x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Euro 2012: Ireland's famous five will bow out on a low

Good things don't always come to those who wait. It took Ireland a decade to return to the major stage only to become the first team eliminated from Euro 2012.

Republic of Ireland lost their opening two matches at Euro 2012, conceding seven goals in the process.
Republic of Ireland lost their opening two matches at Euro 2012, conceding seven goals in the process.

Good things don't always come to those who wait. It took Ireland a decade to return to the major stage only to become the first team eliminated from Euro 2012.

A group formed a team within a team, a five-a-side outfit present throughout their time in exile. For Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O'Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, a belated spell in the international spotlight has contained a cruelty.

Stalwarts have struggled to produce their finest form. Keane and Duff have seen little of the ball, O'Shea has endured difficulties in defence and the often flawless Given could be faulted for goals scored by Mario Mandzukic, Fernando Torres and David Silva. Dunne and O'Shea, too, have been culpable and overworked in a tournament when playing in defence for Ireland has been a thankless task.

The chance may have come too late for men who laboured long in their country's cause.

Their respective peaks are in the past - the comparatively recent past, in Dunne's case, with a colossal performance against Russia in September that Paul McGrath described as the greatest ever by an Irish defender - and decline seems to be setting in.

Ireland's final game at a major tournament for at least two years, and potentially rather more, is a momentous occasion. Duff will win his 100th cap.

Assuming all five feature against Italy tonight, their combined haul will reach 500. Given's 125th cap would equal Peter Shilton's record for a British or Irish player.

Keane's 53 international goals put him in the top eight most prolific Europeans ever.

But, playing his club football in Los Angeles and with a discussion in the Emerald Isle over whether he deserves his place, there may not be many more.

Given has already said he will consider his international future. As a great loyalist, Giovanni Trapattoni may not want a changing of the guard. It might be enforced anyway.

Euro 2012 has been brutal, stripping away illusions that team spirit was sufficient and that Ireland's brand of unrelenting commitment could ensure clean sheets against the best.

Trapattoni's tactics have not helped. The great advocate of continuity needed to change.

Ireland would have probably been elegantly eviscerated by Spain anyway, but playing 4-4-2 against them, and leaving them so undermanned in the middle of midfield, was negligence on a gross scale.

Trapattoni's emphasis on solidity and shape have served Ireland well in qualifiers and friendlies alike. Yet their troubles in Poland invite questions about the future direction of the side. The manager stands accused of neglecting some of the more able options.

Stephen Ireland is in self-imposed exile and James McCarthy is missing Euro 2012 because his father is ill. Yet the Wigan Athletic midfielder was only a fringe player when available.

So, too, were Seamus Coleman, omitted from the squad, and James McClean, who Trapattoni has seemed reluctant to trust.

Maybe the straitjacket should be removed and Ireland ought to embrace a more progressive style of play.

Until now, results underpinned Trapattoni's argument and justified his conservatism, but that shield has been removed.

What Given, O'Shea, Dunne, Duff and Keane had done, in part, by scoring goals at one end and stopping them at the other was to camouflage the lack of talent around them. But it has become glaringly apparent that the current collective are not as gifted as previous Irish teams at major tournaments, particularly the trio that travelled to the 1988 European Championships and the World Cups in 1990 and 1994.

Compare the individuals at Jack Charlton's disposal during his decade in charge - McGrath, Roy Keane, Liam Brady, Mark Lawrenson, David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Kevin Sheedy, Ronnie Whelan, Denis Irwin, Niall Quinn, Kevin Moran, Steve Staunton, John Aldridge and Jason McAteer - and it is clear that these have been barren years for the Irish.

It illustrates how much they relied upon their modern-day famous five and how unkind Euro 2012 has been to them.

For them, a landmark day may also be a last one.

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