Losing My Favourite Game: ‘Caught in a Trap’ with Joseph McCarthy

It’s the penultimate International Break of the year, and while England cruise to qualification, Scotland rue having focussed on developing left-backs over the last decade, Wales continue to give fans false hope before their inevitable brave failure, and Northern Ireland try to work out how they stop the Netherlands from overtaking them, our neighbours across the Irish Sea are holding their own against Denmark and Switzerland for a place at next summer’s European Championships.

Should Mick McCarthy manage to steer his side into December’s draw, it’ll be the first time in the nation’s history that they’ve qualified for three successive editions of a major tournament. But while Ireland’s first appearance in the Euros back in 1988 holds fond memories for the Green Army, things weren’t so enjoyable second time around.

This week we’re joined by Limerick-born Joseph McCarthy, who works as a full-time computer programmer in Dublin. Joseph’s website Irish Abroad, which charts the progress of Irish footballers from around the world, has earned a loyal following thanks to its treasure trove of weird and wonderful statistics – his personal favourite remains that Ireland are one of only three teams to hold victories over Italy in both the World Cup and European Championships.

Having taken the opportunity to head over to Poland for the European Championships in 2012, Joseph looks back on another difficult evening for an Italian – Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni.

 

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Spain 4-0 Ireland
UEFA Euro 2012 Group C
14th June 2012

 

I never really had any interest in football until the qualifiers for Italia ‘90, when I started to follow the ups and downs, and “world class management teams” of the Republic of Ireland national side. Having been too young to follow the side to that World Cup, and still too young in 1994, and not being able to afford to go in 2002 (when I had only just finished my final exams in college), I had to wait until 2012, when Giovanni Trapattoni led the national side to the UEFA European Championships held in Poland and Ukraine for my first opportunity to see my national side compete at that level in person.

After losing their opening game to Croatia 3-1, the team and the fans travelled from Poznan to Gdansk for the second game of the group against world champions Spain. That loss against Croatia meant that a second would result in the end of Irish interest in the tournament. 

Myself and two friends were staying in a hostel about 15km outside Poznan. We got up early that morning to catch the four hour train north to Gdansk. Arriving around lunchtime, we got something to eat and started making plans for the game, which was kicking off that night at 8:45pm local time. One thing we immediately noticed was the lack of guides in Gdansk. In Poznan, where we were based, the city had a small army of extremely visible volunteers walking around the city who were available to answer any question. Not so in Gdansk, even the fanzone was closed when we arrived! After getting something to eat, we decided to make our way to the stadium – since we didn’t know where it was or how to get there it would only take longer if we joined all the other fans on their journey to the ground, so we jumped in a taxi and arrived there soon after. 

What we didn’t know was that the stadium was outside the city, and pretty isolated. The only other structure nearby was a small hotel across the road, which the Irish fans had surrounded and filled, to the point where they were refusing everyone else access to the bar! Realising that waiting around was pointless, we walked into the stadium, where the afternoon game in the group between Italy and Croatia was being played on the big screen. So, after finding our seats, we sat back to watch the game in a unique environment. 

Before the game finished, the Irish and Spanish players arrived in the stadium, and emerged from the tunnel before their warm up. Later, one of my friends would point out to me the difference in body language between the two sides when they took to the pitch. The Irish players came out, took photos, pointed out friends and family in the growing crowd, and genuinely looked like they were delighted to be there. The Spanish, by contrast, came out, and sat in the dugout, or looked around and walked back to the changing room. Even taking into account that this was their second game in the stadium, this was a squad not only used to high pressure games like El Clasico, but also challenging for leagues, and playing in the later stages of national and international cups. The tournament, the stadium, and the game itself was not the same novelty to them that it was to the Irish players. 

Ireland had conceded early in their first game against Croatia in Poznan, when Wolfsburg’s Mario Manzukic scored three minutes into the tie, but in Gdansk Spain took a minute more to open the scoring. Richard Dunne failed to clear the ball after tackling David Silva outside the area, leaving a loose ball for Torres to pounce on, move into space and fire a powerful shot beyond Shay Given from close range despite the efforts of Stephen Ward. The opener was Torres’ second goal of 2012, one more than he scored at international level in 2011. While the striker was struggling to settle at Chelsea after a then-Britsh transfer record, he had no such problems against the Boys in Green and would go on to score again in the second half. Conceding the opening goal so early in the game led to some grim looks between the Irish fans. While few in the crowd were naive enough to believe that we were going to win the game, at the same time we could hardly believe that we would make the three points on offer so easy for the Spanish.

Giovanni Trapattoni had persisted with a 4-4-2 formation right from his first game in a friendly against Serbia in 2008 after identifying the Irish central midfield was leaving the centre of defence exposed, and, while the rest of football had seemingly moved on to three-man central midfield in a 4-5-1 (switching to 4-3-3 in attack) formation since that game, the Italian refused to change the layout of his team. Glenn Whelan made his debut in that Serbia friendly, and his partnership with Steven Reid had shown some promise early in Trapattoni’s reign, particularly in a 2-1 win away to Georgia, but Reid’s persistent injury problems meant that he was replaced by Keith Andrews for the majority of the Italian’s time in charge – incidentally, Whelan would be selected more than any other player by Trapattoni – and the pair were left chasing shadows as their opposing three Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Sergio Busquets received the ball, found space, and passed to a free teammate almost at will. Stats would later show that Xavi broke a passing record that was set 20 years previously by Ronald Koeman after completing 127 of the 136 passes he attempted during the 90 minutes, or 1.4 completed passes per minute. 

Surprisingly, Spain finished the first half leading by only a single goal, but the Irish second half clean sheet only lasted as long as the first half’s, with Manchester City’s David Silva scoring Spain’s second four minutes into the second half. Shay Given surprisingly elected to parry a shot from Xabi Alonso back into the penalty area, between the two centre halves, straight to a unattended Silva who managed to pass the ball in front of Stephen Ward’s lunge, and under both Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger to the corner of the net. 

The second goal settled the result of the game, and the remaining 40 minutes played out with Spain in possession, and Ireland giving it back on the rare occasions that it was surrendered. Torres raced clear of the Irish back line to score his second of the game on 70 minutes, and Cesc Fabregas ended the game by scoring the last of the 4-0 win from a tight angle with seven minutes left to play, only nine minutes after replacing Torres. While on one level the horror we watched unfold dug new depths in the pits of our collective stomachs, on another we were honoured to watch a team at the absolute peak of its powers show how the game should be played. 

The overriding memory for many football fans outside of the island of Ireland was the singing performance of the fans for the last ten minutes. The Fields of Athenry is a folk song detailing a fictional talk between a man and his wife either side of a prison wall the night before he is deported to Australia for the crime of stealing food to feed his family. It has been sung wherever Irish people congregate, and for many reasons. It has been sung at rugby games, at boxing fights, at wins, and at losses. And it was sung at this stadium. At the time, we didn’t realise the impact this would have on those watching, most notably in Germany where the commentators told their audience that their commentary was going to be paused for a few minutes, so that those at home would experience what they were hearing in the press box. In the stands, it was a cathartic experience, the frustration with the team, the manager, the players, the tactics, even the association itself came out in those last ten minutes. There was little we could do to change any of these, so we sang.

The performance lived long in the memories of Ireland fans. We had seen our team lose before, to better and worse teams, but we struggled to remember a game where the team had been so comprehensively outplayed. The football Spain played set the blueprint for the development of the game at club and international level for the next decade.

The result of the next group game was immaterial, we were out, and even though I attended it, I don’t remember much about it save for Mario Balotelli’s late goal, and Gianluigi Buffon proving his class by making his team applaud the Irish fans after the final whistle. Four years later he would bizarrely be photographed with the next Irish manager celebrating a win over Italy.

In truth, the performance against Spain, more than the result, had drained me as a fan. It would take a long time to recover from it, to be able to enjoy watching the national side again, and I was not the only one. The fans relationship with the manager never recovered from the game and questions about the squad and playing style dogged him at every press conference. Fourteen months after losing to Spain, he left the position by mutual consent after losing a qualifer to Austria, his first away loss in a competitive game.

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Thanks to Joseph for sharing his memories on the frontline of Ireland’s dismal defeat to Spain at Euro 2012. You can follow Joseph’s steamtrain of statistics on Twitter

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