Poles Apart: Twelve Months On

How ironic that Poland should provide the opposition for Giovanni Trapattoni’s first fixture of 2013. This time last year, Poland was the name on the lips of every Irish fan. There’ll be plenty of reminiscing done amongst supporters who’ll also remember that the Poles were the first side to defeat Ireland under Trapattoni. A repeat this week will leave the Irish manager teetering on the edge.

In January 2012, a summer of excitement awaited. With a public still giddy from the play-off victory over Estonia, online forums were buzzing with chatter about travel plans to Poland.

The Polish began the charm offensive early introducing us to the delights of Poznan and Gdansk from afar and promising us a trip to remember. We were scarcely prepared for the warmth of the welcome from our Euro hosts. The relationship between the two nations must stand at an all-time high thanks largely to the bonds built up last June.

Giovanni Trapattoni now begins preparations for the March qualifiers that could decide his fate. While the Greek game was played out in a near empty Aviva Stadium, that’s unlikely to be the case when Poland come to town. Healthy sales of tickets in Dublin will be music to the ears of the FAI, no longer able to rely on the national team to bring in revenue.

The last time these sides met, Trapattoni suffered his first defeat as Irish manager when Poland mustered a 3-2 win at an unusually pulsating Croke Park in November 2008. It was the Italian’s seventh game in charge and the Polish fans created a superb atmosphere forcing the locals to respond, many of whom had up to that point lamented the lack of noise that accompanied the Irish soccer team since they pitched up at GAA HQ.

The game was overshadowed by the continued absence of Andy Reid from the starting line-up. Trapattoni refused to pick the diminutive play-maker, infamously sentenced to exile for an apparent late-night sing-song.

Described as ‘rookies’ in midfield, Darron Gibson and Glenn Whelan struggled to impose themselves on proceedings. (We should have heeded the signs).

The management watched on as Ireland conceded soft goals early in both halves. (We should have heeded the signs). Stephen Hunt scored from the spot while Keith Andrews, making his début, was also on target but the equaliser never came despite Kevin Kilbane having a goal-bound shot blocked late on.

There were no alarm bells back then. After all, it was only a friendly and Trapattoni was gradually rebuilding an Irish side still traumatised by the horrors of the Staunton era. The World Cup campaign had begun in solid fashion with two wins and a draw.

How different a tale it will be should Trapattoni find himself discussing another Polish defeat next month. The Italian is already under immense pressure. Ireland have lost five of the last nine matches with performances coming in for severe criticism.

Yet, Trapattoni appears to have realised that he is staring into the abyss. Eamon Dunphy once, rather disgracefully, described the 73-year-old as being like ‘a drunk in a casino’ but the wily old Italian now looks ready to gamble.

It seems he is going against the conservative approach that defined his Irish tenure by making the likes of James McCarthy and Robbie Brady integral parts in his team. The question is what eleven will Trap pick for the visit of Poland?

Ireland’s enormous Polish community may well be joined by compatriots from home who were enthralled by the Irish fans during Euro 2012. The Gathering is the Government’s big plan for tourists to trace their roots to Ireland, take in leisure breaks, and experience Irish hospitality, but the biggest advertisement to entice Polish visitors was the Green Army in their homeland last summer.

If the football doesn’t matter, Lansdowne Road will at least play host to a fans’ reunion. For Trapattoni however, the game matters a great deal. The under-fire Irish manager may only have a few more throws of the dice.

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