Stephen Hunt is taken down for the free kick that led to Ireland's first goal

Stephen Hunt is taken down for the free kick that led to Ireland

The reaction to Saturday’s dismal draw with Bulgaria at Croke Park has been a touch histrionic.

The soccer team are on a bit of a hiding to nothing given the recent exploits of the country’s new favourite sporting sons – the rugby team. Still the infantile booing at the final whistle was fairly typical of the inordinate number of fairweather friends/‘Liveline’ callers among the ‘greatest fans in the world’.

The debate boils down to two schools of thought: the Eamon Dunphy thesis that contends Ireland have a fine bunch of players and should be beating everyone out the gate home and away; and those who would suggest we’re deluded about our actual standing in the overall scheme of things. (Though the North’s feats would tend to undermine the ‘know your place’ premise.)

Most considered opinion would tend to reconcile that the national side is a pretty average-to-mediocre motley crew with a few exceptions, and even those are not exactly world-class, save for Shay Given. (Think of the extent of talent England have by comparison; indeed, were Fabio Capello able to call on the Donegal man you’d have to reluctantly concede that international football’s perennial flops would be among the favourites to go all the way in South Africa.)

The complaints most observers have with the way the team performed at the weekend, and not for the first time under the new regime, was the way they so readily surrendered possession and the initiative to the visitors, who were made to look like some sort of soccer superpower rather than an at-best-middling bunch of ball-players from the Balkans.

Trapattoni has definitely tightened up Ireland’s defence, despite the absence of two recognised and dependable full-backs. John O’Shea played well again (more anon), as did Richard Dunne, whose first-minute goal the Waterford man helped create, and Given, as usual, didn’t put a finger wrong; though it was with him that the team’s problems often took root, or rather route one.

As cautious as Italians come, the manager patently doesn’t trust his defenders, particular the full-backs, nor his central midfielders to retain possession. Hence they’re clearly instructed to avoid contact with the ball at all costs, unless it’s to intercept/tackle/boot the bejayzus out of it beyond harm’s way. It’s this low-risk strategy that makes the team so uneasy on the eye; the same zero tolerance of free-will that made Jack Charlton’s teams ugly but effective – though the Englishman’s crude tactics were galling and unnecessary considering the quality of the players at his disposal.

Trapattoni’s squad is nowhere near the standard of Charlton’s, especially in the key central midfield and wide defensive areas. So he’s patently playing a low percentage game, practically bypassing midfield completely. (The two most creative players in that department, Stephen Ireland and Andy Reid, being either unwilling or unwanted respectively.)

If that’s the coach’s chosen modus operandi, and it must be a hard one for Liam Brady to swallow (never mind Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle), he should go the whole hog and get Rory Delap into the team and use his long throw-ins to create as much havoc as possible.

He might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. So why not shove another mullocker like Kaleb Folan or Clinton Morrisson up front alongside Doyle; play Keane in the ‘hole’ behind them picking up knock-downs; put any four of his choosing across midfield, and switch to three centre-halves at the back – Richard Dunne in the middle with John O’Shea and one other either side of him. And watching Eddie Nolan’s man-of-the-match display for the Irish Under 21s at the RSC last Friday he looks a much better bet than Paul McShane now, never mind in the future.

I wouldn’t be in favour of that approach myself, but at the moment we’re neither one thing nor the other. Now watch them go out, silence their critics, and get a result in Italy in midweek…