'The reality for us is that when you get to senior level, it is all about results'
If Martin O'Neill does replace Giovanni Trapattoni, it has to be
the starting point for reform in Irish football, writes Dion FanningWhen Giovanni Trapattoni once found himself in a small Irish town, he declared, "I grew up in a place just like this". In June last year, a small town in Tuscany came out to honour him on a Saturday night when he arrived with his Irish team.
The plan was simple: first Trapattoni would be interviewed in the main square before heading up the road to the Viale Giuseppe Verdi where he and his assistant Marco Tardelli would be honoured – as Robert de Niro, Burt Lancaster and Henry Kissinger had been before them – on the Walk of Fame in Montecatini.
In the square, Trap answered questions put by a journalist he knew. Another old friend was sitting beside the stage, clearly unwell. Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli talked to him, Trap draping his arms on his friend's shoulders, displaying that gift of intimacy that is one of his most endearing qualities.
At one point, a woman of a certain age started veering hesitantly but with purpose towards the stage. Tardelli interrupted the interview to help her, then Trapattoni too came over as she started to lose her footing. Soon she was on the stage having her picture taken with the two men. Three other women then sat on the far corner of the stage while the interview took place, conducting an alternative salon.
After the interview, Trap and Tardelli were supposed to head for Viale Verdi. As they left the stage, a crowd gathered round, wanting more, always wanting more. Then, as if planted by Fellini, a bunch of runners started running through the town square. The local mini-marathon was in its final stages, although everybody seemed to have forgotten about it.
"Attenzione! Attenzione!" one runner roared as he tried to get through and some people made way while others still headed purposefully towards Trap. "Attenzione!" the runner cried one more time before pushing a man out of the way.
Trapattoni was in the middle of the crowd somewhere, in danger of being clattered by a demented runner or an enthusiastic fan, either of Trapattoni or mini-marathons.
There was some concern that Trap might have been caught up in the chaos then suddenly his face appeared, looking serene, in the back of a police car with Marco Tardelli, looking less serene, beside him.
They were taken for their own safety to the Walk of Fame which, it turned out, wasn't very safe at all for that was where the runners were heading next. In a brief ceremony, Trap and Tardelli were honoured before the race arrived and they were taken away to their hotel where no mini-marathons were scheduled to finish.
As all this took place, Trapattoni never betrayed any sense that anything unexpected was happening, that any plan had gone awry or that he had been startled or even amused by the events. Giovanni Trapattoni believed in order but he was always prepared for chaos.
He was always prepared for what could go wrong. In the town square that night, he was asked to recall his greatest victories. "One victory I still regret is the defeat in Paris," he said.
This was the heart of his personality and it was at the heart of his Irish teams. In the end, he wasn't a slave to the system; the system had failed. Ireland were chaotic, there were people charging wildly through the crowd and everywhere there was the possibility of disruption. Finally, Trapattoni had to be spirited away from the melodrama. "Anything can happen," he said before Tuesday's game when he was still trying to sound the right note. "Anything can happen," Philip Roth wrote, "but it usually doesn't."
On Tuesday night, the expected happened. Ireland were out of the World Cup and Giovanni Trapattoni returned to Dublin and said goodbye to the Irish players who had returned on the FAI flight from Vienna.
When Ireland played in Montenegro five years ago, a minibus was waiting to take a number of the squad to private jets which would fly them straight back to their clubs. It might be an indication of the downturn or a sign of where Irish players are at in the English game that on Tuesday all the Irish players returned to Dublin on the FAI flight.
Before they left Vienna, the Irish players were aware that Trapattoni's press conference on Wednesday had been cancelled. By the time they arrived in Dublin, they knew it was time to say goodbye. Trapattoni knew it too. He had been Ireland manager for five years and four months, the longest he had been in any position since his 10 years at Juventus.
His mood at the meeting with John Delaney, Paddy McCaul and Michael Cody the following morning was conciliatory. Tardelli, who can be more argumentative, was also accepting of the conclusion. Some felt that a departure at this stage suited the manager, who is eager to work again. The meeting was concluded in under an hour with Trapattoni agreeing to a reduced payment on the remainder of his contract. In interviews last week, John Delaney had disputed Trapattoni's claim that his contract ran until the end of May.
The relationship between Trapattoni and John Delaney is not what it was but there was still sadness in the room. Others who had worked closely with him and never drifted apart felt the end of his time keenly. One described it as like breaking up with somebody even though you still loved them.
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The FAI will now look to appoint another smart, independent man. If Martin O'Neill wants the job, he could be Ireland manager by the end of the week.
The only obstacle would be if O'Neill decided he wanted to return to club management. He is said to have been wounded by his dismissal at Sunderland and the preceding nine months when he found himself becoming frustrated by aspects of the club.
In his interview with Clive Woodward last week, O'Neill said Sunderland was a club unlike the others he has worked at. "The clubs I've been to, outside Sunderland, I've always felt in control."
O'Neill asserts his authority through his intelligence. He also attends matches at all levels all the time and Irish players may be enthused by his appearance and encouraging words at club matches between internationals.
To a degree, nearly every high-profile appointment involves a reaction to the last one, especially if the previous one has ended in failure. It is a reflection of how Trapattoni ignored fundamentals for a long time that one of the things to recommend about O'Neill is his enthusiasm for going to matches.
While Trapattoni watched DVDs above a garage in Cinisello Balsamo just outside Milan, O'Neill could appear anywhere. Yet he shares Trapattoni's pragmatism and while the FAI will be pleased if they can appoint him, it must be the starting point for reform of Irish football.
O'Neill told Woodward last week that an international manager can only be concerned with results and nobody would dispute that. Ultimately, results, not the style of football, cost Trapattoni.
"It's the winning of the football games," O'Neill said. "I don't think any international manager has to concern himself with the long, long-term future. It doesn't matter. If he has been part of something that he set up, well and good, but he has to win football matches."
The Irish players who were part of the defeat in Vienna understood this reality as well.
"The structure of teams playing the same way up, from underage to senior level, seems to have worked for bigger, more powerful nations," John O'Shea said. "But for ourselves, are we putting a plan in place where the team, the players, have a system in place that works all the way through the ages? Plans are great in theory but the reality for us is that when you get to senior level, it is all about results."
The growing sense that Ireland's problems won't be solved simply by the departure of Trapattoni was reflected in the comments of the players in Vienna.
"We need everyone pulling in the right direction," O'Shea said. "We need everyone possible. I have known Brian [Kerr] for a long, long time. He has so much to offer. Niall Quinn, Kevin Kilbane, Roy Keane, those lads have been fantastic. They are the type of men we could do with in the set-up. They have so much to offer, so much knowledge about the game."
The FAI must not allow this opportunity to be wasted. Their new high-performance director Ruud Dokter is said to be an impressive figure, and work has begun on the national academy at Abbotstown. But as footballers in these islands struggle, it is time to do much more than other nations.
Keane may be interested in the Ireland job in the unlikely event that O'Neill is not appointed but his experience as a player at all levels of Irish international football should not be ignored. Irish football has to accept that there are others with innovative ideas and they may involve changing the way things are done in the country. Keane is also friendly with O'Neill and while the idea that he would be O'Neill's assistant is an interesting one, O'Neill usually brings the same coaching staff with him.
Keane's experience should not be ignored, while Niall Quinn's ideas have great merit.
"I would love if we could get a benefactor to invest in an academy the way there is a benefactor investing in the senior position, something which has aided them immensely," Quinn said last week.
Quinn has been vocal in the last seven days, demonstrating his commitment to a revolutionary change in how players in Ireland are prepared for professional football outside the country. Otherwise, Quinn feels, things will get worse.
"Parents are coming to me and asking me about their sons who are going to England and I've never had the clubs mentioned to me that are being mentioned in the last couple of years. With all due respect, the Burys and the Oldhams are unlikely to produce the next generation of Irish internationals."
Young Irish players now compete in a global market and Quinn is not alone in feeling that everything must be explored in the determination to make young Irish footballers and Ireland stronger.
Some have wondered if Delaney will feel threatened by Quinn's recent statements. Quinn has been suggested as a possible future CEO but he is not believed to have any interest in the job. Moreover, within the FAI, there is a sense that Delaney is in a strong position. One source described him as "untouchable" last week. He must use this position of strength to force through the changes Irish football needs.
If Quinn has innovative ideas, Delaney could be willing to listen to them. When Pat Kenny read out a couple of texts calling for Delaney to go along with Trapattoni, Delaney called the response "emotional".
"Well, Pat, I am employed by the board of the FAI. I work extremely hard day in, day out. I think I've been to 1,700 clubs over the last eight or nine years. Support for my role has come from the board and the grassroots of the game.
"Obviously people are going to be emotional at times and they'll say this and that. The international side of what I do is probably three or four per cent of the overall job of running Irish football, of developing Irish football."
Some would be eager to debate the other 96 or 97 per cent as well and the FAI must open itself up to questions. Delaney is said to be deeply committed to the ideas for developing Irish football and the FAI's Emerging Talent programme. The bitter divisions in schoolboy football are also a reflection of the problems in the game and while it may be naive to think they can be
resolved amicably, there is an urgent need for new ideas.
Last week Delaney said there were 33,000 coaches in Ireland, a staggering figure. But when the FAI was asked for the breakdown of the 33,000 (there are a series of coaching qualifications from Kickstart, the most elementary, to the UEFA Pro Licence) they did not respond.
An elite academy could threaten many in Irish football but it would be the best thing for the game if it embraced ideas from the smartest coaching talents in the world.
Delaney talked last week about the "negativity" following the Ireland results. O'Neill has a way of making people feel good but Ireland needs more to start feeling positive about the future.
On a damp August evening a few years ago, Giovanni Trapattoni heard the Italian national anthem being played by the CJ Kickham Brass Band in Tipperary town. He squeezed John Delaney's arm and told the people they reminded him of where he had come from and then he cried. He had, he explained, never heard his country's anthem played in a town outside his own country before.
The sadness is that he was Ireland's manager when his gifts as a manager had faded even if his greatness as a man endured. His appointment was a radical moment in Irish football. If his exit doesn't herald something even more adventurous, then those responsible should depart as well.