Has everything been done toget Stephen Ireland back in the fold?
When an unexpected birthday cake for Giovanni Trapattoni was wheeled into Eircom HQ yesterday morning, one wag quipped that the surprise would be topped off if Stephen Ireland leapt out. No such luck, unfortunately.
The saga continues with no end in sight. Trap is sick of talking about it and there are plenty of people out there who are sick of hearing about it as well. Sorry.
Alas, the sad reality is that as long as Irish squads continue to be named without their best player -- on current form -- then the waft of controversy will always linger in the air.
It doesn't help when the Cork man's rare media forays into the topic are so spectacularly ill-timed. Trapattoni had ventured to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon to watch Ireland -- along with Shay Given and Richard Dunne -- try in vain to take anything from Manchester City's joust with Chelsea.
He never suggested that his reason for going there was to grab a word with the 22-year-old. However, an interview which the player gave on Saturday, again stating that he was happy to concentrate on his club career, convinced the Irish boss that any efforts to instigate a chat would have been pointless -- despite the rare advantage of being in the same vicinity.
"Why?", he responded, in exasperated fashion, when asked if he tried to speak to him. "In the newspaper, the day before, he said that he wishes not to come back.
"I said before that maybe in the future, or when he finishes his career, he might have regrets. He might say: 'When I was young, why did I not play with my national team?' I meet now ex-Italian players, when they are 40-year-olds, they say: 'Mister, when I was young, I didn't think about what was important'.
"He is not my son. Also, I know very well Mark Hughes, his coach, and he said: 'I think he's not ready'. I think he is not ready to come back so you have to respect the team. We have other players.
"My feeling is he will not come back. Stephen is not my son. I cannot force him. My feeling is he wishes not to come back. I have said also that now it's up to him. Ok, it's clear."
Certainly, in his last statement, the tone of the Irish manager is quite definite, yet there is something deeply unsatisfying about the nature of the creative midfielder's comments on Saturday which irritated Trap and the FAI enough that they immediately issued a press release in response.
What irked them, presumably, is the inference from Ireland that Trapattoni and Liam Brady had claimed to have made more of an effort to convince him to return than they actually had, beyond the initial meeting in Manchester 10 months ago.
"I read in the press that Trapattoni and Liam Brady have said they have contacted me again. Well they haven't, not directly," he said. The FAI statement denied that neither individual named had said anything of the sort so, presumably, something got lost in translation.
More pertinent, however, is that the player is effectively planting a seed of doubt regarding the assertion that the Irish staff have done everything they could to convince him to return. By going on to say that he isn't ready to go back, Ireland is in some ways rendering the contact comment obsolete, but it also implies he does not fully subscribe to the theory that the ball is firmly in his court.
Yes, for anyone who has worn the green jersey with distinction, or would love to have been provided with that opportunity, the notion of repeatedly pursuing and indulging someone who appears lukewarm towards the honour leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The sentiment is understandable.
However, there is a nagging sense that perhaps with a different approach, with a bit more gentle cajoling face to face rather than via a text message here and there, then progress could be made.
Their meeting in a Manchester hotel last year was far from a resounding success. Even yesterday, Trapattoni hinted at that when he spoke of how Ireland refused to look at him directly when speaking of his grievances from the past.
"I ask him 10 months ago why (he won't come back)," he explained. "I spoke with him, but he was looking down rather than in my eyes. I think that, obviously, not in the pitch but as a person he is very shy. I don't know. I give him confidence, I give him trust."
While Ireland comes across as an increasingly thoughtful character with every passing interview, the counterpoint is that every time he opens his heart to speak about the past there is further inconsistency with other versions he has offered with apparently equal honesty; particularly in relation to his latest treatise on events from that infamous night in Bratislava that kicked off this whole mess. Vague is an understatement.
Whatever your opinion of the man, it's abundantly obvious that he is hard work and will always need an understanding manager if he is to flourish. One meeting may be enough to ascertain the true feelings of Steve Finnan and Andy O'Brien but with Ireland, you wonder if further ego-massaging was required and if passing up an opportunity to seek another conference on Sunday in the environs of Stamford Bridge was an error regardless of the Saturday interview.
Once more, though, we are now immersed in the business of hypothesising. The upcoming double-header with Bulgaria and Italy is a pivotal week for Ireland's fortunes. After voluntarily missing this make-or-break period, there can be no coming back further on down the road to South Africa.
Trapattoni has named a 26-man squad for those games, although it will be whittled down to 23 before the encounter with the Bulgarians in Croke Park on Saturday week.
There were no surprises, with Andy Reid excluded again. The only new addition in the context of this campaign was Darren O'Dea, who is rewarded for a run in the team at Celtic that was highlighted further by his cup-winning contribution against Rangers at the weekend.
With respect to the fixtures on the horizon, Trapattoni was cagey about making any bold statements. He expressed surprise at Bulgaria's grim start to the group and barely conceded they might be out of the frame if they lose in Dublin.
As for the trip to Italy, well, the resonance of the fixture needs no introduction but he is trying to put that talk to one side until he is finished with the business of preparing for the visit of Dimitar Berbatov and Co. Incidentally, his new Bulgarian counterpart, Stanimir Stoilov, unveiled his panel yesterday with no major surprises.
What he shares in common with Trapattoni is that he will enter a crucial juncture without the services of a key creative influence who plies his trade for Manchester City. The difference is that Martin Petrov is laid up with injury, rather than being AWOL for reasons which continue to be a source of frustration.
"You know in Italy, people say, 'what if, what if?'" said Trap, stressing his tiredness as he veered back onto this topic, "If, if, if."
As he spends more time in Ireland, he will realise this is a country where it is a common refrain; especially when it comes to the topic of the gifted, but troubled, midfield maestro from Cobh.
Republic of Ireland squad -- S Given, D Kiely, K Westwood; A Bruce, D Delaney, J O'Shea, K Foley, P McShane, R Dunne, S Kelly, S Finnan, K Kilbane, D O'Dea; A McGeady, D Duff, D Gibson, G Whelan, K Andrews, L Miller, S Hunt, A Keogh; C Folan, K Doyle, R Keane, S Long, N Hunt.