The pace of the Republic of Ireland's evolution after Euro 2012 thrashings is painfully slow as the manager refuses to introduce much-needed fresh talent for the World Cup qualifiers
For too long the Republic of Ireland have behaved like Stoke City's idiot twin. During his four-year reign Giovanni Trapattoni has ordered Ireland to play like Tony Pulis's team despite having more creativity at his disposal and less power. There have been a few moments when that description didn't fit – a couple of good friendly wins and, most famously, the draw in Paris in the 2010 World Cup play-off, when Ireland played slickly only for the luck that had enabled them to make it that far to suddenly defect to the French– but overall Trapattoni's tenure has been characterised by double-barrelled perverseness: the manager persisting with tactics that make Ireland look worse than they actually are, and results contriving to make the manager's tactics appear better than they actually are. Until Euro 2012, that is. There the unsustainable pattern collapsed and Ireland copped three overdue thrashings, leaving Trapattoni's instructions looking as inspired as Clint Eastwood's chat with a chair.
Stoke, of course, have given notice that they intend to add more nuance to their playing style, with Pulis recently buying some scheming central midfielders. Trapattoni, aware of the rising despair at his dogmatism, has hinted at a fresh approach too. He even gave a belated first start to James McCarthy during the August friendly in Serbia and the artful Wigan player will make his competitive debut when Ireland kick off their World Cup campaign in Kazakhstan on Friday.
But there is still no reason to believe that the 73-year-old is serious about changing. A wasted campaign looms.
The only changes that have been made have been forced on the manager.
Shay Given retired from international football after the European Championship confirmed what the qualifiers had suggested: that a keeper who for years served his country superbly has become dodgy. Paul Lambert has now dropped Given at Aston Villa: would Trapattoni have done so at Ireland? Probably not – after all, Robbie Keane, who looked similarly obsolete at the Euros, is set to start in Kazakhstan. Never mind the fact that Shane Long has begun the season with West Bromwich Albion in fine form: Keane has excelled in the increasingly distant past and will therefore be accommodated until he adjourns to a nursing home (go on, crack a gag about the MLS if you must).
Simon Cox could also play up front – but he looks like being deployed in Kazakhstan wide on the right. And with the left wing reportedly going to be entrusted to Aiden McGeady again, James McClean looks like being condemned to his customary place on the bench. Anthony Pilkington, meanwhile, will be sitting in Norwich shaking his head in bewilderment, possibly alongside Wes Hoolahan. As for the defence, apparently Trapattoni is going to keep faith with Stephen Ward at left-back. Yes, really.
Bearing all that in mind, it is hard not to suspect that the only reason McCarthy is to get a game in Kazakhstan is because Keith Andrews is suspended. OK, it's an evolution of sorts that Trapattoni didn't turn to someone such as Paul Green instead, but Trap has hardly been transformed. He has made gestures at sophistication before, particularly after the 0-0 miracle in Moscow when he hinted that he would amend his deeply simplistic 4-4-2 that offers the freedom of central midfield to any opponents who are more cunning and nimble than (the often outnumbered) Whelan and Andrews. But he carried on regardless. So unless McCarthy metamorphoses into Lionel Messi in Astana, then chances are that Andrews will return as soon as possible, leaving McCarthy to share the dismay of Darren Gibson and the many other frustrated players on the fringes.
This is difficult. Whelan, Andrews, Ward … these are hugely likable players, with decent amounts of ability and tremendous attitudes. They always give their best. But their best is not the best that Ireland has to offer. The alternatives are not world beaters but Gibson, McCarthy, Hoolahan, Long, Marc Wilson, Seamus Coleman and so on all have enough promise to suggest they could give Ireland a new dimension.
Having handed Trap a new two-year contract earlier this year, the Football Association of Ireland could not afford to sack the manager even if they wanted to, which they probably don't as the head, John Delaney, still seems star-struck by him. So Ireland's route to Brazil is set to be complicated by Germany, Sweden, Austria, Kazakhstan, the Faroe Islands and one narrow-minded Italian.