Friday 24 November 2017

Dion Fanning: Tonight will reveal if qualities of discipline and intensity can sustain our challenge

Everyone knows what Trapattoni has achieved, writes Dion Fanning, the question now is can he do it again with a group of unknowns?

The Republic of Ireland squad train at the Stadion Miejski in Poznan last night
The Republic of Ireland squad train at the Stadion Miejski in Poznan last night

Dion Fanning

Last weekend, before Giovanni Trapattoni left Tuscany, he was honoured in the town of Montecatini, a ceremony which was preceded by a question and answer session in the main piazza.

The format was gentle and respectful but the night was hilarious and anarchic thanks to the road race that entered its final stages through town at the same time as Trap and his detail were leaving the stage. Trapattoni accommodates this Italian commitment to melodrama quite easily alongside his contradictory desire for order and calm.

On stage in Montecatini, Trapattoni was asked to recall his greatest victories in football. He talked around the question for a minute and then said: "one victory I still regret is the defeat in Paris". When asked to talk about victories, he turned instead to defeats. Defeat haunts Trapattoni, victory is a momentary sensation. In football terms, he is haunted by the idea that the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.

Every little detail in Trap's play-book concerns the horrible consequences of a lapse in concentration not the beauty of a moment's inspiration. The drills the players must go through -- "repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat" as he put it on Friday -- are always designed to protect a defence.

There have been moments during this long preparation for tonight's game when the restless, questing spirit of Trapattoni has revealed itself. It is never far from the surface, the drive of a 73-year-old man who says he feels 20 is always apparent.

He has phenomenal energy which means that sometimes his age is forgotten, particularly by him. Last week, the FAI were conscious that his media duties should be staggered, aware that when he gets tired, he becomes harder to understand. Like many driven men, he doesn't see this. He thinks he makes sense and he thinks he can do what he always did. He makes a compelling case too.

On Friday, he sprung to his feet when asked about Italy's first round exit at the 2004 European Championships. Suddenly, he was re-enacting goals that denied Italy and moving about the room reliving goalkeeping errors.

It was significant that in Montecatini he could look back no further than his last most painful defeat when asked to provide some comforting nostalgia. When he is asked to reflect he becomes impatient and deals in generalities. The past is only brought up to make some point about the future.

"He is always looking at the next match," Alan Kelly says, who recalls that the morning after last Monday's game in Budapest, Trapattoni was watching DVDs of Croatia.

He was agitated after Monday night's game. "I didn't recognise my players," but his agitation was with the media who gave him the platform to "provoke" his players. With his squad, Richard Dunne said, he was calm.

As much as he ever can, he trusts these players. "I am confident about this team now." He trusts them, not to play football, for him that would be reckless, but to implement his ideas.

After three weeks, the players felt like a break last Wednesday and he was happy to allow it. It was good management. Players, like journalists, like to complain on the road but there was little in this story except evidence that the preparations had gone well. Robbie Keane said he was "gobsmacked" that a fuss had been made about it. The media, Trapattoni said in Montecatini, were "masters of polemic and controversy" but it was nothing he hadn't seen before.

He watched as his friend Fabio Capello was forced to quit England following an interview he gave on Italian TV. To do this, Trap says, "is a grave mistake".

"The first thing you need to do is not make a mistake like going on Italian TV and giving an interview there. I get calls all the time from Italian friends and reporters. But I don't give them information because I have respect for Irish reporters."

Yet he said the Irish press had difficulty grasping concepts to do with the formation which he expressed badly in Budapest. "I couldn't understand why you couldn't understand. The Italian media understood immediately. They say it's clear."

The players understand him as much as is necessary. Trapattoni is fortunate to have senior players he can trust like Dunne, Damien Duff, Keane and Shay Given.

Given's fitness is the only anxiety beyond the existential anxiety about tonight's game. He is not fully fit and would probably not play if this was a mid-table Premier League match. But it isn't and Given will play with the evidence of his performance in Budapest giving some comfort.

There is more to this team than is sometimes acknowledged, especially when they are compared unfavourably with Irish teams of the past. The majority of players in a composite between Euro '88 and this team would come from the present day. However, in central midfield, there would be no competition -- in 1988, Ireland had two great players in Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan.

If this team has a great player, it is Richard Dunne but they have a great manager who, as the oldest ever to have managed in the European Championships, is eager to demonstrate that his time hasn't gone.

Ireland will hope to prove it by cleaving to his traditional way. He is a conservative man and a conservative manager. For him, that is the way to achieve a result. In Estonia after the 4-0 win, he was asked if he had ever thrown away such a lead. He shook his head as if in contemplation of an impossible sadness as Marco Tardelli roared, "No, no".

The idea of such a defensive lapse was heretical to Trapattoni and his belief that this team no longer commits them sustains him. He is a hard man to be around on the day of a game but the squad have come to understand his excitability as a reflex rather than an indication that he is unclear in his thinking or uncertain of his ideas.

It is impossible not to be impressed by him, while also being frustrated and baffled. Like all great managers, he has a necessary madness which may be the way the eradication of self-doubt manifests itself in a manager's personality. He is the message, he conveys it with his entire being when the English language, or any language, fails him. He has translated this routine to his players, nothing changes no matter who Ireland are playing.

"We prepared for the game against the Tuscan XI the same way we will for the Croatia game," Dunne says. In fact their preparation for the practice game in Montecatini was a dry run in every sense.

Trapattoni doesn't like his backroom staff to touch alcohol the evening before the game, so the night before a run-out against a local team, some of his staff ordered a pot of tea in a local bar. Everybody knows what Trap wants. Tonight we will discover if Ireland know how to get it.

This has, as he will remind you, been his life. "There is the result," as he puts it. Everything is devoted to that goal.

He has failures too. Ireland don't need to get out of the group to be a success but they will need to discover a heroism that wasn't present too often in the group, except in the outlandish performance in Moscow.

Trap may have done this. Perhaps he has taken away the mood swings of Irish football, the manic highs and the crushing lows which have usually been experienced through the medium of drawn games. Yet a draw is the most likely result in Poznan tonight even if Ireland can beat this Croatia side.

Trapattoni will be determined not to lose, although he is aware, more than most, that "football is unpredictable".

He has a desire to eliminate chance which is exceptional even among managers who, if they are to be any good, must desire to control everything, no matter how helpless that desire can often be.

In these times, Trapattoni turns to those he trusts. When he showed up at the Newstalk apartment in Sopot last week, he was accompanied by Tardelli, Fausto Rossi the fitness coach and Gerry Gerosa, his most trusted scout. The three squeezed onto a sofa while Manuela Spinelli and Trapattoni conducted the interview.

Gerosa had spent the previous week watching Ireland's opponents before travelling to Budapest to meet up with the squad. He was able to offer some solace to Trapattoni last week. The manager was initially angered by the Irish team's performance against Hungary. Gerosa would have been able to point out that Croatia, Spain and Italy had all stuttered to different degrees in their final game.

Ireland could not afford to play without intensity which was their problem in Budapest. Although the sight of technically superior teams passing the ball around an Irish midfield was a very familiar one.

The intensity will be present in Poznan tonight. Ireland concede territory and possession no matter who they play but there is a sense that there is nothing to fear in the Croatia team. Luka Modric will dictate play and Nikica Jelavic will cause anxiety because of his goals in England, but the player the Irish management fear is Eduardo, who is not expected to start.

Ireland's approach, the concession of territory and possession, will do little to assuage the fears of the nation.

This is Trap's way and it enthuses him. "We are lucky. When we finish this life, we can't all be coaches or managers. I'm honoured to teach these players."

There is no false humility. He knows what he has achieved. His secret is he believes he can achieve it again.

He doesn't take holidays. At the start of the season he was asked if he had taken a summer break. He replied that his wife had taken him to the beach for a couple of days but by the afternoon he had returned to his room to watch DVDs.

Those who criticise him, with some justification, for not attending games might think he is not serious about the job. But he is not a cynic. Not travelling every week to England may be one of the rare instances in which he acknowledges his age and decides to manage his own energy resources.

But he never displays weariness. "Why would I get tired? Is that a joke? This is fun. Where is the work that pays this money for one or two hours a day? Never."

So he goes on. In Poznan tonight, he will be welcomed by the great and the good of European football. They know what he has achieved throughout his career but they may doubt he can do it again with a team full of players they haven't heard of.

"I don't speak English very well," he said last year, "sometimes I'm not even good at Italian. But I understand football."

Trap knows football. Tonight Ireland finds out if that's enough.

Sunday Indo Sport

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