Sport Soccer

Saturday 21 October 2017

Manager a step ahead of stumbling FAI

Only one man is still smiling after a chaotic week for Irish football, writes Dion Fanning

'Can you not defend him? Can one of you not defend him?" One of Giovanni Trapattoni's party was struggling to comprehend what was going on. Ireland's manager was under siege. Trapattoni talked of rumours and dismissed the need to have a close relationship with his employers. He spoke a lot about duty. He explained what he considered his duty to be. Implicit in his words, sometimes explicit in them, was how he felt others should do their duty. "They must tell me why," he said, when asked if he would consider walking away from the Ireland job.

Last week Giovanni Trapattoni demonstrated that he needs nobody to defend him. He may have diminished as a football manager but as a football man -- as a man -- he still sparkles. Elements within the FAI lurked in the shadows, leaking and refusing to speak. Trapattoni took to the floor and routed them. In the end, having no alternative, the FAI were proclaiming unity and turning on the media. An old-fashioned heave had been attempted but they hadn't reckoned on the spirit of Trap. They took a knife to a gunfight.

On Tuesday night, when the game against the Faroe Islands was won, Trapattoni went up and down the three flights of stairs in the Torsvollur Stadium, delivering his message with his entourage trying to match his pace.

First he spoke in one press conference, then down the stairs to the mixed zone where he shook some hands and made some friends, then back up three flights of stairs again for another press conference. He then went into a VIP room for a TV interview and then, finally, standing outside the bathroom, he concluded his media obligations. Kevin Keegan had quit as England manager in the Wembley toilets; Trapattoni was going nowhere.

He was asked if he thought he would still be in charge for the games in March. "That is not my duty. I hope." He said he was happy because his team had won but he was unhappy because of "the rumours".

Visitors to the Irish team hotel in Torshavn last week spoke of a strange atmosphere. Stephen Kelly had a disagreement with the management before leaving Dublin but that was not the only cause of unrest. Trapattoni knew after the 6-1 defeat that he was under pressure but there was also the sense that he had lost influential backing.

"The FAI," Declan Lynch wrote once, "is the dysfunctional body that other dysfunctional bodies call the galacticos." If Trapattoni hadn't realised that before, he discovered it last week. Yet those who were around him in Torshavn, including players, spoke of a certain invulnerability in the manager. Others may have wanted him protected but Trapattoni radiated the sense that he had seen all this before.

He spoke of the one president he had in all his time as a manager who understood football. By the end of the week, when John Delaney was claiming it was all the work of the media and his relationship with Trapattoni had never altered, it was worth remembering the stark terms which Trapattoni had used to lay out his relationship with the FAI. Only Giampiero Boniperti, who had played in the same Juventus team as John Charles, understood the game. "The rest, they change like the wind." Trapattoni was putting pressure on the FAI. He was on the attack. By the end of the week, they had been played.

The FAI appeared to waiver between Sunday and Wednesday but nobody really knows. The official line is that no decision was taken until the Board of Management met on Wednesday night.

When comments were made on RTÉ and TV3 last week, the FAI received a swift apology. RTÉ's ran as follows:

"On our 'Morning Ireland' sports bulletin just after 8.30am on Thursday, we featured a piece between Darren Frehill and our soccer correspondent Tony O'Donoghue in which we stated that it was generally believed that mixed messages had been given to the media about the future of the Senior Manager's position and that the Chief Executive of the FAI John Delaney was the Senior FAI Source responsible for these rumours.

RTÉ and Tony O'Donoghue would like to unreservedly apologise to the CEO John Delaney for these statements made on our programme which were untrue.

We would also like to apologise for the general tone of that particular exchange."

The FAI seem to have an idea about how they are viewed in society which might not correspond to how many see them.

When I interviewed Delaney in June, he told me he was "disappointed" with me. On Tuesday, a few journalists who attempted to speak to him were summarily waved away with Delaney responding to this act of impertinence much as Bishop Brennan did when he was kicked up the arse. RTé and TV3 got it wrong last week and apologised. They also apologised for "the tone" of their pieces. What is the correct tone when discussing the FAI? Delaney, it may be worth stating at this stage, is not the Primate of All Ireland.

In fact, he is the chief executive of an indebted association which revealed itself last week to be as dysfunctional as ever. He was chief executive when the FAI appointed Steve Staunton and the association last week created another comical mess.

Delaney and many fans blamed the media. Delaney said what distinguished last week was "certain low standards" in Irish journalism. The interview in the Irish Examiner didn't specify which stories he considered had reached these low standards.

Perhaps he was angry with the newspaper that had carried stories all week from "a senior FAI source" saying Trapattoni would be sacked, a senior source which two news organisations have apologised for suggesting may have been John Delaney. He may have been angry with the same newspaper for describing Trapattoni as "shameless" for refusing to quit which would force the FAI to pay him as agreed by the terms of his contract if they decided to dismiss him. But John Delaney doesn't bear a grudge. On Friday, Delaney spoke to that newspaper, as well as the Examiner, in Abbotstown.

The FAI, as far as this newspaper can ascertain, have made no attempt to have last week's Irish Independent story that Trapattoni would be sacked corrected. They refused to comment yesterday when asked if they would seek a clarification. They refused to comment when asked if they accepted that a senior source had provided information. They refused to comment when asked, if they did accept this, would they launch an investigation into who leaked a story which did so much to undermine the Irish manager. They refused to comment when asked if they thought this was serious. Perhaps the low standards John Delaney was talking about happened elsewhere. Maybe John Delaney thinks he shouldn't be approached by journalists before a game kicks off which he is attending in his capacity as the highly-paid chief executive of the FAI. Maybe they were the low standards he was talking about.

John Delaney, it must be repeated, didn't leak the story. Who did?

These days, the FAI are good at keeping a story to themselves. When rumours swirled around about the identity of the Irish player who would be forced to miss the Euros, the FAI said nothing, and it only came out that it was James McCarthy at Trapattoni's press conference.

While some fans comfort and enrage themselves simultaneously with the idea that the media are just making it up, few in the media who know how it works doubted that the Irish Independent had a good source. Every newspaper would have run that story; the issue was then, and remains today, who leaked it?

The source talked about Trapattoni needing a miracle. The newspaper seemed to think he should simply quit and save the FAI some money. Both underestimated the manager.

In his Irish Examiner interview yesterday, Delaney was asked by Liam Mackey, "Is there a sense in which you have been trying to provoke him into resigning?"

His response was categorical.

"Absolutely not. That charge put by anybody is so outrageous. Absolutely outrageous. That's where I think you guys, certain aspects of the media, get it so wrong it's unbelievable."

Trapattoni saw no reason to quit because he still wants to be Ireland manager. Many feel he is not the right man for the job, but he's not among them. In those circumstances, he would never walk away. Trapattoni's contract is also understood to be watertight and allows no room for a reduced pay-off.

On Tuesday night, Trapattoni was fighting and the FAI began to sense that they were losing. He would have understood, he said, if the FAI had sacked him after the European Championships but not now. "Obviously, obviously," he said when asked if he would have understood them taking action in June. Now, he claimed, he was rebuilding and restoring spirit in the squad. "I am 30 years training players, I didn't start yesterday. You have a feeling when the players are with you. Because I am a man, I clarify my duty. I always give explanations."

When he was asked if he had their backing, he again used one word. "That is not my duty. Listen, it's important when the manager has the team."

When the players heard that Trapattoni's regular post-match conference in Dublin had been cancelled, they feared the worst. Trapattoni, on the other hand, feared nothing.

The FAI statement on Wednesday night clarified very little. Victory in the Faroes had kept the hope of qualification alive so Trapattoni would stay. Why they needed to meet to work this out was not explained. Delaney said they needed to provide the Irish people with "clarity". Their statement didn't help much with that.

"The Board," the statement concluded in a peroration of magnificent bullshit, "recognises the depth of feeling surrounding the team, the performances, the results and the manager, reflecting the passion which everyone in Irish football has for the game and will continue to work closely with the manager."

In his interviews yesterday, Delaney said that financial concerns were not the deciding factor. He spoke in the warmest terms of Denis O'Brien but stated that the decision about a manager was taken by the FAI alone.

By the end of the week, the FAI, John Delaney and Trapattoni were together again. Trapattoni met with Delaney in Abbotstown on Friday and received his new instructions. Delaney spoke of how he had relayed some concerns to the manager and he expected him to act on them. Yesterday, Trapattoni went to see Norwich play as part of this brave new collaborative world.

Yet, of all the stories spun in the last week, this is the most implausible. The FAI caved and were beaten by a stronger man. Most of all -- and how this must infuriate the smart guys in the association who think they know all the angles -- they were out-witted by a more cunning man and a better politician. Trapattoni, like all great managers, has built his career on knowing what he wants. He won't alter his course now.

Now he is supposed to be listening to the man who, with the backing of the board of management, appointed Steve Staunton. "We were very strong on raising certain matters with him," Delaney told the Irish Examiner, "and one of those was going to cross-channel games. So he's going to Carrow Road this weekend and I think you'll see more of that."

For how long we see more of that, or more of Trap, remains open to question.

Trapattoni talked on Tuesday night of other jobs. He may be tempted by an offer if one comes along before March. If Ireland do well in those games, he will stay. If they do badly, there may be no point in getting rid of him and appointing a new manager for a series of meaningless competitive fixtures.

His eventual successor seems likely to be Mick McCarthy. Delaney has always spoken warmly of him. Harry Redknapp was known to be interested last week but his claims and those of Rafa Benitez were dismissed by some on the basis that they would only stick around until a Premier League club made an offer.

If the next Ireland manager is any good, he should be getting Premier League offers. The only way to avoid other offers is by doing a bad job. In that way, the FAI would simply be pursuing mediocrity.

Perhaps they are most comfortable there. Last week demonstrated once again, that if the FAI excels at anything, it is causing chaos.

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