A 'new post' I wrote back in January for the Sunday Tribune's Pete Ball memorial competition. Unfortunately the paper met its demise before a winner could be judged so I'll just post it here. There's much I'd like to change in hindsight but here it is in unedited form anyway.
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Slumped on the ground lay Richard Dunne, his body as shattered as his dream. Damien Duff's tears painted the picture of thousands of viewers back home. Giovanni Trapattoni cut the most forlorn of figures, a man deprived of the stage his glittering career deserved. Yet again, the Republic of Ireland football team would not be taking part in a major championship. For once, the finger of blame was pointed elsewhere but perhaps no more justifiably so than in any of our other failures.
Ireland's performance that night in Paris was nothing short of heroic. They showcased the attacking verve so rarely associated with Ireland, or indeed any of the British teams, with aplomb. This was in complete contrast with the whole qualifying campaign under Trapattoni, a football of dull numbness never more apparent than in the French game in Croke Park a mere four days before the Paris return leg.
Despite the clear difference bewteen the two performances and the undeniable superiorty of the second one, the Euro 2012 campaign has seen a return of rigid 4-4-2s and inflexible tactics. As a footballing nation we seem stuck in the dark ages, unable or unwilling to embrace contemporary styles. Failure to qualify for South Africa gave us a chance to overhaul the system, start anew. But attentions were focused elsewhere, specifically on how much of a cheating git Thiery Henry is and how the bullies at FIFA were being mean to us.
Appartently incapable of introspective analysis, we plunder on like gormless cavemen. At every level of the country we find the formation that Trapattoni and so many coaches before him favour: a flat back four, two holding midfielders, two wingers and two strikers. This has been the prevalant formation in football for years but its worth is declining rapidly. Last summer's World Cup proved beyond doubt that the 4-4-2 had been eclipsed as teams who preferred this system found themselves outplayed by fluid midfields, inverted wingers and rampaging wing-backs. Two of the tournaments biggest losers, Italy and England, both employed versions of the 4-4-2 and their swift exits were unsurprising if not inevitable.
The sole semi-finalist to use a 4-4-2 was Uruguay but theirs shared only nominal similarities with the other systems. The flexibility of their attacking quartet of Forlán, Suárez, Ledesma and Cavani was almost unrecognisable from England's disastrous Rooney-Heskey-Milner-Gerard axis.
With a population of only 3.5 million, you do not expect Uruguay to produce high-quality players so consistently yet their football history is as proud as almost any other nation's. Players are produced with ideals in mind, ideals that have been instilled into them from a very young age. In this sense, it is quite similar to the Ajax and Barcelona systems that have both dominated European football at one point or another. Though such a radical overhaul may seem inconceivable at the minute, I think it is a system that would benefit Irish football immeasurably should it be adopted.
First and foremost, this is not a change we will feel in the short-term. It may be fifteen years before a truly significant impact is made. However, this is no reason to dismiss the idea if the alternative is plodding along with the same outdated style for the next thirty years.
Change at grassroots level should be the priorty. Calls for pitch sizes for underage players to be reduced need to finally be heeded. At this level, emphasis should be switched from winning to playing good, productive football. Referees need not keep the scores of these matches and meaningless leagues should be abolished. As children progress through age levels, things can become gradually more competitive. Competitiveness will never be an issue, only the quality of our football. Our current system minimises player growth to unfathomable levels and it is antonishing that we have persisted with it for so long.
For this new system to work, it is imperative that a template is in place This means change at the top: the football of the national team must reflect the progressive style at youth level or, more accurately, vice versa.
The 2008 appointment of Wim Koevernens, former Netherlands national team youth coach, as high performance director was a promising signal of intent from the FAI. It will count for nothing if it is not built upon. Change must be embraced by not only those in administrative areas but by coaches and officials at underage levels throughout the country. If initiated now, perhaps we could reap the rewards of our forward-thinking at, say, Qatar 2022.