Sport Soccer

Saturday 24 February 2018

The old guard

Sideline veteran: Giovanni Trapattoni
Sideline veteran: Giovanni Trapattoni
James Lawton

James Lawton

Seventy years old, intransigent, given to passing bouts of severe irritation and impatience, and so often apparently bemused by the superstar psychology of so many of today's footballers, Giovanni Trapattoni will be an inviting target if his World Cup mission should founder in the next few days.

But then this would also have been the case if another septuagenarian, Luis Aragones, had come unstuck in last summer's European Championship finals.

Aragones, like old Trap, was not always seen as Mr Sweet Reason before he so brilliantly -- and intransigently -- guided Spain to the mountain-top. On top of the stubborn defiance of all criticism -- and advice -- Aragones had the additional baggage of that ugly 'racism' charge concerning Thierry Henry. But the old guy showed that age, if it is accompanied by a lifetime of hard experience of the ebb and flow of the game, can be anything but a handicap.


Trapattoni has steadfastly refused to make any beseeching noises in the direction of Stephen Ireland, a player whose creative impulses would no doubt be a huge bonus against Bulgaria at Croke Park tomorrow and world champions Italy in Bari next week.

Nor was he easily persuaded to jettison his reservations about the competitive nature of Andy Reid. But just as Aragones firmly resisted the demand that Arsenal's young virtuoso Cesc Fabregas be granted something more than a key substitute's role, Trapattoni has made it clear that if it isn't his show it isn't anybody's.

This level of self-belief has to be balanced, surely, against the possibility that the team may indeed have gained some advantage, at least in passing, if Trapattoni had tried a more beguiling approach towards Ireland, who has so often displayed a superior touch for Manchester City, and Reid, who in terms of natural talent, has an edge on most of his rivals.

If there is inevitably a sense that Ireland could field, at least on paper, a better-equipped team at Croke Park and in Bari, there also an argument that after so long in the game, and so much success, Trapattoni can bring so much more to the challenge than his immediate predecessors. Brian Kerr knew about the development of young players and Steve Staunton had first-hand experience of how it is to play at the highest level, but neither had entered even the foothills of the knowledge required to operate in the international arena.

It means that when Ireland go against an Italy coached by World Cup, Champions League and multiple-Scudetto winning Marcello Lippi, they can fear much in their opponents, but not the element of surprise. Even Lippi, aged 60, is unlikely to show something new to his ageing compatriot.

If age brings arthritis to a warrior, it also bestows a few certainties -- and not the least of them is imposing the value of understanding that good teams are not always the result of assembling the best talent. Lippi declares: "A winning team is always going to be a balance between competitiveness and talent and of course it is often true that the most talented players are not always the most competitive players ... Italy won the Cup in Germany not because they were necessarily the most talented team but because they worked together best."

The value of this attitude, as put into practice by Trapattoni, will be tested over the next few days by Ireland and also by England, whose continued willingness to follow the imperative of another Italian disciplinarian, Fabio Capello, will, after the friendly match defeat by Spain, be examined all over again against Slovakia and the Ukraine.

Trapattoni was haunted by the sight of Reid as the last man standing, or at least sitting amiably, at the end of a long night in the middle of a foreign mission. Capello, initially appalled by the casualness and indiscipline displayed by England players when they reported, re-entered the horrors last weekend when he watched Wayne Rooney in the middle of his latest tantrum at Fulham. When Rooney performed such rough melodramatics two regimes into the past, Sven-Goran Eriksson administered the mildest reproof. This week Capello handed out a public roasting.

In Trapattoni, Capello and Lippi there is, of course, the most visible of threads. If a team doesn't have leadership, and a true understanding of its best values, it doesn't have anything. It is a creed which also caters for one of the oldest truths in football: the one that says even some of the most gifted players are, at heart, quite insecure.

The result can often be recognition in the dressing-room that maybe the old coach had been right all along. This was certainly the case this week when Steven Gerrard conceded that maybe Rafa Benitez had been right to play him in a new position he had at first loathed.

It is also true that when Aragones formed the habit of routinely calling off Fernando Torres and refusing to start Fabregas, however brilliant his intervention in an earlier game, the wide perception was that he was storing up resentment in two of the most talented players in Europe. However, at the moment of triumph no-one contributed more eagerly than Fabregas and Torres when the old man was thrown high into the air, or concentrated so hard on catching him cleanly when he came down.

It may yet not to be too fanciful to predict a similarly happy landing for old Trap.

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