Falling for a Trap

No other coach has won as many Serie A titles as Giovanni Trapattoni – and that includes England’s coach. Paul Doyle looks at the reaction to the appointment of the Republic of Ireland’s new boss

And so, with the appointment of ­Giovanni Trapattoni to replace Steve Staunton, the Republic of Ireland team prepare to leap from one extreme to the other: from the era of the bungling novice to the reign of the revered veteran.

The capture of Il Trap has triggered an undeniable upswing in the national footballing mood. It’s not just the sheer relief at escaping the clutches of Terry Venables, Graeme Souness or Gérard Houllier, all of whom were interviewed for the job; it’s also a widespread feeling that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), for so long a source of shame for the nation, have managed to get a big decision spectacularly right.

Their decision to pick an external three-man selection panel to headhunt the new boss was lambasted as a sneaky attempt to pass the buck ahead of the arrival of some down-on-his-luck gaffer who couldn’t get work anywhere else. The panel’s four-month search seemed so torturous that normally placid players such as Shay Given publicly expressed their frustration, while Steve Finnan got so bored with waiting he announced his international retirement. But then, to general amazement, the FAI revealed they had lured one of the world’s most highly decorated managers.

Actually, the FAI didn’t reveal it. As they prepared a grand press conference at which they would bask in glory after unveiling Trapattoni like a giant rabbit from a hat, the Italian stole their thunder and announced the news himself – in Austria, where he will remain in charge of Red Bull Salzburg until the end of the season.

Not that the FAI minded too much – they were too busy congratulating themselves for pointing out how perfect Trap is for the Irish job: he was born on St Patrick’s Day, has won even more titles than England’s Fabio Capello and is ideally placed to plot a way past Italy, the biggest obstacle on Ireland’s road to the 2010 World Cup. What’s more, the FAI will have to fork out only half of his record €2 million (£1.5m) annual salary, the rest being paid by Denis O’Brien, a billionaire Malta-based tax exile eager to cultivate popularity back in his homeland.

Even Trap’s admission that the primary reason for him taking the job was that “it will enable me to spend more time with my family” met with little criticism – everyone knows international management isn’t a full-time job, or at least not as time-consuming as club management. And it was clear from his press appearances that, although he is 69 on March 17, he is still full of vigour and candour. He is still the merciless manager who once proudly said: “To players I’m a pain in the arse; they may not like me, but if they’ve got any brains they obey me.”

That’s the sort of discipline you would expect from a devout admirer of Catholic sect Opus Dei. It is also music to Irish ears: for, as clueless as Staunton was, the dismal performances under him were also down to the first generation of Irish ­internationals not to inspire affection in the public – the first to play like they didn’t care. The apathy first became apparent under Brian Kerr during the doomed Euro 2004 campaign and Kerr, who was let go in 2005, has since used his column in the Irish Times to expose the arrogance of some of the players, claiming, for example, that many resented being asked (by a man who had never even managed in the Premier League!) to study analyses of their performances.

An authoritative personality isn’t the only thing Trapattoni shares with the man whose success he hopes to emulate – Jack Charlton. Both have a reputation for playing ugly football. Just as he was a celebrated destroyer as a player, Trapattoni the manager is a renowned adept of catenaccio, even if it’s true he often found space for silky schemers such as Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio and Liam Brady (who will become part of his backroom team).

The aesthetics will not be a concern if be brings success – after all, few grumbled during the Charlton years – but the worry is that, apart from in the relatively rinky-dink Austrian league, Trap has tasted little glory in more than a decade. And his only other stint with a national team – that of Italy between 2000 and 2004 – led to flops borne of rank negativity. The hope is that he has progressed since that failure and that, indeed, it will provide extra motivation for him to dump Italy out of 2010. The fear is he’s an anachronism… and that when the FAI finally got it right, it was too late. So not really right at all.

From WSC 254 April 2008