From Russia, with Love

Having travelled to Moscow to see Ireland draw to Russia, Daryl Bolger explains why this year’s team are worth travelling for

What a difference a few days make. After an excruciating draw with Slovakia earlier this month, it looked all over. Summer plans in the Ukraine and Poland were all but out the window.

A few days later I was sat in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with a few hundred other Irish fans after another 0-0 draw, the gutsiest and most unlikely 0-0 draw I’ve ever seen: things were looking up. Before the game, Russian fans spread rumours about Given’s fitness, and light-heartedly asked if Rubin Kazan could expect Shamrock Rovers in Europe. However at the end of the game they trudged from the stadium in pure frustration.

Skip ahead once again to later on that evening, when Armenia had just knocked in a fourth goal away to Slovakia to leave us second in our group. In the space of five days we had gone from no-hopers to football’s equivalent of Lazarus.

Following Ireland is not easy at the best of times, and since Trapattoni has taken over, fans seem to have abandoned the team, citing ‘boring football’ as their primary justification; but results speak for themselves.

Ten competitive away games unbeaten, eleven hours without conceding a goal, one World Cup play off (the less said about that, the better), and now it looks like we will get another shot via the play-off route this coming November. These are the results Trap has brought to the team, exactly what he was brought in to achieve. The football may not always be pretty, but in this case the end justifies the means.

We have not qualified for a major tournament in a decade. Our last European outing was in 1988; when Shane Long was one year old and 4 years before the Russian FC was founded. While we aren’t in Euro 2012 yet, we have our destiny in our own hands, and have a great shot. We’re in this position as a result of Trap’s defensive tactics, and Richard Dunne’s brilliance in Moscow. Having spent close to €200 on a singing section season ticket, and €500 getting to Moscow, this writer is more than happy with the position we’re in, despite the football I’ve watched.

As a nation, we tend to over-estimate our national team. Let’s be under no illusions as to how good our players are. Central midfield is the catalyst to any football team: our midfield consists of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, two players who wouldn’t make the bench for most other national football teams in Europe, never mind play the whole game. Whelan is anonymous in midfield; Andrews lets the game drift by him and has had to drop down a division to even get first team football. Yet Ireland have only lost one game.

Wide positions are more encouraging, but equally fruitless. Moscow’s own Aiden McGeady seems to have the raw talent, but wastes final balls far too often, and has yet to learn how to shoot from range, agonisingly scuffing too many of his shots to the bottom left. In his favour, his defensive abilities have increased enormously, something which Trap can take credit for. Ward has started his season brightly in England, but has been found out in defence in a green shirt, and his lack of ability to cross a ball is startling for a man who wanders forward so often.

Many are calling out for James McCarthy, and questioning as to why Trapattoni is not playing him. It is a difficult situation, with McCarthy pulling out of squads on numerous occasions with dubious injuries. Trap has always let his players know who was in charge, and this has happened with McCarthy. Now that he has shown his willingness to play at Under-21 level, it will be interesting to see if he is used. In any case, while he is a very talented footballer, too much hope and expectation is being placed on him. He is being set up to fall. It’s a worrying situation, but Trap is handling it well, making sure McCarthy is hungry to play before letting him do so.

While Ireland struggle to pick a team of quality, Russia are spoilt for choice. Most of their team are playing at the highest level of the Russian league, with clubs owned by mega-rich oil tycoons. While we might dismiss the league due to ignorance, one only has to look at their European success to recognise that having an entire squad at this level is quite an achievement. Yet we are only two points behind them with two “easier” games left in the group.

Writing straight off the flight from Moscow, I could not be more content with our position in the group. Ireland’s performances are impossible to predict, but we have as good a chance as we ever had. All will be revealed in the Aviva on October 11th.