The Republic of Ireland’s upcoming double header with Sweden and Austria is make or break; not only for the squad’s hopes of making the World Cup in Brazil but for their under-fire manager, Giovanni Trapattoni.
Having been proclaimed as a national hero by the majority of the country’s football fans shortly after leading the team to their first major finals in over a decade, things took a turn for the worst at Euro 2012 as the boys in green came unstuck in horrible fashion, unmercifully crashing out on the back of humbling defeats to Croatia, Italy and Spain.
Fans who had worshipped the ground Trap walked on - including myself - were beginning to question him. Where his tactics outdated? Why was he not picking in-form Premier League players over other lads who weren’t even able to get a game at their clubs at lower levels?
Whether it was that he’d earned enough kudos with the FAI, or the more likely probability that John Delaney and his cohorts were too stingy to sack him, Trap was given a stay of execution and charged with the task of leading the team to Brazil and the World Cup in 2014.
Things didn’t seem to be improving though and the fans were becoming increasingly restless. The need to replace the old guard - who had performed miracles to get us to Euro 2012 - and reconstruct the squad by injecting some of the fresh blood coming through was imperative but Trapattoni still seemed hesitant.
Inexplicably, the Italian dawdled, continuing to pick from base average try-hards such as McShane, O’Dea, Ward, Keogh, Green et al as a crop of excellent players waited idly on the wings.
Underutilised talents such as Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington and Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark were being ignored while Premier League starlets such as Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and James McCarthy weren’t being picked regularly; seemingly due to trust issues.
The game against Sweden in Stockholm seemed to be a turning point however as a team including Coleman, Clark, McCarthy, Long and the much heralded Hoolahan gained a vital point with a vibrant performance that was light years from the dour defensive setups Trap’s previous Ireland teams had been renowned for.
Buoyed by that excellent performance, and having finally gained the manager’s trust, the team carried that form into the following game against an ever-improving Austria side at the Aviva and really should have wrapped up the three points, having gone 2-0 up.
Yet the qualities we’d all craved - youth, flair and vibrancy - came back to haunt us as a young Irish side just didn’t have the necessary experience to see the game out and take a significant advantage into this forthcoming double header against the same two teams in the race for qualification.
In a nutshell, failure to get any kind of decent result from these two games and not only does our chances of making the World Cup go up in flames but Il Duce’s goose is cooked, too.
Even though he seems to have finally relented and given into the fans wishes in terms of playing our best players I think it’s come a little too late.
As Roy Keane once said: fail to prepare, prepare to fail - for all his recent efforts to integrate the younger players, it seems his trademark stubbornness and frankly odd squad selections will most likely cost him his job.
That’s not to say I don’t think we’ve got a great chance against both Sweden and Austria - we do. Both are eminently beatable but I fear, as talented as this young crop of players are, they just haven’t garnered the necessary experience in international football to get good results from these two vital games in such quick succession.
For his sake and for ours, I sincerely hope Trap has seen the light and permanently abandons this stubborn streak and archaic 4-4-2 formation that directly hands tactical superiority to every half decent side we face.
I won’t get my hopes up, though. As the old phrase goes, a leopard never changes his spots. I get the uneasy feeling he’ll revert back to his tried and trusted formation and all our hopes and dreams of a samba summer will go up in smoke.