Tuesday 21 November 2017

Condemned man evades noose with tutorial in dignity

Tommy Conlon

Given his vast longevity in the game, Giovanni Trapattoni clearly learned long ago how to navigate football's low-rent politics and routine treacheries.

His survival skills are often explained in clichés that don't necessarily do him justice: the wily old fox, the canny operator, the battle-hardened veteran. And he is certainly, indeed admirably, tough as old boots. But maybe also he has survived because he has too much class as a man to be taken down by second-rate enemies.

Those who want rid of him have valid reasons. And his supporters have to concede that he has revealed some substantial flaws as manager of Ireland. The errors of judgement, the shabby communication skills, the public spats, the soul-destroying style of play; these have been running sores throughout his reign.

Then there are the personal traits: a level of intransigence that is so chronic it is almost perverse; and a superiority complex when it comes to football matters that borders on arrogance.

The debit side of the ledger therefore amounts to a hefty indictment of the 73-year-old Italian. But when the dust eventually settles on his Irish record in years to come, it may well be seen as something of a golden era, especially if the future turns out to be as dismal as many already predict.

The fact remains that Trapattoni delivered Ireland to its first international tournament in ten years, and only its fifth in history. The rebuilding job that confronted him in the early years was a formidable test of his skills and experience. But he did it. He lifted morale. He drilled them relentlessly. He infused them with his energy and charisma. He made a mediocre team hard to beat. He took them into Euro 2012 on the back of a 14-game unbeaten record.

And then the wheels came off. The tournament in Poland was a sustained embarrassment. Kazakhstan in September was a mortifying victory -- albeit a victory nonetheless. The 1-6 against Germany in Dublin nine days ago was an unmitigated humiliation.

It seemed that the tide had turned against him. Trapattoni was now in a corner. He had run out of road. One of nature's implacable realists, he must surely have suspected the worst, especially when a mysterious figure in the FAI started briefing reporters that his time was up. Those poison whispers in the press were akin to the sounds a condemned prisoner would've heard from his cell back in penal times: the hammering of nails and sawing of timber as the scaffold was being erected out in the yard.

One couldn't but admire Trapattoni's dignity and courage as he prepared his team for what many people believed would be his final game in charge. He came out and faced the music. He took the five-goal hammering on the chin; he answered questions; then he carried on with his players. In contrast, the behaviour of that anonymous source made the FAI look cheap and nasty.

But they picked a bad day for a hanging. As luck would have it, the fall of the fixtures list left Trapattoni with the chance of a last-ditch reprieve, a midnight pardon just as the priest was solemnly closing his bible. The wheel of fortune had stopped in the slot marked Faroe Islands, when it could easily have been Sweden or Austria and almost certain extinction.

The team scored four goals last Tuesday evening and every goal was a stay on the warrant of execution. Every goal was a further affidavit in his defence. His players played for him. Despite all the noise among fans and media, they stood by him. They are genuine lads and they long ago recognised that Trapattoni, despite his faults as a manager, is a genuine decent man. The testimony of former professionals who played for him in Germany and Italy backs this up too: they liked him and respected him. They even admired him. Several Irish players have uttered similar sentiments over the last four years. And late on Tuesday night in Torshavn, Keith Andrews spoke in glowing terms about their manager's grace under pressure. The hostility and speculation, said Andrews, hadn't knocked a spot off him.

Maybe it is these qualities, more than any other, that have helped him survive for so long.

But there have been many successful managers over the years who weren't particularly nice people. What matters ultimately are the results, as Trapattoni keeps tediously telling us. Taken over his four-and-a-half years, he is still very much in credit here too.

It may well be the case that the law of diminishing returns has irrevocably set in. We won't know that until next year. But the time wasn't ripe last week to cut him loose. You don't sack a manager after a 1-4 win, no matter how puny the opponents. There's a karma attached to these things, a right time and a wrong time.

There's a right way and a wrong way too. The FAI talked tough behind closed doors and then bottled it when the crunch came. They're talking tough now about forcing Trapattoni to change his ways. But there was a time to do this too, face to face, behind closed doors, and before they backed down. They have damn all leverage now.

They got a lesson last week, another one, in courage and class. They're not dealing with an ordinary man. The Trap once more abides.


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