Tuesday 24 October 2017

Old habits dying hard

The McCarthy saga proves Trapattoni is incapable of relating to modern footballers, writes Dion Fanning

At the end of an unnecessary war there was an uneasy peace. After a long week of ill communication, Giovanni Trapattoni finally appeared to accept that there is no danger of James McCarthy abandoning Ireland to play for Scotland.

"The player has decided," Trapattoni said on Friday. In his last media appearance of the week, he decided that there was, as had been suggested by those close to McCarthy all week, no chance of the player switching allegiance. "He has played for us, he has decided," Trapattoni said. Marco Tardelli, who has had more close contact with the player and his family, was equally certain. "He is a man, he make a decision."

Roberto Martinez's comments after Wigan's draw at Anfield yesterday added to the mystery and illustrated the damage that has been done by Trapattoni's stance. They might think the player has made his decision but the last week has clearly distanced McCarthy from the country he wants to play for.

His eligibility had served as a useful distraction when the real story was Trapattoni's alienation and mistrust of another talented Irish player. In the attritional and fear-based game, Trapattoni demands, the selection of McCarthy, with his abundant talent, his flair and his ability to think for himself, would be too much. He is a gifted player, another one who may have to wait until Trapattoni's time as manager is at an end before he is centrally involved with Ireland.

The sound and the fury from Trapattoni's side last week clearly reflected some irritation with the player or other unnamed or hinted-at parties. The problem when Trapattoni goes to war is that the target is always unclear.

By the end of the week, Trapattoni was trying to suggest that this fuss was mainly the fault of the media. All across Europe last week, international managers had to deal with players withdrawing from their squads. A friendly squeezed in between key league game is always going to bring withdrawals. McCarthy's was just one more which deserved to be underplayed, even if his selection for Wigan yesterday, and his manager's subsequent comments, will aid the unhelpful conspiracy theories.

Even if Trapattoni senses a reluctance on McCarthy's part, he created the firestorm thanks to his inability to communicate clearly and perhaps a more conscious desire to make a point to McCarthy.

McCarthy's hesitancy has nothing to do with a reservation about playing for Ireland. He may harbour many though about playing under Trapattoni. When the Ireland manager received the news last weekend that McCarthy was not travelling to Dublin, he is said to have privately been enraged.

Trapattoni had appeared to relent by including him in the final squad after excluding him from the original party on the grounds that he was recovering from injury and then making the insulting decision to select him for the under 21s.

McCarthy was finally added to a squad he should have been placed in at the outset. His appearance might have added a few thousand to the official attendance of 20,000 but that was not Trapattoni's problem.

Trapattoni's problem was obedience or a lack of it. The discipline he demands from his players on the pitch is, in his view, most willingly given from those who have something to be grateful about. As a prodigiously gifted footballer, McCarthy may have other ideas.

After Tuesday's game, Ireland's manager was asked if McCarthy was in his plans and he gave an inclusive answer which included the name Lee Carsley, who is also in the manager's plans. Encouraging for Carsley as he reaches the end of his career, less so for McCarthy as his hugely promising one takes off.

Trapattoni's ambivalence suggests that the manager does not see him fitting in to his all-action, non-singing, non-dancing side. This is the key point, not the player's eligibility. In some ways, Trapattoni created a sideshow with his refusal to rule out the player choosing Scotland.

Suddenly the story was one of a player waiting to see which country he played for rather than the more accurate one of a player wondering if the manager truly rated him.

This is a story of a manager who wants something from a modern player that not every modern player wants to give. Empty talk about showing pride or dying to play for your country is as meaningless as the Carling Nations Cup.

You may as well guilt fans into paying to see their country play Wales on a Tuesday night in February by telling them it's their patriotic duty to support the side (could be some marketing potential for the FAI in that). If McCarthy decided to rest in February -- as he did last summer -- then the manager has to accept that. Trapattoni says he is tolerant of the modern player but he suggests that he has no choice.

"No. I have more and more and more patience for this situation. Players today, they are not happy, they change immediately. They say to agents 'I am not happy, look for other teams'."

Trapattoni may claim to have more patience for it but he also feels there is a lack of professionalism in a younger generation that can be dictated to by agents.

In his day, he says, the idea of leaving a club would involve some soul-searching and pain. Now, he suggests, players are ready to move whenever they are unhappy. The pursuit of footballers' happiness is not something that ever interested him as a manager.

"This is a peculiar case. It is kind of similar to the one of Stephen Ireland. And all this pressure is coming from you [the media], you shouldn't keep talking about McCarthy because it is conditioning the player. The more you talk about it . . ." He trailed off but the suggestion was that, like Ireland, McCarthy would become "a hedgehog" if Trapattoni continued to talk about him. The solution to that was simple: Trapattoni didn't need to talk about him.

The same is true of Darron Gibson. Trapattoni is right that the player should leave Manchester United. If Gibson continues his current rate of progress, he will never become a regular. He can talk all he wants about how he wants to stay at Manchester United and win things but unless he has his eyes on being the new David May, he should want more from his career than a few celebratory photos. Yet, Trapattoni didn't need to say it and create some more pressure on the player who can't do anything until the summer even if he wanted to leave.

The manager has his methods. Séamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark did well but neither are likely to start against Macedonia, even if Kevin Kilbane could have been forgiven for thinking his international career was over after the cold way Trapattoni dealt with him. In another week, Gibson would have been another mess but everything was overshadowed by McCarthy. His eligibility was not the problem. The more important issue, and it will be become critical if McCarthy were to change his mind and play with Scotland, is how Trapattoni has handled the situation.

His first reference to Stephen Ireland was said as a joke when he laughed at how his previous meetings with players hadn't gone so well. By the time he sat in front of Sunday journalists at the end of the week, he was again talking about Ireland. Was it not unfair to lump McCarthy, who wants to play for his country and has done so under Trapattoni, with Ireland, who hasn't? "No, I am not comparing them. McCarthy played against Brazil, he play 30 minutes and he play well. He was welcomed here."

Since that game last year, something has changed. As with Andy Reid, the failure to attend summer games is mentioned. McCarthy is a developing footballer and, having suffered with injuries, he needs rest as much as matches.

Ireland need the manager, who is more of a fundamentalist than a pragmatist, to bend. Trapattoni sees the game evolve and sets himself firmly against it. "Football has become too professional, there is no more heart." He sees the modern player as a commodity in the marketplace and happy to be viewed as one. This may be harsh on players who have always thought of external prizes like money, cars and girls, even if all are now more easily available. Trapattoni wants the culture to change.

"I met Stephen Ireland and the result was the same. The player want only assurance 'can I play?' It is important that they express the wish to be part of this team before we have any other conversation."

If the consequence of Trapattoni's is, as Martinez has now hinted, the player deciding to rethink his international choices then the manager may rail against the fickleness of youth. But he has played his part.

The conversation is always conducted on Giovanni Trapattoni's terms, no matter how hard they are to understand.

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