an achievement without question.

Did we see signs in Paris though that maybe we could be as successful when we show some belief in our footballing abilities and let our players express themselves to some degree? Trap, it soon became clear, answered an emphatic “No” to that question and clearly wrote that performance off as a freak occurrence and in all likelihood would consider the concession of the goal at the end as the exact event that his formation, his mentality and his organisation has prevailed against in his many years of success and silverware.

“Far from give it a lash, we were now completely on a leash.”

Context and Expectations led us into the next campaign believing that not only could we qualify but that the Paris performance would now set the template. We now were beyond the “just stop us being embarrassing” attitude of the post Staunton apocalypse and now expected qualification. Qualification was Trap’s greatest achievement with Ireland. That we achieved it by playing dire, unimaginative but highly organised football was apparent vindication for Trap and in his belief of what this group of players could hope to achieve. For supporters the end justified the means. For Trap, qualification was the destination not the journey.

We got to the top table with a historical legend of the game and at the main event his methods were shown up to be just that. Historical.

And so the wheels came off and we have been humbled and embarrassed pretty much ever since the first minute against Croatia last summer. Germany at home is where it should have ended but we’ve limped along to the end game in Vienna.

So how should we look back on Trap? What is his legacy? Most believe it was time for a change but opinions are varied on how much of a success his time has been.

In one sense he took us from the depths and made us contenders again. Made us hard to beat. Got us to the Euro’s and allowed us all to dream for a week or two until the soccer started.

On the other, he curtailed the development of the team, his style of play made us a mockery on the world stage, he stubbornly exiled many of our more talented players and throughout his tenure he openly told the world that essentially Ireland are not Italy, our players are limited and how no matter how poor the performance he was really getting the maximum out of a very shallow player pool of talent.

In my summation of Trap, it was this constant theme he referenced back to that perhaps explains his ultimate downfall and in my view his failure as a modern manager.

In life and nature it is not the strongest species that survive and prosper, it is the most adaptable to change. What made Sir Alex Ferguson great is that he constantly adapted to his surroundings, the context, the expectations. He was always willing to see things differently and adapt to his environment. This allowed him to master ever changing circumstances and have continued success.

spainTrap in my view never changed or adapted his opinion of our players from the moment he took the job. He saw us as average, as minnows, as Kavanagh might say, creatures made of clay who could never expect to play like the angels of the strong European countries. With almost xenophobic bias, Trap deemed us as only fit to operate on his leash, only fit to carry out basic instructions and certainly not fit to question the teachings of a footballing prophet from the heavens of European football.

For this reason, Trap cared little for our concerns about certain players getting exiled. Perhaps it may be an extreme interpretation but I believe Trap would have seen little or no difference in many of our players. There is no difference between a Paul Green or a Darren Gibson for an old man who viewed all our players as mere bodies to fill positions and jerseys. If you get yourself into that mindset it is easier to understand all his decisions when it comes to overlooking what we all thought was our more talented players. This belief was also the main reason he never saw much value in watching his players with their clubs. What was the point, all he watched during Ireland games was faceless jerseys in a system of play he devised. He watched games in the 2D format of Championship Manager. Formation versus Formation.  Him versus his opposite number.

“In Trap’s trench warfare, he cared little of who the individual troops were as long they maintained their lines and stayed loyal to their commander. Cannon Fodder is Cannon Fodder at the end of the day.”

He told us how bad he thought we were all the time and in the end the players all started to believe it.

Richard Dunne came out with the following in the aftermath of Vienna:

“Ourselves and the manager can be pleased with the work we’ve put in over the past while. It’s difficult for us because we keep getting branded with the same ‘you aren’t good enough, you are this and that’ but, yet, we’re expected to qualify for every tournament.

“I mean there has to be a point where we’re honest with you and say ‘look, this is where we are at the moment’.”

This was our best player, our lion heart over the past few years saying this. Who bar Trap has beaten the drum more consistently that we’re not good enough and branded us as “this and that”. Context and Expectation. We are where we are.

Marc Wilson outlined that Trap doesn’t tell them to play the long ball. He doesn’t need to. If your manager keeps telling the world you are limited, you’re hardly going to feel confident and express yourself as a talented professional when pressure comes on are you? If qualification was Traps biggest success, the enforcement of an acceptance that we can only play horrendous football because all our players are useless for anything else is his biggest failure.

We are now a long way from the post Saipan, Roy Keane inspired, belief that we should aspire to beat the best sides and at least aim to match them in everything we do in both approach and belief.

As for Trap the man, well he has been nothing less than refined and dignified throughout. He never seemed in any way to be under pressure or in the least bit unnerved by media criticisms and questions. All to be expected by a man who has been doing this all his life. He certainly would not allow himself to lose his wings by getting too concerned with the mere Irish and our above our station ideas.

And so, context and expectations will propel our search for attractive football. I just hope we can take some of the good elements of Traps reign forward and not lose his attention to structure and defensive discipline. If we can start with Trap’s structure and build some sort of confident cohesive plan when we have the ball then we might get somewhere. We are not Brazil, but we can be better than we have been.

Trap was yesterday’s man, the reasons he saw us the way he did were largely similar to how many men of his vintage see the world. Opinions formed in your prime years rarely change as you reach 70. The Ireland he knew as a player and young manager never achieved anything and he viewed the Ireland he managed with the same impression forged from his past. There was no malice or any badness is anything he said, we are led to believe he became fond of the nation and the public. Crucially though he never respected us as a football nation and allowed that to influence his approach from day one. For that, he goes down as a failure in my book.

Republished with kind permission of Damage Limitation

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