There's something amiss when you leave a tournament with a 'Best Supporters' accolade stored in the overhead compartment. While the generous title may herald an admirable off-field trait, it speaks much about a team's worth when it is their fans, not their players, who leave with credit. It may have been a futile journey, what with their engrained limitations and unfortunate group draw, but the Republic of Ireland's national side's European misadventure has opened debate about the credentials of its squad and its leader, Giovanni Trapattoni. Having thrice succumbed to the superior powers of Croatia, Spain and Italy, their failure to even throw a worthwhile punch has ensured much autopsying has commenced in the wake of their early exit. Expectations from home may have amounted to very little pre-tournament, but an instant capitulation and a litany of odd management decisions brought ire to Irish hearts before excitement even had an opportunity to take hold.
Now home, players and management are being subjected to intense scrutiny amid fears over what the future holds for Ireland's national team. With a number of their most esteemed players on the precipice of international retirement, an enormous bellow of 'overhaul' has issued from those thrown into despondency with their recent failings. Having somewhat fortuitously worked their way through a tricky qualifying group and play-off, trepidation was always going to accompany their trips to Poznan and Gdansk - but it is the manner of their defeats that has drawn daggers. Miracles were never envisioned, but people expected more.
Ireland, for all their heart and endeavour, have never been aesthetically pleasing. Prone to lamentably slow build-up play and largely reliant on playing to the maximum of their limitations, it was with considerable surprise that they even reached Poland. Having survived a Muscovite blitzkrieg thanks to a Richard Dunne-inspired act of heroism, lady luck had finally decided to shine for a country whose declining economy had set its populace into a depression. Reaching the European Championships was, many agreed, the lift a fallen country needed to restore hope. The group stage was duly traversed and Estonia, Ireland's play-off opponents, were brushed aside with pleasing ease. Throughout the qualifying processes' later stages, however, ridicule had dogged Giovanni Trapattoni's days. While many employed a faith in the Italian's project, others bemoaned his conservative style and a number of inclusions and exclusions that appeared to make little sense. An unfounded faith, it was decided, was placed in players who didn't merit it. Others, who did, were either not being picked or not being used.
Following his squad selection for the Championships, few took issue with the manager's decisions. There were only three notable absentees - Keith Fahey was sidelined with injury; James McCarthy opted out citing personal reasons; Seamus Coleman, for whatever reason, was deemed dispensable. A man of few surprises, Trapattoni's eleven to do battle with Croatia was predictable in names and what was to come. Barely had the last note of "Amhrán na bhFiann" aired and Ireland were a goal down - an inexcusable start that became a trend 4 days later in Gdansk. Laboured and incapable of stringing sufficient passages of plays together, Ireland's 3 losses exposed what time-served veterans knew only too well: they were simply not good enough to operate to the standard that is required.
Those who could usually be called upon when faced with adversity could do little to quell the waves of attacks that quickly felled them. Shay Given, perhaps unfit, was unusually jittery and was culpable for a number of goals. John O'Shea appeared overwhelmed and showcased the very laboriousness that rarely goes unpunished at the highest of levels. Kevin Doyle huffed, puffed and did little more. Robbie Keane was anonymous. Others looked distinctly out of their depth, while those who could possibly had made some difference as starters were introduced too late to do anything as substitutes. Indeed it was Keith Andrews, and Keith Andrews alone, who was the only one who did himself some semblance of justice in Ireland's short-lived campaign. The red mist that descended over him in the final game against Italy was somewhat understandable for a player who had done his utmost and whose frustrations were mirrored by those grimacing in the stands. In reality, few could fault the efforts of those who attempted but failed to reap some reward. Mediocrity is readily exposed and pushed out of the way at this level; sometimes heart and pride in one's shirt just isn't enough - particularly when up against the efficiency of Croatia, or the grinding quality of the Italians, or - sadly - the surreal brilliance of Spain.
But while dreams of qualification from the group may have been just fantasy, there is still a way to approach things properly. In many instances, Giovanni Trapattoni did not. Following the Croatia defeat, a game in which Ireland were outplayed due to fronting a majorly inferior midfield, the only correct course of action to take when faced with Spain's excellence was to deploy an extra man in the middle and lose one up front. This he did, with Kevin Doyle - who, gallingly, was more impressive than Keane against Croatia - dropping out. In normal circumstances, a central midfielder with a modicum of energy would be emplaced to deal with the workload in store. Darron Gibson, it appeared to all, would be drafted in at Doyle's expense. As it turned out, it was Simon Cox - a struggling striker at West Brom - who was duly given the role. Ireland plodded onto the fielded and off it again without having mustered much of a chance, predictably slain. A loss was always likely, of course, but the least a team can do is make it some bit harder for the other. Ireland failed to do so, thrice, and left Poland having not left any imprint.
Dissecting Ireland's three loses is largely irrelevant to the wider issues at hand. It is the greater past that needs to be learned from and, most pertinently, the future that needs to see in a new era of change. Ireland do not harbor a wide pool of outstanding talent. It is easy to bemoan the present and giddily yearn for dramatic change, but more often than not other options do little to inspire. For Ireland, there is some hope, but fantasists have lulled themselves into a fall sense of renewal. James McClean does, as seen by all but his manager, need to be granted the opportunity to make the left side of midfield berth his own. James McCarthy, perhaps the finest young talent at Ireland's disposal, needs to become the midfield lynchpin that has been missing since Stephen Ireland became a fiction writer. At the back, or at right midfield - if played regularly by his club there -, Seamus Coleman has the cunningness and drive to enliven a side that has been stagnating for too long. Up front, a review needs to take place, too. Robbie Keane's admirable international career is closing in on its final chapter, while Kevin Doyle needs to show more potency if he is ever to be a success at this level. In the wings, Shane Long has the raw talent needed to be Keane's successor, but will only do so if given the opportunities that his last 12 months at club level has deserved. Ciaran Clark is another who, in time, will be a valuable outlet for an Ireland side that is dire need of a facelift.
Elsewhere, battle-cries have been issued in support of those whose merits are questionable. Anthony Pilkington has impressed at Norwich, but has - at 24 - so far failed to declare for an international side. Wes Hoolahan, Pilkington's team-mate, has traversed the lower leagues and should have secured more than his one international appearance At 30, he is now unlikely to offer much in the way of Ireland going forward. The players to herald some form of change, therefore, appear to be at Ireland's disposal but it takes a bit more than replacing elder statesmen with youth to get you to where you want to be.
Giovanni Trapattoni's success in leading a distinctly limited side to a European Championship was rightly applauded for its near-genius navigation. Luck may have sometimes played its part, but his shaping of the side into a solid, hard to beat unit ensured they acquired more points than a squad of its limited talent should have. While his conservatism in approach failed miserably in Poland, the ugliness of grinding out results has ensured his record remains decent. Now, however, Ireland needs a reform and part of the larger question is if the Italian is the right man to see it in. Notoriously stubborn, the fear is that Trapattoni will refuse to implement a new system and a new gaggle of players to shape it. With just a few months to go before 2014's World Cup challenge begins, there is little time to dwell on what can be done to make Ireland more serious competitors. Reliant, perhaps, on retirements in the meantime, time will tell if Trapattoni will abandon past methods and embrace the change Ireland needs for its future. Concentration will be focused primarily on personnel, but individuals and youth are little if the shape and style they are used with doesn't suit them. First and foremost, Trapattoni needs to inject quality into his midfield. Pace is needed, too, and the defensive soundness that led them to their first major tournament in a decade needs to remain intact.
With limited resources, putting these traits in place is a difficult task. The conservative approach may again need to be deployed against Europe's elite, but there is no reason why Ireland cannot improve stylistically and battle well against most nations. Brazil 2014 may come a little too soon for a reshaped Ireland, but the foundations need to be put in place almost immediately if, as its supporters desire, they are to become a team who are about performances as well as results. Trapattoni's task is immense, but the truly great managers thrive on adversity. It is now up to him to secure both Ireland's long and short term future. Following the sad pain of Poland, the coming years need to inspire and excite.