Saturday 16 December 2017

Nothing left to chance for man who hates to gamble

Conservative manager and a careful FAI will make sure there won't be any dreaded Saipan comparisons in Poland, writes Dion Fanning

Giovanni Trapattoni
Giovanni Trapattoni

Dion Fanning

Last Sunday evening, Giovanni Trapattoni started making calls. Ireland's manager spent most of the night on the phone.

On Monday morning he started again, or at least he started once Trap's idea of morning coincided with his players' idea of morning. Trapattoni wanted to contact those players who wouldn't be involved and the FAI were happy that in doing so he would ensure that there was no media storm, no 'Trap Snub' headlines.

Trapattoni called players like Caleb Folan, Leon Best, Liam Lawrence and Marc Wilson -- who is one player among those discarded that Ireland might miss -- and told them they wouldn't be going to Poland. He called those on stand-by and explained what he wanted from them.

The players Trapattoni wanted to join up this Thursday were also called, including those struggling with injury like Darron Gibson and those he wishes to school, like James McClean.

For the Irish players, the weeks of anxiety were coming to an end. Trapattoni is a cautious manager, but even those who knew they were in his squad, and maybe in his team, had some moments of doubt.

Others had worried that minor injuries would encourage people to question if they were fit enough to be selected. One player didn't let his club release news of his injury until he was back training; another took the unusual step of contacting a radio show to offer them an interview in which he would talk about his recovery from injury.

The backdrop to all these stories is that Trapattoni is that dangerous mixture: a conservative but unpredictable man.

Last February, he named an initial 24-man squad for the friendly against the Czech Republic. Twenty-two of those players were in his tournament squad last Monday, the exceptions being James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman.

James McClean was a late call-up for the Czech game and Trapattoni was extremely impressed with his attitude that week. Ireland's manager has always judged players on what they do for him and in those few days, Trapattoni started to think that McClean could do something for him. Last Monday, he called McClean and told him he was in the squad. McClean is one of the players who will arrive this Thursday.

Trapattoni wants time to work with the player, believing he can become as effective starting on the right and cutting in on his left. McClean also believes this is his best position, although up until now no manager has agreed with him.

Trapattoni's squad may lack some balance with five forwards and no cover at left-back. If anyone tries the line that with all those forwards, Ireland are going to attack, remind them that in 1990, Jack Charlton took seven forwards and Ireland scored two goals.

While Trapattoni's first 11 would seem obvious, there are players who will need to be recharged after a long season. There will be intensive training sessions in Dublin and when the squad reach their Italian base at Montecatini, but only for those players Trapattoni feels have played too little football.

Others will be encouraged to recover, among them Kevin Doyle, who has had a long and disappointing season. "His form is only down to morale because I said to you before he is alone upfront," Trapattoni said, referring to his position at Wolves. "They cannot give him the ball. It's long ball, long ball. He is running alone against all the defenders." Trapattoni also made an observation that might be disputed -- "I think he has more possibilities with us because we look to play football."

Marco Tardelli has already suggested speaking to the player. "We said 'with us you can have a regeneration of morale'. At the moment he goes down. He had the possibility to go with a strong team in the past but he stayed at Wolves. I am sure with Kevin in these 15 days we can give him freshness again."

Trapattoni hopes Doyle can join a club "which is a little bit better" but he has been a key part of his team and he will need him to be refreshed.

Trapattoni demands a first-class environment for his players. For the FAI, this is an important tournament. Roy Keane brought Saipan up again ten days ago, going over old ground, old pitches and old stories.

All of the reasons, even the allegation of feigning injury, put forward for Roy Keane's departure are peripheral to the heart of that story. It was the story of one man entering a brave new world. It was a story of drink, primarily, and of old team-mates and new behaviour. The rest: the kit, the bumpy pitches and even the team meeting and the clumsy accusations were avoidable sideshows. There was always going to be a main event when Roy Keane was a man apart.

Yet it scarred the FAI. "We are a different association now," said one senior figure last week. After Ireland qualified last November, staff were told to imagine they were being audited by the senior figures whenever they made any decision leading up to the tournament.

There have been weekly meetings for months with all departments involved in the planning. It is understood that Denis O'Brien provided a private jet to fly Trapattoni from Milan to Montecatini and on to Poland where he checked out facilities in Sopot, Gdynia, Gdansk and Poznan.

The FAI know that over four weeks in four countries (Ireland have a friendly in Budapest at the beginning of June) something will go wrong but they also hope that, this time, it won't be due to a lack of planning.

Last weekend was their first public hurdle for the tournament. If they initially had the simple objective of keeping the squad quiet, the demand became more intense about three weeks ago when James McCarthy informed Trapattoni that he wouldn't be making himself available for selection due to his father's illness.

Only Trapattoni and a couple of others within the association knew about this before Trapattoni suggested there was an issue in Mullingar a fortnight ago.

By last weekend, seven days after Trapattoni had revealed that a player had a personal problem, the media had been hunting the story but nobody knew anything.

Marco Tardelli flew from London on Monday morning, having watched Fulham beat Sunderland the day before. At Heathrow, he confirmed the "very sad" news that a player would miss the finals for personal reasons but he said no more.

Over the weekend, there had been the usual rumours, the talk of scandal and shame. It was clear from the way Tardelli spoke that it was something different. The reality when it became known ensured that sadness for the player's predicament was the main emotion. McCarthy, Trap said, would have been in his squad had he not made the decision.

This led to speculation about which player had made it. "I don't give a shit what they say," was Trapattoni's response when told by an FAI official that newspapers were wondering which player would have missed out.

Sources suggest that Gibson, McCarthy and McClean were competing for two places. Trapattoni seems under-represented in central midfield.

Trapattoni is placing huge pressure on Keith Andrews and Glen Whelan in midfield. With three games in eight days, there will be no recovery time. An injury to either and Trapattoni will have to turn to Gibson, about whom he still has reservations, or Fahey, who is often used as a replacement for a wide man, but has started only two friendly matches as part of a two-man central midfield for Ireland.

On Monday, Trapattoni explained what he wanted from Gibson. "We have time to get him fit. I need him and Fahey in good condition, but they are very different players.

"Fahey has no fear about the ball. Gibson has good qualities but I say to him 'You're strong, physically good, but in Manchester I said go away and play football.' He has improved, he has more personality but he can do much better."

He is expected to return for Everton's last game of the season today but with Paul Green on stand-by, Gibson will have to prove his fitness.

McClean's inclusion was essential and became more likely once Trapattoni called him up in February. Trapattoni will assess him from Thursday but he has already demonstrated his ability to make an impression.

He has shaken up the squad with his arrival on the scene. One player refused to be asked about him during a media appearance some time ago. His arrival in Dublin on Thursday to promote Irish Autism Action prompted a leading sports group to embargo another player's media appearances as they were fearful that they wouldn't be able to compete for space with McClean.

Most importantly he offers a danger to opponents. He said it would be "stupid" not to be challenging Duff and McGeady for a starting place, but he will first get a chance to make an impact from the bench.

By the time the tournament begins, Trapattoni will stress rest as much as training. Players will be on carefully controlled and tailored diets while the senior men in the squad -- Keane, Dunne and Given -- have discussed with the FAI what the players would like to alleviate boredom.

As a result, a snooker table and golf simulators will be transported to the team hotel. The players know Trapattoni and they know that he will be bored by their boredom. They will be restricted to the hotel, a concentration as they say in Italy.

The FAI, too, will feel that boredom might not be the worst thing that can happen. They suffered in Saipan and like all who suffer, they were never bored.

They changed because of it and feel they are unrecognisable now. All their training pitches have been inspected. Trapattoni demands high standards but they hold themselves to a higher standard too since Saipan.

Two weeks today, Ireland will depart for Montecatini. Tomorrow morning in the Tuscan town, crates will arrive and will be stored at the Grand Hotel, Ireland's base. They were sent from Dublin last Thursday and contain the training kit and balls for the team, the things that went missing in Saipan, the MacGuffins in a story which was really about one man's struggle with himself.

The FAI were powerless then but they were not alone. This time, they have a manager who doesn't believe in taking risks and they have their own historic reasons for leaving nothing to chance.

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