Sunday 25 February 2018

Trap's destiny will hinge on bringing away form home

Giovanni Trapattoni spoke to us about life's certainties the other day.

"The birth, the living, the death," he motioned. It was an ascetic assessment of life's mysteries from a committed Catholic.

He can live in the moment, though; he has often regaled us with his passion for Mozart. But he never confuses his pastimes with his profession.

On the theatrical stage or within the classical composition, truth can be disguised as fiction.

On the football field, one can never escape reality.

So it was on Thursday of last week that the Italian conducted an at times surreal presentation of his line-up to play Sweden before utterly altering it within 24 hours.

In effect, he selected two different teams; ultimately securing the result with his second-choice starting line-up.

Mozart – Ireland's manager has referred to him as "God" – once composed a symphony of such an unsettling, chaotic hue that it is often assumed that its author never meant for it to see the light of day.

Last Thursday in Stockholm, Trapattoni went further and published a team that was never going to deliver a performance in public.

As a glimpse into what it means to be an unsettled member of this Ireland squad – or, at the last count of a Swedish newspaper, the 22 current or exiled players who have suffered the coach's indignity of ignorance – Thursday's team announcement offered a vivid illustration.

In many ways, this was diverting fiction. The real truth was unfurled on the football field.

What evolved on the Friday evening was also a perfect illustration of another facet of this Ireland team under Trapattoni, competing competently away from home – aside from where Polish grass grows – to eke out a positive result.

Stockholm joined a long list that includes Sofia, Bari, Paris and Moscow where Ireland have failed to lose in 90 minutes of championship qualifiers.

And those 90 minutes, even if Sweden created the better chances and Ireland had not one shot on target, were all that mattered.

Amid the fog, it was difficult to ascertain who deserved the most credit; a dithering manager, mired in uncertainty, or a group of players, devoted to maximising the most from their ability and effort.

Some of us wondered whether Trapattoni had stumbled upon this team by accident or design.

Others argued – often a little too passionately – that it doesn't matter if the manager selected his side with needle and blindfold, as your granny might a Grand National selection.

The result is all that matters. Sport – and especially football – does not always reflect logic.

There may be two basic principles of management: 1. The manager is always right. 2. When the manager is wrong, refer to Rule 1 – but that is the stuff of real life.

Football, gloriously, is too unpredictable for all that.

Trapattoni has been around the block often enough to know that the principles of life do not apply to the beautiful game.

The one leading principle of football is that there is always a bullet pointed at your head. After that, it's just a matter of whether there's anything in the barrel. And, of course, who's pulling the trigger.

Depending on how much one believes the craven grapevine that emitted so unconvincingly during the past seven days from within the FAI, the 74-year-old was heading for a fall if his team did.

This was based on another of football's familiar theorems that when the team wins, we congratulate the players and when the team loses we blame the coach.

Having failed to ditch him following the humiliation to Germany, when Trapattoni's guile and charm dwarfed even Charlie Haughey's copyrighted political survival instincts, the FAI stand, apparently, poised once more.


They were supposedly prepared to collect on Saturday morning in a dark corner of a hotel, Brian McDermott's mobile number in hand and Trapattoni's P45 in the other.

We suspect that, as before, if the FAI had taken aim, they could just have easily shot themselves in the foot.

For some people, this would have been too much. Liam Brady, it seems, is one of them.

Brady, whose relationship with some of his former Irish team-mates was never overly cordial, bristled quite visibly when Ronnie Whelan, RTE television's co-commentator in Stockholm, omitted the manager's name from his necessarily brief post-match analysis.

Such deeper analysis was Brady's department and, much to the continuing amusement of thousands of viewers, he performed it with admirable veracity.

Sadly, Brady has struggled with the acceptance of the difference – as Mick McCarthy once colourfully put it – from pissing outside of the tent to pissing inside it.

After declaring absolute loyalty to Trapattoni – as he did as a player and assistant manager in two spells spanning a 30-year period – to one where one must supposedly abandon all such pretence in assuming a role as an independently rigorous analyst, Brady has allowed emotion to override passion.

The funny thing is that the manager Brady seeks so devotedly to defend from a mythical lynch mob, supposedly driven by some sense of personal animus, is entirely unaware that he needs the support of a self-styled media lapdog.

Trapattoni knows only too well the realities of the situation as he seeks to guide his team to the win against Austria that will build on the point gained in Stockholm.

He knows that the managerial axe still hovers.

Brady's emotionally unintelligent analysis of this harsh reality is utterly at odds with Trapattoni's declaration that he knows intimately the personal cost that either a draw or defeat will carry tomorrow night.

The plot remains perched upon the sharpest of knife edges.

Trapattoni's ability to devise a coherent, intelligent approach to tasks at home is entirely at odds with the more comfortable environment of eking out positive performances away from the uncertainty that grips them at home.

The one advantage that Trapattoni will carry into this game, presuming he doesn't replicate the pre-match blunders that earned Ireland a draw in spite of his confusion – not because of it – is that his players are showing signs of remaining professionally loyal to him.

When Ireland last faced Austria in Dublin with qualification points at stake, another revered manager was losing his grip on both his managerial authority and the discipline of his players.

Even though there have been rumours flitting about of anarchic discontent in Euro 2012, Trapattoni will not, we can be assured, prepare for this match on the basis of a three-day drinking binge and a pre-match meal in Harry Ramsden's.

Despite Trapattoni's best efforts – either through dissing Kevin Doyle, James McCarthy and Robbie Brady – the players remain a cohesive unit, as they demonstrated so purposefully on Friday night.

Tomorrow presents a trickier challenge, a greater onus of responsibility in creating their own positive patterns in creating real chances, as opposed to destroying the opposition's efforts.

Ireland have showed less certainty in adopting this approach than they have had in adopting Trapattoni's rigorous philosophy away from home.

Their manager has more often been a hindrance in terms of his rigid game plan and inability to allow his players express themselves. Allowing them to do that can gain him the credit that his old compadre Brady sulkily feels that he is not getting.

Brady wants an emotional response to the manager; the manager just wants a result by any means necessary.

Otherwise, the inescapable certainties of football failure will fall on the manager's shoulders. That's the way it's always been.

The one true reality. Everything else is fiction.

Irish Independent

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