Sport Soccer

Thursday 22 March 2018

Triumph forged from Trap's steely resolve

Stamping authority and securing backing of key players vital to Trapattoni's success, writes Dion Fanning

On the morning after Ireland's defeat to Russia in Dublin in October last year, Giovanni Trapattoni met the press at the Hilton Airport Hotel.

The night before, Richard Dunne hadn't hesitated when asked about the Irish team's failings. "We seemed to have one game plan and that was go long and when that didn't work we were left wide open . . . We weren't brave enough . . . We are allowed pass the ball . . . We proved in Paris we can pass the ball . . . We need to try and control games a bit more rather than kicking it long the whole time."

The media had their story. Once he had catalogued the injuries, Dunne's criticisms were the first thing Trapattoni had to deal with on Saturday morning. Dunne had mentioned Paris in his interview with Tony O'Donoghue as evidence of Ireland's ability to play.

Paris was also the scene of an alleged revolt, a revolt which Trapattoni always denied had taken place. Now, less than a year later, Dunne seemed to be questioning the style of the team.

Trapattoni left that press conference and went to the team's training session in Malahide. Dunne didn't train as is normal for players who played the night before but when Trapattoni saw him, Dunne was reminded who was the ultimate authority in the Irish team. There was one way of doing these things. At the time, it was uncertain it would be Trapattoni's way for much longer.

A year later and nobody doubts who holds the authority. Ireland have qualified for the European Championships and Trapattoni is, says one source close to the players, "an unbendable rod".

When Trapattoni was asked last Wednesday about that weekend when his authority was questioned and which, it would later be revealed, also included a series of late nights for many of the squad, he denied there had been any challenge. "I do not believe this."

Three days after the Russia defeat, Ireland went to Slovakia, drew a game they felt they should have won. Ireland continued to believe and Trapattoni continued to believe in his methods.

He had never doubted them. Qualification last week makes sense of all the struggles. The winding narrative now has a conclusion. History is written by the winners.

Trapattoni's methods were formed long before he was challenged by Andy Reid and his guitar or the players breaking a a curfew.

His father, a farm worker, had travelled to Cusano Milanino outside Milan looking for employment which he found in a wool-dying factory. As a teenager, Trapattoni's day would start at 3.0am with a job in a bakery before he went to school. "Work, work and never give up," an Italian newspaper once declared to be the secret of Trapattoni's success. He's never tried to keep it a secret.

"In my experience in life there is only three certainties -- you are born, you live and you die," Trapattoni said again last week. "That is the only three situations, everything else can change, the ball can hit the post, you can miss the penalty.

"In Italy, we always say that the farmer lives his daily life with the experience and the consciousness of sacrifice and work, hard work. In practice, in reality that is how farmers live -- yesterday I received a very beautiful sms from my friend, it said 'experience is the mother of all science'. The farmer thinks the same thing really."

His approach with the Ireland players was to deliver his experience as if it were peer-reviewed scientific fact -- the unbendable rod. Trapattoni says it was different and more subtle.

"I tiptoed in," he says, when he is asked how he changed the Irish team. "I did not impose myself, I did not change immediately this, this and this, they would not have understood, it was very difficult."

He tells a story of his time at Bayern Munich. After a month in the job, he encountered resistance to his methods so he said to the players, 'Okay, play as you would like, as is your habit'. Ten days later, the players came to him and said, 'Okay, Mister, we wish to make tactical changes, to play your way'.

There were certain situations he felt were unique to the Irish team. The late night he encountered in Wiesbaden after Ireland's game against Georgia might have meant the end for Andy Reid, but Trapattoni has constantly fought to explain his philosophy, although he denies it is a philosophy.

"It's not philosophy. It's only responsibility. We are professional. We must be professional players. Before me it was difficult to change this habit. I must give them responsibility, they must grow in this responsibility. Now, they know. They understand this. After, drink beer, no. After the game you take a rest."

He has been everywhere but never encountered a situation like this. "Only in Ireland. Why? Is Ireland special? No, it's not special. That is the life of the players. The team. They go out in the pub. Where? This mentality doesn't exist anywhere else. It's impossible for me to understand."

The Irish team was unique he says because the players felt they could do what they wanted and they would still be in the next squad.

In English football, where there have also been problems with drinking at the right time, the international players know they might not get another chance.

"In England it's another situation, in England they have 30 players and if they do something like that they're out."

Trapattoni needed to make players understand that they, too, would be out, and when he got the opportunity to demonstrate it, he took it.

"They were in the pub two years ago when these episodes happened. This habit was mainly in the past before me. It's not correct for me, for you, the other players. It's not professional. People pay for the ticket. You pay for theatre? No, you pay for the result."

On Monday evening at the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Robbie Keane decided to use the eve of qualification to praise Trapattoni's predecessor. 'Stan' shouldn't be forgotten he said. He praised Staunton and then was working the sentence back to Trapattoni who was sitting beside him.

Having been so cosy with the talk of 'Stan', he suddenly seemed unsure of how to address him. He couldn't say 'Trap', 'Giovanni' was too familiar and 'Mr Trapattoni' was too formal after talking about Stan. So Robbie Keane, Ireland's record goalscorer, just called him 'The Manager'.

The players know what the manager wants and, more importantly, they know what he doesn't want.

Imagine a world in which Stephen Ireland had been courted by Trapattoni. In this world, Ireland may or may not have played in Moscow. If he had, would he have shown the commitment of the other Irish players? If he hadn't played but had continued to dance his merry dance would others who now knew they were only his understudy have been so devoted? Would Keith Andrews, say, have thrown his face in front of Igor Semshov's shot in the final minutes of the game in those circumstances? More importantly, would Stephen Ireland? These are the moments that have traditionally provided the heartbreak in Irish football history. Trapattoni brought a group together under key words that make sense in any language -- attitude, mentality.

It is why the squad won't be invaded by outsiders for the European Championships. If a player does break through, it will be somebody like David Meyler or Robbie Brady. It won't be Jermaine Pennant or Stephen Ireland.

The players who will be there have demonstrated their character in this campaign. Their technical ability can be disputed but there are a number of outstanding professionals in the squad even if it has taken Trapattoni to reveal the extent of their leadership potential.

When Trapattoni took over, some commentators pointed to his video excoriating the Bayern Munich players and looked forward, with some relish, to the Irish team being punished in the same way.

The players were viewed then by some as feckless dilettantes. Liam Brady said on RTE last week that Trapattoni's reservation before he took over was that it was "a no-hope job". Ireland now has something more concrete than hope.

When the players looked back on the moments that were decisive last week, they talked about the win in Yerevan and the result in Moscow, which was accompanied by the key news they heard on the bus to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport that Armenia had beaten Slovakia. The results fell Ireland's way and so did the play-off draw but Trapattoni had shaped a group that was ready to take advantage.

He has been tested as all managers are and he has demonstrated that any player will be treated ruthlessly.

For all his civility, Trapattoni is not a clubbable man. If he is curt with players, he is also not interested in the celebrations. Photographers who were allowed in to the dressing room on Friday night found it difficult to persuade Trapattoni to join in any of the pictures. Finally he was persuaded to pose with his captain and his backroom staff.

At another airport hotel, last Wednesday, a man who knows Trapattoni better than most offered some insight. Jean-Pierre Gerosa, known as 'Gerry', is a man who understands Trapattoni's ways.

Gerosa wasn't in any picture last week. He was a coach at Coverciano, the Italian coaching centre, when he first met Trapattoni. He worked alongside Fausto Rossi at Salzburg under Trapattoni and left when Trapattoni joined Ireland. He is not paid by the FAI but each week he will travel from his home in Lugano to Trapattoni's office in Milan and collect some of the DVDs which are sent from Ireland.

Trapattoni trusts Gerosa's judgement and he has scouted for the manager in Yerevan and St Petersburg in this campaign. Gerosa was in Dublin on Tuesday night but when asked if he had celebrated, he replied, "We have nothing to celebrate yet -- if we do something next summer, then we'll celebrate."

The players went to celebrate on Tuesday. "Every manager has their own rules. Let's not speak about stuff like that. Tonight is about celebration and enjoying this moment," Robbie Keane said when asked about Trap's methods.

But, when it mattered, Keane had backed the manager. Last summer, in another moment Trapattoni considers decisive, the manager took on the players who were pulling out of squads on a whim.

The world saw it as unnecessary fuss for some meaningless friendlies but the manager and his senior players viewed it differently. Keane sat down with a group of journalists and said, "If you don't want to play for us, don't declare for us." The players who mattered were now on the manager's side.

"Well certainly in that couple of weeks we were together," Keane recalled on Tuesday night. "If you look at the way we performed and if you look at winning the Carling Cup here and going to Macedonia, it certainly did bring the group together and everybody is proud to play for their country. Certainly I am. I would never make excuses or pull out of any game. I have never done that. Ever."

The summer bled into the autumn and soon the squad would have fewer reasons to doubt Trapattoni. Last week, as they celebrated, most would think there were none at all.

Last week, Keane recalled his stinging phrase, which he worried about privately at the time.

"I came out and said a few words," he said, and then considered how from May to the draw in December everything has changed. "I'm sure there will be a few people trying to declare themselves for Ireland now. There will be nobody pulling out now."

That is the habit, last week was the result. And the show? Every town in Ireland will take care of the show next summer.

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