'Trap would bring out the best in Stephen Ireland'
DIETMAR Hamann tells a famous story about Giovanni Trapattoni, elements of which are unsuitable for a family newspaper.
It revolves, perhaps predictably, around the Ireland manager's inability to fully grasp the nuances of a different language. Hamann was a youngster at Bayern Munich when Trapattoni regularly caused hilarity with his attempts at German. Press and players lapped it up.
During a difficult spell at Bayern, Trapattoni called his squad together at the training pitch for a pep talk 48 hours before an important game.
He was imploring his players to show the fans they had balls, that they had cojones. But he didn't know how to say the German equivalent, so he turned to the multi-lingual Brazilian striker Giovane Elber and asked for help. Elber responded mischievously with the German translation for a private part of the female anatomy. Unaware that it was the incorrect answer, Trapattoni proceeded with an impassioned speech, thinking he was telling his underperforming stars to show the doubters they had balls, when in fact he was saying something entirely different.
Eventually, the urge to laugh got the better of the group. Trap was furious and demanded to know what was going on. When Elber explained and apologised, Trapattoni considered his previous statements. "First, there was a little smile," says Hamann, "Then his smile widened and suddenly Trap burst into a fit of hysterical laughter.
"I think that little 'cojones' episode and others like it earned Trap extra respect," he explains. "They helped people to see him as a normal guy, a nice fella. Some managers believe that you have to appear infallible, but that's when they become distant and unapproachable. Trap believed the opposite. He could laugh at himself, and players loved him for it."
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ON Saturday morning, Hamann smiled as he recalled his experiences with the Ireland manager. He is sitting in a meeting room above Eason Bookstore on Dublin's O'Connell Street, where a large number of fans are waiting downstairs for his signature on their copy of his new book, 'The Didi Man, My Love Affair with Liverpool', which builds his life story around his experiences at Anfield.
Trapattoni was an influence in his formative days at Bayern Munich, and the above incident is outlined in detail. He speaks more about him in discussion, and is a firm believer in his methods. Therefore, he views Ireland's Euro 2012 prospects in a positive light. "I wouldn't be surprised if they are the dark horses," he says. "He will be prepared for everything and anything. In tournament football, you have to keep possession and must not concede goals. Trap is known for that."
He is known for a lot of things. Hamann was always likely to be influenced by Trapattoni because his approach to the game mirrored the Italian's thinking process. "I was known for thinking about where I should be and trying to make sure that I was there at the right time," he explains. Those foundations were laid by the man in charge at Bayern.
"He worked a lot with us," he recalls. "At times it was long. We trained for two and a half hours or three hours a day in pre-season. There was a lot of moaning and whinging, but three months later, you knew why you had done it. You change things without thinking about it, and that's where he is good."
Irish players are recurring characters in Hamann's story. They have shared experiences about Trapattoni's ways.
"I remember one of the first games I played, a cup game in the evening, he was only there about four or six weeks and he came down in the morning and I was having scrambled eggs," Hamann says. "He asked what I was doing. I said 'having eggs'. He went off his head and said 'no eggs'... until this day he never said why. Apparently, eggs are no good for you in the morning, but it didn't do me any harm for the next 15 years.
"It was the same with Richard Dunne, who was having mushroom soup before an Ireland game and Trap went bananas. He was running around like mad and nobody knew what was going on. He told one of the waitresses to get rid of the mushrooms as they are no good for you."
While acknowledging the idiosyncrasies, the thrust of Hamann's main point is that Trapattoni is obsessing on behalf of the players, not for his own personal benefit. The 72-year-old may be a disciplinarian, but he has a warm heart.
And it is for those reasons that Hamann actually believes that another old acquaintance, a certain Stephen Ireland, could thrive under the veteran's tutelage.
Hamann was obviously attracted by characters that were a little bit different. He was enthralled by Jamie Carragher's sense of humour and warmed to Sven-Goran Eriksson's unorthodox attitude towards life. Perhaps, it was because he was keen to challenge the English stereotype of his nationality, going as far as lying down on the street in order to stop a moving car -- and paying them for a lift home in the absence of a taxi -- to demonstrate that Germans do have a wild side.
But despite meeting a range of fascinating human beings along the way, Hamann found that Cobh's enigmatic midfielder lived in a particularly bizarre world.
Ireland was known in the Man City dressing room as Otter, quite simply because Ben Thatcher convincingly argued that he looked like one. During the Grannygate incident, Ireland turned to Hamann for support. He confided that he was thinking about retiring from international football, and was advised against it. And he still went through with it anyway.
"That's the guy Stephen is," Hamann says. "Maybe that's what makes him such a good player because on the pitch he is instinctive.
"He says he doesn't feel happy going back and leaving his kids and missus in England. It was a big call. People tell me now he wants to come back, I doubt he'll come back for the Euros. But maybe in future people will forgive him and he'll come back. I'm sure if you ask him now, he'll admit he made a mistake. He'll be hurting this summer watching the team in Poland and the Ukraine. He could and should be part of it, but he's not."
He is asked if Trapattoni and Ireland -- who seem poles apart on so many levels -- could work together.
"We had a similar player in Mehmet Scholl," Hamann responds. "Trap was hard on him, but he kind of took him under his wing. Mehmet, at times, was like Trap's son. Ask Trap about Mehmet at his next press conference, his eyes will probably light up. I feel Stephen is a similar player with tremendous technical ability.
"Obviously, Trap likes players he can trust. Power and discipline are two of the main things he asks for. But at the same time, I think Stephen's ability would make him a perfect match. He would bring the best out of him. So, hopefully after the Euros, they shake hands and move on."
By then, Hamann has a feeling that Germany could be champions of the continent. He's not so sure about Spain, citing Barcelona's erratic league form as evidence that the spine of the team is now vulnerable, and thinks Joachim Loew's side are best placed to capitalise in a tournament which he thinks is harder to win than the World Cup. Of course, he reached the final of the latter competition in 2002, and a lingering regret from his career is that loss to Brazil. "If we'd scored first, I think we'd have won," he sighs.
Looking forward is the priority now, and after an unfortunate introduction to management at Stockport, the man whom Liverpool fans will remember for his contribution to the 2005 miracle in Istanbul, is targeting happier days in the dugout.
Trapattoni's philosophy will be prominent in his thoughts as he embarks on that journey.