It is a well-established maxim of psychology that a new-born baby will only begin to realise that he and his mother are two separate beings after his first year of life. The child can’t quite countenance the existence of a separate being beyond his own immediate level of consciousness. Covering the Irish soccer team at close quarters this week has started to feel like those first twelve months of life. Such is the level of anticipation, the most minor of local developments have dwarfed seismic international events. A sense of groundhog day has ensued. They train, we watch. Shay also watches. They tell us Shay is fine. We know Shay is fine, but we ask anyway. Are they looking forward to the tournament? They are.
Genuine talking points have been few and far between. The very hint of a story has been feverishly jumped on. Trapattoni was considering five across midfield on Monday night after an underwhelming defensive display in Budapest. In his press conference on Tuesday in Poland, he stated instead that our strikers would have to work harder. There would be no last minute changes to this, the most settled of sides. The players were jaded said Keith Andrews and Aidan McGeady. Training on Wednesday was cancelled. A revolt afoot? Alas no, merely a decision taken in consultation with the players. A decision which was the very hallmark of sensible management, one underpinned by the confidence a lifetime of successful management tends to imbue. This is a settled team and a happy team. But we still obsess.
The Municipal Stadium in Gydnia is where the team train at 10.30am every morning. It’s an attractive modern arena with excellent facilities, a ten minute taxi drive from the coastal town of Sopot where the team is based. Gdasnk, where Ireland will play Spain on Thursday, is fifteen minutes the other way. It’s an idyllic set-up, much to the relief of the FAI. To make a hash of pre-tournament preparation once was unfortunate; twice would have been careless.
Sopot itself is full of picture-postcard architecture, a stunning sandy coastline and the laid-back atmosphere to match. The team hotel overlooks the Baltic. To the right is a long and winding promenade along the beach. To the left is a wooded area where the locals practice Tai Chi in the evening. Walkers and joggers go about their business. Local kids kick footballs around. It’s the kind of place a man finds himself pondering the important things in life. On Thursday evening I was out jogging through this wooded area when I passed Giovanni Trapattoni in his tracksuit. He was out for a stroll. As I approached him, patriotism prevailed over professionalism, so I gave him a wave. Trap sized up the sweaty red-faced mess trundling towards him, before obliging with a smile and a simple, ‘Ciao’.
Ciao indeed. What a guy.
On Friday afternoon, Stephen Kelly, Keith Andrews and Stephen Ward strolled in their green tracksuits through the town centre. The locals nodded in their direction, they nodded back. And on we went.
How’s Shay now? He’s still fine. We know.
Trapattoni’s mood has improved with each passing day too. On Thursday, he was a man relishing the challenge ahead. “Never say never,” was his response when German television suggested Ireland could be the Greece of 2012. After cutting a frustrated figure on Tuesday morning, he emerged from training on Thursday impressed with the session he’d overseen. A certain spark had returned he seemed to gesture. There had been a noticeable focus and intensity to proceedings. The omens were good. It’s in the ‘details’ he emphasised, squeezing his finger and thumb together.
He was asked how he felt a few days out from kick-off. “Tense,” he said, “Not nervous”. It’s a tension he explained that is healthy, a positive tension he doesn’t want to subside.
On Sunday, he will become the oldest coach in the history of the European Championships. There is a genius behind sustained achievement in any area of life, particularly professional sport. Trap gave an insight into one of his defining characteristics. “Curiosity,” he said with a degree of gravity, looking around the room. “I am hungry for new situations. I always want to get to know new things that I didn't know before. That is important. A general once said it's an old man who isn't curious about the next news. I think I'm like a 20-year-old - but with more experience.”
And on we go. We dance this dance. We wait the wait. The team is ready. The manager has been ready for a long time. There is nothing much left to talk about. There are no injuries. The apparent absence of set-piece practice aside, the training has gone well. I’ve experienced ‘pregnant pauses’ in my time. This has been a ‘pregnant week’.
And suddenly on Friday night, the naval gazing was blown away as Euro 2012 exploded to life. The purpose of the week crystallised on television screens in packed bars all around Sopot. We watched the Poles dream the dream for 45 minutes. We watched a Russian side put four past the Czech’s. The same Russian side we held scoreless in Moscow. Our infantile consciousness has begun to engage with the enormous, delightful reality of the situation. Euro 2012 is here. And so are we.
Joe Molloy is producer of Newstalk Sport Saturday and Sunday