Taking Edward Said’s theory about mature artists and applying it to Giovanni Trapattoni
“Lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.”
Edward Said, On Late Style (2006)
“He was not the hero of our highest ideals, but he was the only hero we knew”
Augusta, Lady Gregory, “Ireland, Real and Ideal” (1898)
Lateness possesses a peculiar economy. Being late – however inconvenient – assures that you are still being at the very least. Once too late, or indeed “the late”, and there remains scarce need for such existential soothing. Lateness signals an active participation with time, all the while reminding you of the limited nature of your relationship with time itself. Considering the artistic process as it contends with lateness as a precursor to death, Edward Said’s On Late Style (2006) explores the “creative contradictions that often mark the late works of literary and musical artists”. Rapt with concern for what the novelist Jack London described as the “last panic” before the “most satisfying sleep”, the artist, consumed now with a tangible sense of exile, slips from the “established social order of which [they] are a part.” Consequentially understood as a creative period of “late style”, the environment in which these new works are developed enhances the sense that what we are witnessing is something in “direct contrast to what is popular (acceptable) at the time”. It is this juxtaposition between the popular, the ageing artist and his unexpected, misunderstood works that generates such intrigue for the study of “late style”.
Although Said was not the first to query this “late” disposition, On Late Style provided the definitive take on this phenomenon in a broad, compendious book format. A Palestinian academic educated at the prestigious North American universities of Yale and Princeton, his own well-documented sense of exile – his autobiography Out Of Place lending something to this assertion in title alone – primed his eventual understanding and interpretation for what became of so many great artists in their concluding years. Calling upon scholarly concerns that stretched beyond his vociferous support for Palestinian equality, the results of this posthumously published text on lateness and late style signifies an irrefutable advance in our attempts to understand this odd, yet familiar occurrence.
The parameters of Said’s investigation, however, maintained a largely classical scope. This was no oversight. Pairing off “late style” with “popular culture” was not necessarily intended ever to become part of the procedure. It is a decision we may now contend with, though. Ushering “late style” into a contemporary setting will, admittedly, require minor adjustments to the framework Said initially suggests with On Late Style. Yet with football in particular – though it is extremely doubtful Said would have approved – “late style” can flourish with many of the Saidian conventions still in play. Addressing Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign as the national manager of the Republic of Ireland football team, we have a pairing of “late style” and football that will constitute what I hope will become the beginning of a broader discussion in terms of where football and “late style” may covalence; the question of “late style” and football players – as opposed to the more easily distinguished role of manager – being the natural critical development. Initially, however, concern about the terminology of this particular study must be addressed.
While football and “late style” are as yet unacquainted, the singular qualities of “late” and “style” possess footballing connotations that necessitate some prior clarification. Lateness in football tends to concern a period of late excitement or drama in a match or season – “Agüero-ooooooooooo” being a rare example of both. As a mechanism of grander conclusion, discussions of lateness tend to circulate the perceived unsuitability of a player or manager to remain in situ. On the rare occasion where lateness meets football at the actual juncture of death or devastation, football, like Said’s understanding of art, remains immune, having never been “alive” in the first place. Death in football can usually be read as signification of retirement, enforced or otherwise. Football, like art, cannot be late. The development of these qualities is entirely down to the individuals involved.
With the onus on individuality, we thus come to consider style. Including, but not limited to, a “style” of playing football in a tactical/impulsive sense, the individual in possession of style tends to be of great intrigue to us, if not quite always in an adulatory sense – the perceived disparity between José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola as managers of Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, conformed to a wide ranging encapsulation of what fans both sought and in turn deplored about the understood style of how both clubs operated. Style, in opposition to skill or ability alone, registers its appeal in terms of how it is received and interpreted – the “late” intrigue afforded to Andrea Pirlo being a telling example of how a very good player (not great in the sense of Francesco Totti – but this is for a later discussion) can generate popular momentum on the basis of how he wears a beard, takes a penalty or hits a ten-yard pass. For the purpose of investigating “late style” and football, the understanding afforded to both words will seek to conjure the broader, Saidian determination of what occurs when this reliability on/attraction toward style becomes entrenched in a misunderstood period of lateness.
What, then, of Giovanni Trapattoni, the Irish national side and the suitability of this pairing to demonstrate the deployment of “late style” unto football? Located within the practicalities of his appointment, his apparent unwillingness to learn English, his relentless refusal to placate an overwhelming public desire to witness certain un-picked players in action, the detached, stand-offish approach to communication he demonstrated with both players and the media, and, perhaps most importantly, a team-selection policy which regimentally upheld what he understood to be Ireland’s obvious footballing deficiencies, Trapattoni’s concluding years are rife with the intransigence Said foresaw as essential to a “late style.”
Arriving as an undisputed doyen of club management with big sides, the Irish position initially bestowed upon him a scenario verging on “world-class”. In the wake of the disastrous Steve Staunton era (the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign), Trapattoni inherited a squad of good players (Given, Keane, Duff, Dunne et al.) that had been lacking guidance and were vastly under-performing as a result. The initial remit of this position was that of a trouble-shooting role in which any improvement on the 14-goals-against, 10-points-adrift-of-second-place shambles that had constituted Staunton’s sole campaign in charge would be measured as a success.
On this expectation Trapattoni undisputedly delivered. Yet, improving upon Staunton’s efforts constituted a managerial expectation capable of being achieved by a figure of far smaller stature than Giovanni Trapattoni. Such a manager may not have commanded a €2 million annual salary. Under the auspices of his appointment, did the great Trapattoni actually advance Irish football in any tangible, long-term sense? Arguably, once he had found a way of consolidating a highly structured, technically indifferent defensive unit, no, he did not appear too concerned with what may naturally be assumed to be the next obvious destination for thought: attack. With the controversy of the Thierry Henry handball overshadowing Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, Trapattoni’s opening campaign did not immediately receive the wide-ranging level of doubt and scepticism it probably deserved. The seeds of what can now be identified as the intricacies of Trapattoni’s “late style” can be seen to flourish in his subsequent efforts at qualification (Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup). That November evening in Paris will be looked upon only briefly as a manner of elucidating Trapattoni’s liberation from the expectancies surrounding Ireland’s relatively “golden generation.”
With occasional reference to “the wife”, the football manager, or “husband”, identifies the “crack … that [allows] the light in” (Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”). Indicative of a family life that cannot coincide publicly with the demands of football management, it bears fruit in allowing our enhanced understanding of what may drive the manager’s career decisions. Paola Trapattoni, wife to Giovanni since 1964, is quoted throughout Egon Theiner’s and Elisabeth Schlammerl’s Trapattoni – A Life in Football. The voice of reason concerning Trapattoni’s relentless managerial career and the limitations it placed on the relationships he may have otherwise cultivated with his children and grandchildren, his “personal” justification for taking on the Ireland role at 69 lay with the possibility of spending “a lot more time … with my family.” At an age when most have already slowed down, Trapattoni undertook his fourth foreign expedition in as many years. Subjectively, as his case cannot be understood in any sense of normality, that Trapattoni would even suggest a degree of reining in his absolute commitment to this latest role is certainly unique. Given the unchartered domain of football and “late style”, this admitted attempt to merge his footballing “obsession” with the responsibilities of his home life suggests an alteration in his approach that attempts to contend with the reality that time is elapsing perhaps a little faster now. In truth, much of what would constitute Trapattoni’s “late style” can be rooted back to this initial intention to take a step back while still moving ceaselessly forward. As shall be shown, his cavalier attitude toward the English language in particular demonstrated one such area in which Trapattoni attempts to remain somewhat unavailable.
Spells working in Germany, Portugal and Austria had not previously left Trapattoni capable of carrying out his professional speaking duties without the aid of an interpreter. Speaking on his return to Bayern Munich in 1996, Trapattoni suggested that his improved mastery of the German language would now allow for “Trapattoni at 100%.” Yet, while this second spell at Bayern certainly signalled an improvement on his first encounter two years previously, the infamous “Strunz” press-conference of March 1998 went some way toward demonstrating how much he had still to learn linguistically. Having never managed in Italy after his disappointing Euro 2004 campaign in charge of the Azzurri, issues with language tend perhaps to illuminate why his subsequent roles with Stuttgart, Benfica and RB Salzburg only made it as far as a second season (coincidentally or not, the multi-lingual Lothar Matthäus was his assistant in this final club role). One may ponder what thus distinguishes his ultimate issues with the English language and the Irish job as a “late” concern. Primarily, he would persist with this Irish role for a whole year longer than his previous three foreign jobs combined. Speaking in September 2013, two days prior to his eventual leaving the Ireland role, Trapattoni ventured to suggest that John Delaney, the CEO of the FAI, should realistically say, “Giovanni continue because Giovanni make great job.” Although most Irish listeners may have taken great umbrage to what Trapattoni understood as a “great job”, five years in an English-speaking role that allowed for quite a lot of free time should have enabled a greater learning effort on Trapattoni’s part. Yes, even though he was by then a septuagenarian approaching his fifth decade of football management, an era of heavily saturated football analysis and a vast media presence did not allow Trapattoni’s unwillingness/incapability to learn pass by without external judgement. The great tenacity with which he carried out this role dissuades the suggestion that laziness or complacency may have become an issue. Trapattoni cared considerably, but his willingness to engage seemed to be severely waning. He was no longer concerned with “Trapattoni at 100%” as it had once been understood. This would be granted unfortunate clarity in his later dealings – both public and private – with Irish players young and old.
What strikes one as symptomatic of “late style” is Trapattoni’s apparent acceptance to remain mis-understood, however. Not shy by nature, his inability to communicate articulately made him somewhat less culpable for what may or may not go wrong. His sustained successes in previous years did not encourage doubt in terms of the man’s intellect, ingenuity or managerial ability. Yet, in limiting his available vocabulary (safe also in the knowledge presumably that his ceaseless interpreter Manuela Spinelli would tidy up any particularly impulsive Italian comments he did make) Trapattoni could temper expectation and, for better or worse (usually worse, sadly), allow his team to do the talking. This was not a luxury that could possibly have been afforded to him previously. The exilic nature of Beethoven’s late creativity as discussed in On Late Style echoes somewhat the isolation Trapattoni sought while working on his final “masterpiece”. Beethoven’s absolute deafness in the later years of his life granted a degree of critical immunity from the unusual works he was constructing. Trapattoni, albeit more willingly, assumed a veneer of silence intended to limit how involved he need be with his own public relations. The contrary nature of his initial approach and attitude to the managerial role in Ireland would undeniably shape the late differences that would distinguish Trapattoni’s “late style”.
“Trapattoni let them off the leash”
Eamonn Dunphy, speaking in wake of Ireland’s play-off defeat to France, November 2009.
To those for whom watching Ireland play is an incomplete experience without the analysis of John Giles, Liam Brady and Eamonn Dunphy, RTÉ’s football panellists, the critical response to the 2009 play-off loss to France was one of cautious optimism. Weary though many had become with Ireland’s reserved playing approach under Trapattoni, the superb performance in Paris – relatively, at least – was understood to be a true sampling of Ireland’s potential. Having constructed a degree of solidity so desperately absent throughout the short-lived Staunton era, it was assumed that the prowess displayed in Paris would encourage Trapattoni to develop such attacking instincts. In truth, it would be the last performance of its kind from Trapattoni’s Ireland.
Of concern also for the panel that evening – Graeme Souness was filling in for Liam Brady, who was working for Trapattoni within the Ireland set-up at this time – was Trapattoni’s perceived approach to scouting and player recruitment. Citing the relentless efforts of then England manager Fabio Capello to witness first-hand as many potential players as possible, Trapattoni’s understood reliance upon watching video recordings of players instead was pilloried as not being good enough. Trapattoni, unlike Capello and his backroom staff, never did move closer to the country that supplied most of his potential players. Indicative perhaps of a mentality which suggested that Ireland’s pool of players was so shallow as to make the possibility of overlooking any worthwhile player near impossible, Trapattoni’s approach instead definitively reflected the limitations he wished to inflict tactically. It is doubtful whether the players Trapattoni required for this system necessarily needed to be observed first-hand prior to selection.
Much can be deduced of Trapattoni’s intransigent approach to football from his most consistent central midfield pairing in an age in which Barcelona and Spain in particular were renewing the idea of valuing possession of the ball. Both Keith Andrews (28) and Glenn Whelan (24) were made full Irish internationals under Trapattoni. With scant Premier League experience, such a decision suggests that the degree of consideration Trapattoni brought to his scouting and recruitment still had the potential to be effective, if not revelatory. However, what cannot be shaken is the ultimate understanding that in seeking a central midfield pairing hell-bent on defending, the capabilities of Andrews/Whelan made perfect sense. Unlike established creative midfielders such as Andy Reid, Keith Fahey and Wes Hoolahan who would remain predominantly ostracised throughout the Trapattoni era, players distinctly lacking that impulsivity possible of winning a game were recruited instead for their ability and willingness to conform blindly. Reid, Fahey and Hoolahan would play no part for Ireland at Euro 2012; Paul Green, unattached, would get ten minutes against Spain. Although the solidity promised by Andrews/Whelan was a welcome development, the strictness of Trapattoni’s functionality encouraged an exceptionally basic approach that ultimately left Ireland without possession of the ball more often than not. But for the individual brilliance of Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane, Euro 2012 qualification from a group containing Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, FYR Macedonia and Andorra would have been highly unlikely.
As a demonstration of his “late style”, Trapattoni’s recruitment policy does not appear complacent; rather it is inherently limited in the parameters it worked under. As is often the case with “late style”, Trapattoni’s decision-making was ultimately mis-understood. If he had the wherewithal to locate some of those who would make an international breakthrough during his tenure, it is highly unlikely that Trapattoni did not know what those more publicly acceptable players could bring to his side. “Late style” encourages this sense of confusion and apparent stagnation to become a prevalent factor. In contrast to his Juventus hey-day in the seventies and eighties, he seemed resistant to individual prowess with his Irish side. Whereas at Juventus Michel Platini had epitomised the highpoint of capability that rendered Trapattoni’s strict stylisation a perfect foundation in which to flourish, Ireland’s creative element was never nourished in this regard – it relied entirely upon the defensive structuring. Trapattoni simply appeared to have absolutely no faith in Ireland’s ability to retain the ball and build accordingly. Entitled as he was to approach this role as he saw fit, Trapattoni’s systematic rigidity was so averse to the varying ideals of football at this time that it cannot be looked upon as anything other than a peculiar pattern of his “late style”.
Jack Charlton’s Ireland of the late eighties and early nineties similarly advocated an approach that didn’t necessarily consider possession of the ball all that valuable. Their resulting successes were wrought in an environment in which Irish fans had never before witnessed the realities of tournament qualification. One would be mistaken for assuming that the furore surrounding Ireland’s participation in Italia 90 was solely a football affair. Of the five games Ireland played, their only “win” came in the last-16 penalty shoot-out against Romania1. Having subsequently experienced two more World Cups – the 2002 Roy Keane v Mick McCarthy situation leaving it as the great “What If?” for Ireland’s football fans – Trapattoni inherited a nation that was no longer content with merely being there – however misplaced such confidence may have been on occasion. With more access to global football than ever before, Ireland’s followers could not fathom why such a negative approach was to be upheld at all times. Though a degree of success was certainly rendered in qualifying for Euro 2012, no sooner had Poland quietened down as the Irish fans departed than the business of such an abysmal showing on the pitch required explaining. As would be displayed by the personnel chosen to undertake qualification for the 2014 World Cup, clarity was not forthcoming from Trapattoni.
Trapattoni’s reluctance to adapt and develop his Irish team in any meaningful, progressive manner remains the fundamental tenet of his “late style”. Having prided himself previously on his introduction of the 19-year old Alessandro Del Piero to the Juventus team during his second spell in charge in the early nineties, Trapattoni’s reserved approach to the Irish youth bears some thinking about. Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and James McClean are not necessarily cut from the same cloth as Del Piero. Yet, relative to that which Ireland can hope to expect it is quite unusual that three such players have yet to acquire a combined total of 100 caps. While Trapattoni may well have anticipated their involvement in years to come, it is somewhat facetious to assume that he had Ireland’s long-term interests in heart when dealing with these players while under his tutelage. They, and a select few more, were afforded very limited realistic opportunities to develop internationally. Although in McCarthy’s case a family bereavement halted his opportunity to attend Euro 2012, 14 minutes was the total amount of playing time afforded to McClean. Coleman did not even make the squad.
Trapattoni’s unwillingness to blood Ireland’s younger – arguably more exciting and better also – players proved only more irritating and unusual when one considers his work with those he deemed more suitable. One cannot overlook the fact that at times players like Liam Lawrence, Caleb Folan and, perhaps most impressively, Jon Walters were introduced to the Irish side with very little fuss and an occasionally solid return. Vitalising the inner underdog and frustrations of those Irish players who had never previously considered international football a likely manifestation, the “late” Trapattoni – somewhat akin to Beethoven as per Theodor Adorno – can be seen “catching fire between extremes”. The “lost totality” that now pervades his work does not allow for a consistent demonstration of his capabilities; only brief flashes of brilliance. Sensing Trapattoni’s ultimate concern with time, however, it would appear that in search of instant gratification he simply did not wish to disrupt the stability harnessed with the introduction of a youthful ‘wild-card’. The self-imposed exile he sought to work in left him scant room for the true consideration of alternatives. At club level, such immediacy and a reluctance to trust is usually necessary under the premise of a looming relegation. Ireland after Staunton certainly provides an international sampling of such dire straits. It simply is not feasible, however, to maintain the approach that staved off “relegation” as you are trying subsequently to move forward. Epitomising the very lateness he was so acutely aware of, Trapattoni’s stubborn approach to player development was not the correct decision when one decided to hold down an international position for five years. If not for player retirements, it is highly likely that the team he started off with in May 2008 in a friendly against Serbia would have mirrored somewhat the last Ireland side he would send out five years on. As was acutely captured by the Guardian’s Paul Doyle upon Trapattoni’s eventual departure: “[He was] a manager who remained stubborn enough to believe that things would turn out as he foresaw no matter what was unfolding before his eyes.” The truth of this statement surely came to its truest fulfilment in the disastrous summer of Euro 2012. That so very little would change – least of all the manager – before the beginning of Ireland’s attempts at qualifying for the 2014 World Cup says more perhaps of Ireland than it does of this “late” Trapattoni.
The negativity which constitutes the body of this article allows for the assumption that “late style” is in essence a “bad” occurrence. Trapattoni arrived, consolidated defensively and thus continued flogging this same defensive agenda until it ceased entirely against Sweden and then Austria in September 2013. If this was “late style”, where exactly did the “constructive” element of the late works Said spoke of emerge during Trapattoni’s tenure? Unsurprisingly, the most compelling case for a “constructive” element can be made with relation to Trapattoni’s improvement of Ireland’s defensive capabilities. Seamus Coleman, a player entitled to resent Trapattoni for his often inexplicable exclusion from the Italian’s starting XI, made public in late 2014 his admiration for Trapattoni with relation to how he had “learned a lot from him on the defensive side of things.”
Quoting Adorno’s thoughts on the late Beethoven, Said’s On Late Style makes reference to the almost “unabashedly primitive” music Beethoven created in this period. For Trapattoni too, one cannot but look to his tactical approach with Ireland and wonder at what point he forgot, lost or overruled the element of such a defensive outlook that enables an attacking motion to develop. Possessing many of the elements which had granted his Juventus and Internazionale sides such wonderful success, the late Trapattoni appeared to foresee international football with a minor nation to be mostly a case of winning the “gimmes” and not losing the rest. In this regard he may well have tapped into an underlying truth of a qualifying layout that attempts to harbour the ambitions of some 50 or so teams. While his approach was not unique, the manner of success rendered from it over three campaigns puts Trapattoni more or less on par with Ireland’s second most successful manager, Mick McCarthy – and to be fair, he had Roy Keane right up until the tide began to turn. Trapattoni’s “late style” brought far more aggravation and boredom for a footballing community that was becoming swayed by the easy success of supporting the rugby alternative. From a supporter’s point of view, witnessing a team led by a manager in the throes of a “late style” is unlikely to be an exciting time. That “late style” requires intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction to develop does little to placate the appeal most have for a good standard of attacking football. Adorno surmised that the “late works are the catastrophes.” A true reflection perhaps of how many felt about Trapattoni’s late style of football, there is no other way around the fact that late and unpleasant as it often was it yet remained football in a somewhat more contorted form.