Tuesday 20 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: Gambler down to last stack of chips

THE day after Thierry Henry's light fingers thieved Ireland's hopes of playing at the last World Cup tournament, Giovanni Trapattoni cried.

It was just a fleeting, unguarded moment in a small room off the main arrivals hall in Dublin Airport.

Trapattoni was about to board a flight home to Milan and had agreed to one last media engagement before departure.

Maybe six journalists stood around a leather sofa as the Italian returned his thoughts to that big, silver bowl in the St Denis district of Paris which had, by now, been globally acknowledged as a crime scene.

Trapattoni's pride in an immense Irish performance was counter-balanced by the knowledge that his team had, effectively, been cheated.

He spoke animatedly in Italian, his words recycled for our benefit by interpreter Manuela Spinelli.

Suddenly, his voice began to falter and, eyes glistening, he paused briefly, before quickly banishing the emotion as if it should offend the professionalism of great football men.

The moment lasted maybe 10 seconds, certainly no more. But it was one that made you believe this man considered his job something more than a professional obligation. He looked like a manager who had fallen in love with his team, whose heart was effectively broken for them.

Soon, of course, he was up off the sofa, splashing the room with 'ciaos' and hurrying towards a departure gate, the dapper football general back in jocular, authoritative mode.

Back as 'Il Trap' in other words. The great, austere technician who never saw a game he didn't yearn to break down into an A4 page of arithmetic.

Aura is important in football management. The ability to convey certainty whether or not you feel it becomes a kind of default setting dressing-room and dug-out.

Trapattoni likes the world to think that a lifetime of high achievement has somehow immunised him against the everyday stresses of his profession.

How difficult then, last night, to read the mind of a man revered in all the great football establishments of Western Europe, as he -- quite possibly -- ended his managerial career on a wind-swept island, trembling by the broad sweep of the North Atlantic.

The build-up in Torshavn had to have been a humiliating experience for Trapattoni. Just endless questions about his future, the game with the Faroes reduced to a kind of requiem mass for four years at the Irish helm.

The pre-match announcement that he would not be fulfilling any media obligations back in Dublin today was devoured by media as proof of imminent separation.

But was he gone? Could it possibly be feasible that a three-goal victory away from home might precipitate the sacking of one of football's most decorated managers?

As Ireland huffed and puffed in a scoreless opening 45 minutes, he was still, palpably, carrying himself like a man desperate for a positive outcome. But that was 'Il Trap' we were watching. That was the practiced body language of a man never going to unwrap anything from within.

His immediate post-game interview, likewise, amounted to a poker shark's smile. Asked what his reaction would be if the FAI chose not to support his continuation as manager, the fractured English -- inevitably -- left a slight cryptic edge. "No problem for me," said Trapattoni.

Trouble is, once a suspicion of bluff enters into a manager's relationship with his players, the credits start rolling down the screen. It's over. Trap's selection of Robbie Brady last night simply amplified the impression of a gambler, down to his last stack of chips.

Short of a few under-age DVDs, it is hard to imagine him having seen much of the Manchester United winger, given he's never been much taken with attending Premier League teams' fixtures in England, never mind those involving their reserves.

Likewise, in praising the "young players" Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and James McCarthy, it begged a question why all three have -- in different ways -- been marginalised for so very long.

It might have helped too if, after Germany, we encountered an angry Trap. A Trap whose professional pride had been offended by the concession of six goals.

A Trap who took responsibility for the absence of a coherent game plan or, worse, evidence of competitive aggression. Instead we got the worldly-wise Trap, the one drawn to re-directing his audience's attention to the medals on his tunic.

The man inclined to sigh resignedly about missing bodies and technically superior opponents.

In recent times, Trapattoni's tendency to pick fights in public with players, to talk down the abilities of those in his care, maybe more than anything to pick teams that seemed -- above all -- to reflect a personal obstinacy, all created the sense of a man consistently sending the wrong signals.

Beating a team of part-timers, however impressively it was done, doesn't quite clear that rap sheet.

But what it did surely do was open a little chamber of doubt in FAI minds. Both McCarthy and team captain Robbie Keane were unequivocal in their post-match opinion that Trapattoni should go nowhere.

"Going on the dressing-room inside there, I'd say he'll definitely be here (for the remaining qualifiers)," said Keane.

Yet, it was impossible not to read something in the subdued celebration of Trapattoni and his assistant, Marco Tardelli at the final whistle.

No high fives, no back slaps, no discernible jubilation. Just shrugs and quiet words, two old friends leaving the field with their secrets.

Was it really possible that a career spent striding imperiously through the Taj Mahals of football could peter out on a glorified astro pitch on the roof of Europe?

As ever, Trap's face would not provide the answer. In four years, it never really did, beyond those 10 seconds in Dublin Airport.

Irish Independent

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