Thursday 22 March 2018

Trap back in driving seat

Italian entered international break under scrutiny but has emerged with right results and new confidence

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"I have a battery like Duracell," grinned Giovanni Trapattoni as a hectic two-and-a-half weeks drew to a close and he was asked if he was looking forward to a rest.

He was in good form in Dublin Airport's Clarion Hotel, going through his final official duties before taking a flight back to Milan, where Mrs Trap is wondering when her summer holidays will start.

Upon his return last night, he was going to sit down and sift through the 100 or so texts he received after he steered an understrength Irish team to an astonishing win over his native Italy in Liege on Tuesday night.

Inevitably, there were wisecracks from the audience, wondering if any of the messages were from the absent players whose dubious unavailability remained a constant theme of this end-of-season gathering.

Trapattoni smiled.

Earlier, he had joked about the irony of young footballers being unable to return messages when they spend most of their life tapping away on their mobiles or some other form of technology.

The 72-year-old was laughing, a marked difference from the beginning of this international period when he was being given the runaround by members of his squad who were supposed to use this series of games to seize their chance.

Some wondered if Trapattoni was losing his power.

Now, after four wins, 10 goals scored, and none conceded, the Italian is fully charged up. Unquestionably, after 18 topsy-turvy days, his position has been strengthened.

Remember last October? After Ireland's scattered display in defeat by Russia -- where the first 45 minutes were an embarrassment -- there were thinly veiled comments from the dressing-room with respect to the team's tactics.

Richard Dunne and Glenn Whelan were vocal enough in their criticism, and there were other rumblings of unrest in the lead-up to the 1-1 draw in Slovakia.

Ireland have moved beyond that bump in the road now.

Of course, Moscow in September will be a stern test of the system, but there has been precious little discussion of formations in the last fortnight.

Everyone has been singing firmly from the same hymn sheet, with Trapattoni adamant that the players now finally understand what he wants from them.

"It is not delusion when I say we have good players," he said yesterday.

"Maybe, technically, we don't have a Messi, or a Ronaldo, or a Rooney, but we can have precision.

"There are creative players who can win a game on their own.

"I've had many great players, many famous names, but when you have other players -- and not (in) big (club) teams, and big stars -- you have to construct a team, and that is very satisfying for a manager when a team realises (its potential).

"At last, this team understands what we want, that when we have the ball, we can look to go for a goal, but when the opponent have the ball, it's important that everybody does their job."

The furore over pull-outs galvanised team spirit, with Robbie Keane coming to the fore and revealing that unhappiness with the no-shows had brought everyone closer together.

Trap was speaking for the group when he outlined his disillusionment.

The World Cup qualifying campaign had a momentum which carried Ireland all the way to Paris. They lost their way a bit last October, but appear to have the bit back between their teeth now.

It's a positive sign.

Imagine if Ireland had failed to take three points from Macedonia. What if the luck had gone the way of the hosts in the first half?

With respect to the no-shows, Trapattoni would have been in a difficult position. Public criticism of the likes of James McCarthy, Marc Wilson and Darron Gibson could have rebounded on him if the players who turned up were exposed and he therefore desperately needed to call the young guns back in come August.

The manner in which his squad responded in Skopje and Liege has justified Trapattoni's belief in their mental strength, his underlying assertion that a team is nothing without that resilience and sheer bloody mindedness.

Trapattoni is the one calling the shots.

It's up to the others to force their way back into his plans -- rather than the manager having to go cap in hand.

"I don't make choices on the basis of who I like personally," he stressed.

"I would never exclude or punish players unless there has been a serious example of bad manners.

"When players respect this, when they respect the rules, it's ok.

"I think, in the future, I will say to them: 'Do you want to come with us again?'" said Trapattoni, alluding to McCarthy, Wilson, Gibson and co.

"Yes or no? They must be clear. Not for me, but for you, the Irish people. If they have injury, ok.

"They decide if they continue with us or stay at home."

The hardcore travelling support will always sing his name, yet there has been plenty of criticism of Trapattoni's personnel choices over the last six months or so.

Hence, the gasps when Simon Cox was promoted ahead of Shane Long for the big one in Skopje. Similarly, he was strong in his support of Darren O'Dea, despite the poor year at club level which the Celtic man has endured.

Ultimately, his decisions were vindicated. Yes, there were ropey moments in Macedonia, but it was a severely patched-up defence and they managed to regroup at the interval to see out a comfortable win.

Meanwhile, with just 24 hours preparation, Trapattoni organised his team to frustrate an Italian side packed with Serie A regulars.

Of course, such is the FAI's drive to organise home games at every opportunity, it is often forgotten that Ireland have generally impressed on their travels under the 72-year-old -- they have yet to lose a competitive game away from home. Even though it was a friendly, there was something that little bit more satisfying about Tuesday. It was a performance packed with the character that Irish people want from their teams.

Time will tell if it's a turning point, but a summer exercise which started in chaotic fashion has somehow managed to bring good vibes back.

For that, the man at the helm deserves plenty of credit.

Irish Independent

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