You have to say this much for Giovanni Trapattoni: life is rarely dull with the old man around.
And I use the term ‘old man’ loosely since, to judge by his antics at a press conference in Dublin this week, there can be no question about the 73-year-old’s fitness, whatever about Shane Long’s.
A pre-season scoreless draw played out in front of a two-thirds empty stadium in Belgrade is hardly a story you would think would hold your attention, never mind the back page, but Trap even managed to make it to the front of this one on the back the fall-out from Wednesday’s match, thanks to Inpho photographer Donall Farmer’s memorable shot of the manager apparently in mid-audition for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.
Shane Long might not so easily see the funny side of it but, hilarious as his performance was, Trapattoni was making a serious point when trying to illustrate the potentially hazardous consequences of risking a player carrying some kind of muscle injury — especially for a friendly game on the very eve of a new club season in England.
So unless we’re all missing a significant piece of plot information, Trapattoni was therefore surely well within his rights to withdraw Shane Long from the game in Belgrade, after the West Brom striker had complained of some discomfort in his calf muscle in training. And while the player perhaps took the all-clear from a resultant scan as enough justification for his inclusion in the starting line-up, the manager surely makes a persuasive case in arguing that the very lack of definitive medical evidence meant the wisest course of action was to take no risk whatsoever and let the striker cool his heels for the 90 minutes against Serbia.
Understandably, that would have left Long feeling frustrated but less understandable was his terse complaint to journalists after the game — “I’m not injured, I’m fully fit” — given that it was he who had drawn attention to the potential problem in the first place. For all the hilarity of his energetic mime back in Dublin the following day, there could be no doubting Trapattoni’s annoyance at Long’s post-game claim. Unfortunately, in working himself up into a lather, the manager’s slippery English made it seem as if he was mounting a deeply personal attack on the player rather than expressing exasperation at his behaviour. When Trapattoni used an Italian version of the word ‘idiot’, it was clear to most of us present — especially from the context of what he was saying — that he was referring to Long’s comment as being silly or idiotic as opposed to labelling the man himself a fool. But from the player’s perspective — scanning the Irish newspapers back in England — all he will have seen is his name and the word ‘idiot’ appearing in the same sentence, which will hardly help smooth over relations between himself and his international manager.
All of which is a pity for a number of reasons, because, as well as being a talent Ireland can ill-afford to be without, Shane Long is actually a very decent guy and not at all the type you would expect to get so badly on the wrong side of anyone, let alone his international manager. One hopes that the row doesn’t continue to simmer for too much longer and also that Trapattoni is true to his word when he says that this week’s war of words won’t have any implications for Long’s international career.
But, at least for now, Shane Long is the clear loser from a trip to Belgrade which, though short on drama of any other kind, did throw up a couple of potential winners for Trapattoni. The biggest of them was Keiren Westwood, who crowned a good display with one outstanding save and generally did enough to inspire confidence that, post-Shay Given, the Irish goal is still in good hands. Simon Cox, was another. He might prefer to see himself as an out and out striker but his clever, inventive contribution from, first, a wide right and then a central midfield role, put some of us watching in mind of what Ray Houghton used to bring to the Irish party back in the day. If Cox can make the most of his new opportunity with Nottingham Forest, both club and country can expect to profit handsomely.
The other good news story concerned James McCarthy. Okay, he didn’t quite set the world on fire as a creative playmaker but McCarthy showed he can still strut his own stuff while also fitting into the Trap mould of what a central midfielder under his watch needs to be.
It wasn’t such a good night for James McClean, however, Trapattoni playing him out of position in a central role and then, when that didn’t come off, seemingly using this as a justification for abandoning the entire system of three in the middle — albeit that Serbian pressure in the second half effectively meant Ireland played most of it with 10 men behind the ball anyway.
So it came as no surprise to hear Trapattoni say the following day that!! it’ll be straight back to 4-4-2 for next month’s opening World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan. Which might not exactly inspire hope of renewal after the crushing disappointment of the Euros but then we were probably all a bit idiotic to think that Trap would dance to any tune but his own.
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