Maximising the talent at his disposal has not been Trapattoni’s forte
Hoolahan, like McCarthy and Long before him, has been overlooked for too long
The Republic of Ireland’s Wes Hoolahan eludes Georgia’s Jaba Kankava during yesterday’s friendly international at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Peter Muhly/Getty Images
Anyone who has spoken to an elderly relative will at some point have found themselves marvelling at the way things that took place decades ago can be recalled with crystal clarity, while events of the last few days or even the last few minutes are forgotten almost immediately.
Studies suggest we are more likely to remember events that occurred when we are aged between 10 and 30 years old than anything that happens in earlier or later years. This period is called the reminiscence bump, and while nobody is quite sure why it happens, the effect seems constant across cultures.
For Giovanni Trapattoni one such event took place on May 12th 1963, when Italy played Brazil and the great Pele didn’t get a kick, apart from those dealt out by his 24-year old marker, Trapattoni.
We know the glorious twelfth remains fresh in Trapattoni’s mind half a century later because he brings it up so often. Last Wednesday night at Wembley it came up in a discussion of the relative strengths of international teams: “There is only one football. Keep football Pele, or keep football Trapattoni? I remember this.”
The conquest of Pele is his personal version of David and Goliath, whom he often mentions in Ireland press conferences. For the young Trapattoni, it was proof that he could be one of life’s winners. He has used the story to inspire and perhaps to bore his players ever since.
Another curious aspect of memory is that as we get older we tend to remember positive events better than negative ones, at least if we are not prone to depression. Trapattoni doesn’t seem the depressive type, but he is well able to recall the negative events, judging by how often he mentions them.
His career as an international manager began in 2000 and comprises nine years so far. The three moments he talks about most all concern defeats.
In 2002, Italy were knocked out of the World Cup by South Korea, a result which Trap blamed on the referee Byron Moreno, who would later be convicted of trying to smuggle heroin into New York. Two years later, Sweden and Denmark played out a 2-2 draw that conveniently took both teams through to the Euro 2004 quarter-finals at Italy’s expense.
The deep impression made by the third moment was evident at Wembley, when Trapattoni was asked about the upcoming Confederations Cup in Brazil, and ended up talking about Thierry Henry’s handball.
Probably the reason Trapattoni’s talk so often turns to these moments is not that they were defeats but that they were unjust. In each case dark forces conspired to snatch the victory away, so although they are failures, they fit in with the story of Trapattoni the winner.
Focusing on the injustice absolves him of having to wonder whether he did the right thing by trying to hang on to that 1-0 lead for an hour against South Korea in Daejeon. It means he can forget about the Italian fans screaming “Trapattoni go home!” after he tried to hang on to that 1-0 lead for an hour against Sweden in Porto. Henry’s handball means nobody remembers how badly Ireland played in the first leg of that play-off at Croke Park.
It seems likely that when future Irish generations reflect on the Trapattoni era, Henry’s handball will look like the pivotal moment. If only Henry had not cheated (and France’s onslaught hadn’t brought a legitimate equaliser, and Ireland had won the penalty shoot-out), then that team of Dunne and Duff and Given and Keane might have reached a tournament while they were still in their prime, and who knows what glory might have followed?
We should remember another significant fork in the road, however. Almost a year and a half after Paris, in March 2011, Uruguay came to Dublin for a friendly. Trapattoni picked Shane Long up front and gave a full debut to James McCarthy.
Ireland lost 3-2. McCarthy was played out of position behind Long, and spent most of the match watching forlornly as the ball went over his head. Long played brilliantly, scoring a goal, winning a penalty, and roughing up the Uruguayan defenders.
Over the following season Long and McCarthy would prove themselves the best Irish players in their positions in the Premier League. Yet the next time either man would start a competitive match for Ireland was Kazakhstan in September 2012, a full 18 months after Uruguay.
Yesterday at Lansdowne Road, Wes Hoolahan was given a start, out of position as McCarthy was against Uruguay, this time as half of a two-man central midfield. Hoolahan nevertheless emerged as the game’s best player; alert, adept and incisive.
If Trapattoni stays true to form, it won’t matter. Hoolahan would have to be the best player in all the friendlies over the next year before Trapattoni trusted him in a qualifier. Unlike Long and McCarthy, he doesn’t have time on his side.
The manager of a country the size of Ireland can’t afford to take years to recognise who are his best players. As Trapattoni remembers it, his international failures have been caused by forces beyond his control – footballing acts of God. But if Ireland’s most creative player spends the remainder of the manager’s term sitting uselessly on the bench, it’s nobody’s fault but Trapattoni’s. He needs to remember that God helps those who help themselves.