independent

Friday 18 April 2014

How O'Neill trumps Trap

With the Martin and Roy show well under way, Garry Doyle explores five key areas where Trapattoni will not be missed

Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill will be pleased that Ireland are in pot two for the Euro 2016 seedings

It was approaching 11.0 when Giovanni Trapattoni took his seat in the dressing-room of Poznan's Municipal Stadium. Night had fallen -- and so had his team, beaten 2-0 by Italy, the third time they had lost within a week. The European Championships, which had promised so much, had delivered so little.

So against this backdrop, emotions were raw. Silence filled the room, broken only by the movements of the kitmen, Mick Lawlor and Dick Redmond, who were packing away the last of the socks and shorts.

Soon they'd leave and Trapattoni would touch the arm of one of his most trusted back-room members and gesture for him to stay and chat. The mask of confidence -- one he'd worn so publicly for so long -- had slipped to expose a rare show of vulnerability. Quietly he asked his confidant -- maybe even himself -- "Where do I go from here?"

The answer was nowhere. Sitting on a fat salary, he had no reason to resign. And after his momentary weakness, the old Trapattoni, the touchline warrior, would return. He'd stay and rebuild this side, he promised himself. He'd remind everyone of who he was and what he'd achieved. By referring to his past, he was convinced he could make things happen in the future.

But he didn't. The next 15 months were disastrous, unlike the first four years of his reign. New blood would come into the team but it was too late. His message went unheard and his methods were stale. A good German side would bring further humiliation before middling Swedish and Austrian teams completed his misery.

"You never know, we could look back on this man's departure and regret it," said John O'Shea on the night the axe fell.

But three months later, there are no regrets. In top-level sport, there comes a time for change and the mistake the FAI made was not recognising it that night in Poznan after the Italian defeat. Really and truly, he was never the same manager since.

But now a different man is in charge and last month, in the same Poznan stadium that Trapattoni lost his grip on the squad, the Italian's former players, in whispered, almost guilty tones, let it be known how better life had become under his successor. Here are the five ways the Martin O'Neill regime trumps Trap's.

ATMOSPHERE IN CAMP

As he entered the autumn of his life, Giovanni Trapattoni began to broaden his horizons, leaving the comfort zone of his Italian workplace to tackle jobs in different countries, Germany first, then Portugal, Austria and, at 69, the Republic of Ireland.

By the time he arrived in Dublin, he had managed players from all the world's continents and assumed he knew it all. But he needed a crash-course in Irish footballing culture to understand just why the players wanted to let their hair down after a big match and enjoy a few drinks.

His preference was for them to stay in and around the team hotel -- a practice which had served him well with bigger and better players at Juventus, Inter and the Italian national team. So why not here?

The answer is because the Irish players are different. They like their own space. Staying in a hotel for days on end can have an imprisoning feel. Getting out is what it is all about.

Yet, there was respect for his reputation and they bought into his thinking, especially early on in his tenure, when during a trip to Cyprus, Trapattoni noticed a player relaxing by an outdoor swimming pool. Immediately he called him back to the hotel lobby, advising him to bring one of the team security staff with him along with a few other players if he wanted to enjoy a swim, his worry being that the player's professional image could be called into question if he was caught lounging around the poolside by an overzealous photographer.

It was a typical example of his protective, fatherly and sometimes authoritarian nature. Yet because results were initially good, no one argued. For the fringe players, however, the team hotel became a joyless place. They needed an outlet and didn't have one on the pitch. Once, while based in Portmarnock before an important qualifier, one of the players hopped into a car and got set to drive out of the complex. Yet he never made it past the front gate. By chance, Trapattoni was arriving just as the player was leaving. The order was clear. "Get back." Soon he would be out of Trap's plans.

Yet by the time the Euros came around, it wasn't just the substitutes and benchwarmers who were tiring with the policy. As a squad, they were going stir crazy in hotels. "It was always going to be a problem, that tournament," said Kevin Kilbane, by then a former international, "because of Giovanni's way. The boys were away from home for such a long time and needed to get out of a hotel environment as much as possible. But Giovanni liked to have players around. That was the practice he was used to. But Ireland's players need a little more freedom."

For Darron Gibson, in particular, Poland was a horrible experience. "Just not a nice time," he said two months ago.

And it wouldn't get better for everyone else over the remaining 15 months. The mood around the team hotel was never disastrous but was certainly not good. And then the Martin and Roy show began. They haven't turned the camp into a sporting version of Butlins but they have tuned into the players' wavelength. "We trust and respect the manager enough to go out for a few hours but come back on time," said Shane Long.

More important than this is the trust O'Neill has for the players, more than Trapattoni possessed. Those who worked under the Italian swear by his genuine care for players' well-being and saw how he made huge efforts to make the camp as pleasant an environment as possible.

"I have no doubt the players liked Giovanni," said one back-room staff member. "There was just a cultural difference and the best way of describing that difference is to go back to the Spain match, when we lost 4-0 and the fans sang 'The Fields of Athenry' for 15 minutes. Afterwards Giovanni asked, 'why didn't they slate us? That would have happened in Italy.' But this wasn't Italy. This was Ireland. We do things a wee bit differently here."

KEANE V TARDELLI

The biggest problem Giovanni Trapattoni had with Marco Tardelli was the fact his former midfielder held him in such high regard. Too high.

Aware of the fact he owed his meal ticket to the man who guided him through the bulk of his playing career, Tardelli was reluctant to step out of his mentor's shadow and present himself as an independent thinker in the managerial coalition.

He was a Trapattoni man. Like it or lump it.

Among the players, he cut a popular figure, his easy smile sitting well with everyone, particularly those he identified as ones who could be moulded into surprising forces. It was Tardelli who picked Paul Green out of obscurity and argued passionately for his inclusion on the plane to Poland. Similarly, Simon Cox and Conor Sammon were men the former Inter Milan manager believed could get better under his tutelage.

On the training ground, he had his uses. At set-pieces, he was particularly innovative and organised. Yet as time went on, the stop-start element to these parts of the sessions became an irritation. After Poland, the Trapattoni mystique had disappeared and Tardelli was regarded as part of the package, a yes-man for the boss.

He was much more than that but for younger Irish players who grew up watching Roy Keane win seven Premier League titles and the 1999 Champions League, the fact that Tardelli actually had a superior playing CV to his successor was something many were unaware of.

During O'Neill's first week in charge, Keane was on the charm offensive, working the room to get to know certain players, building bridges with others. Those who like him swear blind by his professionalism, the clock-like punctuality, the absolute avoidance of slackness.

While it is early days still -- and the potential for a blow-up can never be dismissed -- his arrival, like O'Neill's, has proved refreshing. Tardelli remains a popular figure but Keane has the greater presence.

TACTICS

In the post-Euros environment, when wounds were still open and players were receiving nasty messages on Facebook and other forms of social media, Trapattoni's continuing belief that Ireland's players were capable of "playing only one way" became a source of major discontent. Even Glenn Whelan, a chief beneficiary of the Trap system, spoke out about it.

There can be no doubt that the tactics he employed were largely successful -- until Poland. Afterwards, they -- like the regime -- were all played out. O'Neill's interpretation of 4-4-2 is completely different. He uses one holding midfielder -- Trap insisted on two.

He has unlocked the chains from the full-backs' legs and no longer ties them to their own half. He seeks solidity by bringing his wide midfielders infield and recognises that one of the few areas of strength Ireland have right now is on the flanks, so the 3-5-2 formation which featured prominently at Celtic and Leicester City is staying in his coaching folder, marked 'not for use here'.

O'Neill's belief, thus far, is to go for a split-striker to bridge the gap between midfield and attack, a first cousin of the system Trap employed. So far, it appears to be a superior one. "Certainly it is more enjoyable," Aiden McGeady has said.

TEAM TALKS

The Trapattoni style was simple. Most of the chat took place on the training ground and if a point had to be made, the session would be interrupted and Trap or Tardelli would physically gesticulate to ensure they got their message across.

"There was never a problem understanding our roles," said McGeady. "And it would be unfair for anyone to suggest there was."

No one has. O'Neill, however, is a better communicator simply because English is his mother tongue. Just as significantly in Poznan, Keane filled a void at half-time by speaking up. "He got us motivated," said Stephen Kelly, "reminding us to retain our concentration."

Under Trap, players -- Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and, surprisingly, Paul McShane -- did this job. Trapattoni's practice was to deliver the bulk of his instructions beforehand, largely on the training ground but also in team meetings.

However, the players often felt an old-fashioned blood and guts rallying call was what they needed. With O'Neill and Keane, that is assured.

TRAINING

Like Trapattoni, O'Neill is not shy about breaking up training sessions to reinforce a point. The difference is that his voice is fresh whereas Trapattoni's had been heard for five long years.

The players wanted something new and with Keane's glaring eyes looking at them, the sessions before last month's Latvian and Polish friendlies were sharp and intense. Were they of better technical quality than the Italians'? It would be unfair to say definitively that they were. The difference is they were different. That was what this group of players needed.

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