THERE was a first day back at school feeling at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, as Giovanni Trapattoni emerged from hibernation to officially kick off a year that will have serious implications for Irish football.
The game here desperately needs the boost that would come with qualification for Euro 2012 and, while there will be attempts to build up the significance of the Carling Nations Cup ahead of the February 8 clash with Wales, the reality is that the initiative is of minor importance when placed in the context of the bigger picture.
Trapattoni revealed his provisional 29-man squad yesterday, and fielded questions on a variety of topics that arose over the winter, a period which included a short stay in hospital for the Irish manager.
How is his health?
After undergoing carotid artery surgery, Trapattoni arrived with a prepared statement to announce that he felt well and to apologise for the fact that his hospital visit was leaked to Italian media, with some erroneous details, and therefore reached Ireland second hand.
He said he was '101pc' well, although a croaky voice meant that the projection didn't necessarily back up the sentiment. However, he says the vocal cords will be in full working order for the Welsh game. Long term, he insisted that no decision on his future will be taken until the race to qualify for the European Championship ends.
"It was routine surgery," he said. "I thought it was not important to you. I said to John (Delaney), 'It is only two days, I will be ready for the first game."
"I have the same enthusiasm. What is important is that I am here, I am fit, and I can continue my job."
Are Robbie Keane, Shay Given and others not playing for their clubs in danger of losing their places?
Trapattoni was clear enough, by his standards, with respect to Keane's situation, stating that if his skipper doesn't move by the close of the transfer window, then his place is in jeopardy.
Keane will start against Wales because he needs the game-time but, if he is still a peripheral figure at Spurs come the qualifier with Macedonia on March 26, then he is in danger of losing out to Shane Long, or any of the other strikers in the squad who are involved regularly with their employers.
"If he stays two months on bench without game, we have also Doyle, we have Long, Stokes. Leon Best scores goals. We have this situation, but I hope he tries a new team," said Trapattoni. "If, if Robbie does not find a team, we can try other options after."
The 71-year-old is worried by Given's situation, yet less concerned about its impact on his performance. In other words, the goalkeeper is in no danger of being dropped.
Kevin Kilbane rang Trapattoni to make sure his move to Huddersfield wouldn't affect him, with the manager happy enough for any of his senior players, including Keane, to drop a level if it means regular football.
Richard Dunne's return to the fold at Aston Villa has pleased him, but John O'Shea's lack of action at Manchester United and Glenn Whelan's situation at Stoke are worries.
"Many players do not play for their clubs," he said. "I can't understand why. Maybe, I can't say to you what I think about this, or I start another war between England and Ireland."
Will Seamus Coleman win his first cap against Wales?
If everyone turns up in one piece, then the answer is yes -- but only as a substitute. Trapattoni still views Coleman as a right-back and that's where he intends to blood the 22-year-old. Alas, because of the threat posed by Gareth Bale, he believes that a more experienced defender, such as O'Shea, should fill that role against the Welsh.
"Myself and Marco (Tardelli), we discuss him. He has great personality. He also scores goals. But, for us, it is optimal he plays at right-back. In midfield, we have (Damien) Duff, (Aiden) McGeady, (Liam) Lawrence, we have (Keith) Fahey.
"For us, it would be a great opportunity if he could learn to play in defence a little bit more. We cannot start him against Bale, for example. Maybe it's too difficult. O'Shea with Bale is different. We look for this balance."
The suspicion lingers that Coleman may have to wait before he is trusted to figure in qualifying encounters.
Who is the alternative option to Kevin Kilbane?
With Greg Cunningham sidelined with a broken leg, there was a growing lobby for Stephen Ward to be called into the squad. However, the ex-Bohemians star missed out again. Instead, it is Ciaran Clark who has emerged as the alternative to the veteran Kilbane.
The Aston Villa defender, who is a natural centre-half, has deputised on the left in recent weeks and impressed Trapattoni, who watched Ward in action for Wolves on Saturday and decided he wasn't for him.
Ward's case has possibly been weakened by the fact that he has moved around various positions this term rather than having an extended run at left-back. He will be puzzled, though, by the fact that Stephen Kelly, Paul McShane and Kevin Foley, all of whom are suffering injury problems, are named in the selection.
"We think about different solutions," said Trapattoni. "We can also play O'Shea on the left."
Why did James McCarthy miss out on a place in the squad?
The Wigan starlet made his return to the first-team picture at the weekend, when he was an unused substitute for his club in their loss to Arsenal. Trapattoni, not unreasonably, cited his lay-off due a serious ankle injury as the reason for leaving him out of the 29-man party.
However, the inclusion of the aforementioned individuals who are currently sidelined weakens that argument, especially as it's entirely possible that McCarthy will have Premier League action under his belt by the time that February 8 comes around.
Trapattoni's squad selections tend to be slightly erratic when dealing with fitness matters, with the likes of Keith Andrews and Steven Reid included at junctures in the past when they were nowhere near 100pc fit.
"McCarthy is important. We need players in this position, who can play the No 10 or maybe behind," he said.
"He was only on the bench on Saturday. Maybe he play reserve games. We also have other solutions, like Fahey, but we will continue to follow him."
Nevertheless, it is extremely odd that the opportunity to bring McCarthy into the squad for a couple of days has been passed over.