Where Have the Best Fans in The World Gone?

About three weeks ago, Poland’s men’s volleyball team crashed out of the Olympic Games at the quarter-final stage. Not long before, they had triumphed in the final of the World League and were odds on for the gold medal in London. Humiliated 3-0 by bitter rivals Russia, their failure sparked a tidal wave of criticism at home. The debate soon turned to discussion of the Irish football fans as the Polish asked why they coudn’t follow the example set by the Green Army in the aftermath of the Spain game which they witnessed at first hand at Euro 2012. We wonder if they’d ask the same question this week.

“Clown, fool, senile, geriatric, over-paid, past-it.” These are just some of the terms being used to describe Giovanni Trapattoni in the build-up to Friday’s opening World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan. Failure to reach Brazil is a certainty in some quarters. One website has asked if we should cheer for a Kazakh victory this week to pre-empt the process of getting rid of the manager. The Best Fans in the World would appear to be long gone, washed away by a wave of bitter recrimination.

The sports hacks, too, are circling and they smell blood. The papers are ratcheting up the pressure on the Italian, certain in the knowlegde that he will walk the plank if results torpedo Ireland’s World Cup hopes. Of course they are ignoring the fact that Trapattoni signed a two-year deal to take in the qualifying campaign. Add to that the FAI’s precarious financial standing, which means, even if they wanted to do, they couldn’t afford to pay off Trapattoni and his assistant Marco Tardelli.

And of course, they don’t want to. Trapattoni has guided the Republic to second place in his two qualifying campaigns and brought us to a major finals for the first time in ten years. In John Delaney’s eyes, despite the disaster of the Euros, Trap has earned a shot at taking us to Brazil.

At every turn, there are accusations of a crisis in the Irish camp, with several supporters claiming Trap has ‘lost the dressing room’. There’s little evidence of this, bar media spin. Quite the opposite if we take in Damien Duff’s recent comments.

Footballers are selfish. If they are in the team, they couldn’t give a damn who misses out. Duff has retired but James McClean is licking his lips. Jon Walters and Shane Long know Robbie Keane will probably no longer play 90 minutes now. They too sense an opportunity to establish themselves.

Keiren Westwood is relishing his chance between the posts. Stephen Kelly and Marc Wilson are chomping at the bit because they know they have a chance of getting in.

Even Stephen Hunt, who has fallen out of favour, has maintained a dignified silence.

The Irish sports public have been so occupied crying for change in the post-Euro fall-out that they can’t even notice it when it happens. Perhaps by accident rather than design, Trapattoni now commands an Irish squad with a very different make-up. Gone are his number one goalkeeper, Shay Given, and arguably greatest attacking threat Damien Duff.

The clamour for the call-up of James McClean last season caused the tiles to shake on the rooftop of La Scala in Trapattoni’s hometown of Milan. Such was the scale of his ovation when the Derryman made his debut against the Czech Republic at Landowne Road, the manager remarked in his post-match press conference if Jesus Christ had come on.

McClean, although struggling with a cold for Friday’s World Cup opener in Astana, is now in contention to make the left-wing spot his own. And yet his manager is still getting crucified in the press and the stands.

In Euro qualifying ,Whelans and Andrews, the axels in the Irish midfield engine room cracked, grinded, and fizzled wildly out of control at times, sending ball-bearings in every direction except to a player in an Irish shirt. The good ship Republic trashed rudderless on the high seas as Russian, Armenian, and Slovakian wave after wave crashed over its bows trying to send her off course.

In place of the suspended Andrews, James McCarthy has come in to give direction and put wind in the sails. His mental compass to spray passes and create could be what steers us towards South America.

Kevin Foley and Darron Gibson look to have flung themselves over-board but significantly, Trap has tossed them life jackets.

Irish supporters howled for new faces, Wilson, McCarthy, Hoolahan, Coleman, and McClean. Trapattoni included them all. He even planned to call up Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy for the friendly wth Serbia but left them to the U21’s. In Belgrade, he experimented with a new system, but still he faces criticism. Some fans have ridiculously called for whole-sale changes to all personnel. Some have commented they will no longer follow the national team until Trapattoni and half the squad have been disposed of. One wonders what the Poles would make of it.

Ireland will win in Kazakhstan though it may not be pretty. If they defend in this campaign like they did in the last, no one will have the slightest problem. What fans crave is more creativity.

The prevailing feeling is that the Italian is too stubborn and will revert to the starting eleven who failed so badly in Poland. But Ireland’s first team is now vastly different.
By default perhaps, our central midfield partnership is new and James McClean may well start on the left. Even if Trapattoni deploys Simon Cox on the wing to the exasperation of some, at least it will be a break from the norm and an experiment with tactics.

We’ve become apoplectic with rage at the state of the Irish team before a ball has been kicked in anger in the new campaign. More than anyone, the players will want to leave the performances of Euro 2012 behind them. Judging by the vitriol spouting from so many, it seems we may have left some of the Best Fans in the World behind us in Poland too.

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