Ireland reality check
IT was supposed to be a week that celebrated new beginnings. Not one where seeds of doubt about the future were planted.
Last night's meeting with Argentina was a significant landmark for the FAI, the first game of note in the Aviva Stadium. A recognised international rather than a money-making exercise, even if there is a school of thought which would argue that the August friendly window should be used to find a team that will serve as preparation for the style of team Ireland will face in the Euro 2012 qualifiers instead of going for glamour.
However, the entire exercise has been overshadowed by the fact that Giovanni Trapattoni spent the evening in the Mater hospital, recovering from an operation that had little to do with a dodgy plate of mussels. His situation puts the revelry into context.
After all, the biggest challenge the FAI face right now is finding ways to fill the stadium, with the sales drive for the Argentina game continuing right up to kick-off -- a remarkable state of affairs when you consider the quality of the opposition. Without a successful team, they have no hope; Trap is the man who can provide that surge of optimism.
It's one thing missing a pointless enough friendly with Argentina and an orgy of handshakes with invited dignitaries; it's quite another to have a question mark over his availability for the opening game in Armenia on September 3.
The FAI insist that he will be fine, but then a couple of days ago they were telling us that an attack of shellfish poisoning would only keep him out of the loop for 24 hours.
To be fair to the communications department in Abbotstown, they released updates about Trapattoni's well-being at regular intervals yesterday. From the morning announcement that he would miss the Argentina game, to the subsequent confirmation that he needed abdominal surgery to remove scar tissue and then a later update that the 3.0 treatment went well.
Yet the tone of the messages was classic FAI 'nothing to see here folks' speak. When his unavailability for the game was confirmed, they said he was "slightly behind" expectations. Later, when it emerged that "slightly behind" constituted almost a week in hospital, they were at pains to stress that he required a "minor" operation to deal with "minor" scar tissue. We were then told that the "minor surgical procedure" went well. Everything was so insignificant, they were in danger of protesting too much.
Obviously, we shouldn't be flippant about the most important issue here, which is the well-being of Il Capo. Understandably, the natural inclination in such a situation is to tread carefully given the sensitivities involved, so you can see why the FAI are keen to avoid saying anything that would prompt hysteria. But the bottom line is that there is no such thing as "minor" surgery when it comes to a 71-year-old man.
Even if there is absolute confidence that the problem will be sorted, it's a worrying state of affairs for his employers. There is always an element of risk associated with appointing a senior citizen, but Trapattoni appeared to have allayed those concerns with his performance during the first two years of his tenure.
His energy and enthusiasm stunned Irish players when they encountered him first, as he joined in with some training drills and raced around the park to remonstrate and demonstrate.
As recently as Monday, Marco Tardelli had even joked that Trap wanted to continue for another 10 years, and nobody considered such a statement to be too outlandish. Twenty four hours later, with the FAI suggesting that Trapattoni's absence from the pre-match conference was no big deal really, one journalist reckoned it was safe to joke with the frequently flippant Tardelli that he might have fed him the offending shellfish.
When the assistant boss replied that it wasn't the time to joke now, it was dropping a hint that everything wasn't so straightforward, with the revelation that Dr Alan Byrne -- who acted wisely by sending Trapattoni to hospital at three in the morning -- had spent the previous six hours in the Mater also indicating that there was more to it.
Unfortunately, Trapattoni's stomach problems have illustrated just how reliant the FAI are on his services. With his better command of English, and Tardelli comfortable as assistant, they were able to allow Liam Brady leave without searching for a replacement.
The chain of command below the top two is made up of goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly, fitness coach Fausto Rossi, kitmen, masseurs and medical staff. There is a scouting operation, headed up by Don Givens, but their worth is hard to assess when the manager is notoriously single-minded when it comes to the decision-making process.
For now, we know that he will be out of commission until after the weekend. Considering he sees more of his players on television than in the flesh, then his inability to attend Premier League matches this weekend is no great drama. The concern is that he requires further rest and that his family express concern about rushing back to work too quickly. Never underestimate the ability of a health scare to establish priorities.
Ireland need Trapattoni now more than ever. There is an eminently passable qualifying test appearing on the horizon, but the trip to Yerevan represents a difficult opening. The most striking feature of his stewardship has been his ability to instil the belief in these players that they can go to difficult venues and produce results.
Tactically, nothing is left to chance. An interrupted preparation cannot be afforded and that's before contemplating the worst-case scenario, that the recovery time is extended to a point where such a long journey is against medical advice.
It shouldn't come to that, of course, but then the only guarantee we have of that are missives from an organisation who should offer compulsory portions of salt with every proclamation. Either way, his absence has removed some of the gloss from their big week. What good is a housewarming without your best chance of paying the rent?