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Saturday 25 November 2017

James Lawton: Ireland cannot afford to jettison old Trap

If Ireland just happen to qualify for their first major tournament in 10 years under the guidance -- and maybe also the strange and somewhat mystical aura -- of Giovanni Trapattoni, the value of an additional bonus should not be lost in the resulting euphoria.

It is one that even in these financially challenging days, a grown-up sports nation might consider reasonably priced even at €1.7m a year.

The 72-year-old Italian, who is now so artfully making his case for extended service to the Irish cause, has not enjoyed the playing resources of either his fabled predecessor Jack Charlton or Mick McCarthy, but at no point, and least of all when his team came so close to qualifying for last year's World Cup, has he strayed from the most significant lesson of a brilliant journey along the peaks of the game.

It is one rooted in the art of the possible, an understanding that what is within the reach of an international team blessed by the creative force of, say, Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta, is beyond the reach of one denied the services of its most creative midfield player -- Stephen Ireland -- for whom such requirements of commitment and consistent performance are perhaps separated by barriers at least as high as the Pyrenees.


So, Trapattoni goes from game to game now, benefiting from the assurance of commitment that he has drawn from a quorum of key players and, in the case of the life-giving draw at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, the kind of good luck that sometimes aids the resilient as much as the brave. The extraordinary result is that, against the odds, Ireland are again within touching distance of reappearing in a major tournament.

Can Ireland afford to discharge Old Trap and all that his regime has come to represent?

You may ask what this is, precisely. Well we might start with a knowledge of the world he has inhabited so successfully as a player who won Serie A and the European Cup twice, and who as a coach has annexed seven Italian titles, the European Cup, UEFA Cup three times and picked up the titles of Germany, Portugal and Austria.

We might accept that along with such achievement comes an overwhelming implication. It is of a man who knows not only how to win, but also how to make the best of every situation.

Certainly it is hard to imagine a one-man football armoury better equipped to deal with the passing fads and controversies that routinely bedevil a national coach.

Was Andy Reid really a talent so luminous that, in the glare of it, Trapattoni was obliged to jettison a life-time's professional principle? The record is surely now kind to the old coach's strenuous, even contemptuous resistance to such an idea.

Equally, is James McCarthy of Wigan Athletic so inherently valuable in his football gifts that Trapattoni should have ignored what he perceived to be serious indifference to Ireland's progress as a team?

Charlton faced similar, if hugely more compelling, charges in the case of his neglect of a player of Liam Brady's stature, but the big man won his argument on the grounds that he picked the team and was the one man who had to deal with the consequences. Brady had a beautiful talent but it was one that Charlton, rightly or wrongly, decided was not integral to his needs.

Trapattoni almost certainly hasn't the working time left to match Charlton's achievement of making regular involvement in the major tournaments a fact of Irish football life, but then you think of the disparity between their resources

The Italian's attitude to such questions has been quite relentlessly consistent -- as it has been towards a core of players who have proved to him that they are prepared to put everything they have into the national team, an undertaking that Shay Given and Richard Dunne epitomised in their resistance to the striking superiority of the Russians this week.


What happens, of course, is a cumulative understanding of what can be achieved. Memorably, Trapattoni's capacity for an undying malapropism included his assertion: "Don't say cat until you have got it in the bag," and he declared it once again as his operating principle before the games against Andorra and Armenia.

As Trapattoni's younger compatriot Fabio Capello still wrestles with the inconsistencies displayed over the last few days by a much more talented England squad, the old's man position is one of relative serenity.

When he pitches for an extension to his contract, it is as a man who appears conspicuously unwearied by the challenge. He says: "I would like to finish the job, because until now I think we have not changed everything. We have the possibility to grow again. I would be proud to continue."

It is not so much a job application as the restatement of a philosophy which Irish football, if it cares to delve deeper than the match-by-match tyranny of results, can take pride in adopting in response to those years of declining belief.

Without a Roy Keane or a Niall Quinn, a Paul McGrath or David O'Leary or Ronnie Whelan or Ray Houghton, Trapattoni has produced a body of work that, at the very least, marks a return to genuine competitiveness.

Now he talks of the need for growth, the development of certain ways of thinking and acting which, in his opinion, will always shape the difference between those teams who have a degree of hope -- and those who have little or none.

Trapattoni may also, and however subliminally, have acquired a disciple in Donegal football coach Jim McGuiness, who reasonably enough seemed to feel that a place in the All-Ireland semi-final was, if not a preening Persian cat in the bag, at least a measure of achievement that deserved recognition.

"The pundits," declared McGuinness, "want us to play football that in my view is fantasy. It isn't reality."

Shut your eyes, and modify the accent, and you might be listening to Old Trap. It is, at the very least, the voice of a man who knows what he can do and, even more vitally, what he can't.

Irish Independent

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