Sport Soccer

Thursday 21 November 2019

Giovanni Trapattoni can no longer hide behind the results, writes Dion Fanning

When everything was unravelling for Ireland in the summer, Giovanni Trapattoni promised that in the autumn, Ireland would "turn the page".

Trapattoni departed Poznan promising change, spent some of last week wondering why you would change something which, in his eyes, wasn't broken, and then allowed some to believe they were witnessing change when Ireland lined out in Belgrade last Wednesday.

The truth is that Trapattoni isn't going to change, no matter what words he utters at a press conference or what he allows his players to do in a friendly.

Those who felt Ireland needed to change their system took some comfort from the formation in Belgrade but there is no point getting excited.

Without Robbie Keane, Ireland may be able to call on forwards who are more comfortable dropping into midfield but the manager will always play with two forwards, even if one drops deeper.

The reason for this is simple: he has no desire for Ireland to play football. Those who think he does are kidding themselves. Trapattoni is not going to wake some morning between now and the trip to Kazakhstan and say, "What have I been thinking for 40 years? Of course there's another way -- get me Wes Hoolahan. Actually, to hell with that, I'll go and watch him play."

Until the summer, it was possible to believe in Trapattoni's way. He had achieved qualification, even if it was fortunate, most particularly in drawing Estonia (and that only balanced out the injustice of Paris which myth now says Ireland would have won without Henry's handball) and his ways were working.

But Poland undid all that. It is impossible for Trapattoni to sound plausible with this Irish team when the memories of all his mistakes in the summer remain fresh. James McClean's performance on Wednesday, once he was moved from the central position he was bizarrely selected in to begin with, only illustrated the wastefulness of neglecting him in the summer.

The slight improvement in passing that came from having more of a presence in midfield only left many wondering why, nearly two years after the Russia defeat when Trapattoni first talked about change, it hadn't been tried before.

Well, it had but not properly when it actually mattered. There was the car crash of the system against Spain when Trapattoni abandoned even his core beliefs in playing Robbie Keane as a lone striker. This was the manager as the indulger of egos, not the ruthless pragmatist Ireland were supposed to be getting.

So when Trapattoni talks about change now or throws some candy in a game in Belgrade, only the naive would believe it heralds anything more than a determination to keep his job.

As critically, there is the sense of a weariness among the squad at his methods or lack of them. When Trapattoni questions Marc Wilson, many can believe that Wilson is just a footballer with an attitude problem. When it's Shane Long, it's more of a problem because his attitude is harder to question.

The facts of Wednesday night's case would seem to favour Trapattoni. The player had said he felt a strain and was removed as a precaution. Yet, for whatever reason, Long went and told the press he was fit.

The perception of a manager adrift from his players was not helped by the clumsy performance of Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli earlier in the week.

They were unaware of the statement coming from Shay Given but they also had spent very little time trying to establish Given's intentions. There are some who believe he could have been persuaded to stay if the manager had explained what he wanted from him. Instead there was a statement on Monday night which, in its timing, damaged Trapattoni as it gave the impression of a manager clueless to the intentions of the men he had depended on since he got the job.

When Trapattoni then said Robbie Keane had yet to reply to the manager's text, it solidified the impression of Trapattoni as a manager who, behind the charisma and the certainty of his public performances, was desperately trying to keep up with a job in which he is failing.

Those close to the Ireland squad in the summer talk of the chaos and sense of drift and bewilderment among the players which often stemmed from some baffling comment made by the manager in a press conference.

These are the manager's ways and, as long as things were good, it was possible to believe in them, no matter how unconventional they were.

The summer has changed everything. Football may thrive on reinvention and renewal but it may be tougher to be patient this time. Trapattoni's insistence that the pain of watching Ireland's version of shit on a stick would be worth it when the results started coming Ireland's way was no longer believable after Poland. The reaction to Wednesday's game, a bit like the reaction to Ireland's defeat to Italy, seemed to take pleasure in the most rudimentary of things and the avoidance of humiliation. Serbia were also a very ordinary team and the game was less than ordinary.

Trapattoni was pleased with James McCarthy. McCarthy could play in Ireland's midfield for a decade but nobody will be surprised if Paul Green is selected ahead of him in Astana. Darron Gibson is Trapattoni's other option.

Of the senior players, the manager seems to be most confident of Damien Duff returning, or at least replying promptly to his texts. Duff should not retire. He was one of Ireland's better players in the summer and he still can offer patience and a sense of order. Those who know him well say he hasn't decided yet but feel he is unlikely to quit.

The rest appears to be chaotic.

Ireland must hope that the manager can draw something from a group of players who don't deserve to have their commitment questioned by the manager as often as it is.

Ireland will need to go to Kazakhstan and win. They are capable of it, certainly more capable of it than the manager is of change.

On Thursday, he indicated again that, for the qualifiers, he will revert to 4-4-2. There will be no change in approach, no change in style and no change in how the manager views the players. "We will play it safe for the qualifiers," Trapattoni said, reminding people that change has to come from within and he has no intention of changing.

But things have changed. The day after the Serbia game, journalists spent some time debating if Trap had called Long an 'idiot' or 'idiotic'. These are the Jesuitical debates that accompany every appearance from the manager.

Trapattoni has benefited from this incomprehension during his time as manager. Things could always be clarified, words always had several meanings and consequently had none.

But the European Championships changed everything. The results couldn't be misinterpreted. Football had provided clarity.

Since then, the manager has blustered and spoofed, throwing words out in a meaningless way, knowing that it has worked in the past.

Ireland need to turn the page and they need a manager who stops reading from the old script.

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