Comparisons between Ireland and Barcelona are perhaps premature and there’s no doubt that last Friday, Latvia were a terrible team. But under Trapattoni, Ireland played several terrible teams without ever dominating possession to that extent, or completing 660 passes.
In his press conference on Thursday, O’Neill professed scepticism about statistical analysis: “I think they’ve got statistics for picking your nose.” But the numbers from Friday’s game reflect well on his side.
Prompted from the front by Wes Hoolahan, a patient Irish team completed 90 per cent of its passes. When Ireland drew 2-2 with Austria in March – the result that O’Neill has pinpointed as the key failure in the qualifying campaign – the figure was 65 per cent.
Trapattoni likewise had no time for statistics. He understood the game as a series of discrete moments – “little details” – and believed that winning or losing came down to how well you applied your know-how in those moments.
Many times in the months following that draw with Austria, Trapattoni would disbelievingly refer to the way that Jon Walters and Paul Green had contrived to lose possession near Austria’s corner flag in injury time, with Ireland leading 2-1.
When an Italian team that is leading by one goal going into injury time wins a free-kick near the opponent’s corner flag, they will not take that free-kick until they are sure the referee is about to send one of them off for time wasting. When they are eventually forced to restart play, they will roll the ball to the corner and brace themselves around it in what the Romans used to call a tortoise formation. The ball will only come out of that corner over their lying on the ground feigning injury bodies. This is the kind of basic football behaviour that Italian kids acquire around the same time they are learning to tie their own shoelaces.
Instead, that night against Austria, Green played a short free-kick to the isolated Walters, who was robbed of possession by a pack of opponents, and the ball set off on its inexorable journey towards the back of Ireland’s net.
For Trap, that moment proved what he had been trying to tell us for years: Irish players don’t really know how to play football. No league, no titles, no history: no hope.
The day after Ireland lost the third match at the Euros, Trapattoni shouted at the press: “I am proud to qualify! With these players! With this team!” It was one of the few moments when he lost his cool in a conference. Looking back, we can understand why. Trap probably felt it was like he had successfully trained a chimp to fly a fighter plane, and now people were having a pop because the chimp couldn’t do a barrel roll.