Monday 21 August 2017

Trap door must shut on Ireland to end saga

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

You know in the press box sometimes we mistake flogging a dead horse for keeping candle-lit vigil on the disappeared.

Giovanni Trapattoni sits before us, recycling the story of the phone that will not ring and we descend on him as if he's just sent a polygraph needle into epileptic fury. 'Trap' stays tranquil as a monk, yet his press conferences descend into wall-to-wall sighs and light, fatherly frowns. He seems mildly saddened by the things that have us pre-occupied and edgy.

No, Stephen Ireland hasn't called. News to report? None. Turns out that speculation the Corkman might be about to step back into our world wrapped in tinsel was pulled straight from the pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales. He's not in the squad for Georgia. He hasn't been in touch. He has still, apparently, got issues.


"He said to me 'When I will be ready, I call you!'" explains Trapattoni of their meeting in Manchester. "I cannot call Ireland again. I met him with Liam (Brady). Liam speak English, maybe, Trapattoni no.

"I said him 'When you are ready. We wait you. You must decide.' NOW IT IS UP TO HIM! I learn that sentence (smiling). NOW... IT... IS... UP... TO... HIM!"

The world outside is in dizzy ferment with bank scandals, job losses, politicians looking like children lost in a mall but here, in this dinky little auditorium out in Abbotstown, nothing consumes us quite like the kid who's too busy to play.

Maybe he's just trying to remember what he did with his keys. Maybe there are children to bathe, dishes to dry, pink rims to shine on a 4&4. Could be he wants chocolates on his pillow for all we know. But, bottom line, the kid hasn't called. Could be he won't ever.

All of which makes this incessant attempt to second-guess his intentions about as worthwhile as door-stepping the Beckhams for a philosophical perspective on Salman Rushdie's latest novel. Stephen Ireland isn't coming out to play. Maybe it's time that we got over it. In fact, maybe it's time the invitation was taken off the table.

Right now, it's fair to assume that -- within the Irish dressing-room -- his return would be something less than a ticker-tape event. This has nothing to do with his unfortunate histrionics in Slovakia. It has to do with the sense of a footballer potentially treating the national team as a convenience store.

If Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign slips off the rails in the coming months, Stephen Ireland's interest in an international return will be -- officially -- dead (if it isn't already). Should the team, on the other hand, begin to gather impressive steam in Group Eight, who could honestly view his return as anything other than an opportunist hand in the till?

Yesterday, ought to have been the cut-off point, the end of the nonsense. Instead, Trapattoni fell just short of declaring his own middle name an Italian version of 'Job'.

There was, he declared, no timescale being placed on the Corkman's repatriation. "At the moment it is no problem," said the manager. "The problem at the moment is a Georgian squad of 22 players with condition!"

Sitting to Trapattoni's left, Liam Brady became decidedly prickly at the persistent search for blossoms in a mine shaft. A journalist wondered were they not inclined to simply phone the player again?

"We just said that we agreed with Stephen Ireland that he would make contact when he was ready," snapped the Irish assistant.


"Is that not clear? We agreed that he was to contact us if he wanted to come back. Okay? Have bit of respect for your country!"

It was, frankly, the nearest we got to an appropriate tone. Short of throwing blossoms at the player's feet and singing lullabies, all avenues of reconciliation have surely been exhausted.

In the vacuum created by his silence, speculation is about as useful as second-hand smoke and just about as healthy.

Actually, given Trapattoni's vocabulary yesterday, it's pretty much a moot point whether the gifts flowering so compellingly in Manchester City's midfield this season would be enough to earn Ireland an international starting place.

The Italian thinks in regimented lines. He likes midfielders that sit and wide players shooting up and down the flanks like busy locomotives. Energy is his gospel. In artistic terms, the inclusion of Liam Miller in a 25-strong panel ahead of Andy Reid may seem a bit like trusting a dray horse ahead of a thoroughbred. For this, he is unapologetic. Perhaps even faintly obstinate.

"I choose a system," he said yesterday. "We look at all the players but I need midfielders with particular qualities. Last summer, I had time to try different systems. Not now. Now we are in qualifying and it's not easy to change. It's also very dangerous.

"You see in England, the game is go, go, go, push. That is modern football. We know the players that give us safety. Every team is like a company. There is the engineer and the architect. We cannot have eight engineers. Balance in the team is very, very important."

In a sense, the stories of Ireland and Reid have become football equivalents of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina for Trapattoni. His administration remains moored to what people interpret as two great follies. One connected to a player who can't be bothered. The other to someone who -- in the eyes of his supporters -- almost cares too much.

In Reid's case, it is legitimate to ask if the breadth of his passing would not -- at least -- be of some value next month in Croke Park, should the Georgians prove difficult to break down. Clearly not in Trapattoni's eyes.

Brady, interestingly, side-stepped that particular debate, mindful -- no doubt -- that in his previous life as a TV pundit, he was inclined to garland Reid with praise. The sense that the harsh words spoken in a hotel bar in Wiesbaden are still echoing through this story was, frankly, unavoidable.

So, here's the deal for next month in the big house. Aesthetes stay at home. Ireland under Trapattoni will remain resolutely blue-collar in outlook.

They will hunt and chase and invest their energy in unromantic things. Barring injury, Glenn Whelan and Darron Gibson, will anchor the midfield.

"Balance on the pitch is very, very important when the opposition has the ball," said the manager yesterday. It was, in a single sentence, the mission statement of his football life, the game distilled into a philosophy that has stood to him for 30 years. Achievement forged on erecting barricades, not spreading wings.

Maybe in Trapattoni's eyes, Reid is too free a spirit to enter into that kind of contract. Or maybe talk of systems is just a convenient smokescreen, Reid simply paying the price for speaking out of turn in Germany. Either way, the story still has miles to run.

But Stephen Ireland's?

Perhaps when he'd old and sated and dandling grandchildren on his knee, the Corkman will regret this silly goose-chase. Maybe he will come to understand that playing for your country might just have a meaning beyond the inconvenience of airports. For now, he should be thanked for his time and told unequivocally that the door to the Irish dressing-room has been closed.

Perhaps the story is parked by the side of the road. It should be left there. The phone is silent. Staring at it won't make it ring.

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