Thursday 14 December 2017

James Lawton: Is Trap's Rio desire ambition or fantasy?

Trapattoni has youthful exuberance and wisdom of age to steer Irish ship towards next World Cup

Giovanni Trapattoni's desire to lead Ireland to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 could have something to do with the emergence of young stars like Shane Long.
Giovanni Trapattoni's desire to lead Ireland to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 could have something to do with the emergence of young stars like Shane Long.
James Lawton

James Lawton

Does the old man of football really believe he can go another three years down his road to Rio at the unprecedented age of 75? Is he stating an ambition, or indulging a fantasy?

It is a huge and worrying question for the rulers of Irish football, but they should take some heart, and maybe quite a bit of nerve, from the man who provoked it.

While Giovanni Trapattoni offers himself as the oldest manager in the history of international football for the World Cup of Brazil, and implies, not without reason, that his employers might have to scour the game in pursuit of a viable contender who knows more about the game, the FAI are inevitably concerned that they may indeed be caught up in an old man's daydream.


Certainly they are right to wonder about this proposed journey into uncharted territory. Even Alex Ferguson widely suspends belief in his staying power, as names like Jose Mourinho are constantly flagged in the assumption that the old warrior will walk away soon, but the master of Old Trafford will be a mere 72 when Brazil 2014 unfolds.

Old Trap may still have the rugged looks of a character in a Federico Fellini movie, but if he is permitted he will take to the pressures of the great tournament -- played out in the frenzied atmosphere created by football's most besotted followers -- not only 75 years old, but a recent health scare.

Trapattoni says, "Why not? I still have so much to do," but you can't help asking if he is proposing at least one bridge too far.

Yet why wouldn't he be tempted so strongly into such an adventure?

He loves the possibility of a farewell to the game that has been his life in arguably its spiritual home, and his pleasure at the showing of a new generation of Irish players in this week's encouraging battle with World Cup semi-finalists Uruguay seemed to take at least a year two off him at Lansdowne Road.

How easily would Ireland do better than one of the great, and most successful figures in the world game?

If there were any doubts about the surviving intensity of his ambition, they shrivelled somewhat when he spoke of his still raw anger at the fate of his Italian team in the 2002 World Cup and the scandal of Ireland's loss to France in the World Cup play-off in Paris.

This was not a football ancient preparing for the day he packed up his memories and shuffled off the stage. This was a man raging not so much against the dying of the light as the possibility that he might just be denied the chance to conduct some unfinished business.

For the FAI, still wounded by the rashness of their investment in the youth and inexperience of Steve Staunton and their failure to understand that Brian Kerr would be stepping into the kind of challenge he had never experienced before, the requirement is to step back and make a cool assessment.

The biggest question is simple. When they review their decision to appoint Trapattoni in the first place, are they happy that they had made a good choice? Given his resources, and the situation he found, has Old Trap made a good shot at restoring Ireland as a seriously competitive international team?

You have to say yes. The evidence of Ireland's progress to that game at the Stade de France, and their performance there, suggested an ability to get the best out of his players. They looked like a team who knew where they were going. There was a confidence, even a swagger, about much of their play.

Now it might be asked, against the background of the team remaining in contention for European Championship qualification, if the old man was whistling past the graveyard when he came out of the Uruguay game so upbeat.

Were there indeed some promising signs from a new wave of young Irish players? Did Shane Long and Stephen Kelly look as though they had the potential to grow in their nation's shirt? You didn't have to be an ageing fantasist to say maybe, or respond in the same way to Trapattoni's assertion that young James McCarthy would certainly benefit from his experience in a new system against a team of the facility of Uruguay.

The trick for the FAI is to put aside time-worn prejudice and deal only with the realities before their eyes.

Is Trapattoni still making sense? When he discusses such problematic cases as Stephen Ireland and Darron Gibson (is he too easily pleased by his fringe status at Old Trafford?), does he still tend to get to the heart of the matter? Yes, he does, because if age can bring frailty it can also augment inherent intelligence.

Ferguson will no doubt be asked again this spring if he feels it might be time for him to go. It has become progressively less difficult to predict his answer ever since he sparred with the idea of walking away, then realised there would be much emptiness in his life if he did.

He says now that he will go when the challenge has dwindled, when he no longer wakes up with the old enthusiasm for the task ahead.

Meanwhile, Trapattoni seeks to stride beyond the tenure of all the great football men, including the likes of Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly -- and not to mention the German soldier of football Otto Pfister, who was in charge of Cameroon pushing into his 70s after a series of assignments across the known football world.

The FAI reaction, either way, will be intriguing. One thing is certain: sending the old man away will carry a certain risk of a charge of lost nerve. This, at least, is something clearly not likely to be levelled at Giovanni Trapattoni any time soon.

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