Saturday 20 January 2018

Still convinced he is right even when he is wrong

Tommy Conlon

He faced overwhelming odds, he was overran and outgunned, and yet he refused to capitulate against a Russian onslaught last Tuesday night.

It was a bloody-minded act of defiance, a monumental show of resistance -- and in the end he survived. Richard Dunne wasn't bad either. But it was Giovanni Trapattoni's stubbornness that was truly jaw-dropping.

How could he look at this game and change nothing? How could he stand there and see his cherished 4-4-2 formation torn apart, over and over again, and still cling on to it?

It was the night that the Ireland manager's hitherto admirable conviction became an unacceptable burden to his players. They had to carry the can for his ego; they had to run themselves into the ground; they had to suffer the consequences of a man who would not change his mind.

The Russians had already provided Trapattoni with empirical evidence that his system would not cope with their class -- they proved it conclusively in Dublin last October. And now, ten minutes into the return match in Moscow, they were proving it again. It couldn't last. Surely it couldn't last. Surely he would throw in an extra midfielder, if only to give his willing players a respite from the barrage.

As Russia racked up chance after chance and Ireland tried to hold out with every fibre of their being, one's admiration for the players was matched by a mounting disbelief with the manager. He continued to watch his team stagger from crisis to crisis and still he stuck to his guns.

When he did make changes it was only to personnel: the formation remained, the midfield was still overwhelmed, the Irish goal still under siege. It was beyond perverse. Trapattoni's bewildering intransigence eventually prompted a weird thought: that here was a manager with a metaphorical death wish. Here was a manager who would prefer to be beaten rather than admit he was wrong.

If Russia won, as they were bound to, then he could hide behind the reality that they were the better team. But if he were to abandon a principle he had clung to from the beginning of his reign, he would publicly lose face. And he could not accept that prospect: the players would have to sacrifice themselves come what may.

Trapattoni talks a lot about "mentality". It was the night the scales fell away from our eyes about his mentality. He simply had to change his system to salvage something from the game before it was too late; he had to but he didn't. This wasn't intransigence anymore -- it was negligence.

And yet, if this sounds like a complete condemnation of Trapattoni's ways, it's not. If teams reflect their managers then the Irish team has acquired much of his mental toughness. This was Ireland's seventh consecutive clean sheet. They have become a tough-minded, resilient side. For all the times that they are opened up, they are still hard to beat.

The impression one gets from Trapattoni is that he is an old-school teacher, hammering home core Italian football values: organisation, discipline, concentration and unity. The players seem to like him -- they certainly respect him. At 72, he retains a hunger for competitive sport that is very impressive. His iron insistence on the realpolitik of "the result", and nothing else, is a refreshing contrast to much of the woolly football guff on these islands. He has stripped his philosophy down to this one essential truth: the result is what matters. Everything else is transient. And, for what it's worth, there is a charm to the man that is also endearing. He is one of the more interesting and likeable visitors to have washed up on our sporting shore.

And anyway, those who want rid of him should be careful what they wish for. Because no matter who the manager is, he will still have to deal with players, some of whom cannot pass or control the ball to an acceptable international standard. The technical crudeness of many Irish players remains an indictment of soccer's coaching culture in this country. Their inability to keep the ball last Tuesday, to string a sequence of passes, to deliver even a decent cross, once again bordered on embarrassing. It's an inherited legacy that appears as intractable now as it ever was.

One can picture Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli, in their private conversations, gesticulating in amazement at the latest example of an Irish player's fear of the ball.

But last week they ought to have been grateful that so many of those same players were prepared to give as much as they did in the face of such a battering. They would've been entitled to buckle at some stage, if only from sheer fatigue. It was an exhibition of heart and endurance that the more fashionable Irish rugby team will do well to equal at their World Cup.

Trapattoni did not deserve to get a point in Moscow because on this occasion "the result" did not seem to matter as much to him as some private point of principle. But he got it anyway; his team, somehow, was still standing at the final whistle. Some of them, like Dunne, had gone way beyond the call of duty. On the back of their gallantry, Trap had got away with it. Which means he is probably convinced more than ever that he was right, even when he couldn't have been more wrong.

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