Friday 15 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Veteran general caught in a Trap of own making

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So the ongoing search for light takes Giovanni Trapattoni to a town where the sun doesn't shine. You fly in and out of Torshavn only at those moments when the gluey clouds part and a little parched beam slips down onto the ribbon of concrete they call a runway. As Brian Kerr will aver, it's never wise to plan a quick getaway from the Faroes.

If the fog isn't down, chances are the wind will be throwing airport weathervanes into an incoherent rage. In other words, there's an endless possibility that the plane coming to bring you home won't get there.

So, Giovanni had best not bank on going anywhere in a hurry tomorrow night. Seven years ago, a postponed flight had Kerr and his Irish team checking back into the hotel they'd left in torrential rain maybe seven hours earlier. At least, they did so with the consolation of a 2-0 victory.

But there's an energy building just now that suggests Torshavn and Trapattoni might be an uncomfortable story. He goes there a damaged leader, albeit the jeers registering around Lansdowne Road at the end of Friday's humiliation against Germany didn't exactly rise to a cacophony. For now, the most audible din is media noise. It is as if the public can't quite summon the appetite to howl abuse at a great football man who, it seems, may be finally caught in the quicksand of hubris.

Punditry has never operated under anything as cumbersome as a conscience, so Trap is already gone in the eyes of the Fourth Estate.

Happy endings don't happen in football management, of course, but you would like to think that separation doesn't always have to be recriminatory. One of the saddest images Irish football has on its record is that of Jack Charlton being summoned to Dublin two days before Christmas of '95 and having his stewardship of the national team terminated in a Dublin Airport car-park.

No less than Trapattoni now, Charlton then was floundering. Ireland had just been well beaten in a European Championship play-off against Holland at Anfield and, while Big Jack knew his time was up, the romantic in him yearned to hold tight until the 10th anniversary of his appointment the following January.

That concession was denied him, however, and a TV camera crew captured the hauntingly melancholy image of a clearly emotional Charlton walking alone back into the departure hall, his time with Ireland brusquely concluded.

For all Charlton had gained (and he gained plenty) in his time employed by the FAI, it felt wrong that the end could not have been handled with more grace.

One thinks too of Joe Duffy's wretched interview with the late Bobby Robson after Ireland's almost slapstick escape from Serravalle with victory over San Marino in February of '07.

Those images sit uncomfortably with genuine Irish football people because of their bad-mannered tone and the inverted snobbery they reflected of a small nation forever turning on its manager when unremarkable players underperform.

A suspicion lurks that we find it easier to kick our own, as Kerr, Steve Staunton and Mick McCarthy -- having cracked the porcelain jug of a certain Corkman's self-regard -- discovered to their cost.

Trapattoni's CV gave his unveiling in the RDS four years ago the feel of a lottery win for the FAI. The chaos of Staunton's time in charge had been compounded by Robson's illness, but, now, Irish football was back in the hands of a technical coach who could make us hard to beat again.

And that Trapattoni did. In successive qualifying campaigns, Ireland got to play-offs and, for anyone in Nicosia the October night in '06 when Cyprus put five past Paddy Kenny, that was a return worth the Italian's generous salary.

Trouble is, his demeanour as Irish boss has always pretty much articulated that opinion. Trap knows his place in the game. When he implied to Italian journalists during this summer's Euros that the negativity of Irish questioning reflected a peasant's cluelessness, he would have been oblivious to the essential condescension of the act.

Irritation pulls at his mouth now when asked to explain himself to a judiciary he considers uneducated.

Above all, he reads ingratitude in the discord. He is the great, decorated general being asked why the enemy keeps advancing and it galls him that the medals on his tunic don't supply sufficient answer. Maybe he reads some kind of insidious ageism brewing too for all we know.

But the specifics of Trap's decision-making suddenly seem less important than the broad message of his body language. In fact, arguments about team selection maybe detract from the real issue. After the meltdown in Poland, some of the more fundamental cribs were (a) John O'Shea was palpably more comfortable as a centre-back; (b) Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews were too easily over-run as a two-man midfield; (c) the team cried out for an attacking full-back, a la Seamus Coleman and (d) the team needed a play-maker who could pass the ball, a la Keith Fahey.

All those issues were tackled in varying degrees on Friday night, yet the team still looked hopelessly lost.

You could maybe question Darren O'Dea's selection and Shane Long's omission, but, bottom line, Ireland's two most important players over the last six or seven years have been Shay Given and Richard Dunne. Why? Because they led.

The problem on Friday wasn't so much the system as the manner of its deployment. Three across the middle doesn't amount to much if they stand, in a non-aggressive line, just 15 yards north of their defenders.

Ireland simply deferred to the Germans physically and that begs a question of whether the players just no longer listen to Trapattoni or whether they listen and deduce that what he is saying is untenable.

No more than the rest of us, you have to suspect they crave a glimpse of humility from the Italian now. An Irish team without spirit, as we saw on Friday, simply does not have the technical facility to compete. Spirit maybe cannot be artificially manufactured by a coach, but it can certainly be broken by one.

Some years ago, Charlton explained in a BBC radio interview with Jimmy Armfield what he considered to be the key to his success as Irish manager. The style he nurtured, Jack explained, "wasn't a knock-about, take-your-time game. It was a rush game, more of the sort that the Irish experienced of their own gaelic players."

Trapattoni's difficulty now is that there is no longer an identifiable style to how Ireland play.

In that void, the team looks bereft of personality.

So, the air in Torshavn will be plump with questions tomorrow night. Is the Irish manager too proud to recognise the crisis? Can he not honestly see that a Premier League centre-back might be a better option than one struggling in the MLS? Or a striker with pace and touch might pose more danger than one with neither?

Above all, does he not recognise that -- even for the greats of the game -- management is essentially about communication?

For Trap, there can be no future in hubris. If he is to take offence, let it be with the timidity of his team. That is his contract and his duty. So let tomorrow unwrap a response identifiable as competitive anger.

Anything else is noise.

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