It was the absence of hope that killed you. The premise underlying almost everything Giovanni Trapattoni did as Republic of Ireland manager was that the players at his disposal were rubbish and could not be expected to beat anyone decent. That proved a self-fulfilling dogma. In his five years in charge Ireland did not win a single competitive match against a team ranked above them – and watching them set out as if convinced they never would became unbearable.
This was alienating and aggravating. Here was a population reared to believe in the potential heroism of the underdog abruptly being told to know its station. There is realism and then there is defeatism. Trapattoni sometimes talked big, but his tactics and selections betrayed how little he thought of Ireland. He saw the shambles that he inherited from Steve Staunton in 2008 and, in fairness, introduced a basic structural soundness, but he never saw beyond that, refused to contemplate a scenario in which Ireland could play not only with grit but also with a hint of wit.
Of course, Ireland boasts no geniuses who could have guaranteed better results and performances. A key difference between their World Cup qualifying group rivals Sweden and Austria is that the former have Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the latter have David Alaba, while Ireland have no one even close to that calibre. Still, over the past five years the county has had a clutch of players who have deserved better recognition from their manager. Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady, Andy Reid, Shane Long, Steven Reid and Seamus Coleman – hardly world-class, but surely worthy of more astute nurturing when we consider some of the lesser talents that Trapattoni indulged instead.
It is fitting that his last act as manager, during Tuesday's baleful defeat in Austria, was to introduce Conor Sammon as a substitute, while Hoolahan and Brady were ignored like untrustworthy dilettante, with their highfalutin' notions of passing and playing what was in front of them rather than what was drummed into them by a manager who remained stubborn enough to believe that things would turn out as he foresaw no matter what was unfolding before his eyes. His inability to alter games with his substitutions or tactical changes reflected a perverse intransigence so strong as to be almost admirable.
He lasted so long because, in addition to organisational cohesion and engaging charisma, he enjoyed an attribute that the country's best manager in recent times, Mick McCarthy, famously lacked: luck. Outrageous fortune in the form of several beneficial refereeing decisions helped Ireland get to the brink of the 2010 World Cup finals, which is why it was so ironic that the team's most accomplished performance in his entire reign – the 1-1 draw in Paris in the play-offs – was undone by Thierry Henry's infamous handball.
It turned out that the first leg of that play-off – the lacklustre 1-0 defeat in Dublin – was a truer indicator of what Trapattoni would bring, a bleak passivity that made visiting teams surprisingly welcome and home supporters uncharacteristically subdued. Difficult to beat away, Ireland found it impossible to win key games at home. In the past Ireland could at least inflict a hostile reception on visitors, but under Trapattoni, Russia, Sweden and Germany all helped themselves to comfortable victories while Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and others earned easy draws. Trapattoni's greatest achievement with Ireland was made possible by the kindness of the draw – the Euro 2012 play-off pitting Ireland against an inexperienced Estonia team who immediately imploded – and the manager turned that into a monumental humiliation by going to the Euros with the wrong squad and one ill-fitting plan.
On a personal level Trapattoni came across as a driven and affable man with great integrity, which is why there is no joy in reporting his departure. But on a professional level, the sheer desolateness of his vision meant there would have certainly been no joy in watching him continue.
As for his successor, there is no outstanding candidate, no supernatural being who could make Ireland certainties to reach major finals and not look like goofy gatecrashers. But the first criterion that the Football Association of Ireland should set is that, just as the Italian's rigidity provided respite from Staunton's chaos, the new manager must salve the damage done by Trapattoni's nihilism. Brian McDermott, for instance, has a record of forging well-balanced and enterprising sides from modest resources. "The big thing I said to the players is you have to get on the ball and make things happen," he said after Leeds United's recent loss to Queens Park Rangers. "Just try something different." Only by that sort of risk-taking and a lot of luck can a country with little resources, and a deep systemic failure reflected in a largely unloved domestic league, enjoy international success.