IT WAS getting on for two in the morning and the plane home from Sofia after Saturday’s game was about an hour out of Dublin when the sing song started.
‘The Wild Rover’, ‘Singing In The Rain’, ‘We’re On The March With Trap’s Army’, even a blast of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ – all and more besides were present and correct. But here’s the thing: it wasn’t the supporters at the back of the plane making the noise, it was the Irish players at the front who were providing the entertainment, with Giovanni Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli benignly looking on and leading the applause.
After an exceptionally hard night’s work in Sofia and with a school’s out fever adding to the mood, here was the kind of celebratory spectacle which hadn’t been seen on an Irish team flight for a good number of years. Reflecting on the season’s end in Dublin yesterday, Trapattoni made an astute connection between the pleasure of the journey home and the pain through which people like Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane had played to help secure a precious World Cup point for Ireland in the Vassil Levski stadium.
“I cannot speak about the past because I don’t want to offend my predecessors but this is a very great example that they believe in this project,” said Trapattoni of players who had required pain-killing injections to get them through the 90 minutes.
“Then, on the way home, the players were happy, singing on the plane. It’s a signal, a very important signal.
“I want players to come with the national team and play for the shirt.
“Each nation has different habits,” he went on. “I’m familiar with these types of habits. At Bayern (Munich), it was the same situation. After the game, one beer more, ok, no problem, but on the pitch they give everything. I like that.”
The extent to which Trapattoni has warmed to the Irish job – and, in turn, the Irish have warmed to him – was evident in his emotional response to the travelling fans who’d sung his name when he emerged pitch-side for a post-match interview in Sofia. Back in Dublin on the morning after – and having had only a couple of hours sleep – the 70-year-old Italian was emotional again, this time as he saw echoes of his own upbringing and efforts at self-improvement in the nation’s desperate desire for the boys in green to do well.
“One of the reasons I came here is because I knew Liam Brady and I had heard about the Irish people,” he reflected. “I knew that the nation had this desire to emerge. I felt it was a good challenge to improve the team, to achieve, to try and qualify. I hadn’t an easy life when I was younger. I worked after study, struggling, taking every opportunity.”
Not that he feels Irish football is starting from scratch – more that it badly needs to bounce back after too many seasons of discontent.
“I remember Italia ‘90. We put Ireland on an island, because it was hot. Make them sweat a bit (laughs). So, you know, you were already on the map, we already knew about Ireland. But obviously, like everything else, there are ups and downs. Ireland is a nation with only four million inhabitants, so it is not easy. For me, qualifying would be an enormous satisfaction, like winning the scudetto (the Italian Serie A title).”
WHILE pleased with the 1-1 draw in Sofia, Trapattoni knows that his charges will have to do better again in Group 8 – especially if they are to overtake leaders Italy.
“I am happy but it isn’t sufficient – Italy, Montenegro and Cyprus will be very important games,” he said. “We have to learn again. After the advantage of scoring the first goal on Saturday, we had a good moment to control all of the situation. But we cannot afford to switch off. We need better communication because we then conceded a goal when it was an optimal situation for us. I will speak with the players about this because I want them to learn.”
Trapattoni was especially pleased with the performances of new recruits like Sean St Ledger and Caleb Folan.
“The day before you asked me if I was sure about St Ledger and I said we can play with this player. The same with Folan. Folan was the main striker. He was his own man up front and the team was looking to him. Robbie was suffering a little bit because of his foot so that was why I made the decision to put Leon Best on the pitch. I think that now we have a lot of trust in these players who are strengthening our squad.” TO CRITICS who have suggested that Ireland’s performance was lacking in ambition, Trapattoni responded that, but for the error which gifted Bulgaria their goal, Ireland would have collected all three points on Saturday.
“We played for a win,” he said. “Without this little detail we could have won. Also, remember that Italy only drew in Sofia. International football is not easy. Also on Saturday, Portugal only won in the last minute (against Albania). Sweden lost against Denmark. International football is like this. We have to keep our mentality and think ‘we can, we can’. On Saturday night, two or three were not at 100%. And it is important that we are. But the draw was sufficient. We could not do more. It’s life.”
Looking ahead, Trapattoni said that he would be keen, if possible, to take advantage of FIFA’s recent decision to remove the age barrier from eligibility rules on dual qualification, as a result of which the only remaining restriction is that a player must not already have been capped at senior level if he wishes to switch national allegiance. This means that players such as Kevin Nolan (Newcastle) Mark Noble (West Ham) and Jamie O’Hara (Spurs) could now declare for the Republic if they so wish.
But, even without those potential additions, Trapattoni is pleased with the growing options he has at his disposal. Nor, he was at pains to remind his audience yesterday, has he forgotten about the claims of established players like Steve Finnan, Lee Carsley and long-term injury absentee Steven Reid.
And then, of course, there is the unique case of Stephen Ireland. Trapattoni confirmed that he is keeping the lines of communication open with the absentee Manchester City player through direct contact, through his manager Mark Hughes and through the player’s Irish team mates – Shay Given and Richard Dunne – at Eastlands.
“When my son is not at home for one or two evenings, where is he?” Trapattoni quipped. “It is important when my son answers me. I have contact also with him because other (Irish) players play with him. We have to know if he wishes to come back or not. I saw him play in two or three games and I like him. I think he can change his opinion, but it’s up to him. If he does not wish to come back there is nothing else I can do.”
But enough, for now, of those all too familiar blues. The singing on the plane home from Sofia was a much more fitting soundtrack to the manager’s mood. Not that he had joined in himself – he was too hoarse, he explained, after shouting instructions from the dug-out throughout the match. But what would he have sung had he been called upon? “Arrivederci Roma,” he replied, before adding with a smile, “or arrivederci Africa”.
And then it was goodbye from Trap – but only, as the song says, until we see him again.
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