LIAM MACKEY: Faraway hills are green

Montecatini last night literally rolled out the green carpet, as Giovanni Trapattoni, Marco Tardelli and the Ireland squad were formally welcomed to this beautiful Tuscan spa town, the reception committee including the Lord Mayor Giuseppi Bellandi and the reigning Miss Italy Stefania Bivone.

“We are delighted to host a nation as proud as that of Ireland,” said Bellandi, kicking off a succession of tributes. “And we are lucky the coach of the Irish team is a beloved man in Italian sport and a unique person.”

Trapattoni seemed genuinely moved. “I got a little bit emotional listening to some of things that were said,” he admitted. “I seem to be getting a bit sensitive these days. I and the team appreciate the welcome very much and are glad to be training here for the week.’’

Asked if he now felt more loved by the Irish or the Italians, Trapattoni told a large audience: “When John Delaney talked to me about becoming the manager, I asked if I had been chosen because I was born on St Patrick’s Day. But I also told him that I don’t do miracles — only the players do miracles.”

The venue for the civic reception, the magnificent Stabilimento Tettucio, is the most famous of the grand villas housing the thermal spas which made Montecatini Terme’s belle époque reputation as a place of well-being and recuperation for the rich and royal.

Passing between its soaring marble columns last night, Trap, Dunney, Duffer, Keano and the rest were walking in the footsteps of some other rather well-known personalities, such as the boy Puccini, who composed parts of ‘La Boheme’ here, and the lad Verdi, who resided in Montecatini for a number of years and in whose honour the main street is named.

While it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say this charming town is en fete for the visit of the Boys in Green, the locals have made an engaging effort to mark what the council designated Montecatini “Irish week”.

Tricolour bunting stretches between the buildings on the central Piazza Del Popolo, the local municipal bikes have been painted green and quite a few shops have created window displays in green, white and orange.

A programme of Irish-themed events has been laid out for the week and, dotted around the place, are posters in English announcing: “Montecatini Terme welcomes the Irishnational team and their manager.”

The serious stuff is very close now but it can still feel a distance awayin this lovely, laid-back, old world place.

The Irish team’s hotel is just the length of a route one ball off main street but, with the building screened by tall trees, the players’ lodgings remain hidden from prying eyes.

One TV crew stationed themselves outside the arched gateway into the hotel for a while yesterday morning but soon gave up after all they had to show for their efforts was a brief glimpse of goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly and a couple of the backroom staff on a short venture out before they retreated back to their sanctuary.

But no sooner had the TV crew turned their backs than, like the bloke outside the panda enclosure in the Kitkat ad, they missed the shot they were looking for. It was a young Italian lad in the Piazza Del Popola who alerted us to the first confirmed sighting of a bone-fide Irish star outside the enclosure: Damien Duff, in full training gear, having a little morning wander on his own through the town.

The local could hardly contain his excitement. “Irelanda! Irlanda! Duffa! Duffa! Photo!” he shouted, as his quarry crossed the other side of the square, but he had to content himself with just a friendly wave from the fast-moving Duffer before the player disappeared from view.

Incidentally, one feels obliged to note one other way in which Tuscany has thoughtfully rolled out the green carpet: for our first full day in Montecatini, the local weather gods arranged for the sun to periodically disappear behind rain-bearing clouds, leaving the town’s Irish visitors yearning for the vivid blue skies and scorching sun of home.

Fortunately, by the time of last night’s ceremony of welcome, the sun had returned to cast a golden hue on ornate marble and stone, as the formalities took place in a beautiful open air setting. But, earlier, there had been a rather more informal but arguably even warmer welcome, when our media bus driver broke through the press ranks at the training ground to offer his own greeting to Ireland’s manager.

Raising his arms in triumph, he exclaimed “Don Giovanni!” and proceeded to shower him in hugs and kisses, for all the world as if the great man was a dear old friend returning home after too long away.


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