Just after Giovanni Trapattoni had finished his press conference in the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna on Tuesday night, I was approached by the Austrian interpreter who had been sitting at the top table.
Pointing to the 74-year-old Italian, he said to me with real force: “That man has so much class.”
Something which had especially impressed him was the grace, dignity and even good humour with which Trapattoni had fielded one question after another about his imminent exit as Ireland manager.
He was also struck by the fact that, as Trapattoni left the table, he made a point of turning around to thank the interpreter — “even though I hadn’t done any work,” said the man with a smile.
It was late by the time the Ireland manager’s post-match press conference was winding down but, for seasoned Trap observers, there were still some characteristically luminous utterances to cherish in what — though we didn’t know it at the time — turned out to be his last formal appearance in front of the Irish media.
Here is something approaching a verbatim transcript, though, in truth, you’d enjoy more success trying to catch mercury with a fork than getting what we all have come to know as ‘Trappish’ fixed in print...
Asked if retirement from the game was out of the question, he offered a beaming smile: “I am full of enthusiasmos. Every day I watch two or three DVD to see what is possible to win the game. I couldn’t say that maybe I have other opportunity because blah blah blah blah [laughter].
“No. It’s not my habit — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But maybe I will have another opportunity. And maybe also I will have the same enthusiasmos like the first days. Because I don’t sleep in the night, thinking what I can say to you about the winger and the other. Thanks a Gott — Gott is German [more laughter in room] — I am not idiot. I am clear in my mind which player is strong, what we need to do for one system or the other system…”
Something about the combination of the lateness of the hour and the sense that our time was running out with Trapattoni meant that it didn’t feel intrusive to ask if he feared a life without football.
“I am not good at writing because I make many mistakes,” he replied. “Because I was only a little in school. But I can also write for the sport. [Laughter] Television is easy [more laughter]. Television is opinion. [Looking at RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue]. Yeah, Tony!”
You’re laughing now, I followed up, but is there sadness for you in coming to the end of the road in the Irish job?
“Obviously. When John Delaney, Liam Brady and Michael Coady came to me I was here in Austria. They said, ’come to Ireland’. Brady said to me, ‘it’s a fantastic country, fantastic people’. It’s true, it’s true.”
Minutes later, the press conference ended, the tape running out to the sound of Trapattoni saying ‘ciao’ to various well-wishers.
The business of sports writing inevitably involves having to level criticism and, through his absolute and stubborn insistence on doing things his way, Giovanni Trapattoni came in for his fair share of flak.
Yet, whilst accepting that Trapattoni is almost defined by his life-long immersion in the game, it’s still possible to make a useful distinction between the man and the manager. To a large extent because of his always slippery grasp of the language, Trap — even when he was bringing Ireland back to the Euros — was never able to court popular approval in the way Jack Charlton did so effortlessly.
Yet, among many of the journalists who had a closer interaction with him, there was a genuine affection for the veteran, even if we did have to expend a lot of energy after his press conferences in what came to be known as the ‘post-Trap huddle’, the phenomenon of a bunch of addled hacks desperately banging heads together in bid to make sense of some potentially important point or other.
But there was a lot of warmth and laughter too, as Trap riffed on some of his favourite themes, like the importance of a team having goal-scoring “swingers”.
Then there was the occasion he left us all nearly on the floor when he solemnly reported that a certain player was suffering from a bruised “foot finger” (this turned out to be a toe).
And even as late as this week, as he was preparing for what would prove to be his last stand as Ireland manager, he managed to coin a new one for us: instead of strikers, we had “score men”.
But for all the comedy, intentional or otherwise, there was never any doubt with Giovanni Trapattoni that you were in the presence of a man of real substance, not just a great football man but a great man, period. Hence the sadness many of us felt this week as events took their natural course.
And it served to render even more unpalatable a lot of the caricature and ridicule hurled his way in recent times — all that glib, insulting talk of a man out of time, a dinosaur, a walking fossil.
Here’s the thing: when the time comes — and hopefully it will not come soon — that the world of football is called upon to look back on the life and times of Giovanni
Trapattoni, some of the matters which have vexed us here over the past five-and-a-half years will amount to little more than a postscript.
Measured against his exploits as player and manager with some of the biggest names in the game, his decision to favour Paul Green over Wes Hoolahan is unlikely to loom too large.
And even if it’s noted, for the record, that his international career — and maybe even his career in football — ended on a note of disappointment with his failure to lead the Republic of Ireland to the World Cup in Brazil, you know just how the tribute will close: “But, by then, Giovanni
Trapattoni had long-since secured his reputation as one of the most legendary, as well as much-loved figures, in the history of football.”
As the man himself would doubtless say: “No, sure.”