Sport Soccer

Monday 29 May 2017

The madness in his method

Giovanni Trapattoni has raised the stakes ahead of Saturday's crucial tie in Skopje, writes Dion Fanning

Giovanni Trapattoni
Giovanni Trapattoni

Dion Fanning

I n 2007, the FAI announced that Shane Long would not be part of the Ireland squad for the home game against Cyprus. He was injured, the FAI said.

Ireland was in the final days of Steve Staunton's miserable reign, Stephen Ireland's grandmother-killing spree was a recent and painful memory so the injury to a squad player seemed like nothing more than routine.

Soon, however, it transpired that Long had been on the bench for a senior game in Slovakia when he was in fact suspended due to a sending-off at underage level and some complicated and arcane by-laws.

Long hadn't come on in the game so Ireland were only fined and avoided a points deduction, something that required no third-party intervention under Staunton.

The FAI realised their mistake. He was now also suspended for the game against Cyprus. But, to avoid the story getting out, the FAI said he was injured and Long was put in the embarrassing position of going along with their line even though he was fit.

"I was told all right, yeah, but I think they have their reasons for everything and I just said 'okay, fair enough, and let's get on with it'," Long said at the time. "I just kept my head down and concentrated on my football back at Reading."

The FAI did not reveal this information until the story was published by a journalist. Then they confessed all and admitted that a young player was effectively asked to lie about his fitness in order to protect an administrative mistake.

This was before the time of Giovanni Trapattoni and we can only assume that he would have done things differently, but when the Irish management started making shrill noises about respect last week and questioning, in a contradictory way, the injury claims made by James McCarthy and Marc Wilson, it was important to remember that players aren't the only ones to use injury as a fig leaf when it suits them.

McCarthy was the most high-profile casualty of a week when Giovanni Trapattoni may have had a valid point to make, but he stumbled over the facts, offered misleading information and ended up wrapping himself in the comfort blanket of Respect.

Who doesn't want respect? Trapattoni as a manager and as a man is certainly entitled to it but in dealing with a player 50 years younger than him and in bemoaning the attitude of the young he was fighting a pointless fight.

There are many who will have sympathy with his point of view, especially the senior players in the squad as Robbie Keane has explained. Yet Trapattoni, who is supposedly a pragmatist, also demonstrated that he has got an ideologue's worldview.

When it comes to national teams, you are preaching to the choir when you tell a country's supporters that a player hasn't shown enough respect to the country, its manager or the jersey, whatever that means. It is an intangible thing, viewed by some footballers as something akin to loyalty, just another stick to beat them over the head with when it suits.

Trapattoni is an honourable man but he made mistakes last week. Not just the mistakes of administration. Technically he was right to say that he hadn't heard from James McCarthy when he met the press on Monday but the FAI had heard from Wigan on Sunday by text.

Anybody involved in football learns to swallow hard when dealing with the casual rudeness of some footballers. It is a generalisation but footballers schooled in Britain tend to have a greater distrust of -- and as a result a worse attitude towards -- the outside world than the European players Trapattoni has worked with for most of his career. There are exceptions within the Irish squad but some of them have matured over the years. When they were young and irresponsible some of them were young and irresponsible.

The FAI probably expect more courtesy when dealing with a player but they will not have been shocked or considered it an act of unique impertinence when McCarthy didn't respond to contact made in the build-up to the games last week.

Trapattoni clearly has a view of the player that can't be altered, a view that McCarthy has done little to change. Trapattoni's position has been supported by senior players with Keane's comments that the squad held a meeting about the issue illustrating that they feel that this is a serious matter.

After the fuss in February, Trapattoni had to be persuaded by the FAI that McCarthy was not another Stephen Ireland. He has shown a willingness to play for Ireland at all levels so clearly there are other issues.

Firstly, he is now a star in a struggling team. Wigan will be eager for him to play as little international football as possible as he is also an asset, coveted by Liverpool and Chelsea. Roberto Martinez welcomed the selection of Hugo Rodallega and Antolin Alcaraz in the Copa America in July even if they miss the start of pre-season training but he is more protective of McCarthy and he is also undoubtedly reflecting McCarthy's wishes.

The debate Trapattoni ignited about respect also touched upon things he or Marco Tardelli, who reached an ecstatic career high-point in a World Cup final, cannot understand. For a new generation of footballer, the international game is not as important as it was for them.

This view is reflected around them. Clubs and many supporters are more interested in the club game, especially when asked to commit or even attend a game like the pointless friendlies this week.

If, as some reports suggested, McCarthy is extremely close to signing for Liverpool, he may have decided not to risk injury in a friendly before that deal was done. He knew, too, that he was unlikely to be selected in Macedonia but, perhaps, with a different approach, he might have travelled for that game.

For those who believe in the jersey, this will be unpatriotic talk but in football dressing rooms, they have always been aware of how the world works.

Last week could have been very different if Trapattoni hadn't exploded last Monday. If the player was simply said to be receiving treatment in Wigan, the player could have been allowed rest for a week before possibly flying in for the build-up to the Macedonia game. He was ultimately ruled out of the Macedonia game by Martinez last Tuesday but there was no need to reach that point.

Robbie Keane pointed out the commitment of the senior players but others will have felt differently about an international meeting that could stretch to 17 days in order to play one extremely important game. For Trapattoni, this is normal and he would like the Irish to be more like the Italians than the English.

McCarthy, thanks to his upbringing, was always committed to Ireland and he ended one debate by playing for his country in the home game against Macedonia.

Last week, Trapattoni began another unnecessary debate around one of Ireland's brightest talents even if it now touches upon areas the manager would rather were avoided. Ian Harte was angry last week and when he saw a couple of Irish reporters at Reading's training ground, he let it all out. Trapattoni talked about respect, Harte said, but where was the manager's to him?

"Lack of respect? I think they should show respect to people who want to put the green shirt on, to someone who is Irish and who is passionate about playing for his own country -- then they can have a look deeper inside themselves."

Harte claims that an Irish team-mate encouraged Trapattoni to look at Harte recently, only for the manager to say he didn't know Harte was Irish.

It is an astonishing claim. When Harte said that Trapattoni's approach to watching games is "absolute madness", he became the first player to question the approach which has been tolerated by the FAI.

No previous Irish manager could have got away with watching DVDs of matches and if, say, Terry Venables, was spending his weekends in Spain watching Irish players on TV, he would have been condemned and accused of showing a lack of respect to the job.

Harte knows that his words might cost him whatever slim chance he had of a call-up this week even if Ireland are straining in defence, with Sean St Ledger's probable absence an unwelcome blow after Richard Dunne's suspension.

Next Saturday will be a defining moment for Trapattoni. He has raised the stakes and there is some evidence that he may have successfully developed a siege mentality among the squad that flies out on Thursday.

A game at the end of the season was always going to demand much from the weary. Perhaps, in creating a debate around a player he was never going to pick, Trap has sparked life into the rest of them.

Trapattoni was the angriest of the lot, driven mad by the fecklessness of youth. He has his ways, his beliefs and his rigid insistence -- backed by plenty of evidence -- that this is the way to success.

Yet, the people he seems to have most trouble persuading are his own players. Since Paris, he has had to deal first with stories of unrest and then actual unrest, whether caused by senior players like Richard Dunne, or the manager himself.

He went to war again last week, fighting for an abstract concept when his whole career he has preached that only the result matters.

In Skopje on Saturday, his methods and his madness will need to have been worthwhile.

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