Sunday 24 September 2017

Echoes of the Charlton era come through in Trap’s march to glory

Jack Charlton
Jack Charlton
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

LAST Wednesday night, Ronnie Whelan was asked why it was that John Aldridge could "never" score in Jack Charlton's Ireland team.

The question was delivered tongue-in-cheek. Aldridge, in fact, managed 19 international goals, albeit the first of them took him almost three years to deliver. Whelan chuckled at the mischief afoot, but happily accepted the bait. Goals, he reasoned, would maybe always be hard to find for a man whose primary job seemed to be "chasing balls into the corners."

Aldridge was one of the most prolific strikers ever seen in English club football, averaging a goal every second game in a career stretching across two decades. He hit an astonishing 50 in just 83 appearances for Liverpool around the very time he couldn't break his duck for Ireland.

But Charlton's system over-rode any individual discomfort. It demanded that the main striker act as Ireland's first line of defence and, for most of his international career, Aldridge was actually too exhausted to be dangerous.

The simple directness of Ireland's play under 'Big Jack' became an ode, above all, to humility. No individual could be bigger than the collective. You adhered to the almost militaristic discipline of the formation, or you left.

Giovanni Trapattoni speaks Charlton's football language. The result, as he puts it, has to be more important than "the show." Football isn't about fantasy, it is about trust. So, is history repeating itself here?

Are these sons of Ashington and Cusano Milanino, both born in the 1930s, really cut from the same cloth?

1:Second chances

Charlton always denied any personal dislike of Dave O'Leary, yet banished the Dubliner to an international wilderness after his late invite to that Icelandic Triangular tournament in '86 was rebuffed.

O'Leary would eventually be recalled for a World Cup qualifier against Spain in Seville two and a half years later, but Jack's preference was always Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran in the centre of defence, Paul McGrath sweeping in front of them.

O'Leary might have been considered a world-class central defender at the height of his powers with Arsenal, but he became peripheral on the international stage. So, the story of him kicking the penalty in Genoa that pitched Charlton's Ireland into a World Cup quarter-final bore a rather wild irony.

O'Leary had been introduced in extra-time for Steve Staunton, his only involvement in those finals.

Trapattoni has taken a similar stance with the slightly less compelling talent of Andy Reid. That late sing-song in Mainz clearly pressed a pretty sensitive button with the Italian who, even now, remains puzzled by Irish social habits.

He told Reid to go to bed, Reid kept playing the guitar. Today, Trap is planning for Euro 2012. Andy struggles for a start with Nottingham Forest. Game over.

2 : Media

Famously, Charlton's first press conference in The Westbury Hotel ended with him inviting a journalist outside to settle their differences like men. 'Big Jack' effectively terrorised the media during his time at the helm.

Save for a few senior journalists with whom he sometimes engaged in playful banter, Charlton routinely came to press conferences looking irritable and dangerous.

The media rarely challenged this bullying dynamic, a fact maybe best encapsulated in Orlando during USA '94 when, responding to rumours of a row between Maurice Setters and Roy Keane, he marched both men into the Seminole County training centre.

"Did you have a row?" he asked them, even Roy reduced to looking like a kid staring at a dentist's drill. Both men denied they had exchanged as much as awkward glances. A timorous media moved on.

Trapattoni doesn't do that kind of confrontation. His way is to stay largely aloof, albeit amiably so, at press conferences. Translation issues probably assist in this and he never seems especially concerned with what the Irish newspapers have to say.

This can be mistaken for an almost charming innocence yet, in recent months, Trapattoni has been seen to cleverly manipulate the media coverage of his contract situation with the FAI.

That smile conceals a multitude.

3: Gameplan

The overly-simplistic view is that Charlton just got his team to press space high up the field and hope, perhaps, to score from a set-piece. What is often forgotten is the thoroughness with which he studied opposition teams.

If his sides looked combative and one-dimensional at times, by and large, they were never opened up (at least not until matters began to unravel in '95) in the manner in which Trapattoni's team was exposed during both Euro qualifying games against Russia.

Remember how Charlton's Ireland outplayed a star-studded England at Wembley in March of '91 and, prior to the '94 World Cup, recorded warm-up victories away to both Holland and Germany.

By the time they got to America, Jack had begun to grasp a compelling need for tactical change and went into battle against Italy in the Giants Stadium, playing 4-5-1, Tommy Coyne as the lone striker. Coyne was clever, but lacked pace. And that system cried out for an explosive front-man.

When that tournament was over, Jack spoke of a need for Ireland to find a different way of playing. He never found it.

Trapattoni seems unyielding in his commitment to a 4-4-2 formation that is now widely considered technically backward at the top tables of international football. He did flirt briefly with 4-5-1 against Uruguay in a friendly last March, but the subsequent 2-3 defeat sounded an immediate death-knell for the experiment.

If anything, the Italian seemed to engage in the experiment only because of heavy criticism for a seemingly over-run central midfield during the home qualifier against Russia. A game, co-incidentally, Ireland also lost 2-3.

Trap's English may be poor, but he understands optics.

4: Point to prove

Big Jack had had an unexceptional record in club management when the FAI stumbled so clumsily upon his appointment in '86.

He'd helped Middlesbrough to promotion in his first season, but that would prove the high-point of four years with the club. He brought Sheffield Wednesday from Division 3 to Division 2. At Newcastle, he barely stayed long enough to get his office seat warm.

When he applied for the England manager's job in the '70s, he never even got a reply.

Trapattoni's CV was gold-plated by comparison. An idol with Juventus, he moved to Milan and helped Inter end a nine-year Scudetto drought. He won titles with Bayern Munich in Germany and Benfica in Portugal. By the time he took the Irish job, Trap had collected 21 trophies in management.

The one gaping hole was his record in international football. As manager of Italy, he'd overseen desperately underwhelming performances from the Azzurri at both the 2002 World Cup and '04 European Championship finals.

So, if Trapattoni has a point to prove -- just like Charlton before him -- it is to his own people.

Jack found himself more revered in Ireland than in his homeland, despite being a World Cup winner in '66. Irish people and the fond silliness of staged homecomings for defeated teams made a deep impression on him.

Now Trapattoni, too, seems charmed by the possibility of doing what Jack did in Stuttgart '88. Reminding his own people of what it is they're missing.

5: Emotion

Trapattoni's tearful TV interview after the 4-0 win in Tallinn startled many. Most imagined that, for a man of his stature, qualification for major finals would he a humdrum, everyday business.

But he had cried after the larceny in Paris two years earlier also and, routinely, becomes a little bleary-eyed when talking about certain characters in this Irish team.

Trapattoni, evidently, holds a deep appreciation of the fellowship and unity that got them to Euro 2012.

For all real football men, those qualities tend to strike a chord.

Public display of emotion was never really Charlton's thing.

Famously, he didn't even cry after the '66 World Cup final, while his brother -- Bobby (pictured) -- sobbed uncontrollably.

Perhaps Ireland helped Jack discover his softer side. Whatever the critics said, the people loved him.

Indeed, his place in the nation's affections was carved in stone when he was seen running on to the Giants Stadium pitch to remonstrate with policemen who were being needlessly heavy-handed with two celebrating Irish supporters.

6 : Willingness to gamble

Qualification for USA '94 secured, Charlton went against the popular caricature by including the 'Three Amigos', Phil Babb, Gary Kelly and Jason McAteer in his plans.

They represented a different, clearly irreverent breed, turning up for press conferences in wigs and fancy-dress. Once, seeing the manager stride across an interview room, Babb cooed "Oh look, it's Bobbbeee Charlton!" Big Jack grinned through clenched teeth. He needed them.

Trapattoni has indicated that he will put his trust next summer predominantly in those who have got Ireland to the finals. It remains to be seen if men like Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, Anthony Pilkington, Ciaran Clark or Robbie Brady will even register on his radar.

7: Hidden gems

Mick McCarthy was the subject of some media ridicule when Eoin Hand first introduced him to international football. Yet, Charlton could recognise the warrior quality that attracted Hand to the Barnsley stopper.

McCarthy never gave anyone goosebumps with his footwork and once joked: "My record for juggling is 60 without it tipping the ground. But that was with a centre-forward!"

Yet, he was a key figure for Ireland at Euro '88 and Italia '90 without ever coming close to interesting any of the bigger clubs in England.

Trapattoni's faith in Glenn Whelan runs along similar lines. The Stoke midfielder is widely considered a journeyman professional, yet was the only player to start all 14 of the Euro qualifying games.

Character supplanting dainty feet again.

8: Off the field

Living in Milan, Trapattoni's profile here has, until now, been confined largely to match weeks. Yet, his earning potential will soar in the coming months and it remains to be seen if he has an appetite to exploit that.

Charlton became a marketing phenomenon in Ireland. At the height of his popularity, he was earning a reputed £500,000 a year in commercial endorsements. He bought a house in the West and a pub in Baggot Street.

His gifts as a gruff raconteur could earn Jack £3,000 for an appearance in the early '90s. Not a route, admittedly, Trap is equipped to follow.

9: Luck

For Gary Mackay, read Estonia.

Irish Independent

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