Saturday 24 March 2018

Charlton and Trapattoni: Common ground for old hands

Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni meet at an event in Dublin in 2010. There are less than four years in age difference between the current Irish manager and former boss
Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni meet at an event in Dublin in 2010. There are less than four years in age difference between the current Irish manager and former boss
Ireland's head coach Giovanni Trapattoni gestures during their international friendly soccer match against Hungary in Budapest's Puskas stadium. Photo: Reuters
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When Niall Quinn was invited back to Sunderland in early April for the formal renaming of a bar in his honour at the Stadium of Light, he took a short detour from Newcastle Airport.

Quinn and sports agent John Givens drove to Morpeth in Northumberland to pay a surprise visit to Jack Charlton. Jack was still recuperating from surgery on the hip broken in a fall last February, but his two visitors were pleasantly surprised to find him out walking the garden with one of his grandchildren.

Charlton is 77 now and no longer the daunting physical specimen of old. During his 10 years as Republic of Ireland manager, he -- routinely -- manipulated press conferences through sheer force of presence.

Jack bullied the Irish media whenever he felt the need. The terms of engagement were set the moment he invited a journalist outside to settle an argument at his public unveiling.

So, while he could be jocular and warm, especially with a few favoured senior scribes, Jack's default setting was a spiky abruptness whenever he sensed the dialogue drift into uncomfortable waters.

Above all, he hated the feeling of being someone else's property.

Yet, the Ireland job brought Big Jack a degree of public affection here that, curiously, even winning the 1966 World Cup with England never provided for him at home. He developed a bond with the people that, you had to suspect, was never entirely explained by football.

Around the time he was in his pomp with Ireland (Euro '88, Italia '90, USA '94), a man four years Charlton's junior was establishing himself as one of the most respected coaches in Italy's Serie A.

Giovanni Trapattoni had already guided Juventus to six league titles and a tragic European Cup final win at Heysel when he moved to Inter Milan in '86 (champions '88-89), then back to Juve in '91.

Indeed, by the time Jack slipped out of management for good in '96, Trapattoni was just beginning to broaden his horizons with a travel-lust that would bring him league titles in Germany (Bayern Munich '96-97), Portugal (Benfica '04-05) and Austria (Red Bull Salzburg '06-07). As Charlton settled for the tranquility of a riverbank, Trap was endlessly pursuing new projects and adventures.

Somehow, the age difference between the men seems bigger as a result. Trapattoni is a young 73 now, famously supple, clear-eyed and propelled by reserves of energy that some of the footballers in his care must routinely envy. He is endlessly dapper too, a man for whom appearance is palpably important.

In this, he seems a planet removed from the cheap straw hat and garish green and black, striped shorts -- worn tight as Speedos -- that became Charlton's work uniform under the debilitating Florida sun in '94. Trap, clearly, spends time in front of the mirror. Jack dressed almost as an after-thought.


Yet, the two men share a lot more common ground than could ever be accessible to the naked eye.

Both grew up in working-class homes, Charlton in the pit-town of Ashington, Trapattoni in a tenement in Cusano Milanino.

Big Jack's father worked down the mine and, at the age of 15, Jack endured four months of dawn to dusk blackness himself before deciding that a miner's life wasn't the life for him. Trapattoni's father did 14-hour shifts in a textile factory before working as a farm labourer in the evenings.

So, both men imparted a pragmatism and work ethic to their sons that Charlton and Trapattoni came to thread into their philosophies on football.

There has, then, almost been a sense of history repeating itself as pundits find technical fault with the quality of Ireland's play, despite the team returning to major tournament combat.

Yet again, the system is God. Ireland play a game designed, primarily, to contain more creative opposition and that, typically, offends the ballerina in the national psyche.

Trapattoni, however, is a little more cerebral in how he deals with this criticism.

Outwardly, he disregards it as innocence. He smiles like a weary parent, watching his children find education in their mistakes. He feigns ignorance of former players. He turns a press conference into a playground of confusion with his fractured English, all the time chuckling agreeably at the fact that he should be asked such hapless questions.

There has certainly been no hint of anything approaching the Bayern Munich eruption that became such a YouTube sensation, the one in which he launches into a furious, table-thumping outburst about three players -- Mehmet, Basler and Strunz -- who, as he puts it, "complain more than they play."

Those close to Trapattoni say he never felt properly respected in Germany and, perhaps, that '98 tirade reflected that.

But, as Charlton did before, he has encountered something that runs even deeper than respect in Ireland.

The people are palpably grateful. They see a revered world figure commit himself to the Irish cause (albeit for an annual €1.2m pay-cheque) and feel uncomplicated warmth for the man.

Trap's old-fashioned faith in good manners, his determined struggle with the language, his visible emotion when the team won 4-0 in Estonia to all but guarantee qualification for Euro 2012 all speak of someone who maybe sees the job as more than a CV insert, more than another nice earner.

To some degree, journalism is so conditioned by cynicism now, the simplicity of his relationship with the Irish people goes largely unreported. It's a symptom of the time.

Just about everyone in the top layer of professional football is obliquely separated from the rest of society by the amount of money they get paid.

But that doesn't preclude them from having a genuine connection with the public. A bond.

Charlton became a marketing phenomenon in his time as Irish boss, so much so that it became one of the more surly theories when, initially, he chose to sidestep the Phoenix Park homecoming in '94, that he might have been holding out for an "appearance fee."

The reality was that he had already been contracted to stay in the US as a TV pundit once Ireland's interest in the tournament ended.

Ultimately, the sheer weight of public opinion brought him home to a Pope-like welcome and a gruelling 12-hour turnaround.

As a man who'd got his hands on the Jules Rimet trophy 28 years earlier, Jack could never quite comprehend the Irish desire to celebrate what he considered failure.

But he did understand the obligation to respect that desire.

Wealthy as football made him, he never seemed shorn of a social conscience.

The man who openly remonstrated with heavy-handed US police officers for their treatment of Irish supporters in the Giants Stadium was a very public supporter of the miners' strike in England when he was manager of Newcastle United.

At that time, his career looked to be in decline. He would last only a year at St James' Park before resigning at the first hint of unrest on the terraces and, up to the time Bob Paisley fell victim to some rather bizarre FAI politicking, the story of Big Jack seemed a fading narrative.

By contrast, Trapattoni was at the height of his powers. In a decade with Juve, he'd won those six league titles, two Italian Cups, all three European club competitions as well as the World Club Championship.

However, the trauma of Heysel had shaken him and many believe his decision to leave Turin for Inter and a return to his home city might have been a reaction to the tragedy.

Ironically, the one gap in Trapattoni's CV is success with a national team in a major tournament. His spell as Italian manager ultimately drew only ridicule from the country's media. Two days after Ireland lost that penalty shoot-out to Spain in Suwon at the '02 World Cup, Trapattoni's Italy were controversially eliminated by one of the host nations, South Korea. Two years later, they exited the European Championship finals in Portugal, eliminated at the group stage after a pointedly convenient 2-2 between Sweden and Denmark that qualified both.

In both instances, Trapattoni made clear his belief that Italy had had their pockets picked.

And that is the paradox of his life in football. For all the great multiples of prizes won, Trap has never left a positive imprint on a World Cup or European Championship finals.

The biggest thing Jack Charlton achieved in the club game was promotion to the old First Division with Middlesbrough and, subsequently, the old Second Division with Sheffield Wednesday.

Yet, his record in international management was formidable, most pointedly the achievement of leading Ireland to the last eight of the '90 World Cup in Trap's home country.

So, Trapattoni goes to Poland now knowing that, for all the uncomplicated affection of the Irish people, there exists a silent expectation too.

A belief that this man of the world will, somehow, find a way for Ireland to escape from what looks a brutally difficult group.

He believes in God, is a regular Mass-goer and, like Charlton before him, adheres utterly to trust in the power of the collective.

He can read a game with scalpel-sharp pragmatism, too, (again like Charlton could) and knows that, ultimately, relatively dull success will always be appreciated more than theatrical failure.

He may never make an appearance on 'Podge and Rodge' as a slightly perplexed Charlton did some years ago, but Trapattoni has the broad mass of people with him. They like him because they see in him someone fundamentally decent.

"Some people complain about the way we play, the lack of bel gioco," he chuckled to a journalist in a recent interview. "But is every article you write a brilliant piece?"

The words could have been spoken in broad Geordie.

Irish Independent

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