A roller-coaster day as circus comes to town
Desperate need to finish frustrating year on high note lost in Trapattoni’s confusing message
"IT could be anything," said the FAI official, when asked for help on what Giovanni Trapattoni might have been referring to in a particularly animated section of a press conference which ranked up there with the best or worst depending on your sense of humour.
The Ireland boss had finished a lengthy answer to an unrelated question by screaming either the number "EIGHT" or just "HEY" depending on the location of your tape recorder. After making this point, he sat back with a look of contentment, as though he had just nailed the closing speech in a court case.
This response had veered off on such a spectacular tangent that the confusion of the FAI man was understandable when it was raised afterwards. A slight concern, however, is that the employee in question, communications director Peter Sherrard, was actually Trapattoni's interpreter for the day. When the man there to make sense of it is in the dark...
The gathering to discuss tonight's meeting with Greece brought a perplexed room to strange places. The 73-year-old was running an hour late after holding a Q&A session with a group of managers, including some high-profile League of Ireland bosses, who are on the next stage of their coaching badges. In his attempt to make up for lost time, he sped through his starting team, and accidentally named Darren O'Dea in place of Ciaran Clark, a mistake that was soon corrected.
What followed was a roller-coaster 45 minutes, which featured an unprompted and briefly panic-inducing reference to the speed of black players in the Premier League, confirmation that Shane Long is different to Lionel Messi, and an angry dissemination of a game which once took place between Dundee and Rangers.
It is extremely important to point out that this is not always the way. On Sunday, once the cameras had left the room, the Irish boss delivered a coherent explanation of his thoughts on Long and James McCarthy in discussion with a small group of newspaper reporters. And lest we forget, in the uncertainty of Torshavn, he chose his words carefully when his neck was on the line.
Alas, this traditional eve-of-game gathering brought us back to the circus. This is where we are now. Once the FAI chose to stick with their man last month, they booked themselves in for another chapter of entertaining linguistic chaos. The bigger the crowd, the greater the scope for hilarity.
There is a serious point lingering behind it all. After a difficult year for the international team – 2012 was anything but fantastic – it is important that it finishes on a positive note this evening. It's unlikely that any friendly opponent will ever demonstrate the ruthlessness that Germany showed in Dublin 4 last month, but an equally poor showing from an Irish side on home soil will make it an unhappy Christmas in Abbotstown.
The FAI bean counters will be nervously monitoring what the walk-up on-the-day figures add to the projected attendance.
One of the factors that almost cost Trapattoni his job was the impact that general disillusionment might have on the crowds for unglamorous friendly encounters such as this one. They will be hoping that a positive enough team selection will tempt back some of the punters who let their feelings be known post-Germany. If tonight is too soon for some fans to return, the onus is on the hosts to produce a display that will get them back on side for the February meeting with Poland.
Therefore, while much of what the manager said yesterday was hard to follow, the identity of his starting XI made a firm statement. In defence, Clark is presented with the chance to bring his Premier League experience to the international stage. His last Irish outing was a poor showing at left-back in the scattered showdown with Uruguay in March of last year.
Since then, he has been used on a more regular basis in his preferred centre-half slot at Aston Villa, and Trapattoni has come around to viewing the 23-year-old in that role.
"He is strong, he passes the ball, very fast, it's good, it's important," he said, before insinuating that he needs to stay on his feet more rather than jumping into tackles.
His progress is vital in the context of Richard Dunne's uncertain standing. Clark has stepped into his shoes at club level and even if the Dubliner recovers from a groin problem, he could have to move in January.
This week, Trapattoni has hinted ever so slightly that he is pondering alternatives in the worst-case scenario. He is concerned by the loss of experience – and will surely welcome reports that skipper Robbie Keane might come back to Villa on loan again this winter – but is prepared to place his faith in the cubs for this encounter.
McCarthy and Seamus Coleman continue their development, while Long is chosen as the central striker with Simon Cox marauding in behind. Wes Hoolahan should be introduced at half-time to see if he can effectively bridge the gap between midfield and attack like he does for Norwich.
Wide men James McClean and Robbie Brady will be under scrutiny. The catalyst for one of Trapattoni's outbursts appeared to be Glenn Whelan's complaint on Monday that he is frequently outnumbered in the centre of park. It was unclear if the Stoke man was being admonished, as the gaffer pointed out that he had a point if the wingers didn't work hard enough.
So, while McClean and Brady bring obvious attacking flair to the table, they will have to balance it with defensive application. "We need 100pc attention," stressed Trapattoni. "There is only one ball."
His skipper for the night, John O'Shea, delivered a combative response to Whelan's observation that 4-4-2 is perhaps obsolete.
"You can play it, no problem," he argued. "As the manager said, there's one football. If we are outnumbered in midfield, we have an advantage somewhere else on the pitch, so I would counter with that."
That drew a grin from the gaffer, who then finished up by bringing a query about his position into an explanation of how his opposite number, Fernando Santos, deploys Georgios Samaras. Vintage Trap.
It's never boring when he faces a microphone. As one observer tweeted yesterday, the FAI could probably sell tickets for his press conferences. They can consider that one for 2013.
In the meantime, the association's winter mood will be determined by the extent to which tonight's spectators get value for their money.