Monday 18 December 2017

Players must find clarity in confusion

Trapattoni arrived in Ireland's hour of need but failure to secure at least a play-off spot could end his tenure, writes Dion Fanning

Nobody goes to bed as a child dreaming of playing against Andorra. Ireland's squad will gather tomorrow for two games against sides with little appeal that could define their international careers.

For two generations, there is a sense that they are running out of time. For Giovanni Trapattoni, there is always a sense of urgency, even though he gives the impression he can conquer time.

Trapattoni has, without question, brought Ireland back to a respectable position in international football. Those who are bored now forget that the suffering are never bored and that Ireland under Steve Staunton were suffering.

Trapattoni, through an iron will and a fierce ideology, has persevered with his methods. Even when they don't work, as in Moscow, they work. There is a relentlessness about this team now that Trapattoni has brought to the fore. He may be sceptical about their ability and he may be inconsistent in his standard and expectation but his team usually find a way.

He is eager for this improvement to lead to a contract which will allow him to manage in the World Cup qualifiers. All sides agree that nothing will happen before these two games, even if some breathless reports suggested they would.

"It is important now to focus on the two matches and after we can speak about it," Marco Tardelli said on Friday. "After these two matches it is possible to talk about the contract, everything. John [Delaney] knows what we will say, we wish to stay."

The FAI might not need to talk even then. If Ireland are in a play-off, the FAI should wait and see before finalising a new contract. The heavens will not fall if they take their time and see if Ireland can qualify.

There are realities too. If Ireland fail dismally, the FAI are aware there won't be much public enthusiasm for a Trapattoni extension, even at a reduced rate. Public enthusiasm is what the FAI not only crave but need. Qualification for a tournament would ensure it and then, with some more attractive games in the World Cup campaign, they could imagine a world with a full Aviva, the Big Rock Candy Mountain. So there is no reason for them to rush, better instead to wait until Ireland know what they'll be doing next summer.

Trapattoni won't be offered a better chance of reaching Brazil than he will with Ireland, even if he is seen as a miracle-worker across Europe on the back of a possible Ireland qualification.

The FAI might feel that it is better to have the manager pinned down with a wage cut before he can look for a rise on the back of qualification and, for that reason, they are unlikely to hold their nerve if Ireland reach the play-offs.

Ireland, though, still have a chance of something more if Slovakia can beat Russia on Friday. The Irish players know that everything and nothing is in their hands. They had the opportunity of automatic qualification and it slipped away, as it did two years ago. They can guarantee a play-off but all that promises is uncertainty.

A couple of weeks ago, a rugby journalist said Ireland's achievements at Italia '90 were "diluted by the fact it was not a truly Irish accomplishment and benefited directly from individuals using convenient nationality as a means of furthering their careers".

It was a narrow definition of Irish nationality which seemed to take no account of Irish history. The FAI always point to those days as an example of what could happen if Ireland qualify again. The nation stops for a major tournament -- particularly a World Cup -- as no sport can match football's popularity even if the Irish football team increasingly mean less to people than the rugby side.

Ireland produced a generation of footballers on the back of that "unIrish" achievement in 1990. Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Shay Given and Richard Dunne grew from that and experienced their own bittersweet tournament in 2002.

Behind them is another generation that is running out of time. John O'Shea made his debut in 2001 but didn't make that squad. Stephen Hunt is 30, Kevin Doyle has just turned 28. They are players who deserve to reach a major tournament (a major tournament probably deserves Stephen Hunt just as much). These astonishingly committed Irish players will not get a better chance than the one presented by the next two, or probably four, matches.

As usual with Trapattoni, there has been some confusion in the build up. The day after the Russia game, Trapattoni told Sunday journalists that he would allow Robbie Keane to play for LA Galaxy in New York. He held that line until it became preposterous but even on Friday, Tardelli was insisting there had been no change in the manager's position.

"It was completely Robbie's decision, we are happy that he has made this decision, the important thing for us is that he is completely 100 per cent fit for both these games because he will be very important for us."

Trapattoni might be right to see it as a lot of fuss over nothing -- ultimately Keane pulled out and will be in Dublin tomorrow -- but it was just another example of his confusing approach to player relations.

Doyle seemed to be disgruntled with the questions being raised about his fitness by Trapattoni last month but he is said to be now more accepting that his fitness has improved with even more matches for Wolves.

He has played every minute of every league game for Wolves this season and the contract extension he signed last week demonstrated his importance for the club. He is as important for Ireland, which made Trapattoni's mishandling of the situation for the games against Slovakia and Russia even more baffling.

Tardelli says there is no question in the management's minds about the player.

"He has our complete confidence. After an injury like that, it can be quite difficult. Kevin Doyle needs to play for the team, for us. We needed to have passion and we are very happy that he is back to his best with Wolves."

Doyle is too committed to be distracted by the mutterings of the manager whose utterances are sometimes -- but not always -- written off by the secure members of the squad as the eccentricities of a septuagenarian.

Trapattoni won't change now. Nothing will change for Ireland in two matches that they will be expected to win but which, in truth, might cause them some difficulty.

Andorra have scored one goal in this campaign. They scored it in Dublin. In March, Slovakia only beat them 1-0 and if Andorran substitute Oscar Sonejee had taken his chance in injury time, Slovakia would have had a result almost as shameful as their home defeat to Armenia. Trapattoni will just want to win.

Ireland will expect the difficulty to come on Tuesday week in the Aviva in a game when even more than a play-off could be at stake.

Kevin Kilbane is unlikely to recover from injury so Stephen Ward will be given another chance at left-back. Andorra might not test him but Armenia, with their pace, will.

These are games Ireland aren't designed to play. They will have to do something on the ball and that's not what Trapattoni wants them to do. They are built for a play-off. Whether they are built for a play-off victory will become apparent in the next six weeks.

Trapattoni won't think that far ahead. He has his views that were formed during an incredible career as a player and a manager, a career which brought him nearly every glory. Ireland now need to make the most of their time together.

Sunday Indo Sport

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