Not long after he was appointed manager of Ireland at the age of 68, Giovanni Trapattoni remarked that back home a couple of defeats would see him "labelled as an old, senile sod". Three years on and the Italian has been labelled anything but, and if results go his way over the next five days then an extraordinary managerial career may yet be extended into a fifth decade.
Across the Irish Sea, another Italian, similarly shaped by Milan and installed under instruction to revive a nation's faded glory, has yet to convince he has found the answer as his time runs out. In Dublin there is wider satisfaction as Trapattoni, one of football's arch pragmatists, has carefully applied that skill to offer the optimists hope of Ireland reaching a first European finals since 1988 – the same year, incidentally, he was winning his seventh Scudetto.
With four games remaining in Group B, Ireland, Slovakia and Russia are tied on 13 points. Tonight Ireland host Slovakia, who reached the last 16 of last year's World Cup, and on Tuesday they will be in Moscow to challenge the favourites. With their last two games against Andorra and Armenia, six points from Slovakia and Russia would usher the Irish towards the finals, four points would certainly direct them at worst towards the play-offs, for all the painful memories that may rekindle.
Thierry Henry's part in Ireland's failure to make it to South Africa last summer – when the former Arsenal striker handled en route to creating the goal that settled the World Cup play-off in France's favour – still rankles with Trapattoni. "I want to achieve qualification for our prestige because I think we deserved also to go to South Africa," he said.
Four points from the next five days would satisfy most in Ireland – there is an acceptance that a draw in Russia, even if Dick Advocaat's side are without Igor Akinfeev, their highly-rated goalkeeper, would be a creditable outcome, especially given Russia's win in Dublin last October.
Ireland took a solitary point from the reverse of this double header following Robbie Keane's missed penalty in Zilina, but they have struck form this year, particularly across a backline that has set a national record in going five games without conceding a goal. Since the Palermo striker Abel Hernandez scored Uruguay's third goal in a friendly in Dublin in March, Ireland have kept their opponents at bay for over 500 minutes. "Winning games brings a winning mentality and confidence," says Keane. "In the last year, we have certainly had this belief that we can win big games against big countries."
Slaven Bilic, whose Croatia team drew 0-0 with the Republic of Ireland last month in a friendly, concurs. "In history Irish teams have always been good, passionate, solid, aggressive teams but Trapattoni has turned them into an extremely well-organised side. He is really doing a great job."
It is no surprise that a man who played his football when catenaccio held Serie A in its deadening grip has built from the back, but it is also the mark of a coach who is adept at making do with the resources at his disposal – combined with a passion for his game that shows no signs of waning with advancing years.
Trapattoni was the surprise name recommended by Ray Houghton, Don Givens and Don Howe, the triumvirate appointed by the Irish Football Association to headhunt a successor to Steve Staunton. It was perhaps only a natural reaction to look towards the other end of the managerial spectrum in the wake of the inexperienced Staunton's brief and torrid reign, especially as Howe and Givens are also among the game's more senior figures. But what struck Houghton as the four of them sat in Trapattoni's apartment in Salzburg, where the Italian was managing his ninth club, was a resemblance to Sir Alex Ferguson. Houghton thought he saw a similar age-resistant passion and all-consuming interest in the game.
What stands out from Trapattoni's long and decorated CV – and what no doubt stood out to Houghton and his senior partners – is that ability to bring the best from sometimes scant resources. Earning Benfica a first title in more than a decade, in an alien environment, stands out almost as much as his sackful of Italian trophies. He is also the only manager to have won all three European competitions.
Ireland do not have the same playing riches as the days when Houghton and Co went to Euro '88, Italia '90 and USA ' 94. Or even the squad Mick McCarthy took to Korea in 2002. Tonight's XI is not one to attract envious glances: Stephen Ward of Wolves makes his first competitive start at full-back, Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger are in central defence, Keith Andrew, now with struggling Ipswich, and Glenn Whelan stand ahead of them in midfield while Shane Long has been preferred to Kevin Doyle to partner the internationally evergreen Keane.
"We are conscious we have improved the new generation of players and I would like to continue [with them] but I understand also what the responsibilities are," said Trapattoni. If they fall short again it is likely to bring his time with Ireland to an end, and probably his career too. His €1.8m (£1.6m) salary is paid in part by an Irish businessman but even so it is a sum the FAI might struggle to raise without the financial boost of a summer in Ukraine and Poland.
Yet if they are to rise to the challenge of the next five days and then finish the job against the lesser opponents, then it is likely to take more than a three-man delegation to try and stop Trapattoni, who sent out his first Milan side in 1974, from setting his sights on Brazil 2014.Reuse content