Monday 23 April 2018

Great significance added to meaningless friendlies

Manager sees sense over McClean but FAI must resolve financial issues with players, writes Dion Fanning

It was just a coincidence. A day after Liam Lawrence spoke out about the players' irritation at the FAI-proposed bonus for past games, Giovanni Trapattoni embraced the future.

On Monday morning, the FAI sent out word that James McClean had been called into the squad, shocking everyone who had previously been shocked by Trap's failure to name him in the original squad. Just to prove that this was Trap making the call and not some impostor who had stolen his phone, Paul Green was also included.

While most commentators blamed Green for Ireland's home defeat to Russia, Trapattoni had always considered another culprit -- Lawrence hasn't played a minute of competitive football since that night.

He was discarded from the squad for this week's friendly which he knew suggested the end. Then, on Monday, Trapattoni surprised everyone by calling McClean into the squad. Green, who has often been singled out for praise by Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli, has a better chance of starting on Wednesday night than McClean.

"That depends on the manager but we'll be concentrating first and foremost on training and help get used to working with the other older players around him," Tardelli said on Friday when asked if McClean would be involved. It would help ticket sales if Trapattoni named McClean in the side but that is unlikely.

Yet his appearance in Dublin is a surprise and a U-turn from a manager who had suggested when he announced the squad in Waterford nine days ago that young players were for the future, that the friendly against the Czech Republic was a time for those who qualified to secure their positions.

Within the FAI, there were those who felt McClean would get his chance before the tournament even started, while Trap was saying the opposite. The promise McClean holds can be gauged from the fact that Trapattoni and Tardelli watched him for the second time since Christmas at West Brom yesterday.

McClean is a Trapattoni player, not in the way that Paul Green is a Trapattoni player. McClean combines the Trapattoni values of application and industry to an ability to beat players, score goals and put in crosses. He may only have started a handful of Premier League games but he is Ireland's most exciting player at the moment.

None of that appealed to the manager when he initially named his squad. Perhaps it was the two injuries in recent weeks that prompted Trapattoni to take action. In Waterford, he had said McClean's time would come but not yet. "For our balance and stability we must wait. Maybe if our injury situation is worse, then we would call them, but only then."

Since then, Richard Dunne fractured his clavicle (leading to the odd call up of Shane Duffy) and last weekend Darron Gibson came off eight minutes from the end of Everton's win against Blackpool in the FA Cup. A report yesterday said Dunne would miss the rest of the season, but this was denied by an Aston Villa spokesman who said the club doctor had reiterated that Dunne is on course to return in six weeks.

On Thursday, Everton confirmed what Trapattoni had been told on Sunday: Gibson was out of the squad and gone for a month with a knee injury. Green will be his replacement. McClean, the added bonus.

There is a reminder now for all those who show up today that there is a threat to their places from players who do the things Trapattoni demands. McClean does, Paul Green does, Stephen Ireland doesn't.

Last week, Shay Given made it clear that players like McClean shouldn't be ruled out. He also gave the most considered response to the bonus row.

"We are all going to be there in Poland, no matter what happens, representing our country," he said. "Everything else is nonsense really, what ever you might say, or what ever some players might have said."

The bonus story was a yarn that comes around every time Ireland qualify, this time with the added suspense that comes with the FAI's dire financial position and their need to make sure that they can take as much money as possible from qualification.

Within the FAI, the story was played down. Senior sources said they would be "amazed" if the issue wasn't settled this week. Tardelli was asked about its potential to upset the squad and dismissed it. "Shay said during the week that this is being hyped up by the press and I think that is a fair comment. I'm sure they'll reach an agreement."

Sources close to some players saw it differently. There was, one said, "fucking war", not so much because of the money involved but the principle of an association trying to do things on the cheap.

This will ultimately be a phoney war as no player would even consider drastic action and even the most radical would accept that the FAI have a long history of trying to do things on the cheap. In fact, despite their debt, the FAI is definitely a more professional organisation when it comes to looking after players than it was in the past.

The FAI have lost money every time they qualified for a major tournament with the exception of 2002 when the players shared a bonus pot of €2m.

As with every squad, there will be militants and those who aren't bothered. There are a number of Irish players who will not leave football financially secure but they are not necessarily the ones most concerned about the money.

There were claims from a number of sources last week that the players were due outstanding match fees for the qualifiers but this was described as "bullshit"' within the association, who claimed that 90-95 per cent of fees have been paid. There were also suggestions that the players were waiting for a promised bonus for winning the Carling Nations Cup but again FAI sources dismissed it.

If these were issues, sources said, they would have been raised when the three Irish players, Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne sat down with an FAI delegation at the beginning of the month but they weren't.

Irish players receive €2,000 when they play for Ireland. In the past, they would receive a cheque up front with deductions taken off at a later date. In recent years, the FAI take the deductions first and then present the cheques which, sources, say, might account for the delay in some match fees being paid.

The players know that there is no great public sympathy for the idea, even just notional, of footballers looking for more money. They have handled negotiations themselves, although a couple of figures within football were approached and asked to help but declined.

In this instance, the public view of footballers, wrong though it often is, might be counterbalanced by the knowledge that the FAI have an extremely well-paid manager and chief executive. If Trapattoni received a bonus for qualification, the FAI weren't confirming it, describing it, even privately, as a confidential, contractual matter.

On the other hand, the players' negotiations are in the public domain. They will probably be resolved this week. The players were never distracted from the main event, it means too much to too many of them for that to happen. Yet they will be happy when it stops becoming a talking point.

The Czechs come to Dublin this week and across Europe, in Malaga, Genoa and Zagreb, Irish scouts will be assessing Ireland's summer opponents for the challenges to come. These are meaningless friendlies but this week they will have great significance.

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