Monday 22 January 2018

All the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place

Trapattoni speaks fluent football, and that is the crucial link between the Ireland manager and his players, says Dion Fanning

Robbie Keane watches his penalty cross the line for
Ireland's fourth goal on Friday night
Robbie Keane watches his penalty cross the line for Ireland's fourth goal on Friday night

Round midnight, it nearly all made sense. Round midnight, when the game was won and few could even engage in the pretence that there was another hurdle to clear before qualification, everything fell into place.

It made sense then that the players had been as relaxed as they had ever been on the afternoon of a game.

It made sense that Giovanni Trapattoni, normally a man to avoid on the day of a match, had been calm and approachable. When he got changed to head to the stadium, he became sombre as he always does when he begins to think only about the game, a subtle change of emphasis for a man whose life's obsession has been football.

But, round midnight, he was emotional as he reflected on all he had achieved. And he knew that in Tallinn on Friday night, he had achieved it.

"I don't speak English very well, sometimes I'm not even good at Italian," Trapattoni said, "but I understand football."

Trapattoni understood that Ireland could beat Estonia and he understood at half-time that Ireland could squeeze the life out of them. His side did that with an exemplary display of professionalism which left no Estonian mistake unpunished.

As he talked after midnight, Trapattoni pointed repeatedly to the pitch which was outside the window he stood in front of. His players had done what he asked of them out there. There was no false humility. Trapattoni stopped celebrating when Ireland scored their fourth goal but his respect did not go as far as to suggest that the game was still a contest. Ireland were "50 per cent" there he said, maybe "51 per cent" but everything else he said was a reflection of his achievement.

There was plenty of emotion. As Trapattoni walked away from a small huddle of journalists, John Delaney was waiting. He cupped Trapattoni's head in his hands and pulled him closer to him. Some gambles paid off for Delaney in Tallinn on Friday night and they don't all involve the appointment of Trapattoni.

Trapattoni has implemented his own kind of consistency. Some of his players might be baffled by how it has been achieved when few instructions are given before, during or after games but Trapattoni tried to explain it on Friday night.

He spoke of the players first being shown that they would be selected on merit (the merit of what they do for Ireland, not their clubs) and he then mentioned something he has touched on many times since August, his decision at the end of last season to say the players needed to improve their behaviour and show 'respect' for the staff in the FAI.

He had made that charge on the back of a number of withdrawals and now he says that when a players pulls out of the squad, he does it in the right way.

When he first floated this idea, many of us wondered how he hoped to alter the behaviour of players who are used to being indulged.

Trapattoni has demonstrated that he will not change. His style of football won't be altered either and in being as resolutely stubborn in this as in everything else, he has perhaps been sending messages.

The messages say that in style, as in everything else, there is only one way of doing things and don't go looking for a way around it.

He has never played to the gallery but in that he will be tested now like never before. On Friday night, eejitry was already breaking out at the post-match press conference when Hector asked a question about the cat being in the sack. The question did lead, in fairness, to Trap's answer when he declared that the cat was "in the bag but the bag is not closed. But the cat is dangerous -- it's a wild cat."

There followed more cat questions -- 'Do you like cats?', all of which were harmless but gave a taste of what to expect when the Corrigan Brothers get involved.

Trapattoni will remain detached, although he will probably supplement his income, something that will be encouraged by the FAI who still need to make all the savings they can.

Delaney denied that jobs in the FAI would have been lost if Ireland hadn't qualified, although there are plenty in Abbotstown who would whisper that they felt differently about their own situation.

The FAI chief executive claimed the problems the Association now have are "great problems to have" as they will soon begin negotiations with Trapattoni over a new contract and then they will try to keep the players' demands to a minimum.

Qualification does not mean that the FAI are now rich. With debt of around €50m, they can't say that.

Delaney continues to operate a high-risk game. Like the type of Country and Irish politician he resembles, Delaney reaches beyond the media which parodies him to the supporters who acclaim him.

While they would traditionally go west of the Shannon to reach their heartland, Delaney tends to go east of the Rhine to meet his people.

His bar tab and raffling of tickets might have caused controversy last week but Delaney, despite being sensitive to all criticism, thinks he has his own constituency.

The FAI would insist that the raffling of tickets was the fairest way of doing things and it makes no difference if it is Delaney who is doing it or a computer, even if the chief executive is associated with this good news.

They will now try and negotiate for Trapattoni's contract. In between rounds of hand-clasping and bear-hugging on Friday, Delaney made special mention of Denis O' Brien's contribution.

Until they know his intentions, they can't move on Trapattoni's contract. Without O' Brien's money, the FAI would be back paying the kind of money Steve Staunton and Brian Kerr were on, although the financial situation is even bleaker now.

But qualification, as Delaney pointed out, offers intangibles. The players have always shown awareness of what it would mean to a country on its knees economically to get this boost. Delaney returned to a familiar refrain when he spoke of football's ability to unite the country like no game can. Rugby might do that now as well but the world, or at least Europe, will be watching next summer.

For some, there is a worry in Ireland's football being exposed to a wider audience. "We're competitive in every game we play," Richard Dunne says and tournament football will suit Ireland although their games won't be a spectacle for the neutral. The match on Friday was a throwback to the 1980s and served only as an antidote to nostalgia. Estonia had few ideas and even less ability to execute them.

Ireland knew what they were doing. Jonathan Walters was outstanding and Keith Andrews returned to the form he showed when Trapattoni first promoted him.

"I don't give two shites about the critics, we've been doing our job," Andrews said after the game. "I never took note of the criticism we got. We were doing our job for the manager, it's been very hard work, we've been very honest, the effort in training is fantastic, everyone, the subs, the back-room team, every one puts the effort in to get a night like this." The performance on Friday, Andrews said, was "like a volcano" and that Ireland had been "waiting to explode".

They did it at the right time, although they were helped by the desperate opposition.

There was little sympathy from the Irish team for Estonia as they know more than most that part of football's cruelty is the banality with which it's sometimes exercised.

'Fuck you, referee,' the Estonians chanted but this was not a football injustice and Trapattoni said, the result didn't make up for Paris.

"There is the political sport and at that moment I was not happy for the political sport," Trapattoni said, recalling Paris. "But I did complain and speak to FIFA. All the people knew, you all see the situation and words were useless. You saw, the people say, it was needless. Raymond Domenech said to me, 'Giovanni, I'm sorry, you know the football.' He gave me his hand and said. 'I'm sorry, you know the football.' I know the football."

He knows this team and the team know him.

"He was calm, he said well done and that it was down to us," Dunne said when asked about the manager's reaction. "But it's been down to him. He's the one who's organised us. He's calm and relaxed, he does his work through the week. Come match day, I think he trusts us all. He knows what we can do and what we can't do and expects us to do it. He knows he's always going to get 100 per cent and he appreciates it from us.

"We've conceded one goal in God knows how long. We've always got a chance. Over the four years the squad that he's built up from where maybe it looked like a squad that wasn't going anywhere but now we've got a really strong squad with lots of options."

For players like Dunne and others, this is the opportunity they deserve. After Robbie Keane's penalty, Ireland's captain had a moment when he grabbed Damien Duff by the hand and they touched their heads together. Two of Ireland's greatest players have seen it all from Saipan to Paris. They were wide-eyed but very different teenagers and they have retained their idiosyncrasies while reluctantly accepting their roles as the experienced pros.

They will now get another chance at a major finals and Trapattoni will hope to stay for another shot at the World Cup.

A lot could be explained afterwards but not everything. Trapattoni had behaved curiously at Thursday's press conference, addressing a number of journalists by name, something he has rarely done, while he had a list of all their newspapers on the table in front of him. Some felt he was trying to make friends as he looks for the contract he desires while others wondered if he was being so intimate as part of a farewell.

Now he will expect to stay once qualification is guaranteed in Dublin for the first time on Tuesday.

There have been bad days in football when 4-0 leads have been turned around. Had anything like that ever happened to him? Had he ever surrendered a 4-0 lead at home? You know the answer the minute you ask the question. You might as well ask him if he'd ever considered satanic rituals instead of Mass on a Sunday. Before he can answer, Marco Tardelli lets out a snort, "No, no."

"No," said Trapattoni, shaking his head gravely as if contemplating an impossible sadness. "No, never like this. Now we must put on a performance. Anything else would be a betrayal of the supporters."

And, he didn't need to add, it would be a betrayal of all he believes in and all Ireland has worked so hard to achieve.

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