Wily Trap has Tall' order

Relaxed performance by Italian shows he's confident of winning Euro play-off

Paul Hyland

THIS will be a long week. With not much left to say and five days to say it, Giovanni Trapattoni has chosen slapstick as the theme and why not? We could all do with a laugh.

This is a skill he has acquired over many decades at the sharp end of professional football and he's very, very good at it. The harder the question, the more expansive his amateur dramatics become and a difficult point to answer disappears in a gale of laughter.

Yesterday, in a wide-ranging interview, Trapattoni dealt with many things, most notably swingers, cats in a bag, jumping guns and occasionally Estonia.

There is little point in trying to explain the fine detail of those topics for anyone who wasn't there, but it's enough to say that he was talking about wingers, not swingers and the parable of the cat and the bag exhorted all concerned not to celebrate qualification before it happens.

Why? Because Estonia have a handy team and they are just as hungry as Trapattoni's team for their place in the sun.

This is something which might seem obvious to anyone who enjoys watching high quality football and has an Irish passport.

Sure, there may be some who will shout as loud as anyone for Ireland at the appropriate moments who weren't even born when Jack Charlton fell through the door into the Euro 88 finals, but everyone knows that thin gruel was on the menu before we got to eat lobster.

We can empathise with the plucky Estonians because we were plucky too once and we understand how much it would mean to them to qualify.

Perhaps we even envy them their virginal status and would like to be in their shoes in the build up to these games.

Not, of course, during or afterwards. Estonia represent the straight guy in Trap's comedy act and their role is to provide gritty, if ultimately beatable, opposition and give him a nap hand when he knocks on John Delaney's door with his wish list for a new contract.

In this two-act play, Trapattoni made his entrance preaching caution and respect for Estonia but for all the guffawing and pantomime, he has no chance of damping down expectations this time.

Any team which has lost to the Faroe Islands in the recent past, with all due respect to Brian Kerr, should be beatable by a squad of largely Premier League footballers, many with vast experience.

In fact, Kerr has cleared the road for Trapattoni by showing that Estonia have failed to well-organised and disciplined opposition with a game plan. If that sounds familiar, it should.

Trapattoni would prefer everyone viewed this play-off from the other side of the fence. He would use the Faroes as an example of how a supposedly inferior team can upset a bigger nation by virtue of discipline.

Another view would suggest that Trapattoni's rigidity is the biggest danger to Ireland's chances of qualifying and it was noteworthy that he was at his most unintelligible when a question was put which advanced that view.

Asked whether it was not the case that even a cursory glance at a DVD record of Ireland's progress through the years of Trapattoni's tenure would reveal a uniformity of approach as predictable as the sunrise and that perhaps Estonia might exploit this, he managed to keep a straight face as he recoiled in horror at the notion.

"We are not predictable," he said and around the room, hacks pinched themselves.

Did he just say that?

Then he contradicted himself and said: "We must find something different."

Best not to dwell on this other than to suggest that the X-factor he's after is discernible in the one very clear message he has been delivering since the day after Ireland beat Armenia. He wants a goal in Estonia to bring home to Lansdowne Road and that would suggest an attack-minded approach to the game which really would be a surprise.

It would be very easy to dismiss Trapattoni's performance yesterday as nothing more than a routine he has learned to deal with pesky journalists. By encouraging smiles and dismissing dissent, he set a tone for the next few days.

Many managers can't handle this part of the job and underestimate the impact a command performance can have on players and supporters in the run-up to an event like this.

Before Ireland took on Holland in the decisive game during the World Cup 2002 qualifying series Mick McCarthy went toe to toe with that smuggest of smug men, Louis van Gaal and his stirring response to the Dutchman's studied arrogance was mirrored by his team when that fateful game started.

Trapattoni is more subtle and in the midst of all the play-acting, he revealed his hand when asked whether he would have his team practice penalties during the week should a shoot-out be needed.

His players will practice penalties every day, but it was clear from Trapattoni's demeanour that he does not expect the play-off to last long enough for that.