Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Passing on the Mantle

Apart from being male, not being called Colleen O'Shanahan, not being from New Jersey and not having red hair, I feel much like a former Rose of Tralee today. You see, just like the expired Rose does in the Dome every year, I have handed on the tiara and sash of Best Irish Sports and Recreation Blogger after a glorious one year reign.

Arseblog is the new one who's lovely and fair as a rose of the summer (insert gag about that being the only thing Arsenal will win this season here), and a heartfelt and thunderous congratulations on taking on the mantle. A fine blog and well worthy of this none-more-prestigious honour.
Unfortunately I couldn't be there in person to pass on the baton, but am delighted that another blogger's hard work was rewarded. And personally, one year of helping deaf pandas avoid landmines in Borneo and playing tennis with Kofi Annan is enough for anyone.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Run, TSA, Run

It was a combination of factors, really, that made me decide to take up running. I have run before, of course. For buses, away from the responsibilites of adulthood, even away from a gun-toting Adolf Hitler in a particularly vivid childhood dream.

But real running - with times and distances and some vague structure or plan - a confluence of reasons.

First was, with February - a month I like, despite, or maybe because of its can't-be-arsed brevity - drawing to a close, the ghost of Christmas pudding past still clung to my midriff; this long, long after even the last Peanut Cracknel had left the Quality Street tin and life's moderate norm should have restored reasonable abdominal tautness.

Second was some friends are training for a marathon. Normally, the flights of folly of friends raise nowt but the quizzical eyebrow and doleful head-shake in TSA. The marathon is, quite obviously, alongside sexual acts with young boys, the worst idea the ancient Greeks have given us.

A chap called Pheidippides - clearly a clown of the highest order - was so cock-eyed with excitement by victory for the Athenians over the Persians, that he ran all the way from the town of Marathon to Athens to impart the news, and then proceeded to drop dead. For some reason, this act of questionable wisdom is celebrated the world over, often by people wearing gorilla costumes and tutus - the traditional battle uniform of the ancient Athenians, of course.

But still, hearing about the training and the striving, the sweating and the chafing, the pain and the fatigue, all from the mouths of quintessentially sedentary modern males, whose lives are in every other way as cosseted and comfortable and air-conditioned as my own....it kinda got me to thinking.

There was a certain nobility to it, I grudgingly conceded. The wracking of the body for no point other than, well, because it was there. Like an old cat sitting in the corner getting fat on easy Whiskas, sometimes you need to kick the body out the back door and tell it to "go catch a frigging mouse."

Thirdly was - and linked with reason number one - the desire to do something notable in the exercise genre while age still permitted it, before the slow death of golf club membership began to loom.

The first thing you have to do is buy good runners. That's what they all say, all the websites and the experts. Seems to me you can position yourself as an expert in running for beginners armed with that information alone. "Buy some good runners, and then, er, run!" is the pleasingly spartan doctrine.

So not only did I buy proper runners (Asics, the doyen of the running shoe, they're even perched high up on the sports shop display, peering superciliously upon the Nikes below), but also - and this is the crossing of the Rubicon, the moment of truth, after which there is no turning back - proper running shorts. Short shorts with briefs like real athletes wear. The kind that wiry distance runners pull over their bits and bobs, so minimal, barely there, and in pointed contrast to the baggy, self-indulgent sort worn by footballers.

So with these shorts, not even the fragrant enticements of the chipshop will stop TSA. Watch me go!

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Tricky Eddie Exits the Valley

It'll probably take the departure of Eddie O'Sullivan himself for the World Cup to be totally consigned into history.

When that will come, we can't know: perhaps he will preside Castro-like for decades until ill-health finally forces him to step aside (presumably John Hayes will still be playing, patched up and repeatedly repaired like the old 1950s Cadillacs that roam the streets of Havana).

Or perhaps he'll soon tire of being the pantomime villain, the man the rugby writers and pundits hiss and boo and attribute the gamut of ills from the lack of an alternative outhalf to the frigging credit crunch to. Rather than doing a Castro on it, he might go out like Dicky Nixon, scowling "you won't have Eddie to kick around anymore" at his persecutors.

Whichever, only after his demise will the rank, pestilent stench of RWC 2007 totally clear and the air be fragrant and fresh as 'twas ere that benighted tourney.

Nonetheless, three games into the Six Nations, and despite the grumpy little fella still calling the shots, the fog of France is definitely clearing. The old, fondly remembered Ireland came into focus enough times on Saturday to finally suggest - in the nick of time for O'Sullivan - that this team as presently configured can do some of the fine things our big talkin' once suggested.

Brian O'Driscoll reminded one of Micheal O'Hehir's line about Bernard Brogan "drilling for oil" when his incision into the Scottish line helped set up Rob Kearney's try. The pass to Kearney was definitive World's Greatest Centre™.

Ronan O'Gara's sumptuous form all season suggests that he left France behind the moment Boeing left tarmac at Charles De Gaulle. Finally those around him are enjoying the same Gallic amnesia. For Tommy Bowe's first try the team got back into that Roman groove that we once thought would conquer the world.

And best of all, Geordan Murphy. The Leicester louche had endured a prolonged period of being used in turn by O'Sullivan and the press pack as a stick with which to beat each other.

The press would batter Eddie with calls for Murphy's inclusion, castigations of his treatment by the coach and general hypotheses that O'Sullivan's inability to use Murphy properly proved conclusively his fundamental unsuitability for the big job.

O'Sullivan would throw Murphy in, and upon the player's admittedly repeated failings, drop him with undue brutality, in order that the point be made to his foes: "look, see! See what you know!"

Best to put that sort of stuff behind everyone. Girvan Dempsey may be a wet dream for a belt-and-braces man like Eddie, but really, if Murphy's on the money, you have to put the house on him.

No talk here of the bad things from Saturday, there's been enough of that. Maybe we will have Eddie to kick around for another while. And as Nixon also said: "only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain."

(On the other hand he had just been forced to resign for instigating the most grievous threat to the American democracy since the Civil War. Anyway, maybe Eddie ain't so bad.)

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Minor European Football Leagues Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

Probably like any football club, supporting Celtic has given me equal numbers of profoundly depressing episodes as moments of tingling ecstasy.

Well, I did grow up in the 1990s.

For every Seville, there's a Neuchatel Xamax. For every 6-2 Old Firm win, there's a drunken fan plummeting from the top tier of the North Stand, while on the field Rangers are winning the league and a referee bleeds. For every scarves-aloft, lip-trembling rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone at Parkhead, there's vile, tuneless Provo doggerel being croaked on a grim ferry trip across the water.

Wouldn't have it any other way though. Good for the soul; Kipling and triumph and disaster and all that business.

Rarely though, have I felt the two impostors in the same match.

The 3-2 defeat to Barcelona brings no shame on Gordon Strachan's team. True, many of the players will lament that they did not wear their best suit to the big occasion. But cursory glances at the opposing teamsheets and, indeed, balance sheets mean the harshest cross-examination of Wednesday's proceedings should be avoided.

Back to the agony and the ecstasy. Half time and no Celtic supporter, save the grizzled Lisbon generation, could ever have been happier. Forty-five sensational minutes of football, in which Celtic had played a part - admittedly a supporting one - but nonetheless, the neutrals purred with appreciation. And the impertinence of the two goals: "don't care who you are, lads, this is Parkhead, we'll set aboot ye" (if paraphrasing Rangers-supporting, terrorist-thumping baggage handler John Smeaton is allowed).

But the second half. Oh dear God. It was like coming home to find your wife in bed with Brad Pitt, being forced to watch, and fetching the cuckolder a cold beer afterwards.

Receiving a footballing lesson shouldn't ever be reason enough for the onset of profound depression. Only a game etc. However, during the extended longeurs of Barcelona possession, thoughts turned to the inequitable and constrictive organisation of European football: a feudal oligarchy over which a handful of despots rule, gorging themselves on the fat of the land, while the chieftains on the rocky periphery starve.

What was depressing was not the act of Barcelona's otherwordly dominance, but the system that has allowed it be so. Until Wednesday, we who pledge our support to those teams outwith the opulent palaces of England, Spain and Italy could dream: dream of Porto, 2004; dream of Ajax in '95; dream of the Lisbon Lions.

But the feeling that this club, like many in similar countries around Europe, will never again be able to fulfil its potential is what we were left with. To be so distant from the best, through no fault of our own other than the laws of commerce and geographical accident - that's depressing.

To bring through a player like Aiden McGeady, carefully, attentively cultivating his skills, to find that your opponents have half a dozen similar and better, some even on their bench - that's depressing.

Throughout the last several centuries, in other worlds, at other times, people took to the streets, marched and revolted at being told they could never be the best they could be, that they could never push through glass ceilings, into reserved enclosures.

We all know what happened then. To the barricades!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Toasting the Health of the Cup

Medical opinions differ regarding the health of the patient. Hale and hearty on Saturday morning, when Bristol Rovers' throwback ground rambunctiously cheered its team into the quarter-finals; fighting fit when Barnsley picked off the eminently shockable Liverpool, the FA Cup slipped back into intensive care at Old Trafford, when Arsenal couldn't even be roused to care about it by the presence of their arch-enemies.

All that Manchester United's victory proved was that 75% of Alex Ferguson's best team was better than 75% of Arsene Wenger's, thus justifying the Arsenal manager's decision to ensure he would have at least two fewer fixtures over which to stretch his squad come the late season crunch.

If the FA Cup is a sickly patient, John Motson maintains a bedside vigil, mopping its brow. With the long term diagnosis necessitating a restorative visit to ITV, the BBC will soon abdicate the responsibility of administering CPR to the battered old trophy.
Shame really, as the job perfectly suits Motty. Being a classic old English eccentric, he's made for the task of stubbornly championing a beloved, but crumbling, national institution. Unable to confront the fact that neither of the teams he was watching would have traded three measly league points for a year looking after the old trophy, his voice crackled with bewilderment.
But the thing about these people - the types who hand out leaflets protesting the closure of libraries or who spend their free hours weeding a decrepit churchyard - is that they're usually right. Something valuable will be lost if their quixotic campaigns were to fail.

The 'magic of the Cup' thing is routinely - and rightly - derided as cash-in hokum. How often will the Beeb refer to the 'magic of the Cup' when they have but the footsoldiers of Five Live to tell its stories?

But equally, how many of an English football season's truly memorable, or at least unique and touching, moments come in the ancient competition? Chasetown, Havant & Waterlooville, Bury, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley - haven't they all at least sewn a colourful, individual edging into the occasionally monotonous blanket of league football.

Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez may have been thinking more of their impending duels with Milan's finest than navigating the road to Wembley, but, despite its interludes of poor health, the Cup can pack a mean punch when you're least expecting it.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Caught In A Trap

Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

So did the FAI fall ass-backwards into the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni, or did the intrepid Band of Three track down the highly decorated Italian like expert hunters on the trail of a grey-furred, catenaccio-advocating bear.

Whither Denis O'Brien? Is his largesse, as John Delaney claimed, merely a case of a footy fan with a few quid chucking loose change into the kitty? Can a governing body of a major sport, really have a billionaire media magnate paying half the wages of their most prominent employee, without any conflicts of interest, muddied ethical waters or general funny business arising?

Oh, that it would be straightforward! You know, the old-fashioned, orthodox way of things: football association seeks manager, football association finds manager, football association hires manager.

But hey. There's always another day, another phone-in show, another back page to ask all the questions. For a brief, beautiful interlude yesterday - possibly for the first time since Tony Galvin waddled the left wing and John Aldridge had a moustache - FAI, fans and media existed in a harmonious, Zen-like utopia. All was Trap, and Trap was good. Trap transcended. The power of a twinkly-eyed pensioner with a rucksack full of scudettos achieved the seemingly impossible.

With a few words of his strange Germano-English, Trap washed away our sins: the cheap shots about John Delaney's haircut, the whistling at Croker, Robbie on the Late Late. Just for a few moments the pesky duty of asking those - hah! - pertinent questions was abrogated, and we, each and every man Jack that holds Irish football dear, were lost in a reverie of promised turgid 1-0 wins all the way to South Africa.

We should send him down to Cork.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Good Job, Bearded Hippy Types

Blogger glitch now fixed, may we never gaze upon the face of De Burgh again.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Curse of De Burgh

Blogger appears to be a bit mental at the moment, as my latest post - the one on fat Spurs players - is followed by a post from September 29th on Argentina's rugby team. All posts in between seem to have vanished. I think this has happened before. I also think it has something to do with a photo of Chris De Burgh being on the Argentina post. Creepy, eh?

Apologies, presumably various Blogger geeks in San Francisco have sprung from their beanbags to sort it out.

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Spurs Player Busting A Gut

It was amusing to read in recent days of Spurs manager Juande Ramos' shock, upon meeting his new charges three months ago, at finding that he would be managing a male, twentysomething version of the Roly Polys. Apparently the players' fondness for previous manager Martin Jol extended to developing rotund physiques a lot like the Dutchman's.

It seems that a key part of Ramos' epic adventure to 11th place in the Premier League and a Carling Cup final place has involved putting the podgy Spurs players through a version of RTE's Operation Transformation, only with the consolation of having Gus Poyet manning the scales instead of Slobberin' Gerry Ryan.

Ramos' instigation of a strict new dietary regime saw the cream buns banned from the training ground canteen, with immediate benefits. Tom Huddlestone has been the most high profile Weight Watcher doing the Ramos Diet, but the overall effect of improved diet on the squad helped them to their five-goal thrashing of Wengers Waifs in last week's Carling semi-final.

All well and good, but did it really need a foreign manager with the customary battalion of sports scientists and nutrionary boffins to tell the burger-munching Spurs lads that laying off the lard might help their form?

As an amply upholstered, firmly ensconced member of the sedentary class, I always presumed that footballers, being, well, athletes, would have had the avoidance of snack boxes and suchlike as a veritable mantra.

Yes, I understood that previous generations of players refuelled after training sessions with a balanced meal of lager and crisps. But that was the past. We forgive our forebears their mistakes borne of ignorance: slavery, feeding porter to babies, boiling down homosexuals to make glue. But surely the footballers of today know fully and well that a Mars a day doesn't actually make you work, rest and play.
See, because I reckoned that footballers were denying themselves all manner of cream-laden, deep-fried, cheesey, beery pleasures in conscientious devotion to their profession, I turned a blind eye to many of their infamous extra-curricular trangressions.

It's hardly surprising, I reasoned, that these young men, rigourously adhering to a monastic aversion to most common vices, might, as a consolatory treat, find themselves occasionally in the midst of a logistically complex and barely consensual act of sexual depravity. With lifestyles, I contended, that required repeated refusal to yield to the sensual delights of the larder and the keg, how surprising was it that the poor souls might relent to the odd offer of a tri-partite episode of casual rumpy.

But, as Juande Ramos found out when he fetched up in North London, it seems that footballers have been having their cake and eating it.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Striking Similarites

Big Jim Larkin and William Martin Murphy. Arthur Scargill and Maggie Thatcher. And now Donal Og Cusack and Frank Murphy. Another fine pair of strikers.

You can't have a proper strike without 'em. Two intractably opposed, obdurately resolute foes; but, really, two peas in a pod. While they sit in their war rooms, plotting their next move, devising the next advance on the No Man's Land of public opinion, they dream of routing their enemy utterly.

But, really, their impulses must be the same. The stubborness, the sense of moral superiority, the ownership of a poker face, and, undoubtedly, the colossal ego required to carry it all, to lead men beyond where they're not sure they want to go.
Because of the similiarities, ultimately, there is mutual respect. Apparently, in squad trips and holidays since they first crossed swords in the 2002 strike, Cusack and Murphy have maintained the utmost civility - "morning Frank", "morning Donal, and a fine day it is too", "it is that Frank, no doubt about it."

The charismatic figurehead is a sine qua non of a strike. The ability to organise a group of disparate individuals into one, unified voice in any circumstance is difficult; to do so while also persuading them to withdraw their services from a hitherto rewarding position is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of great leadership.

Of course, the fact that GAA players are not waiving a salary means they cannot truly be compared with those who strike in the industrial realm. But to be a Cork player over recent months, when many - the majority, by all accounts - of the public do not agree with your stance must have been a frequently buffeted station, with only one's principles to provide shelter.

If there has been a slight veering of opinion towards the players' side in recent weeks, perhaps it has been in recognition of the resoluteness of their stance. No player has broken ranks, no off-the-record "sources" have told of splits within the panels, though I'm sure many have been solicited to do so.

As well as this, the media pincer movement orchestrated by Cusack last week was bold and risky. But if strikes are won in the realm of public opinion, you must make sure to take the high ground. Could any Cork board member be as articulate and heartfelt in his case as Seán Og O hAilpín? It was a masterstroke to put one of Irish sport's most loved personalities forward so.

Whether O hAilpín's call for Frank Murphy's head was indiscretion on his part, or a calculated gambit from the Cusack's masterplan, will all come out in the wash eventually. By then we'll know if Cusack has succeeded where Big Jim and Scargill failed.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heaven is a Place on Earth

Okay, okay. Look, I won't go on about it. I know everyone's a bit Munstered-out at this stage. Enough already, with the skyscraping prose, the sentences built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The Go-To Guy in these situations, Vincent Hogan in the Indo, marked his territory early doors: "The skeletal, white confection trellising the Limerick sky on Cratloe Road speaks almost of an infidelity to the past. Thomond's cadaverous old face is gone now. The new stadium, half-built and muddily chaotic on Saturday, already bears a discernible vanity." Good old Vince, all his geese are majestic, winged sentries of the grey-dappled skies.

No, fair's fair, we'll keep it simple this time: Munster woz great. It rained. O'Gara woz deadly.

Gosh, I feel strangely liberated.

It's easy, you see, to talk about great sporting phenomenon like Munster in the language of epic poetry, especially on days like Saturday, with their portentous skies and formidable foes.
Sometimes, though, in situations like this, I wonder why we aren't equally drawn to the minutiae of these occasions. The countless quotidian chores that, added up, make great victories generally only get mentioned, if at all, in the more considered pages of the cash-in book.

Clearly, had Munster not put masses of painstaking work into perfecting their own line-out and, in turn, plotting the utter decimation of Wasps', perhaps Saturday would be getting recorded now as another dark, dank evening of failure for Irish sport.

Had Ronan O'Gara not spent much of his waking life putting boot to ball, reaching the standard of expertise that allowed him his 'perfect game' on Saturday, we'd surely be talking of the fine, worthy champions that Wasps still were.

If Shaun Payne wasn't as safe as a Sherman tank at the dodgems under the high ball, would we not be pin-pointing Danny Cipriani's up-an-unders as a key factor in the Wasps victory?

Obviously there are countless other small, unsung tasks that are performed to perfection in a victory such as Munster's on Saturday, and the fact that most of us can't see them is what often makes a sporting victory seem so magical, as if the teams are the playthings of unseen gods.
But forget about Deus ex machina, on these occasions, God is in the detail.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Munster The Overdogs

Generally, in dear little old Erin - Ma bhrón! Ma bhrón! - we have been culturally habituated to the role of the underdog. Frankly, it's no surprise, given the rarity of occasions on which we can truly be the overdog.

That Eurovision spell in the 1990s perhaps - man, were we cocky then?! Or at the annual World Stout Brewing Championships - I bet the Irish team strut arrogantly about the place at those, laughing in the faces of their bland, watery porter-producing rivals.

But generally, in most sporting circumstances, we are the hapless minnows, the ill-equipped, technically gauche bottom-feeders. The newspaper report will usually read "while the Americans and the Chinese battled it out for dominance, it was a disappointing day for the Irish team of Seamus O'Mara and Cormac Prendergast. A poor performance in the artistic impression category left them in 17th."

In our silk-purse-from-a-pig's-ear way, we make the best of this, trumpeting the occasions on which we overturn the odds, inflating them to the size of a normal culture of sporting excellence, blotting out the vast, arid plains of underachievement.

Every now and then, however, Irish sports teams or individuals throw off the dowdy cardigans of low expectation, and zip up the rhinestone-studded, caped jumpsuit of superstardom: Ronnie Delaney, Roy Keane, Sonia, O'Driscoll, Harrington.

Making this leap is not merely a case of being good at running, or kicking stuff, or hitting things with sticks. These people grew up around the rest of us, yet never got infected by our belching pub tales of shooting at the Brits from behind bushes, or a little Scottish man heading the ball into an English net, or the odd, random Triple Crown amid years of brutal pummelings. Somehow, some crazy way, they went out into the world, and the world backed off.

Which brings us to Munster. Two tries down at half time, half-way to a result that would all but end their Heineken Cup campaign, even the most loyal son of Thomond would have viewed the second half fretfully. How difficult it is to halt the tide away from home, especially against an expensively-assembled, physically powerfully French team.

But that's what Munster did: not only denying Clermont a bonus point, but sneaking one themselves. What a precious thing that point is. Think of Indiana Jones, grabbing the gold idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark, legging it past poisoned darts and boulders, finally making it to the biplane as spears fly hither and thither. Indy lost the idol though - Munster held onto theirs.

What this has to do with underdogs and overdogs and looking the world in the eye is this: at some point, Clermont must have suffered a crisis of confidence; small imperceptible doubts in a number of individuals, perhaps, but fatal when multiplied throughout a team. Perhaps it caused them to yield to the pressure that ultimately cost them three yellow cards.

And behind this buckling of the hitherto unstoppable Clermont momentum, responsible for the flickering doubts in previously rampaging players, must surely have been the realisation that this was Munster. Twelve seasons of hard-won respect, numerous legendary feats of courage, countless battles, immeasurable hours of unyielding, sinew-straining effort, numberless last-ditch tackles, multitudinous strength-sapping mauls: all this adds up.

And when Munster go out into the world, the world, very often, backs off.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

That Time of Year Again

What with the Golden Globes being held in a Portakabin this year, and the Oscars likely to go the same way, 2008 is surely the year the Irish Blog Awards finally takes its rightful position as the most glittering event on the showbiz calendar. I mean, do they have goodie bags at the Oscars?

This year's Blog Awards are at the Iowa primary stage, with the first round of nominations underway. If you want to send TSA all the way to big house on the hill, click here.

This year's first round is being done by a judging panel as well, so there's no need to set up a You're A Star-style poster campaign. Just vote once, and with your hearts, in whatever category is most apt (Best Crafts blog please, I make lovely St.Brigid's crosses). But perhaps Best Sports and Recreation blog would be nice, and maybe TSA can make it two-in-a-row, and begin a Phil 'The Power' Taylor-style era of dominance.

And look, I know the last few months weren't ideal, but remember the good times! April - ahhh April, how happy we were then...before blasted November came along, with its.....distractions....

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Friday, January 11, 2008

We'll Go To Tel For This

God, hasn't this blog gone to hell recently.

It's like one of those jerry-built, Victorian-era football grounds (Swansea's Vetch Field, perhaps), which once-upon-a-time-once-a-fortnight lovingly housed tens of thousands of huddled working class sorts with all their hopes and dreams and flat caps, but is now a disused ruin, weeds strangling floodlight pylons, dry-rot attacking the directors box.

An elderly security man - once on the ground staff, he remembers the day Bobby Charlton played here - unlocks the padlocked gates once a week, to check that vagrants or squatters haven't taken root in the once-sacred terraces along with the weeds.

A bit like that, except a blog, if you know what I mean.

However, the cyberspace local council will have no hope in trying to sell this shambling old arena to a metaphorical supermarket chain (like Bolton's Burnden Park, now an Asda, for shame!). Nope, the TSA toilets might stink, the pitch might evidence a pronounced slope and the uncovered corner terrace may be crumbling - but no internet property developers shall turn us into another soulless social networking site.

That analogy stretched like poor old Mike Teavee on Willy Wonka's chewing gum stretching machine, let's move on to the Republic of Ireland manager's job!

What? You'd rather read another laborious, meandering metaphor designed to show off the writer's impeccable football luddite credentials, when really he's never drunk Bovril in his life? You people are weird! Well you do hang around sports blogs which are uncannily reminiscient of jerry-built, Victorian-era football grounds, which once-upon-a-time-once-a-.....

Big Sam, King Kenny, Gerry the Frenchman: they're all incidental, cameo characters in the epic costume drama that will come to be known as El Tel: The Oirish Years. Actually, if you've not grown weary of grandiloquent metaphors - it is Friday after all - the saga of the Irish manager's job is really a metaphor for life: a series of pointless meetings, tedious lies, forlorn hopes, and looming with crushing inevitability at the very end, when naught else remains, is death, or Terry Venables in this yarn.

And I leave you with the thought of Sir Edmund Hillary, having passed from a life of the most tumultuous achievement, being ferried to the afterlife by the aforementioned Venables, a cackling celestial cabbie, rabbiting about "that Benazir Bhutto what I had in the back a few weeks ago"....

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Capello To Raise England's Game

Like a new headmaster walking into his first assembly, Fabio Capello would have critically surveyed the horde gathered to welcome him. This one will be trouble, that's a cheeky one, this one could be useful.

Equally, like a bunch of surly schoolkids presented with their new headmaster, the gentlemen of the English press would have analysed the new manager carefully. Possible nicknames, quirks of mannerism - curious turns of phrase to gleefully satirise must wait, for a month at least - the sketched outlines of a soon-to-be-familiar caricature will have been drawn.

The basic structures have already been put in place: the classic sergeant-major character will be the template; 'grumpy' the fittingly infantile adjective most prominent so far. The more forward thinking opinion-formers will already have the permutations of both success and failure mapped out: if victorious, the Roman general - or emperor? - if a failure, a bungling pizza chef.

Far away from Soho Square, in the TV rooms of Premier League club training grounds, or the audio-visual chambers of preposterous footballer mansions, Capello will also have been getting the once over. Few of the England players will view the Italian's appointment in the same way that many of the public and press have: that being the procurement of an exquisitely-crafted, staggeringly-expensive designer Italian shoe, to be launched hard and true at the complacent posteriors of England's finest.

No, with vast wealth usually comes a shield of self-righteousness. The players will have ascribed their absence from Euro 2008 as solely the fault of the toothy mediocrity that led their failed qualifying campaign. They will see themselves as the precious metal, and Capello as another goldsmith charged with making the priceless masterpiece.

But the myth of England possessing a stellar generation of footballers has long been exposed as, at the very least, a wild exaggeration. Quite sensibly, many in English football are not so much equating the current squad with the star-filled rosters that Capello led to nine league championships, but are rather doubting if the Italian can work his magic on a group that is barely average in many areas.

At this point, little also has been said of Capello's methods. Chased out of Madrid despite delivering La Liga in both of his single season spells, in Spain they quip that Wembley will be bored to tears. But after the humiliation they have just endured, few in England have the spirit to demand winning with style.

For us on the outside though, the whole point of the England team is the show, the familiar yet captivating plotline. It's why we secretly curse when they don't qualify for major championships. The vaulting ambition, the groundless optimism, the heartbreaking and hilarious defeat. Steve McLaren's small-time operation never even allowed them the momentum to hyperinflate their expectations. Capello, on the other hand, will have them thinking they can rule the world.

Thing is, they might just be right this time.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Munster Ramble On, As Black Dog Catches Leinster

Remember that old rock bedtime story about how if you played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in sync with The Wizard of Oz, that it all made freaky sense, dude? Well, you could probably do the same with Munster's win in Llanelli the other night and the soundtrack to Led Zeppelin's reunion concert last night in London.

"Ah-aaaaaaa-ah, Ah-aaaaaaa-ah! We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow....Hammah of the Ggghodds""

Imagine those ear-bursting riffs and that heavy metal pack, the storms of rain and wind swirling as if from the darkest depths of Mordor itself.

I shudder to picture Anthony Foley barechested in skinny, cucumber-packing leather jeans, but the veteran number eight showed yet again that no-one thumps out a more infectious rhythm for his pack than he.

If ever there was a soundtrack to a team, or a particular performance, this is it: Page, Plant and co. would have been far better plugging amps effects pedals into the rickety Stradey Park than the comparably sedate O2 Arena.

Not that the godfathers of heavy metal and Irish rugby's monsters of rock are always so suitably in tune. On occasion, like in the loss to Leinster a few weeks ago, Munster can veer into prog rock excess: the big riffs are there, but it just doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Leinster also played on Friday night, running through a set that had all the hits at the start but tailed off somewhat in a second half full of stuff from that cocaine-fuelled self-indulgent period they went through a few years ago.

They certainly have beefed up the rhythm section though: no more the tinny, boyband jangle of their erstwhile pack; the current lineup rocks hard, and in Jamie Heaslip has a virtuoso, Jack White-type multi-instrumentalist.

But there is still the problem of creative differences elsewhere. With the low-key, Bill Wyman presence of Chris Whitaker missing from scrum-half, the psychedelic excesses of Felipe Contepomi are utterly unchecked. For each sweet, chiming melody he produces, there is a perplexing, Japanese industrial funk-influenced solo project which, sadly, none of his baffled teammates know how to play along with.

For Leinster, despite the encouraging new direction, the song, too often, remains the same.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Hair-raising Evening

I had the great pleasure of travelling to Funtasia in the Dromore Industrial Park just outside Drogheda on Tuesday night in order to glean wisdom and insight from the mouth of John Delaney, who was there to launch a book on the history of Drogheda United.

Fair play to John, he did throw me gristly morsel of a scoop in the news that a third 'wise man' was to be appointed to the FAI's crack team of international manager headhunters, before Ray Houghton's employers, RTE and The Star, served up the juicier fillet of the actual identity of the new man the next morning.

Delaney seems like a nice fellow. He's certainly well regarded by the grassroots types that were gathered in Drogheda; though I think the event organisers were delighted just to have someone of repute to headline the evening, otherwise the irksome, ginger-bearded town mayor would have been the main man, and no one wanted that.

Far from the Machiavellian political animal of reknown, whose skill in the committee room as he finessed his way to the top of the FAI tree sees him generally portrayed as more Richelieu than Richmond Park, Delaney came across rather normal off-record.

He enthused about his esteemed guest Michel Platini, whom he would shortly afterwards join for a sumptuous banquet back in Dublin. Perhaps there he would point out to Platini that, only a short time ago it was cocktail sausages and ham sandwiches in Funtasia in Drogheda, and that, Michel, see, was the secret of his power: knowing the time for foie gras and the time for fish fingers.

On record he was admittedly, a walking advertisement for whichever PR consultancy firm was brought in to transform the image of the FAI from Keano-baiting chancers of yore to that Blairite smoothocrat thing that everyone from the manager of your local petrol station to the CEO of your local multi-national does these days.

It's all about those hand gestures that say "I'm serving these eye-catching initiatives to you like a pastor would serve the host to his flock, dear child", the hands always moving forward to underline the progressiveness of these fabulous words, but never forming off-putting fists or jabbing fingers.

The omnipresent "going forward" peppers the content, as does "it is important that we remember...", another nod to the vicarspeak that did so well for Tony Blair.

But there were no outward signs of the bungling incompetence of which his battalion of critics often accuse him: he didn't insult anyone; trip on any carpet while walking up to the stage; he didn't declare how great it was to be here in Athlone; his flies were resolutely closed.

In fact that only vestige of haplessness the man offered up was his now notorious hairdo. Delaney has always had trouble with his barnet, a scruffy mop that looks as appropriate to its environment as a Romany halting site on a roundabout. The latest look, which you might have seen on the news yesterday, was a cross between pudding bowl chic and Roman slaveboy.

Clearly, there is a clue to the man's success in the FAI in the story of his tonsorial plight. Did he, arriving at a crossroads outside of Dungarvan some years ago, meet the devil himself? And did the Dark Lord offer him the stewardship of the nation's football destiny in exchange for - no, not your soul, oh no, I have enough of them boy! - his previously stylish and immaculately coiffured hairdo?

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Been Busy?

It is with regret that I announce that the contract of Stephen Staunton as 'latest post' on Tom's Sporting Almanac has been terminated by mutual consent. TSA will now appoint a committee to recommend where to find funny photos of Terry Venables to put up instead, preferably one of him wearing a sombrero in the Eighties.

It's a been a while, I give you that. Not that there has been anything much happening in sport to write about since October 16th. Just yer international managerial escapades, the denouement of a Rugby World Cup, the first ever general player strike in Gaelic games history, the familar clank of Brit-failure that brought the Formula One season to an end, a football season that has ratcheted up the usual manager-disembowelling count and much more.

So yes, not writing about sport over the last six weeks or so is a bit like Santa going off somewhere nice and warm in late November, then ambling back into the elves' workshop mid-January and idly querying of the little toysmiths "been busy?" (An analogy which works only if Santa is indeed involved in the toymaking process, not if his only job is, as such, dispatch. In which case it's no skin off the elves' noses what he does, it just means "there's a big pile of bloody toys lying out the back waiting to be delivered, you great fat, brandy-quaffing, christmas cake-munching oaf!")

Unlike this indolent Santa, TSA has been exceptionally busy of late, seeing as how I've started a new job and that. Having gotten through that opening six week period of a job wherein one suppressess those natural characteristics so unappealing to new employers - negligible personal hygiene, workplace narcolepsy, tendency to attempt seduction of boss's wife/daughter/mother -
I feel I can now relax and renew the idle, yet exquisitely-gentrified lifestyle of the blogger.

So where were we? Ah, the old San Siro once again. As part of my sabbatical, a trip to the Celtic v Shaktar Donetsk match last Wednesday was squeezed in, to witness yet another eye-rubbingly unlikely Champions League win for Celtic at Parkhead.

Two last minute winners and a deflection have given Celtic the nine points from which they hope this evening to springboard to the knockout stages this evening, and a bit more of that sort of fortune will be needed.

The hopes of Celtic fans - the bluster about "going there to win" to win aside - have strayed this past week to Messrs Strachan and Ancelotti being fellow members of some sort of managers' freemason group, through which a particular prematch handshake will signify the ensuing of the most gentlemanly, inoffensive, tedious scoreless draw imaginable.

However, even were Celtic to arrange a scurrilous carve-up, you can be sure some hapless calamity will befall one of their defenders early in tonight's game, and a probably-terminal goal conceded.

No, Celtic will get no favours this evening, unless they navigate themselves to the closing twenty minutes on level terms, in which case an informal armistice may materialise.

Although, even then, Inzaghi will probably scuff one in off his kneecap. The little shit.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It's a Vision Thing

It was mentioned last week - by some members of the mongrel pack that huddle at the side of Malahide United's pitch for gristly morsels of quotes from the Republic of Ireland manager - that Stephen Staunton seemed in relatively "good form".

Some speculated that it was due to the bludgeoning being dished out on Eddie O'Sullivan, that the erstwhile paragon of Irish international managerial excellence was now occupying the stocks to which Staunton was usually bound. That line sounds glib, but, by the infantile standards of Staunton's usual public justifications, nonetheless believeable.

More likely, however, is that the manager was enjoying the hubris of suddenly-realised invulnerability. The trip to central Europe had been characterised by similar - if not quite as disastrous - incompetencies to the Cyprus fiasco of 11 months previously, yet the support of Staunton's employers for their manager rang out more loudly than the clamour for his removal.

The same selectorial eccentricities, further erroneous substitutions and a continuing overwhelming lack of sense of purpose were evident.

This is not to suggest that the players' commitment to the cause was lacking in any way; one of the redeeming features of Staunton's management is the undoubted efforts his players continue to provide. But no-one questioned the commitment of the soldiers at the Somme as they were ordered towards their doom, neither does anyone credit their commanders for it.

The fact that a dismal return from the pivotal qualification matches resulted in voluminous backing from the FAI must surely have emboldened Staunton thereafter, perhaps explaining then his levity of mood last week.

Nothing that happened on Saturday will have damaged or abetted the manager. The attitude of the players was once again excellent; the performance of Joey O'Brien another success for the blooding policy of this campaign.

But that sense of purposeless is highlighted at home more than anywhere. The understrength Germans' general comfort with proceedings pinpoints the sad demise of the Irish international team. No matter how low we think we are, in these days when we are constantly reminded to redefine our expectations, no international side, especially one denuded of most of their best players, should expect to sleepwalk their way through an international in Dublin.

The lack of a vision for his team is something which our manager should now be eliminating. The fact that Andy Reid has gone from pariah to the central hub of the team in the space of two games demontrates the haphazard nature of Staunton's stewardship. The tossing in of Andy Keogh on the right wing another random, surreal whim of a selection.

By this stage we should expect - whatever the other flaws - to have a notion of how Staunton's Ireland would ideally line-up and play. That we don't is the fundamental problem with this ramshackle, irrational operation.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

We'll Answer Our Hemisphere's Call

Is there a word - a noun like patriotism, or nationalism, or jingoism, or sectarianism - for a devoted love, support and defence of one's hemisphere? Hemiphilism, being a hemiphiliac maybe? An odd word like that would work, to fit the feeling of spending a weekend cheering on a hemisphere!

Perhaps it's something that will catch on. Instead of children being taught about the flag and the struggle and the history at school, instead the little 'uns will be reminded regularly about their responsibilities as Northern Hemispherians.

"Remember sonny, north means 'on top', ok?"

Maybe the brain-bleeding drone of the argument over the Irish rugby team's anthem could be rendered obsolete by the simple use of two, new Hemisphere anthems: Land Down Under by Men At Work for the South, Up On The Roof by The Drifters for the North.

That's all for the future. But with our own group of tortured souls long returned from France to attend meetings with irate commercial endorsers brandishing small print, England, France and Scotland all enjoyed the benefits of this new Trans-Hemisphere support.

Say what you like about us Northern Hemispherians, but we stick together when the chips are down. Frankly, we'd had just about enough of folks criticising our hemisphere. We knew how Lynyrd Skynyrd felt when writing Sweet Home Alabama: "I hope David Campese will remember, Northern Man don't need him round anyhow!"

Yes indeed, there's nothing we Northern Hemispherians like more than getting one over on our old enemies in the south. Even the French kept their end up, despite being forced to play away from home at their own World Cup (that's the Northern spirit for you!).

Scotland couldn't quite make it a perfect weekend for God's own hemisphere, but then the Argies are honorary Northerners anyway, what with Contepomi being more Leinster than the Leinstermen themselves, and all those grizzled forwards playing in France.

Gosh, with England and France, our two Northern brothers, playing in the semi, I don't know who I'm going to support!

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