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Sep 6, 2012

Tide has turned for Trapattoni

Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni can take credit for restoring the pride and credibility to a national team whose stock had fallen to an all-time low prior to his arrival in 2008, yet the 73-year-old Italian seems to have outstayed his welcome in his 13th and almost certainly final coaching role.

Back in the days when Ireland were united behind injustice when denied a place in the 2010 World Cup finals as a result of Thierry Henry's infamous handball in a Paris play-off, as well as the glorious night when the wily old Trap secured Euro 2012 qualification, this bumbling granddad figure was the darling of his adopted nation.

Those who claimed his success was born out of luck, as much as judgement, and that his negative tactics would eventually yield little more than frustration were muzzled as an economically crippled country embraced a good news story. A story that seemed out of reach when Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton had tried and failed in their stints as Ireland boss.

However, the decision of Trapattoni and his Football Association of Ireland employers to extend his tenure into a third qualifying campaign may well have been ill conceived, as this once lauded manager is now being hailed as a discredited liability by an increasingly sizable band of Irish critics.

It was not just Ireland's three Euro 2012 defeats that sapped all belief in Trapattoni but rather the lamentable manner of their performances out in Poland and the abject failure of the highly paid manager to halt the demise that has been condemned as an unforgivable disaster.

The false hope Trapattoni preached in the run-up to Euro 2012 was so desperately exposed that those who dared to believe the good times were about to roll for Ireland again are struggling to raise their spirits for the World Cup qualifying push on the horizon, which starts in Kazakhstan this Friday.

Trapattoni's whopping £1.25 million annual salary hardly helps his popularity rating at a time when many in Ireland are struggling to beat a savagely harsh recession, while the perception that the Italian does not travel to see his players in action often enough lends weight to the theory that he has lost touch, and even some interest in his job.

You can tell things are getting serious when the always affable Irish soccer legend Paul McGrath takes to the media to call for your head, but he opted to do just that in his column for the Sunday World newspaper last weekend.

"I love Trap to bits. He's a great football man who has been admired and respected around the world," McGrath states. "Yet should there have been a new manager with a new voice and new ideas to build a new team? 'Yes' is the easy answer and maybe even the right answer to that question."

McGrath's polite assessment of a manager preparing to mix it in a World Cup qualifying group featuring Germany and Sweden without the retired duo of Shay Given and Damien Duff is given a predictably more forceful assessment by the always entertaining and opinionated media pundit Eamon Dunphy.

"There is a cowardice about the way Italian coaches from Trapattoni's era approach the game and you cannot do what Muhammad Ali did against George Foreman and rope a dope your opponents before trying to catch them with a late punch," he says.

"This is the tactic Trapattoni employs, but it isn't the way the game should be played. Our young Irish talent should be brought in and encouraged to enjoy playing the game with the ball, but that is not the way this manager operates."

Press briefings with Trapattoni and his assistant Marco Tardelli have often become a little confusing in recent few years, with the duo's habit of confusing Richard Dunne and Damien Duff or James McCarthy and James McClean often forcing their employers to offer communiqués by way of clarification.

Thus was the story as Tardelli suggested last Tuesday that Duff was ready to make a return to the international stage, just days after he had confirmed his 100th cap for Ireland at Euro 2012 had been his last. "I hope Duff will come back," the jovial Tardelli said. "Why not?" It sparked a frenzy of excitement at the prospect of the in-form Fulham star stepping back into the Ireland fold in time for next month's crucial qualifier against Germany in Dublin.

It was another storm in an Irish teacup created by a management duo who have been synonymous with confusion in recent times. Their popularity rating plummeting for more substantive reasons than merely a trio of Euro 2012 defeats against Croatia, Spain and Italy last summer.

Their disgraceful treatment of Kevin Foley left many bemused, as first they named the Wolves utility player in their Euro 2012 squad and then dropped him in favour of standby Paul McShane. Foley has suggested he will not play for Trapattoni again and Everton's Darron Gibson has followed suit, as he pulled out of the upcoming Kazakhstan game saying he was "not ready" to play.

Then there is Trapattoni's decision to omit Aston Villa centre-back Ciaran Clark from this latest squad, which was then exacerbated by his alarming comment that he "had plenty of cover in the position Clark plays", even though he only has one other Premier League central defender in his squad for this World Cup tie. Clark played at full-back and in midfield at the start of his career, but he is now a stellar central defender and should be in the Ireland squad.

Trapattoni's insistence on employing 4-4-2 formation is another point of frustration and just when it seemed as if this doggedly determined coach was willing to try and amend his approach in last month's friendly against Serbia, with a 4-1-4-1 line-up featuring a host of fresh faces fuelling hope that change was in the air, the old boy looks set to revert to type once more.

"As recently as Sunday afternoon, the Italian was still talking up the possibility of trying something along the lines of the side and system he had employed in Serbia, but now it is clear that his intention is to have the players do much what they doing before the summer break although, ideally, just a little better," Emmet Malone writes in the Irish Times.

"Anything less than a repeat of the win in Armenia with which his side kicked off their last campaign will leave Ireland, and quite possibly Trapattoni himself, under pressure from the outset of a campaign that will involve more daunting challenges further down the line."

It's sad to see an Irish nation turning against the manager whose celebrity status has undoubtedly lifted the spirits of their international team, but Trapattoni looks set to be remembered as a manager whose relative success was undermined by his own stubborn failings.

The clamour for Norwich boss and former Ireland full-back Chris Hughton to take over or even the return of Mick McCarthy as national team boss will gather momentum unless Ireland produce a vastly improved performance in Kazakhstan on Friday, and not even Trapattoni's last remaining admirers, wherever they might be, are expecting his revival to materialise.

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