James Lawton: Ireland to reap reward of Trap crusade
Published 14/05/2010 | 05:00
If any football nation on earth is entitled to feel a stab of angst this week, it is surely the Irish.
It can be generated in various ways, not least by calculating the sponsorship rewards Thierry Henry can contemplate in the dog days of an otherwise jaded career as he prepares to join the French squad for the World Cup finals in South Africa, which are smeared with dishonour by their very presence.
Still, as we know, life moves on and there is surely comfort in the fact that Giovanni Trapattoni regathers his squad not for some forlorn reflection on what might have happened in a perfect world, but for the first strides of a new campaign to rejoin the front rank of international football in the 2012 European Championship finals.
It is a crusade that has created an implicit confidence in the judgment and the methods of a 71-year-old, who, back home in Italy, was recently considered still vital enough to take over the reins of embattled Juventus.
Trapattoni dealt with the Andy Reid controversy and the defection of Stephen Ireland with the certainty of a man who had seen all of the ebb and flow of football, all the futility of investing too many hopes in talent that lacks the underpinning of a hard intent.
Irish football, surely, can congratulate itself on investing in a coaching culture that at Wembley tomorrow is likely to receive still another endorsement with Chelsea accomplishing the first league and cup double in their history under Carlo Ancelotti.
With Fabio Capello so widely regarded as the most pragmatic England coach since Alf Ramsey delivered the nation's only World Cup triumph 44 years ago, and Roberto Mancini apparently certain to be reconfirmed as the man to handle Manchester City's vast investment in an ultimately well-heeled future, the FAI can certainly tell itself that after the meanderings that brought their separation from the major tournaments, they have put the national team back on a strong competitive foundation.
The 'Italian Way', which landed the last World Cup under the guidance of Marcello Lippi, has perhaps rarely produced quite such a volume of evidence that it, indeed, understands how the game works at the highest level.
This surely holds true, even against the fact that it has taken the instincts of Jose Mourinho to finally produce a serious Champions League challenge from the perennial Italian title holders, Inter, but even here it has to be said that Mourinho's method in the defeat of Barcelona was classic Italian defence.
It's also true that when Real Madrid's Galacticos culture seemed locked into futility, it was Capello who delivered the club's first success in four years.
What is it that the Italian football men so readily export? Most of all, it is an understanding of the dynamics of a team, the need to balance talent against serious purpose, the sense that if a team does not have unity and a strong spirit, it is doomed to the margins of success.
Admirers of Gianfranco Zola will have been saddened by his failure at West Ham and his inevitable firing this week, but they can never have identified in him the levels of hard-headed, professional pragmatism that is so evident in the make-up of men like Capello, Trapattoni and Ancelotti.
As a player, Zola acquired an almost cult-like following. Alex Ferguson was one of Zola's biggest fans. "I love him," said Ferguson, "because I've never seen him do a negative thing on the football field. He is maybe the most honest player I have ever seen." But then such idealism brings no guarantees when a team runs out on to the field.
Lippi, Capello, Trapattoni and Ancelotti have all passed the game's most searching test. They have taken hold of teams and moulded them not just in terms of ability and tactics, but also a collective character.
Italian solidarity of thinking was recently admitted when Capello revealed that when he came to a final assessment of his preparations for South Africa, he felt the need to consult with his compatriot Lippi, who had so successfully preceded him on the international stage.
"When I talked with Lippi," said Capello, "he kept emphasising that the spirit of the team was everything. But first you have to make one team.
"I remembered how it was when I went to Real Madrid in 2006. They had not won anything for three years. Inside the dressing-room there were three different teams, a South American group, a Spanish group and the others. I had to work very hard to break down those groups and bring everyone together. I had to make strong decisions and I had to keep doing that until there was a real spirit in the team. When the group found that spirit they won La Liga. If you do not have the right spirit, well, really, you don't have anything."
For Capello, read Trapattoni and his dogged resistance to the bandwagon for Reid and the clamour that he should pursue the reluctant Ireland with more public enthusiasm.
Mancini's verdict on Ireland at Manchester City is one that Trapattoni might have left in his in-tray for when he arrived at the City of Manchester Stadium. Mancini has announced that Ireland's future will brighten only when he deals with the demons that have besieged his head.
Ancelloti has regularly suggested that the great trick of football management is to avoid making a drama out of the routine pitfalls of the job. "When you see that players have the right degree of talent," he says, "the main job is to remind them from time to time of their responsibilities as professionals. Anyone can make mistakes, the problems come when players continue to make the same ones. Then you have to do something."
No doubt Trapattoni will also be distributing such reminders once again this weekend. It is so much easier to do this, of course, when you have established authority untouched even by the hand of Henry.