Sport Soccer

Monday 18 November 2019

From one crisis to another

As Ireland's manager stumbles into a new campaign, the FAI is powerless to act, writes Dion Fanning

The week Ireland returned from their dismal trip to Poland, Giovanni Trapattoni sent John Delaney a text message. The message thanked him for ensuring that the European Championships were what Delaney called "administratively successful". Trapattoni also praised the chief executive for his leadership of the FAI.

Delaney considered the text as evidence that the relationship between the pair was sound and felt it put an end to any suggestion that the manager, who had been asked about Delaney's socialising in Poland, had a problem with the chief executive.

Delaney had become a story when he returned and he seemed pleased that Trapattoni had faith in him.

It was a time when Trapattoni should have been wondering if he was going to be sacked, instead, because of the PR disaster that was Delaney's trip to Poland, the chief executive had to answer questions of his own. Trapattoni's text showed that Delaney still had the manager's full support.

Trapattoni, too, "had met his objectives". When Delaney was asked in his Sunday Independent interview if there were any circumstances in which he'd consider dismissing Trapattoni, he replied, "Absolutely not."

If there was a more robust message delivered in private, Trapattoni gives little indication of having understood it (it could of course be another communication breakdown).

If Delaney felt he had nothing to defend in his own performance over the summer, Trapattoni didn't appear to consider that there was anything urgent that needed changing under his command.

Perhaps he was buttressed by Delaney's public comments but when he returned to work before the Serbia game, he casually mentioned that he expected all of Ireland's senior players to return for the trip to Kazakhstan.

Yesterday, Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli went to Villa Park to watch Everton play Aston Villa and to talk to Richard Dunne. They left with confirmation that he wanted to continue for Ireland when he returns from injury. Trapattoni should have made this trip a month ago and called on the other senior players as well. Instead, two of them have now retired, both following declarations from the manager that they would continue. "Ten days ago I was sure they would come in again," Trapattoni said. Now he has lost two of the four, Shay Given and Damien Duff.

Giovanni Trapattoni had many questions to answer in the aftermath of the European Championships but the FAI and its chief executive were answering questions of their own. They are an association in crisis, desperately trying to avert a strike by staff who, by authoritative accounts, are understandably demoralised by the latest developments. "There is an oppressive atmosphere in Abbotstown," one source reported.

The FAI staff may have been briefly cheered when their leader Delaney returned from his administratively successful trip to Poland and announced at the FAI AGM that he was taking another voluntary pay cut of ten per cent. This was the sacrifice required from the highly-paid yet inspirational figure who is adored by supporters across the land, particularly late at night.

Yet soon it became clear that the ten per cent Delaney was taking was also being demanded of the staff. Initially this was proposed for only an 18-month period but, after stories of possible strike action by FAI workers appeared, the proposal was changed to a permanent cut. Sponsors, sources in the FAI argue, are put off the association by talk of strikes.

Last week, it was reported that a deadline of Friday had been set for the staff to accept the proposals. Informed sources suggest that a compromise, in which the pay cut is reviewed in 18 months, may be agreed at the Labour Relations Commission.

There are some who think the problems Trapattoni has had might serve as a distraction from the FAI's problems, particularly the debt and the image of the association and the chief executive. Yet the fortunes of the FAI and the fate of the manager are linked. The FAI have yet to make capital payments on the debt taken on to build the Aviva. Last year, the interest payments were €4.8m, up from €2.1m in 2010.

The association promises it will be debt-free by 2020 and the feeling is that if they can get through the next two years, then the centralised UEFA tv rights deal which could bring in €10m a year will help.

When Ireland are drawn in a group as unattractive as their Euro qualifiers this will boost revenue tremendously. It will be less significant when they are drawn against a country like Germany where the rights could be sold on an individual game for around €5m. Even so, it offers the FAI some financial guarantees in a world where they have none.

Yet, while they wait, Irish football is suffering. The evidence from the European Championships was that Irish football needs to re-evaluate everything about its coaching and its structures. There are those who would propose a radical overhaul, rebuilding the game in the country from the bottom up.

Instead, Ireland have a manager who cares little for anything below senior level (perhaps helpful for the FAI when people are leaving their jobs and generally unhappy with the development and funding at underage levels).

The emerging talent programme has been cut and men like the under 16 and under 17 manager John Morling have left, in Morling's case to take up a job with Brighton. Ireland is losing its brightest coaches and it is sacrificing a generation of young footballers.

The sense that the manager is not even doing what he should at senior level continues to grow.

Trapattoni made news by going to a game yesterday and talking successfully with Dunne, events that shouldn't be newsworthy. Nobody will lose popularity by kicking Robbie Keane around and when Trapattoni admitted two weeks ago that all he had done was text his captain, there weren't too many suggesting he should do any more.

If Trapattoni wanted him to stay, it didn't look like it when he was promising reporters he would go and check his phone and see if Keane had texted back.

At that point, it seemed Trapattoni wasn't bothered if Keane came back. This was no way to treat Ireland's record goalscorer but after his performances in Poland many in Ireland would consider that the team was better off without him.

In fact, it turned out that Trapattoni was desperate for him to return (he must have been playing it cool with the texts -- treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen). On Friday, he announced that Keane was in his squad and insisted he would remain as first-choice striker and captain, committing Ireland to the most basic 4-4-2 in the process.

If Trapattoni was eager for Keane to remain a first-choice striker, he spent the summer doing nothing about it except send a text message.

At the very least, he could have made a phone call but, after the Euros, he should have tracked down Keane -- and all the other senior players -- and found out what they intended to do.

Instead he commented helplessly on this subject and, at every moment, his words have been made redundant by events which have tended to contradict everything that he says.

So after giving the impression that he wasn't bothered if Keane came back, it turned out on Friday that he remains central to all his plans. It would be legitimate to wonder if he wasn't simply so grateful to have one senior player available that he was happy to confirm that Keane would start. Perhaps for evermore.

Trapattoni, it is increasingly clear, is not the man to rebuild an Ireland squad. The truth is that after the European Championships a number of Irish players have been left disenchanted with the methods -- or lack of them -- and the tactics -- or lack of them -- of the Irish manager.

Of course, after so many defeats everything is always wrong but the manner in which Ireland lost, the failure of any of Trapattoni's core values to reveal themselves on the pitch, means that his ways are hard to defend.

Since then, he has done little except show his determination -- commendable in its stubbornness -- to keep going in his own fashion.

Dunne and Damien Duff are the senior players Trapattoni could least afford to lose, which explains his emergency trip yesterday.

Those who are close to Duff were saying up until Friday morning that they would be shocked if he retired. Nearly everyone who spoke to Duff over the summer felt he would stay on.

They were still saying this while senior figures in Communicorp and Newstalk were revealing that Duff had retired about noon on Friday.

Duff had suggested to Trapattoni some time ago that he might retire as he is determined to play football at club level for as long as possible. Yet, he was unsure, telling friends he might stay and clearly torn by the idea that he would give up the games that have meant so much to him for so long.

In the FAI press release which came a few hours after Newstalk broke the story, Duff had kind words for Trapattoni. The manager meanwhile revealed, as he had with Given, that Duff would be on hand in an emergency.

Which emergencies are these? The emergency that follows the worst performance from an Irish team at a major finals when the squad faces a tricky away tie followed a month later by a game against one of the best teams in the world?

This is the emergency for Ireland and Damien Duff is so committed to his country that it's hard to understand why he isn't still around. On the basis of their performances in the summer, he should play on and Aiden McGeady should announce his retirement.

The FAI appear helpless as the manager stumbles on. The cost of paying Trapattoni off may be too much for the association to contemplate. This may be why he has staggered on into the autumn. In a functioning footballing system, he would have been let go in the summer. Perhaps the FAI would even have waited and not offered him a new contract at the end of 2011 which would have made the break simple.

Failure would probably have been blamed on the uncertainty but Ireland had its failure still. The FAI had expected the carnival of the summer to take them into the next qualifying campaign. Instead, Ireland's European Championship was worse than anyone could have imagined, worse even than those who felt Ireland could lose every game imagined.

Trapattoni isn't going to change. There is no point listening to his rhetorical flourishes about a new system some time in the future because it is just sugar for the media. He will never ask his team to do anything other than the most rudimentary 4-4-2 because ultimately he doesn't want anything other than the most rudimentary football.

After the summer, it excites nobody and the FAI needs the country to be excited by its football team. Tomorrow the FAI return to the LRC to meet with SIPTU in an attempt to resolve the dispute with their workers. Perhaps it is good that their most highly-paid employee spent the weekend working too.

Trapattoni and the FAI are locked together in a death grip. The FAI can't afford to pay off the manager, or even pay their share of paying off the manager, and they may wonder what they can offer his successor. John Delaney may have another head rush and head for Walsall again.

Instead they close their eyes and hope. They hope that Ireland can get a performance and a result in Kazakhstan and hope that Germany don't humiliate Ireland in October. Otherwise, the future will be even bleaker for Irish football.

John Delaney and Giovanni Trapattoni may still talk about their mutual respect. The next two months will determine if, in fact, it is mutually assured destruction.

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