Monday, May 30, 2005

"We'll keep the Strangely-Coloured-Sports-Drink Flag Flying Here"

So the battle lines are being drawn: the bosses (the GAA) and their henchmen (RTE) on one side, “Red” Des Farrell and the Gaelic Players Association on the other, the rights of men to guzzle strangely coloured sports drinks on camera at stake, and the threat of strikes on post-match interviews on the horizon.

Yes, a bit dramatic a synopsis of the recently brewing furore over GAA players strategically gulping from Club Energise Sport drinks. But there is something sinister about the tone of this affair that may cause difficulties ahead, even if they do not ultimately end up as serious as the situation that saw Cork’s hurlers down tools in 2002. RTE have claimed that they merely want to eliminate deliberate subliminal “product placement” of any item not considered part of a player’s equipment.

Brian O’Driscoll infamous Powerade consumption after Ireland’s Triple Crown success last year has been cited by those who support the players as an example of this phenomenon that didn’t bring such a draconian reaction from the Montrose bigwigs. RTE claim that the clampdown will extend to all sports, but it is tempting to sense the whiff of feudalism in the national broadcaster’s reaction.

The amateur nature of county GAA players, and the degree to which local pride rather than promise of reward fuels their ever-increasing commitment had, up until the appearance of the GPA, left them vulnerable to neglect- at least in proportion to the time and effort they expended for the cause. The holy grail of being “looked after” was what the GPA sought, and the commercialisation of the modern GAA off the back of the annual festivals of sport which the players served up only made their claims more valid.

Of course the new militancy amongst the players would not meet without resistance. Would the demands of the players be the thin end of a wedge that would lead ultimately to professionalism? The GAA of course, are not keen on the thin end of wedges. The Cork strike, however, did prove something of a test case, and the Rebel players ultimately got what they wanted, in terms of being “looked after”, and delivered in grand style on the field, All-Ireland runners up in 2003, and winners in 2004..

Subsequently it was clear to ambitious county boards that success could only be achieved by “looking after” the players and sparing no expense in preparations, a policy with the grave potential to cause Leeds United style meltdown. In illustration, the Roscommon county board recently announced that they were in deficit to the tune of €250,000. Of course Roscommon tend to do bad news better than anyone else, but the tale is cautionary nonetheless.

On the other side of the player militancy coin from simple matters of training gear, meals and gym memberships, is the rather more complex world of intellectual property and image rights. So while, in keeping with its new market-savvy modus operandi, the GAA sold advertising, sponsorship, exclusive access and TV rights to lucrative effect, the GPA understandably sought a piece of the pie for the very people who constituted the ingredients. Cue official GPA tie ins with telecommunications providers, and latterly, sports drink manufacturers. Cue conflict with the GAA who had entered into separate agreements with competitors of the companies linked with the GPA.

So when RTE announced the clampdown on “product placement” by players it was tempting to outline the conspiracy. RTE, aware of the increasingly competitive environment in sports broadcasting occasioned by the emergence of Setanta as well as the increasing presence of TG4 and keen to preserve the ‘special relationship’ with the GAA in light of any future diversification of broadcasting rights, were surely only too happy to do the association’s bidding and stamp down on the GPA’s impertinence.

By falling into line with Croke Park against a threat to the GAA’s commercial interests, RTE could challenge the players to withdraw their services from after match interviews altogether. Such an action, bearing in mind the Cork hurlers, would be eminently imaginable. The players carry the public’s goodwill in affairs like this. GAA fans are well aware of the commitment their heroes must give to bring success in the modern era and have rarely proved grudging of a few euros finding their way into players’ back pockets in return. If these few euros are coming direct from companies happy to pay for a slice of the dream, rather than being siphoned away from the grassroots, then all the better.
The GPA has never spoke the language of high Mammon, but has rather been resolutely clear that its intention is merely to earn adequate reward, within reason, for what the players contribute. They also contribute to player welfare funds and other worthwhile schemes. The GAA would do well to ensure that the players are “looked after”, and are not treated with the contempt of mediaeval serfs, as, for all the grandeur of Croke Park, the turnstiles don’t click to the promise of fine architecture.


Yesterday’s Leinster Football Championship matches, and those that have preceded it in the province thus far this year, proved that for another year the All-Ireland winners will not come from Leinster. There was little to worry football’s main contenders on show yesterday, and only Kildare, fitfully, seemed able to grow to fill the Jones’ Road arena. Laois stole a game from an Offaly team that didn’t want to win, their farcical shooting costing them a game that a limp Laois barely had the wherewithal to take from them. Mick O’Dwyer’s men have the talent to improve considerably however.

Westmeath displayed their inherent ordinariness, only Dessie Dolan carrying any spark, and after last years electric surge of emotion and opportunism a return to the ranks of the also-rans seems inevitable, and there’ll be little Paidi can do about it.

That the province’s last two champions could be so average with largely the same teams as won those titles demonstrates that, for all those victories will forever resonate in the respective counties, and for all that the achievement of them was glorious and commendable, the current mediocrity of the province puts their true worth in sharp perspective.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Season's Greatest Comeback in Full

ASTRO LEAGUE DIV.5: FC Hollywood 5-5 Bucky Ramblers

FC Hollywood completed an astonishing second half comeback when Enda Mulry converted a controversial penalty with almost the last kick of the game to earn a draw scarcely imaginable at half time.

Ramblers appeared to be coasting to a comfortable victory at the break, leading 4-2 after a first half in which Hollywood, listless and disorganised, seemed keen to hand over the three points on a plate. Hollywood began the game a goal to the good, due to Ramblers inability to provide a satisfactory ball. Indeed, there would not have been a ball to play with at all had Hollywood keeper Tommy Martin not cleverly purloined one from Grove Pool on the neighbouring pitch. It was not to be Martin’s last contribution to this incredible contest…

The athletic keeper appeared to take all leave of his senses when bounding from his goal early on only to flap clownishly at the cross. Ramblers greedily snaffled up the gift and Hollywood, with only a lame Daire Lynam on the bench, sensed a long evening ahead.

The Oranginos went behind when a speculative Ramblers ball eluded defensive lynchpins Damien Ryan and John O’Donnell, and was rifled home off the post.

Hollywood did their best to offer resistance, Richie Mc Evoy and Mulry combining to deliver a cross that just eluded dashing front man Killian Buckley. It was but brief respite for Hollywood.

In the space of five minutes they found themselves 4-1 down, the third goal deflecting wickedly past Martin, the fourth the result of slack marking at the back post, Ramblers rotund auxiliary man poking it home, and, it seemed, laying to rest Hollywood’s ailing hopes.

But such a conclusion ignored Hollywood’s famous fighting spirit…

Mulry gave the men in orange a lifeline just before the break with a wickedly spinning shot, but the real drama was soon to follow.

In a daring tactical manoeuvre, Hollywood switched the cripple Lynam into goal for the second half, allowing Martin outfield and creating an extra sub. Martin initially went into defence, but his ample presence could not prevent Ramblers taking what appeared to be an unassailable lead shortly after the break, Lynam seemingly deceived by the dimensions of the goal.

And then, the miracle….

Hollywood had thrown caution to the wind, and the game took on a thrilling end to end complexion, Lynam saving the Oranginos on several occasions before, following good work from Ryan and McEvoy, Martin lashed home a ferocious left footed volley to bring some doubt to proceedings.

Ramblers pushed on looking to kill the game, but were soon stung again. Mulry brought the ball out of defence on the left flank before lobbing it towards Martin on the same wing. The multi-talented Donegalman brought the ball under control, then feinting to cross, shimmied, Cruyff-like past the left back before clipping the ball square to the onrushing Mulry who stroked the ball home clinically.

Game on!

Hollywood’s courageous comeback was completed on the stroke of full time. Ryan delivered a free kick into a Ramblers penalty area teeming with bodies grappling for position. The referee blew his whistle, awarding a penalty for a foul on O‘Donnell, to the consternation of Ramblers shell-shocked rearguard. Mulry nervelessly tucked the spot kick home to claim the unlikeliest of points on a night of high drama at St.Andrews.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

TSA's Top 10 Super Summer Hits!

Aside from the Istanbul business, the Scottish Cup Final on Saturday and the play-offs top flight football has largely packed its diamond encrusted suitcase and is currently stuck in an airport queu waiting to go on its holliers. But fear not, sports fans! The disappearance of the football behemoth from our view allows "other" sports to scuttle into the light and, for a few short months at least, enjoy the oxygen of publicity. This summer promises much, so, being a Hornby-esque male, I am condemned to present my top ten confrontations of the summer in snappy list format......

1. British & Irish Lions v New Zealand
Don't get me wrong, New Zealand is a beautiful country, I've seen Lord of the Rings you know; the mountains, lakes, glaciers, stunning really. But playing rugby against them, for seven weeks, in the New Zealand winter, with all them All Black types out to get you? No thanks! Ok, so Napoleon marched on Moscow with a smaller army than Clive Woodward is bringing (I mean c'mon, Alistair Campbell, really!), but look what happened to him.
Frankly I don't see how the Lions can win; the English are too old, the Welsh are too fancy and the Irish are off the boil. But its still rugby's biggest and best carnival and should be tremendous entertainment.

2.Armagh v Kerry
If the draw goes according to plan (Kerry should win Munster easily again, Ulster will prove as much of a minefield as ever, particularly if Peter Canavan stays fit for Tyrone) these two will meet in the All-Ireland Final. Kerry's galvanisation under Jack O'Connor was largely in response to the upping of the ante by the Ulster powers (especially in terms of physicality and brawn) and it was one of the disappointments of last year that they never got to test themselves against Armagh or Tyrone. Both teams are blessed with superlative footballing talents: the likes of 'Gooch' Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin for Kerry, Stephen McDonnell, Ronan Clarke and Oisin McConville for Armagh. If they do meet, lets hope its the ball players who decide it.

3. The Ashes: England v Australia
This summer's first Ashes test at Lords is the most oversubscribed cricket test in the history of the venerable old ground. Basically, its the top two test nations (as per the ICC rankings) facing each other. But more than that, it is the litmus test of England's cricketing revival, one that they have been itching for since winning the last Ashes test in Sydney in 2003 and beating Australia over one-day in last years ICC Champions Trophy. Even more than that though, they will be using as ammunition the years of humiliation that the Aussies have rubbed in since 1986-87. And no-one rubs in humiliation quite like the Australians. They make the word "ordinary" sound like the grossest offence known to man.
Watch out for Andrew Flintoff attempt to recreate 1981 and all that.

4.Roger Federer v Anyone....?
How events unfold at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon can seem like two completely different sports. Roger Federer went out at the French Open last 32 stage to Gustavo Kuerten in 2004 then cakewalked Wimbledon. Young Spaniard Rafael Nadal could win the French, but even a combination of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt together would struggle to rob the brilliant Swiss of another Wimbledon. Tim Henman will progress further in his metamorphosis into Jeremy Bates.

5. Cork v Kilkenny
Ok, our familiarity with this one is in danger of breeding contempt, but there is ample fascination in seeing how the kingpins match up this year, as well as some disappointment that only Waterford have an outside chance of disturbing either. Cork were awesome at the semi-final and final stage last year, and are crucially stronger than anyone in the half back line- O hAilpin, Curran and Gardiner complement each other so well- and in midfield, with the hard running of Kenny and Jerry O'Connor. Kilkenny too possess potential all time greats in Shefflin, JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh, and if Brian Cody unleashes the latter in the forward areas he could make the difference.

6.Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees
I know, I know, Baltimore currently lead the American League East by two games from the Red Sox and the Yankees are a further two behind, but given that there is another 5000 games to go, I expect these two to, at some point, recreate last seasons epic battles in regular season and playoffs. Boston will want to start catching up on their rivals' vastly more ample honour roll, and the Yankees $200 million payroll insists that they stop them.

7.Woods v Els v Mickelson v Singh v Goosen
Its all about the Big Five in this year's British Open, joy of joys, at the Old Course in St Andrews. Woods has given warning that he may be about to reclaim the undisputed heavyweight belts, but I have a sneaky feeling the Big Easy won't be too far away after last year's disappointments.
Padraig Harrington could soon be heading for the Colin Montgomerie/Jimmy White award for gallant failure if he doesn't pick up a major soon.

8.Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tsyzu
Likely to be one of Sky's last big boxing nights, as Frank Warren appears to be riding Amir Khan's coattails back to ITV. Hatton has been a big draw locally for some time, but has struggled to gain international credibility through the cailber of his opponents. The Russian-born Australian is likely to be much too strong in this contest for the IBF and WBC light-welterweight titles.

9. Lance Armstrong v France
As in the country's terrain, for an unprecedented seventh Tour win, and also to see whether in his final Tour he can win the hearts and minds which have resolutely failed to accept his greatness.

10. Ireland v Israel
Yes I know, I know, but football just won't go away. Just as Brian Kerr appeared to be able to do no wrong after the draw in Paris, so the concession of a late equaliser in Israel raised again the question about the unity of purpose between team and management. The players frankly didn't look able or comfortable carrying out Kerr's conservative gameplan. This match would have provided a crucial dress rehearsal for what were expected to be the key home games later in the year, but now represents a banana skin on which Ireland are well capable of slipping, especially with the players' minds on the beach. Spare a thought for Ireland's Newcastle contingent, whose Intertoto Cup campaign begins on 2 July- hardly enough time to work up a nice base tan....

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Celtic Collapse All Too Predictable

My initial thoughts on Celtic's shocking capitulation in the dying minutes of yesterday's final SPL game against Motherwell at Fir Park were that the Hoops' sudden and spectacular demise brought readily to mind that of Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National. The logic for this comparison would tend to suggest an inexplicability, as if the fall had come without hint or warning.

Of course, in any football match a single goal lead is a flimsy guarantee, no matter how feeble and unthreatening the opposition. What gives lie to the suggestion that yesterday's events were shocking in some way is the fact that, in light of Celtic's season prior to that point, the events of the last five minutes were entirely predictable.

Essentially this season, Celtic have been playing seventy minute football. This phenomenon is a product of the age of Celtic's core players, Martin O'Neill's loyal footsoldiers: Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, John Hartson- all over 30 years old, all in key positions, none possessing natural pace even in their prime. In their twilight years the deployment of all in the same team created the cumulative effect of making the team seem unwieldy, pedestrian, and most crucially this season, without the legs to play ninety minutes of competitive football.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider one of O'Neill's key management techniques. It has been noted repeatedly during his managerial career how he has produced extraordinary performance levels from seemingly ordinary players. He created an environment where his players were empowered, where the character of the dressing room was resolute and where the trust that existed between players and management was sacrosanct.

O'Neill imbued this sense of solidarity through unwavering faith in his players, or rather those that embodied the values he required. If a player's form was poor, O'Neill would not heed the press or supporters' calls for that player to be dropped, but would rather persist with that player in the belief that when the player came good, the bond of trust with his manager would be reinforced, and the squad's character further embellished. Examples of this are to found in particular with Thompson, Hartson and Rab Douglas.

Having created this principal of loyalty to his key players, O'Neill was subsequently strangled by it. He was unable to regenerate his squad in these key areas, either lacking the heart to do so, or genuinely finding that with the scant transfer funds available, any replacements would be inferior.

His core group then can only have grown complacent, guaranteed their first team places despite the obvious deterioration in their abilities, if even only in their stamina levels. Yet O'Neill could not, or would not, countenance change. Fresh legs were only for chasing games.

And so to Fir Park.

Anyone with even half an eye on Celtic's fortunes this season must have seen the blueprint for yesterday's denouement before.

To catalogue:
- late goals conceded against Barcelona, Milan and in Donetsk in the Champions League
- the League Cup extra-time defeat against Rangers
- even in heroic victory at Ibrox in April, the struggle of the final twenty minutes when a bereft Rangers team were allowed a sniff of a result
-the home defeats against Aberdeen and Hibernian, the inability to push on in the home loss against the latter being perhaps the closest preview to yesterday's debacle

These are only the tangible occasions when the lack of legs in the team cost results, even in victory there was scarely a performance all season where Celtic surged to the finish line.

If, as the current whispers would tend to suggest, this is Martin O'Neill's valedictory season as Celtic manager, then he will be correctly be readily beatified in the Celtic managerial pantheon to sit between Jock Stein and Willie Maley. His retrieval of the club from genuine laughing stock to its place back at somewhere approaching Europe's top table guarantees his legend. As hard as his loss would hit Celtic however, there is some evidence to suggest that, with the root and branch reform required in Celtic's first team, perhaps the natural shelf-life of O'Neill's team has culminated at the same time as that of its manager.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

McManaman - A Very Modern Football Career

When the big kahunas at Manchester City sat down this week for some end of season stocktaking, probably the first item of spoilt goods to be dispatched was the shaggy haired Scouser loitering in the vague vicinity of the treatment room. Steve McManaman was always what is known as a "luxury" player, but for a club with Manchester City's Himalayan debt, the presence of a "luxury" player who rarely played was too luxurious by far for any self-respecting purple-faced bank manager.

"Get thee to a mock-tudor Cheshire mansion, ye malingering rapscallion!!"

And so, it would seem, ends a very modern football career.

McManaman, in fairness, has made it clear that he would not seek a new contract at City if he could not prove his fitness, and has made noises to the effect that he may retire. He alluded to this last January: "I do not want to carry on playing if I have an injury and if I knew I was injured I wouldn't sign a new contract. That is not my style and I don't think my reputation deserves it either."

All the same, McManaman's curious career carries many characteristics only found in the modern game. In early "Spice Boy" years, he was part of the footballer-as-popstar phenomenon which saw the game's callow youths occupy as much poster time in the pages of Just Seventeen as in Shoot. At this stage the image of the slacker, the Champagne Charlie, was established.

Of course the playboy footballer is by no means exclusively a modern phenemenon, but the 1990's generation had more in common with Take That than with Best, Worthington and their ilk.

McManaman's salad days were spent in Madrid, where in his first few seasons (and before the Galactico sickness took hold of Franco's XI) he was a central figure, culminating with a glorious volleyed goal to seal the European Cup in 2000 against Valencia.

Marginalised by the bloating of Real's squad and made well aware that he was not part of their on-field plans, McManaman dug his heels in.

As a player who'd come of age as football bathed in Rupert Murdoch's largesse, McManaman was obscenely wealthy. He also had a contract that he was quite prepared to sit out. He and Robbie Fowler became as famous for their property portfolios as their football.

My abiding image of this time is of interviews with McManaman in Madrid, he understandably tanned and smug, backdropped by a vast marble fire-place and interspersed with clips of knockabout training japes with Zinedine and Ronny. "That man has it made", you were meant to think.

So the modern footballer lurched towards retirement, not before finding another foolish club to pay his mortgages, rich beyond the dreams of the thousands of pros who retired penniless after careers ten times as hard-wrought, if not as glorious, and clouded with the pervading impression of a fine talent who just didn't need to play football any more.

P.S. One of the best goals I ever saw scored in person was by McManaman for Liverpool in the UEFA Cup tie against Celtic at Parkhead in 1997. A mazy dribble culminating in a curling shot to top left corner, the Celtic defence backed off unforgivably, making the goal, ironically, look easy.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

I Quite Fancy an Old-Fashioned FA Cup Final Saturday

"....And here comes the Arsenal team bus now; leaving the hotel, bedecked in red balloons and ribbons. Some small children, cheering them as they pass. I expect there'll be a few nervous card games in progress; there's kit-man Jimmy Stalwart, what a character....oh look, a seagull!... now Garth Crooks is speaking to Frank McLintock...."

Of the many charges on the rap-sheet that football moralists lay at Sky Sports' door, the interminable and bloated pre-match coverage afforded the most colourless fixtures is one of the most commonplace. But the phenomenon of two hours of clip packages, meandering build up and punditry as sharp as butter was not originally thrust upon the football public by Richard Keys' hairy hands; when it comes to making a fair day out of a kickabout, the BBC's traditional F.A. Cup Final broadcast cast the mould.

The BBC has trimmed its pre-match coverage to just the two hours of Doves-soundtracked "Road to Cardiff" clips and old codger interviews, in a weary nod to the competition's own diminished stature. Its one of those things that those of us who remember the F.A. Cup in its pomp are referring to when we lament its current status, appearing as it does to be only a couple of rungs above Masters Football in the priorities of the major clubs.

When I was a boy Cup Final day was the season's pinnacle, football people's Big Day Out.

And it was a bacchanalial joy for those watching on television. It seemed that no sooner had Philip Schofield and (the lovely) Sarah Greene pulled down the shutters on Going Live, than Des Lynam and co. were spooning on the atmosphere, crowd scenes of excited, rosetted proles, footage of players in suits and white ties inspecting the hallowed turf, waving to family, and of course the bizarrely compelling shots of the team buses, winding their way towards Wembley.

This kind of thing was bread and butter for the Beeb. The template for the Big Event was used again and again, and is the basis for all coverage of Events of National Importance. The Trooping of the Colour; royal weddings, funerals, tea-parties; the Last Night at the Proms; and of course the gilt-edged portfolio of major sporting events.

The principle of "never mind the quality, feel the length" applied. Hour upon rear-numbing hour. Any event that could be wrapped up in less than three hours, frankly, was not worth bothering the OB unit for. Interviews were to be with either normal people (the little, flag waving, ruddy-cheeked rabble whose dull lives were being illuminated by whatever pageantry it was that they were beholding) or heritage types, the woodbine chewing Stans and Teds whose heroics of yesteryear were weaved into the tapestry of the occasion.

Holding it all together was the commentator, and what a task those brave men undertook. Endlessly filling in, dryly chuckling at the antics of the aforementioned excitable rabble, laden down with 'interesting' facts, they accompanied us through these long hours of occasion-building.

"....only a little over two and a half hours till kick off now, and here now come the team coaches, police escort helpfully provided by the Cardiff Police Force; incidentally led by Sergeant Jack Evans, who it turns out is a big Manchester United fan- lets hope he doesn't divert the Arsenal bus down any cul de sacs (muted guffaw)..... now back to Garth who's found Arsenal's No.1 canine fan!......"

Great men. Heroes. Exhausted, they would weep with relief at the swelling of brass band and many thousand voices for Abide with Me, bringing closure as it did to their herculean task of navigating the soporific hours.

So we'll make do with two measly hours of build-up this year, a frankly pitiful amount of time to create the required amount of pomp and circumstance.

Maybe that's what's gone wrong with the F.A. Cup! Perhaps by screening an episode of Father Dowling Mysteries instead of old footage of Charlie George and Keith Houchen, the BBC are undermining the old trophy, starving her of the sweet sustenance of interminable pageantry. What's a top manager to think? "Father Dowling Mysteries is it? Send out the reserves!"

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