A whirlwind week for Giovanni Trapattoni and his Irish soccer team













Giovanni Trapattoni has been through a lot these past few days, but he is still concentrated and focused on the real job in hand.

European Championship qualification was the key aim for Trapattoni when he addressed the Irish media on more than one occasion this week.

It was good to hear him describe Tuesday night’s match against Paraguay at a sun drenched RDS as the beginning of the bid to qualify for Poland and the Ukraine two summers from now.

After the recent World Cup catastrophe against France and the failure to qualify for any tournament since 2002, Irish football needs the team to make it to Euro 2012.

That’s why Trapattoni is paid over $2 million a year for what is effectively a nine game a season job.

He got away with missing out on South Africa, but he won’t get away with failing to send the Irish fans to Poland and the Ukraine two years from now.

The challenge he set the players in that Paraguay match was a simple one -- prove to me you are good enough to play when the qualifiers begin in Armenia in September.

Like Trap, Robbie Keane and Stephen Kelly and Keith Andrews spoke of the need to turn promise and potential into something more tangible over the next 18 months.

They also knew how lucky one of their teammates was to be alive ahead of the RDS friendly -- and that’s a story that has overshadowed everything else these past few days.

On Friday night, Trapattoni arrived late at Richmond Park and left the Airtricity League game between St. Patrick’s Athletic early.

When he departed with some 15 minutes to go many observers were tempted to take it as another snub to the domestic game that seems to register fairly low on his list of priorities.

Little did we know the full story. The Irish manager wanted to get away from Richmond Park because he wanted to get to the Mater Hospital on the other side of Dublin and check on the health of his young center half Shane Duffy, currently the subject of a tug of war between the Republic and the North.

Little was anyone to know when Trap left Inchicore for Phibsborough that Duffy was fighting for his life across the city.

In the days before Friday Duffy looked every inch an international player in the making, but it’s only with the mercy of God that he’s still around to be worthy of such a statement after an incredible brush with death.

And in years to come we will realize not just how good a player he is but how lucky he is to boot.

Duffy may be just 18, but on the field there is a presence and a confidence about the Derry-born center back that just suggests quality.

He’s not a Richard Dunne. He’s not a John O’Shea. He’s not even a Sean St. Ledger.

If anything he’s probably a Mick McCarthy with skills more akin to David O’Leary, and I say that with the greatest respect to all concerned.

Okay, so it is difficult to say how good a player really is in a training match as the wind sweeps in off the sea at Gannon Park in Malahide.

But last Tuesday night’s outing against the Irish under-23 side gave us a glimpse into the Duffy mentality as Trap likes to call it.

For those of us who spend many hours watching young kids develop their skills at grassroots level, there was much to admire.

Duffy likes to boss people around, and not just the opposition. He wasn’t afraid to tell Leon Best or Paul McShane what to do -- and they were both on World Cup duty when he was still in the Everton youth team earlier this season.

Nor was he shy about coaxing fellow kid Greg Cunningham through his “trial,” for want of a better word, as he made his first appearance in a Republic jersey after years playing underage football for Northern Ireland.

So he’s a leader, we know that much now. He is also a player with a big physical presence and an aerial strength that allows him to boss opposing strikers off the ball as well.

I have to say I liked the look of Duffy in his first training game, just as I liked the look of Cillian Sheridan, Billy Dennehy and Ronan Finn.

But little did I think I would be discussing anything other than Shane Duffy’s imminent international arrival -- no matter what the North’s IFA do about it -- when I walked through the front door of Malahide’s very Grand hotel last Saturday morning.

We did suspect there was serious problems afoot when Trap arrived for his press conference with not one but two doctors in tow.

Over the years we have been briefed by Alan Byrne, John O’Byrne and the great Martin Walsh about injuries, but they’ve never sat at a top table that I can remember, and never as a pair.

That’s why the look of relief on their faces as they spoke about Duffy’s near death experience last Friday night was even more startling than the look of shock on the faces of those on the other side of the table.

In 23 years following Irish teams around the world I have never come across such a story.

In 40-odd years practicing life as a “football” man I have never encountered such an injury.

It is the mercy of God that Duffy had people like Alan Byrne, John O’Byrne, Gerry McEntee and countless others at the Mater Hospital to fall back on in his hour of need.

When he does play European Championship and World Cup football, as he surely will he should thank all of them for saving his life. And so should we.

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