Sport Soccer

Thursday 26 April 2018

Losing ugly has become the most unwanted habit of all

Giovanni Trapattoni has brought stability to Ireland but that is no longer enough, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

W hen Giovanni Trapattoni talks about educating his Irish team, this might be what he means. Not for the first time, he is trying to explain the Italian mentality.

In Naples, he said, when they changed the law to make wearing seat belts compulsory, thousands of shirts were printed with a black band diagonal across their chest. The Neapolitans could look like they were wearing seat belts when they weren't. These are the little details.

Ireland has never needed much education when it comes to strokes, but Trapattoni's side continue to demonstrate their naivety.

Those who showed up at the Aviva on Wednesday hoping to be entertained were always looking for trouble. A meaningless friendly in November is no place to go looking for fun but with the IMF on the doorstep, Ireland could offer no distraction.

Trapattoni, once again, was accused of conservatism. He sees it differently. There might not be much point in a friendly in November, but if he had picked a young side and they had lost by three or four, then it would have had a point. It would, Trapattoni believes, have been a setback. There have been enough of those over the past 12 months.

"It's about the development and growth of the team, not just the individual players, and had we lost, there would have been other types of questions," he said.

His comments overlooked one thing: Ireland did lose and they lost again. Trapattoni has won four of the 12 friendly matches he has been in charge for. More importantly, he has only won six competitive games in two and a half years. He has beaten Cyprus twice, Georgia twice, Andorra and Armenia. Victory in Paris over 90 minutes is an asterisked achievement. It is as uninspiring a record as nearly every other Irish manager.

This record has been overlooked for a number of reasons. Taking over from Steve Staunton helped. His predecessor's performance was so calamitous that anything was going to be better. When Trapattoni delivered an immediate improvement and brought organisation where there had been chaos, he was believed to be making progress.

His record as a manager also demanded respect. When he talks, people listen, even if they can't always understand him. When they can't, his personal magnetism usually does the trick.

And then there was Paris. The disappointment and anger of that night brought the Irish team a new respect. The country was energised by the injustice and the team, after the nights in San Marino and Cyprus, had recovered its pride.

A year on and the righteous anger now has another target. The fear for many, inside and outside the squad, is that the night in Paris was a peak which can never be ascended again. France's disarray was rammed home at the World Cup but Ireland's verve had rocked them.

Players like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, who had given so much, were delivering once more. It remains to be seen if they can do so again. The 'famous' players in Trapattoni's squad are now the wrong side of 30. John O'Shea, the coltish everyman, will reach that milestone next year.

On Wednesday night, Trapattoni's eagerness to bring the next generation through was questioned. Stories about players like Marc Wilson or James McCarthy becoming frustrated and choosing to play for Northern Ireland or Scotland are the most extreme manifestation of this edginess.

Their chance will come and they are unlikely to jeopardise it now. McCarthy, in particular, must be nurtured. He is a player for the next World Cup campaign. He is probably a player for these qualifiers but Trapattoni's conservatism will keep him on the periphery.

Shane Long is now closer. "He is ready," Trapattoni said on Thursday but emphasised that there was a time for experience and a time for youth. You can probably guess what time it is.

So Robbie Keane, who is most under threat from Long, will continue. Trapattoni knows Keane needs to start playing football. He now acknowledges there are conditions under which he would drop his captain, it's just hard to ascertain what they are.

Trapattoni would prefer to talk about Keith Fahey than Seamus Coleman. He was impressed, perhaps even surprised, by his performance last Wednesday and if he believes in Fahey then Ireland could hope for more creativity in a barren zone. The frustration that remains from Ireland's defeat against Russia in October ensured that Trapattoni didn't have to do too much to jeopardise the goodwill.

The failure to select Coleman disappointed many. Those who had been foolish enough to buy tickets when Trapattoni suggested on Tuesday that Coleman and Wilson would feature may not be so naive again.

The FAI will have to think of some way of getting a crowd in to watch the game against Wales in February. Right now, the age-old association between luck and winning a competition is being challenged by those unfortunate enough to win prizes to the Welsh game next year.

Trapattoni will want to look at Greg Cunningham. He will have noted his mistake for the winning goal and probably won't forget it. Adventurous full-backs were supposed to be a cornerstone of Trapattoni's style but it has not happened. Cunningham offers promise in that area and he is playing football regularly.

So is Coleman. He would have brought some hope back to the Irish team with his daring, instead Trapattoni was more concerned with remaining true to his code, his style and his way.

On his opening day as manager at the RDS in 2008, Trapattoni talked about Greece and how they won the European Championships. Trapattoni was expected to turn Ireland into a similarly disciplined machine.

Instead, nearly three years later, he is still talking about the little details, not to emphasise a point that needs to be repeated, but to point out how it continues to cost Ireland. Ireland conceded an opening goal against Russia from a free-kick and an incompetent wall led to Norway's equaliser.

Instead Ireland have a pragmatic philosophy best described as losing ugly. The manager expressed some admiration for the way Norway moved the ball forward, seeming to suggest that you can't concede a goal when the ball is 80 metres from your goal.

He would like a training camp next year but he is unlikely to get one. "We can't spend three hours on the training pitch in the rain," he says.

Unlike the Italians, Irish players seem unable to comprehend the little details that will make them hard to beat.

There are other cultural differences. On Thursday, Trapattoni was asked if the Irish players had been allowed to go out for two nights -- Friday and Saturday -- after the Russia defeat. He denied it and said they had been allowed one night out.

But they were allowed no more. Reflecting on the night in Wiesbaden during which he rowed with Andy Reid, Trapattoni recalled his advice on that night. "There are rules. Respect the FAI, respect yourselves, respect the fans. That is important."

Again there is a cultural difference. "Here we don't put the players in handcuffs, like in Italy. They have freedom. It is not a prison camp whereas in Italy it is. They have been doing that in Italy since they were youngsters, it is not a sacrifice, they are used to it, it is normal."

Trapattoni promised to change many of the things that Ireland had regarded as normal. He has brought stability. In the next year, he must ensure it doesn't become stagnation.

Sunday Independent

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