For Irish football, this is the calm before the storm.
The Euros squad has been announced, the first batch of players will arrive in Dublin on Thursday and the rest will follow three days later. Then it’s all about preparation and anticipation, with initial work in Malahide followed by the farewell friendly against Bosnia, a week of warm-weather training in Tuscany, a game against Hungary in Budapest and then onto Ireland’s Baltic Sea base camp in Poland for the final countdown to the big kick-off against Croatia in Poznan on June 10.
Which sounds, on paper, all fine and dandy, except that we know only too well that a storm can always blow up unexpectedly to disturb the calmest and most careful of preparations.
And, no, I’m not even talking about Saipan … You can be sure Giovanni Trapattoni’s biggest worry now is that his players, especially the first-choice ones, all come through their final club outings of the season intact.
The excitement of tomorrow’s final act in a dramatic Premier League season will be eclipsed by anxiety on the manager’s part until the moment he has received official confirmation all his key personnel have emerged with a clean bill of health.
And still there are potential booby traps lying in wait, perhaps of the friendly fire variety against Bosnia or Hungary, or even just through one of those awful bad luck moments on the training pitch.
I well recall witnessing Jason McAteer having one such close shave on the eve of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. At their tournament base camp in Izumo, Ireland were playing a warm-up game against a team from Hiroshima when McAteer went down in a heavy challenge in the opposition goalmouth. The player remained in an agonised heap on the ground and, when physio Mick Byrne got to him, could clearly be heard lamenting: “I’m f**ked”.
A radio reporter colleague was quickly on the blower to his station back in Dublin to tell them he’d be coming through with an urgent live update. Minutes later, we were all listening in as he went on air. “A major injury scare here in Izumo, with Jason McAteer forced out of Ireland’s training game against Hiroshima. The player seemed to be in some distress after coming off worst in a heavy challenge and, as he was being treated on the pitch, McAteer could clearly be heard saying…” – and here the whole ground practically fell silent, even the players – “…I’m banjaxed”
A narrow escape there for the nimble reporter and, as it turned out, the bould Jason survived to start in Ireland’s first game against Cameroon.
And then there’s the always fraught matter of safety in the home. Our very own Liam Lawrence once missed a game for Stoke having tripped over his pet pooch on the stairs, the resultant ankle sprain prompting manager Tony Pulis to register one of the all-time great, gaffer-speak injury updates: “He’s tried to step over the dog and he’s gone over on his ankle. It’s very disappointing.
And let’s not even contemplate Shay Given “doing a Dave Beasant”, that is to say, emulating the then Southampton goalkeeper by reaching for a jar of salad cream from the fridge, dropping it on his foot and rupturing ankle ligaments.
This was also the week when James McClean learned the hard way that it might be best to give Twitter a bit of a body swerve. McClean’s inclusion in Trap’s squad of 23 was the good news story of the week and, had there been any lingering doubt that he was the man of the hour, it was removed by the sight of him entering the Clarion Airport Hotel in Dublin on Thursday preceded by a couple of television camera men walking backwards.
That’s a sure sign of celebrity status: when the media don’t just wait for you inside but, instead, are there to greet you as you’re getting out of your car and, in the form of those amazing backwards-walking cameramen, proceed to track your every step into the press conference.
Ladies and gentlemen, James McClean has arrived! Engagingly down to earth but clearly imbued with a deep reservoir of self-belief, the 23-year-old wears his burgeoning star status lightly but, it has to be said, a less straightforward and more media-savvy operator might have been more successful in resisting our efforts to draw him out yet again on the Twitter controversy and the crossing of the great North-South divide.
In his own column in this newspaper today, Keith Andrews makes a valid point about the way there appears to be one rule for fans and another for footballers when it comes to exchanges across the social media but, on the eve of the European Championships, it’s probably wiser all around if, just for these few weeks, McClean sacrifices a bit of freedom of expression in the interests of the greater good.
After all, the freedom of expression we’re all most concerned now is the one which Giovanni Trapattoni will hopefully afford James McClean with the ball at his feet at some stage in Poland next month.
Meantime, whatever about tackles and Twitter, careful with that salad cream, fellas.
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