GIOVANNI TRAPATTONI mentioned earlier this week that, at the age of 50, he once played a 90-minute training game at Juventus. Of course, as Bob Dylan would have it, he was so much older then, he’s younger than that now.
Yesterday morning gave us the first glimpse of the 69-year-old on the training pitch, and the term ‘sprightly’ scarcely does him justice. Ask Shane Long. Liam Brady had just herded the players towards the team bus at the end of the session in Malahide when Trapattoni caught up with and briefly detained the Reading man. We were too far away to hear what was said but the visual message was unmistakable, the manager twice making sudden darting runs by way of illustrating some point about the striker’s art. Long clearly understood, staring intently and nodding his head, as a man almost half a century older than him showed the young fellow how it should be done.
When mime isn’t enough and English words fail Trap, as they sometimes do, he has a bona fide Irish football legend on hand to help him get his message across.
“Football is about meaning,” the manager said yesterday when asked about Liam Brady’s input. “I show them what I want them to do but Liam uses the right words, more precise terminology than I do. And because Liam was in Italian football with me he understands everything.
“That is very important.”
After all the hype of the protracted build-up to the Trap era, the real proof of change came at Gannon Park with the sight of the manager, Brady and Marco Tardelli finally out of civvies and getting down to work on the training pitch.
“It is a very, very beautiful colour,” Trap beamed as he admired his green FAI tracksuit. “Now I hope we have success on the pitch to match it.”
Despite a flurry of withdrawals from his original squad, it’s generally been a good first week in Irish football’s new Big Brother household, with BB himself very much the star of the show.
It began with the Trapattoni-Tardelli double-act at the FAI Cup draw in Dublin last Monday, the relaxed and affable duo adding a touch of authentic world football glamour to a ritual bit of domestic business. Master of ceremonies Tony O’ Donoghue even felt comfortable enough to hazard a gag about how hot and cold balls must have featured the odd time in similar proceedings in their home country, although the nearest we got to a fix on the night was when, purely by chance but much to his own visible delight, fairy godfather Trapattoni was able to grant the wishes of Drogheda Town by pulling out the number nine to give the non-leaguers a choice third-round meeting with Bohemians at Dalymount Park.
More useful work was done in keeping the home-fires burning — or at least the appearance of same — when, the following night, Trapattoni took in the U23 game against Northern Ireland in Lurgan. He was diplomatic enough to sit patiently through a distinctly Irish version of ‘Everything You Want To Know About Socks But Were Afraid To Ask’, and attentive enough to single out Mark Quigley of St Pat’s as one of the Republic’s most eye-catching players. And Trap even managed, as he pointed out himself, to bring some Italian summer weather with him.
Earlier that day at FAI headquarters in Abbotstown, he’d named his slimmed-down squad for the training camp in Portugal and the forthcoming friendlies against Serbia and Colombia. Making a virtue of giving youth a chance in the absence of what he calls ‘famous’ names was hardly unprecedented — Steve Staunton was obliged to do the same, with bells on, for last Summer’s trip to the States — but Trap’s handling of the delicate issue of Robbie Keane was both clever and persuasive. It might have been the first time in his new role that the Italian was able to hide behind his slippery grasp of the native tongue. Affecting not to know what a questioner meant when he was asked about stag parties — although the able interpreter appeared to supply the requisite Italian translation — Trap quickly went on to insist that, anyway, the detail was not important.
The issue, as he saw it, was straightforward: Keane had asked for permission months ago to take time out next week to prepare for his impending nuptials, and the boss was happy to oblige. But if that was the carrot, there was also a hint of the stick in the emphatic way he confirmed that the player would definitely be back for the friendlies themselves.
He finished off with something of an homage to the Spurs striker — “Keane is Keane” and he has “charisma,” he enthused — but you also got the unmistakable sense that, the favour done, the manager will expect the Irish captain to repay him in kind for his indulgence.
Otherwise, Trap was simply compelling behind the mic, if not always entirely intelligible. No matter, football is a universal language and the Italian could hardly be more fluent in that, one minute heading an invisible ball to indicate how easily a goal can be conceded from a needless free-kick, the next drawing laughter when, just a couple of words into the translation of a question about whether Ireland might adopt a more continental style, he arched his eyebrows and interrupted his interpreter with a staccato ‘No, no, no, no.’
Quite what Trap’s Ireland will look like is a matter for another day, but everything he has said so far suggests the process will be one of evolution rather than revolution. He has already mentioned more than once that tackling detail — such as eliminating basic defensive errors — will be his first priority. And he is wise enough to know too that while, by his own estimate, he believes he can get “20 to 30%” more out of some players, ultimately he can only play on the World Cup stage with the hand he has already been dealt.
Which is an important point. As it happened, the start of this week also saw another well-known international football personality face the Irish press. Damien Duff was in town on promotional duties and left his media audience in little doubt that he has some way to go to recover his form and confidence after a season disfigured by serious injury. With all the excitement surrounding the dawn of the Italian era in Irish football, it would be easy but foolish to forget that it’s ultimately the well-being of the Duffer and his green-shirted colleagues which will decide the fate of the new manager, and not the other way round.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved