Monday, August 29, 2005

TWTWTW: And Then There Was Three

Its funny how fond we are of certainties. Its got something to do with an age old desire to define our shifting world as it stands now as representing the ultimate truth. When stock markets surge as in the 1920s or 1980s, bullish speculators speak of continuous boom. Or the way we look around at our modern fandangles and what-nots, and feel ourselves to be humanity most advanced incarnation. Like we did in 1900.

In 2002 and 2003, those who watched gaelic football spoke of a northern hegemony which would cast its shadow on the carefree south for many years, the seriousness and intensity of Tyrone and Armagh seeming almost unfair to the rest.

Then in 2004, as the beasts were slain by the gallants of Fermanagh and Mayo, lighter in frame and fleeter of foot because, we thought, of precisely the fact that they didn't spend so many hours chained up in wintry gymnasiums.

And now the new orthodoxy. The Big Three. The Elite. The creme de la creme. Three teams so far ahead of the rest of the pack that the three thrashings just handed out by them to erstwhile contenders were so inevitable, just the way of things now, and surely for some time to come.

Certainties, like empires, crumble just after their strongest point, of course, but lets indulge in the sheer brutal truth of the triocracy of Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh.

There was a little spell in the earlier part of this decade when it was felt that Sam Maguire was attainable for, say, eight or so teams. The past four seasons have seen the evolution of this new elite come to the point, now, where the past three champions have never been so far over the horizon from their competitors. The tempatation is to wail, and indeed, to gnash one's teeth for good measure at things like this. But gaelic football has always had elites. This is not the first time preseason punditry could discount ninety percent of the challengers. Was the championship any more open in the seventies, in the era of Dublin and Kerry, or in the sixties in the time of Galway's three-in-a-row, Sean O'Neill's Down, and of course Kerry?

Anyway....what's bothered me about much of the blue sky thinking in recent years about the state of the game is, with particular reference to the northern teams, the belief that they are from a different breed, that they want it more; that there is some deep, and dark, drive that comes from their surroundings and gives them an unfair advantage over more, well, well-adjusted southerners. With their weights and their blanket defences and their dark arts and the sledging and the whole furrowed browedness of it all.

Now of course they've brought much to the table in these areas that can be said to hallmark these teams. But what struck me over the last few weeks while watching Armagh and Tyrone stride stealthily away from their Leinster opponents, and its something that Kerry are always given credit for is (now stick with me on this, its a crazy theory) that, frankly, they've just got some truly fantastic footballers. I know, I know, its too easy isn't?

How many acres of rain forest could be spared if this got out? Tyrone beat the Dubs on Saturday because of Eoin Mulligan's devastating finishing, Stephen O'Neill's flawlessness, Brian Dooher and Brian McGuigan's class, Sean Cavanagh's spearing running, Ryan McMenamin-the angel with a dirty face- and so on. Armagh hammered Laois because Ronan Clarke and Stephen McDonnell were unplayable, McGeeney, McGrane and Bellew unbeatable.

So when we come to write our next great unifying theory of football, maybe the certainty we'll hold, the orthodoxy we'll propose, is that, it seems, the team with the best players usually wins.
And right now the big three have all the best ideas.


Could tales of Alex Ferguson's demise have been greatly exaggerated? The often held view that United is a crumbling edifice, that the cantankerous old Scot could no longer have the drive or energy to create another winning team, may turn out yet to be true, but there was a glint of something familiar about Ferguson after yesterday's win over Newcastle. "It was the kind of performance I've experienced when we've been going for something...there was a solid platform". The challenge is now greater than ever, but the new blue foe does not appear to have revealed a lack of stomach for battle at Old Trafford.

A United supporting friend made the point to me at the end of last season, in a discussion on life after Roy Keane (and the seemingly grim reality of it) that rather than looking to replace like with like, that United's new beating heart already wore a red shirt- he believed Wayne Rooney would provide that unmistakeable edge that made champions. This young season has demonstrated that there might just be something in that. The boy wonder looks more like a man all the time, and there is no doubting that a no bullshit winner resides in that pugnacious frame.

F#cking yes, indeed....

....Read more!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Strachan's Lieutenants Shoot Him in the Foot

It is one of the feebler excuses in sport to have to resort to, and it doesn't cover adequately the explanations for Celtic's difficult opening to the season, but hasn't Gordon Strachan had a rotten run of luck? Starting with his predecessor's final game, when the SPL title was dropped like a bar of soap in a prison shower, and with equally dire consequences- namely that his ill-prepared and new-look side ran into a mid-summer central European ambush in the form of Artmedia Bratislava (who last night, to rub salt in the wounds, progressed to the Champions League proper via a penalty shoot out victory over Partizan Belgrade). On the same night Chris Sutton, arguably one of the most influential players at the club, sustained a facial injury following a collision with his own team mate, Neil Lennon, which has ruled him out since.

Then, after several weeks of steady rehabilitation, Strachan's team encountered their first big test at Ibrox last Saturday. All seemed to be going well, with Celtic playing in a controlled fashion and making the better chances, until Alan Thompson's temperament, an increasing liability in recent times, propelled him like an Exocet across the Govan sky and into the hind quarters of Nacho Novo. As bad as the tackle was, all inside Ibrox anticipated another in the traditional slew of yellow cards- that was until referee Stuart Dougal decided that he fancied some of the column inches for himself.

There was the inevitable scorn from Celtic supporters for a refereeing decision in their blue opponents favour, but, aside from ruminations on Dougal's penchant for funny handshakes and aprons, there was as much scorn for one of Strachan's senior pros, in giving the referee the opportunity to send him off, letting the new manager down just exactly when he needed him most.

The tempestuous denouement of Neil Lennon's afternoon may have been a peripheral issue as far as the run of the game was concerned, given that the midfielder was sent off after the final whistle had blown. However, not for the first time the captain's stroppiness was ill-fitting. Rather than demonstrate by example the resolve and doggedness that would have been needed to at least dig a point out of the mess, Lennon's main contributions (official-baiting and general snarling aside) were to back off from Marvin Andrews to the point where the big centre-half- not renowned for his Hoddle-like passing ability- had time to stroke a through ball into Dado Prso for the crucial opening goal, and a general inability thereafter to influence a fightback in his usual style.

It might be stretching the definition of luck a little to suggest that the malfunction of two his key players was simple poor fortune on the part of the manager, but Strachan desperately needed, and, frankly, deserved, big games from the men who had helped subjugate Rangers so effectively over the previous half-decade, at least to provide example to Saturday's hooped debutants. Thompson's loss cost so much because the team's subsequent unfamiliarity with each other precluded the kind of organisation and wagon-circling that achieving a result would have necessitated.

It was felt at the outset of this season that Strachan's immediate fortunes (and in the short fuse world of matters Celtic, immediacy is key) would be greatly dependent on how well Martin O'Neill's remaining lieutenants played their part in assisting the evolution and development of the new side. Well, we'll find out how true that assessment was now.

Sans Messrs Thompson and Lennon, and now Hartson and Sutton through injury, and indeed with Bobo Balde's future still in doubt, the term "new-look" will be more fitting than Strachan could ever have expected, and one fears that the seismic changes currently in place may take some time to settle. Whether Strachan (who, contrary to the popular media line, has been largely the recipient of tolerance and patience from the Celtic support) will still be there when that happens remains to be seen.

....Read more!

Monday, August 22, 2005

TWTWTW: No Comparison, Please

We touched upon it last week, when looking at how the English nation had, in its enthusiasm for the Ashes series, elevated cricket and all its charms in a favourable comparison with the vulgarity of modern English football, and how the sports in question were being used as bullet points in a broader and regular soul-searching debate. The desire to compare and champion a sport over another is something that TSA finds as worthwhile as a Blur v Oasis debate, and indeed, it tends to reveal more about the prejudices of the speaker than any fundamental truths about the sports in question.

A football person will present with confidence Brazil's 1970 World Cup winners as examples of a sporting entity which transcended mere excellence, and reached into the realms of beauty and art, in a way that no other could begin to match, as concusive proof of his sport's innate superiority. A rugby man will point to the heaving atmosphere of a great six nations victory, and see in the courage, strength and resolve values unsurpassable elsewhere. A hurling fanatic will simply lay down his sport's breathtaking combination of sheer artistry, speed and bravery and feel the need to say no more. The cricket buff will take you patiently through the four days of the recent second Ashes test happy that the gradually unfolding drama, the grit and flair, the strategic complexity, will make his truth self evident.

Of course they are all right. Just why sport colours the human soul the way it does, and has done since antiquity, is a subject for greater minds than this one to ponder. But the expression and fulfilment in sport of the values and virtues that one holds most dear partially explains why the characters in the paragraph above hold these views so strongly. More than that though, sport in its most valuable role inculcates those values into the person from their earliest involvement in it. The sport maketh the man, as much as the man maketh his sport.


Anyway what was the point of this wooly rumination? Oh yes. So poor old football's been getting it in the neck this week again. Many of you will have spent the afternoon in a hostelry with two sports displaying showpiece occasions. On one forty-two inch plasma screen the Premiership's two top dogs, Chelsea and Arsenal, met in the season's first heavyweight clash, and presented a tense, cagey and uninspiring contest decided by the most valueless of fluke goals. On another, the All-Ireland Hurling semi-final between Galway and Kilkenny was unfolding itself and revealing its credentials for inclusion in the annals of the sport.

In a summer of 'greats' and 'bests ever' yesterday's match at Croke Park sits easily, the resurgence of Galway to the top table and the belief and desire they displayed, accompanied by the majesty of the hurling ensuring that. Over in Stamford Bridge Chelsea brought £75 million of talent OFF THEIR BENCH, and still the overarching impression of the contest was of a dripping, damp squib.

But so what? Football's international pre-eminence and financial hegemony in sport mean it is an obvious target for those speaking for other codes who wish to use its many blemishes as sticks to beat it with as well as buttresses for their own games. GAA followers are perhaps most guilty of this, the heady confection of cultural and post-colonial baggage, the shiny sword of amateurism and fierce parochial pride causing many to feel the need use its many glorious high-days as anti-soccer propoganda.

I think it was Pat Spillane, when arguing several years ago for the relaxation of rule 42, who contradicted this tendency best when calling on fellow Gaels to express their confidence in their sports, and their singular ability to rouse the Irish soul by dispensing of the unflattering chip on their shoulder about the foreign game. Gaelic games as sports, rather than vehicles for culture wars, will truly come of age when they are allowed to exist as such. I believe this day is not far away.

Very many would argue that the decommissioning of Gaelic games from the cultural weapon arsenal would be impossible and indeed abhorrent. But it is TSA's contention, as someone whose sporting identity, like many of my countrymen, is equally represented at Lansdowne Road as at Croke Park, that the sooner prejudices in sport, whether its the bog-man Gah player, the rich boy rugger bugger or the flash mercenary soccer man, are dispensed with, the sooner we can get on with the game.

....Read more!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

TWTWTW: And What a Weekend It Was!

Was that the greatest weekend of sport ever? In terms of sheer couch-withering volume, breadth of options and, indeed, epic excitement, it will be hard beaten. Hell, there was so much to fit in that it spilled over into Monday, like some heaving gut in ill- advised speedos. There was so much to enjoy, that the normally suffocating Premiership's return was something of a footnote to the major stories.

So here are TSA's top moments of a top weekend.....

1. Eoin Mulligan's goal of the year
Well wasn't that worth waiting for? Eoin Mulligan hasn't been having the best of years, and indeed has more often than not found himself on the bench this season so far. It's been a handy pundits hook to refer to Peter Canavan and himself as master and apprentice, given that Canavan is a former teacher of Mulligan's and that the parallel seemed so apt as the two dovetailed so effectively in Tyrone's great journey of 2003; but it has almost been as if Canavan's limited contribution, through either injury or the desire of Mickey Harte to have the ultimate impact sub up his sleeve, has dulled Mulligan's famous zest, as if the pupil felt unworthy to occupy his master's robes. (My that is a handy hook to use! I can see why it caught on)

On Saturday Eoin Mulligan grasped the limelight with a vengeance. Croke Park generally throws up a few moments of visceral, eye-popping drama every year, but, in the maelstrom of Saturday's epic tussle, Mulligan's stunning goal was almost seizure inducing.

The ball inside. The burst to beat the defender. The turn, worthy of Nureyev. Look up, the first dummy bounce, away...look up again, the second dummy, this time of a fist pass inside, and through, and, well, you know the rest. The timing, as the match barrelled toward crescendo, was perfect, but what makes this goal so special was the fact of Mulligan's intuitive understanding of his role in such a classic afternoon, and his sense of occasion to pull it off.

His master must have been proud.

2. The Greatest Ashes Test Ever!!!...Vol.2
The English nation is in the grip of one of its regular re-evaluations of itself and its culture. This time the debate, boiled down, is Football v Cricket. Football is being seen to represent all that is bad about English society- greed, boorishness, the breakdown of moral values- and test cricket is increasingly being characterised as Jerusalem itself in England's green and pleasant land- reflecting the values of sportsmanship, hard graft, patience and skill that made Albion great.

All this has largely come to pass as a result of the nation's cricket team's swashbuckling assault on the hitherto invincible Australians. Last weekend's test at Old Trafford appeared to be following the script of the previous weekend's epic encounter at Edgbaston, with the English and their talisman Andrew Flintoff leaving the Australian's looking, at last, mortal and the packed corwd salivating for the victroy. But first the weather, and then Ricky Ponting's captain's innings saved the Aussies, underlining the dogged grit that this champions side are famous for. Ponting spent 6 hours at the crease on Monday, knocking 156, including 16 fours and one six, before gloving tiredly to Geraint Jones. Where Mulligan's goal was inspiration fitting the occasion, Ponting's stand was in spite of it, grimly denying the baying Old Trafford crowd the victory that seemed their right.

3.Philly does it again
Whether Phil Mickelson would have won the US PGA had play not been postponed overnight dur to bad weather is, of course, unknown. The 2004 Masters champion had looked wobbly on Sunday evening, and as the weather drew in and Mickelson led by a shot at four under, the champion could have been anyone from Mickelson, Thomas Bjorn and Steve Elkington a shot back, and Vijay Singh, Davis Love and Tiger Woods on two under- albeit Woods was in the clubhouse, he was in with a chance.

As popular as Mickelson is, many on this side of the Atlantic would have loved for Thomas Bjorn to eradicate memories of that disastrous 11 at the 17th which cost him the Surfit European Open at the K Club, and win this tournament. He very nearly forced at least a play-off when his birdie putt on 18 lippe dout, but it was Miceklson who dispelled any doubts about his character when he chipped from just off the green to two feet to set up the crucial, championship winning birdie.

4. The Great Lohan's (possible) Swansong
It was the clash of the old warhorses. Croke Park, All-Ireland semi-final day, Clare v Cork, Brian Lohan on Brian Corcoran. The talk had been (as it has been when Clare have been involved in recent seasons) that Lohan was finished, his torrid afternoon at the hands of Micheal Webster against Tipperary in Munster was surely the last sucker punch the old fighter could take.

As Clare came strong through the qualifier pool, so did Lohan. By Sunday, all eyes were on the head to head on the edge of the Clare square. Lohan, just when Clare needed him, was immense. Corcoran, in keeping with the rest of his team-mates as Clare swarmed maniacally, had barely room to breathe, never mind turn and strike. You couldn't imagine him pulling off his wonderful drop-shot goal from the Waterford game on Sunday. And every time Lohan dispossessed his man, or swatted the sliotar to safety, or plucked it from the air, Davy Fitzgerald in goal punched the air, and the Clare folk howled with approval. It was all in vain of course, Clare burning out to the wick and Cork (having to substitute Corcoran and Ronan Curran no less), as their deeper talent and younger legs would suggest, coming through thanks to the inspiration of John Gardiner, Joe Deane and Jerry O'Connor, but if it is to be Lohan's last hurrah, then the famous red helmet can be placed on the mantle with pride.

5. Paula Radcliffe makes amends
In Ireland, having witnessed the tribulations and glories of Sonia O'Sullivan's great career, we know all about the fragile and occasionally heartbreaking reality of women's long distance running. Paula Radcliffe's horrendous capitulation in last years Olympics in the heat of Athens was desperately sad, especially as Olympic gold in the marathon appeared to be the world record holder's for the taking.

Radcliffe made amends in the rather less oppressive environment of Helsinki on Sunday with a typically brave run, hitting the front early and breaking her rivals in the last third of the race to win gold, a more fitting image for the great British runner than last year's dispiriting collapse.

And the worst moment of the weekend....

I feel a bit cheated. You see in my Premiership preview I tipped Middlesbrough to be a force this season, possibly finishing as high as sixth, and certainly taking on the bigger names without fear. So when Middlesbrough got a corner kick in the last minutes of Saturday's season opener at home against Liverpool, with the game scoreless despite Middlesbrough being a man down, it looked like a bit of a chance for Steve McClaren's men to get a few mwn in the box and try to snatch an unlikely, but crucial win.

Instead McClaren ordered the kick taken short, kept in the corner and time played out. At home! In the last seconds of injury time! With the game scoreless! In the first game of the season!

And people wonder why the cricket has captured the English back pages since the weekend.

....Read more!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Great TSA Premiership Preview Thingy- Part Three

And so finally to two success-starved footballing heartlands, the north-east and the midlands, and the south coast's one representative. Some of the division's most passionate fans are here, but for the most part they have been largely denied the success that their counterparts in other regions have enjoyed.


Oh dear. Its not been much fun to be a Newcastle United supporter in recent times. Since the unseemly removal of Bobby Robson last year the bad PR for the Magpies hasn't stopped. The Souness-Bellamy affair was foul to behold, but in keeping with a club who have lately become synonymous with football's sleaziest face, through the misbehaviour of their players and the crassness of Freddie Shepherd and his board.

Graeme Souness has never convinced as a manager, and his appointment as a supposed no-nonsense disciplinarian enforcer ignored the fact of his track record for conflict with players and the resultant unrest which that caused. The Scotsman's reputation as a hard man seems to be more important than the welfare of his club, as evidenced by notorious tales of crunching tackles in training five a side matches.

The sense of fracture at St. James' Park could be significantly eased at a stroke however, if Souness pulls of the coup of signing Michael Owen from Real Madrid. At the time of writing, Newcastle are reported to be in with a chance of securing the England striker's signature, and the lack of interest so far from the big four clubs allied to Owen's increasing desperation to ensure firt team football in this World Cup year could play into Newcastle's hands.

As things stand, following the departures of Bellamy and Patrick Kluivert, and Shola Ameobi's suspension, Newcastle go into Sunday's opener with Highbury with only Alan Shearer as a recognised striker. Souness would appear to be one of the favouites for an early sacking by Newcastle's trigger happy board, and with Manchester United and Arsenal to play in August, a poor start could make him worth a punt.

Verdict: 13th. Too much unrest and instability still pervades for progress to be made, although signing Owen would give cause for reconsideration.

Makes 'em tick: Scott Parker should be a good signing and will be desperate to make up for his wasted time at Chelsea. He and Emre should bring improvement in the midfield area.

What he'll say: "I have the full support of the chairman and the board"

What he means: "Maybe if I grew my moustache back I would've kept my job"


Its onwards and upwards for Boro, the progressive chairmanship of Steve Gibson is finally being rewarded through the careful stewardship of Steve McClaren and they are at the moment established as the north-east's top club.

After several seasons of slow, dour progress in which McClaren built a solid defensive outfit, last season saw Middlesbrough advance through the recuitment of expensive strikers such as Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and experiencd midfielders such as Ray Parlour. This season the explosive Aiyegbeni Yakubu has been added to the mix. Despite the departure of Bolo Zenden to Liverpool, Boro would appear to have a perfect mix of experience (Schwarzer, Southgate, Ehiogu, Boateng, Parlour, Mendieta, Viduka and Hasselbaink etc.) and exciting youth (Stewart Downing, James Morrison and Stuart Parnaby all made significant breakthroughs last season).

Middlesbrough also have another European campaign to look forward to, and showed last year that they were capable of handling the distraction, reaching as they did the last sixteen. Regular European football can only add to the club's burgeoning status. The leap to top four remains too prohibitive, but they will be in the shake up for the best of the rest.

Verdict: 5th. Nice balance, and a settled feel about the club.

Makes 'em tick: George Boateng. The unsung Dutchman's steel in midfield has been key to Middlesbrough's rising graph of progress.

What he'll say: "Despite my invovlement with England, I am totally focussed on the job at Boro"

What he means: "Well once I take over from Sven, I really will have to get a mistress"


Well it can't turn out worse than the last time, can it? Sunderland's exit from the Premiership in 2003 saw them exit the division on 19 points, after a run of fifteen defeats. Things looked grim for the Mackems, massive debts and the necessity to sell off as much of their underachieving squad as possible seemed to doom them to a long spell in the doldrums.

So Mick McCarthy's achievement in winning the Championship only two seasons later and gaining reentry into the Premiership was highly laudable. It was even more laudable when you consider the lack of funds available, as a glance at the bare bones nature of Sunderland's title winning squad will evidence,

The problem for Sunderland is that this squad is largely being asked to compete in the Premiership, and the lack of depth and absence of proven top flight mettle would seem to doom them from the off. Like their fellow promoted clubs, Sunderland will rely on one or two more established clubs having a nightmare season, a la Southampton, to have any chance of staying up. Otherwise, with only some promising youngsters like Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Elliott, and the guile of Julio Arca offering hope, the north-east will almost certainly lose its third representative.

Verdict: 18th. Could be a long, hard season. Team spirit and a raucous home crowd will only mean so much at this level.

Makes 'em tick: Julio Arca. The dashing Argentine is easily Sunderland's most accomplished player, and his loyalty in the face of transfer interest last season was a great boost for the Mackem's campaign.

What he'll say:"Its all in the past, I'm looking forward to going to Old Trafford"

What he means:"Where did I put that bacon-slicer..."


Another club mired in underachievement, Aston Villa seem a long way from their Ron Saunders era European Cup winning heyday in the early '80s, or even the early nineties when they were amongst the top three and played in Europe regularly.

The continued presence of Doug Ellis, now 81 and just recovered from triple heart bypass surgery, at the helm seems to weigh the club down, with anti-Ellis protests never far away (there has been talk of a potential takeover in the air). In a way the continued focus on boardroom issues takes some pressure off David O'Leary, a manager about whom the Villa faithful remain unconvinced.

The chief question which O'Leary's appointment begged was as to whether he would be able to achieve success without the aid of a healthy transfer fund. He has been operating under undeniably straightened circumstances, but unlike managers like David Moyes and Sam Allardyce has been unable to inspire his team to success beyond their means, and so has not raised his managerial cache.

Currently attempting to sign Milan Baros, Villa are in need of bolstering their attacking options. Kevin Phillips has been added to what looks quite a venerable forward and midfield division, if new include fellow new signing Patrick Berger, 32, and Nolberto Solano, 30. If they do sign Baros, will they be replacing one striker who saves his best form for international football (Darius Vassell) for another?

Verdict:14th. No serious investment and O'Leary does not seem capable of making them more than the sum of their parts.

Makes 'em tick:Juan Pablo Angel. The talented but inconsistent striker will have to hit a hot streak if Villa's fortunes are to improve.

What he'll say: "Obviously, as I say, at the end of the day, we've a small squad, lot of young boys, what can I say, etc., etc."

What he means:"They don't even have goldfish in the boardroom here"


Another club looking to make the next step. Having established themselves comfortably in the Premiership and returned statistics of four wins and two draws in their bitter derbies with Aston Villa, Birmingham will want to progress from being a grimly difficult proposition for anyone, but rather unpleasing on the eye, to a genuine top half force.

Securing the signature of Mikael Forssell and Walter Pandiani to accompany Emile Heskey up front makes for a more than decent forward line, and they will continue to be defensively stout with Maik Taylor, Kenny Cunningham and Matthew Upson forming a formidable triumvarate.

The problem for Birmingham is creativity. Much of the responsibility would seem to rest with Muzzy Izzet and David Dunn, the latter especially will be expected to progress on his youthful promise, and Jermaine Pennant also has talent to burn, if a troublesome off-field rap sheet.

It is hard to see much improvement from the Blues, and it seems that they will continue to be stodgy, but uninspiring and ultimately mediocre contenders

Verdict: 14th. Hard enough to beat to avoid trouble, but the pulses will only race when Villa are around.

Makes 'em tick: Kenny Cunningham. Defence is Birmingham's strength, and Ireland's captain is still the bedrock.

What he'll say:"I love being manager of Birmingham...."

What he means:"...the free porn is great"


The second greatest miracle of season 2004-05 was Liverpool's incredible Champions League victory. The greatest was West Brom's survival. OK, they survived on 34 points, signifying the ever-increasing chasm between the top and the bottom of the division, but the achievement was significant nonetheless.

What staying up means for West Brom as a club, in financial terms and in the opportunities it opens up to establish themselves is unquantifiable. There are three newly promoted teams coming in underneath West Brom in the pecking order, meaning they are now the bookies fourth favourites for relegation. Progress indeed.

Staying up also rehabilitated Bryan Robson's reputation as a manager. His stock had declined in his dismal last days at Middlesbrough, despite some fine achievements in his earlier days at the Riverside, to the point where England's former captain believed he may never work in management again.

Like all the other strugglers, West Brom's squad is thin and short of quality. For them to succeed Robert Earnshaw, Kanu and Junichi Inamoto will need to do well, and Robson will hope Zoltan Gera can continue his good form from last season.

Verdict: 17th. Last year's experience will stand them in good stead, and they should have just a little more than their rivals.

Makes 'em tick: Gera. Did the most of any one player to keep the Baggies up.

What he'll say: "We want to establish ourselves as a real force this year"

What he means:"Anyone fancy a pint"


And finally to the south coast. Pompey, shorn of their bitter rivals, and glad of it. Like Southampton the peculiar managerial set up didn't do them any favours last season.

Alain Perrin did well to steady the ship when he came in and it will be of interest to see how the frank Frenchman fares- certainly he will be more comfortable with the continental style director of football/coach arrangement with Velimir Zajec than Harry Redknapp was.

The loss of Yakubu could be serious however, as Portsmouth don't look full of goals. Lauren Robert is an undoubted talent, but infuriates to the same degree as he delights. Svetoslav Todorov is recovering only now from serious injury sustained on Portsmouth's arrival in the Premiership, before which he had been prolific, and Lomana Lua Lua is also around to amaze, but again frustrate.

Verdict: 15th. Experience should see them safe enough.

Makes 'em tick: Dejan Stefanovic. A reassuring presence at the back.

What he'll say: "Oo are zees Saints you speak of?"

What he means:"Can't get a nice creme brulee anywhere in this place"

....Read more!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Great TSA Premiership Preview Thingy!- Part Two

And so to the heartland of the Industrial revolution, cloth caps and whippets, dark Satanic mills and Hovis- and some of football's most powerful concerns.

The representation of the north-west of England in this season's Premiership (seven, the largest of any region, and it would have been eight had Preston come through their play-off final against West Ham) speaks of how football continues to carry the imprint of the late nineteenth century working class leisure explosion, when the industrial conurbations of the north of England embraced en mass the burgeoning professional game and created many of the clubs that remain English football's powerhouses to this day.


A season of seismic importance at Old Trafford. The fallout from the Glazer takeover has barely begun, and it will be key for United how much this issue dominates their news agenda. Will the ramifications of the new regime affect matters on-field (the transfer budget being one obvious concern), or will there be a period of boardroom calm to assist Alex Ferguson in his rebuilding process.

It's been hard to escape the sense over the last couple of seasons of an empire crumbling. Overtaken first by Arsenal, then by Chelsea, Ferguson has lost a great deal of his untouchable status in recent times. His awesome record and the scale of his achievements in 19 years at Old Trafford rightly provide a bulwark against the crashing tides of knee-jerk football opinion. However, he has spent a lot of money for diminishing returns, especially, and significantly for the club's prized global eminence, in Europe.

Last season's problem was a lack of goalscoring threat and the seemingly interminable goalkeeping question. Edwin van der Saar should be a shrewd solution to the latter, and an attacking division which includes names like van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs, Saha and Smith, as well as the addition of Soon-Ji Park can surely not continue to misfire.

Wayne Rooney would appear to be poised to reach for true greatness, bearing in mind that this is a World Cup year. How Ferguson blends the young Liverpudlian, van Nistelrooy (whose poor form can surely not continue) and Cristiano Ronaldo will be crucial. Van Nistelrooy's best form with United came when a 4-4-2 system was being deployed, whereas last season saw more of a 4-3-3 being used.

And, as has been the case for the past twelve years, so much will rest on the form of a Cobh Ramblers old boy in midfield, and his ability to drag his wracked body through another season.

VERDICT: 3rd- should be second given Arsenal's transitionary problems, but I'm not convinced United know how to best arrange their artillery up front, and there are rather a lot of questions about the direction of the club, post-Glazer, and in the twilight of Ferguson and Keane.

Makes 'em tick: Roy Keane. Far from going quietly into that good night, Keane continues to rage against the dying of the light. Some of United's best form last season resulted from Darren Fletcher being used as Keane's 'legs' in midfield, so it will be interesting to see if Ferguson persists with this at the expense of more illustrious names further forward.

What he'll say: "See youse, see fitba', see that ref, bloody idiot"

What he means: "Et tu Keano?!"


The latest chapter in a glorious history and a schoolboy's adventure tale made flesh? Or the continuation of the devaluation of the major tournaments following Greece at Euro 2004 and Porto in the 2004 Champions League?

Okay, its generally supporters of those other north-west reds who subscribe to the latter view, but Liverpool's incredible triumph in Istanbul, and the stirring adventure that got them to that stage, were in diametrical contrast to their disappointingly wan league campaign. Where in Europe there was supreme focus, organisation, and at times no little swashbuckling guile, domestically they were generally disturbingly pallid. For example, just days before their comprehensive victory in Leverkusen, they succumbed feebly against Newcastle at St. James' Park. For all the impressiveness of their city rivals' achievement in reaching fourth place, it was a prize that Liverpool handed over with some civic generosity such was the ineffectualness of their league form, their worst since the Evans/Houllier duocracy.

The league, therefore, is the main focus for Rafael Benitez, and there is no doubt that the shrewd Spaniard and his European champions should be well capable of massive improvement domestically. Talk of challenging the top three may be slightly premature, and there are still questions over what their settled offensive unit will look like, as well as back-up for central defence. However, with the Steven Gerrard situation finally sorted, the sublime Xabi Alonso a year further into his English career and the heroic Jamie Carragher marshalling the defence, a genuine challenge might not be too far away.

Verdict: 4th- but if the wheels come off at Old Trafford or Highbury, Liverpool could be ideally placed to take advantage.

Makes 'em tick: Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard was a revelation last season; one Liverpool fan described him to me as "the best player I've ever seen in the flesh". His presence was the main reason for many Liverpool fans' relative sanguineness about Gerrard's possible departure.

What he'll say: "It is great that Stevie has stayed"

What he means: "Would have preferred the £35 million though"


Its all gone a bit flat at Goodison Park since last season culminated in the wonderful achievement of fourth place by a side many had earmarked as possible relegation candidates. The oft-repeated fallacy that fourth place equals Champions League was shown up again by Everton (unseeded and hampered in the draw by their non-existent co-efficient) drawing Villareal, to whom they promptly lost the home first leg of their qualifier on Tuesday night. Add the frustrating summer David Moyes has had in the transfer market, failing to sign the likes of Craig Bellamy and Scott Parker, and it seems that Everton may have missed their chance to step up a level.

However, they will have the consolation of the UEFA Cup should they fail to overturn Villareal's lead, and will continue to display the resilience and spirit which brought about last season's feats. Phil Neville and Simon Davies are good signings, and the effervescent Tim Cahill is a real talent. Moyes will be praying for James Beattie to justify his £6 million transfer fee, something which he never managed in the closing months of the season.

There is almost no chance that Everton will repeat last season's finish, with Liverpool, Spurs and Middlesbrough looking to have much stronger squads and all almost certain to improve. In a way a European run could be a bad thing for Everton, as one would imagine that their small squad would be incapable of competing on two fronts. Still, the top six is achievable, as they've been over course and distance at the top end.

Verdict- 7th. They could be squeezed down a few rungs by the greater improvement in their immediate rivals

Makes 'em tick: Tim Cahill. Showed there are still diamonds to be hewn from the rough of the Championship, Moyes best signing consisted of extending the Australian's contract.

What he'll say: "We're a decent footballing side"

What he means: "Get it long to Big Dunc!"


Judging by the slapstick conclusion to Manchester City’s 2004-05 season, when Stuart Pearce sent David James up front for the end of what was virtually a UEFA Cup spot play-off against Middlesbrough, in an effort to score a vital winner, Manchester City’s image of being a rollercoaster club, with thrills, spills and heartaches the recurring theme, seems set to continue.

One thing that has changed is that City have become a genuinely defensively secure outfit. Much of this is due to Pearce’s work in his previous role as defensive coach under Kevin Keegan, and also the startling renaissance of Richard Dunne as the lynchpin. Dunne appears to be recovering from the foot injury sustained in a pre-season fracas involving Joey Barton. Barton has been Stuart Pearce’s biggest headache, the aforementioned incident in Asia followed by his brother’s arrest in connection with the murder of a black youth in Liverpool bringing wholly unwanted attention to City’s doorstep.

If Barton is Pearce’s biggest headache, life after Shaun Wright-Phillips is his main challenge. £21 million is a handsome transfer fee however, and with Wright-Phillips’ promising brother Bradley coming through, along with the signings of a still goal hungry Andy Cole and Darius Vassell, City could have the blend just right.

Verdict: 8th. Still not enough all round quality to progress further.

Makes ’em tick: Richard Dunne- most improved player in the Premiership and the bedrock of City’s heroic defensive showings against Manchester United and Chelsea last season.

What he’ll say: “Jamesy, get the gloves off!”

What he means: “Well they do call me Psycho!”


The Reebok Home for the Elderly and Infirm it may be, but Bolton are a bona fide Premiership success story, Sam Allardyce’s clever transfer dealings and a policy of full on commitment making the Lancastrians one of the toughest assignments in the league, especially at home. Qualification for European football this season adds significant extra kudos to the manager’s achievements.

The ‘old codgers’ label is probably a fair cop, but Allardyce deserves huge credit for getting the best from these experienced players, not necessarily an easy task when you consider that most of them (the likes of Djorkaeff, Campo, Hierro) were wealthy men who would not, you would imagine, be hugely hungry, or enthusiastic, about the prospect of fetching up at Bolton after the previous postings in their C.V.s.

Allardyce also managed to turn El Hadji Diouf from the most loathed man in football into a Bolton folk hero, a sign of the manager's impressive adeptness at man management, key for any club wishing to punch above its weight. The signature of Jared Borghetti, the Mexican international who scored the winner against Brazil at the Confederations Cup in June is another coup. Borghetti is physically robust enough to adjust well to Bolton’s prosaic style of football, even if cultural acclimatisation from Guadalajara to Lancashire might be more difficult. The likely signature of Hidetoshi Nakata could be another masterstroke.

Verdict: 9th. While they shouldn’t be detained by European duties for too long, the distraction will not be something they are familiar with. Another season of solid, tough competitiveness though.

Makes ‘em tick: Could be Borghetti. Key member of a decent Mexican side, and Bolton could do with a goalscorer

What he'll say: “That ref’s cheated us out there”

What he means: “That ref’s cheated us out there”


Not going to be anyone’s second favourite team this season are they? Sparky Hughes was a narky player, for all his talent, and with the triumvirate of Bellamy, Savage and Dickov in his squad, as well as Andy ’Elbows’ Todd, Rovers will not be making any friends amongst neutrals.

That won’t bother Hughes of course, who will be the subject of scrutiny as to whether he can carry on from his impressive international career with Wales into club football in his first full season. The recruitment of Savage and Bellamy speaks volumes for his popularity with his countrymen. Savage engineered his move from Birmingham with now infamous excuse of wanting to be nearer home, while Bellamy eluded seemingly better placed suitors to sign for Blackburn in one of the summer’s best transfer coups.

Bellamy is regarded as a risk due to his temperament, as well as the fact that he is injury-prone. However he showed at Celtic that if he is happy in his environment, and of course with his manager, he can be a perfectly well behaved boy, and his football benefits as a result. Rovers poor season in 2004-05 was brought about by their lack of goals, and if Bellamy stays fit he could help make them a real surprise package.

Verdict: 10th. Hughes’ team will be hard to beat and if Bellamy fires, Blackburn could turn over a few bigger names.

Makes ‘em tick: Robbie Savage. For all his odiousness, teams that he plays on do not go down easy, and his feistiness makes him as popular with his own fans as he is loathed by others. And that’s a good thing.

What he’ll say: “None of my boys would deliberately hurt another player”

What he means: “I told him- not the face!”


Now will they get a few punters through the turnstiles? The archetype of grim northerness take on the ultimate in cosmopolitan sophistication when Chelsea come to town on the first Sunday’s baptism of fire for Wigan, a contest which should see a rare full house. In fact, they have more in common than first appears the case. For Abramovich and Mourinho, read Dave Whelan, the sports goods millionaire to whose largesse Wigan’s success is owed, and Paul Jewell, the shrewd Scouser who built a team to achieve the impossible.

There is almost no chance of Wigan staying up. Unable to attract much in the way of quality signings (the wandering Henri Camara makes his latest stop at the JJB Stadium and Arjen de Zeeuw returns from Portsmouth), the Latics will hope that their all-conquering strike force of Nathan ’Duke’ Ellington and Jason Roberts can do an Andy Johnson and take the top flight by storm. Not likely.

The presence of the resolute de Zeeuw and Graham Kavanagh in midfield will stiffen them to a degree, but it will take a miracle greater than the one Jewell pulled off in keeping Bradford up for anything other than an immediate return to the Championship to occur.

Verdict: 20th. Bit of a no-brainer this one.

Makes ‘em tick: Brian Kerr will be delighted to see Graham Kavanagh at the highest level at last, and he should hold his own against more illustrious names.

What he’ll say: “I thought we were still in the game at 4-0, but all credit to Chelsea, they’re a decent side”

What he means: “Can’t we play Rotherham next week”

....Read more!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Great TSA Premiership Preview Thingy!- Part One

Its almost that time again. The Premiership, that bloated behemoth, that column inch glutton, that vulgar exemplar of 'all that's wrong in today's society', returns this weekend. TSA, being, as you are no doubt aware, a socially conscious, right-on website, abhors the accompanying media hoopla, the deification of louts and the rampant, unfettered capitalism with which the Premiership is invariably associated, and the way in which it squeezes out most other sporting endeavours into the margins of public consciousness.

With that in mind, here is TSA's super fantastic 2005-06 Premiership Preview fandango!! (Team tabs ladder not included)

Now I'm not hung up on originality or anything, but I have noticed one or two similar artifices in rival publications, both on-line and "old", and generally they either do this thing alphabetically (snore!), or by how the relevant grizzled hack believes the teams will finish the campaign.

TSA has come up with a dazzling conceit to amuse you, dear reader, and it is this: classify teams by geographical location! Brilliant, I know, how better to strike a blow against football clubs regarding themselves as global brands, than to box them off in there own little corners!

I'm all about the community.

So it goes like this: Part One- London; Part Two- the North West; Part Three- the Midlands, the North East and the South Coast.

This time next year they'll all be doing it like this........



Of the seemingly infinite number of cliches which comprise the lexicon of football punditry and analysis, the one about the Premiership being a three horse race is the most in danger of going to the great Football Focus studio in the sky. Quite simply, I cannot see another winner of the title than the nouveau riche from West London.

All last season Jose Mourinho's rivals waited for a 'blip', for the wheels to come off in a firestorm of millionaire hissy-fits and and torn kashmir overcoats. The only perceptible blip came in the Champions League, when the title had been all but wrapped up, when the absence of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, whose presence had hitherto camouflaged their lack of a top class striker, explained their inability to break down a dogged Liverpool. With the addition of Shaun Wright-Philips this potential problem should be averted, and with Hernan Crespo back and (on the evidence of the Community Shield) a more settled Didier Drogba likely to improve, the failure to sign an Adriano or a Shevchenko should be assuaged.

Leaving aside the morality of Roman Abramovich's billions (if that is possible), Mourinho deserves enormous credit for the sense of unity and team spirit he has created, and the absence of complaints from benched players is testament to this.

Verdict: Champions. Best bank balance, best manager, best goalkeeper, best defence, best midfield...should be enough.

Makes 'em tick: John Terry- does the seemingly impossible, gives 'Chelski' a soul.

What he'll say: "It is a beautiful thing, what we do, it is like the gods playing football!"

What he means: "Gosh I'm handsome"


So finally he's gone- and with something of a whimper, despite the interminable sagas which previous close seasons have witnessed. Perhaps there was a secret caveat between Patrick Vieira and Arsene Wenger last summer: stay one more year, till Fabregas and Flamini are a little older, then go with honour. Whatever, when a club loses its figurehead, its dressing room leader, and the central on-field character in almost a decade of success, uncertainty must reign.

Two key questions surround Arsenal's chances: replacing the void left by Vieira, and contemplating a world without Dennis Bergkamp. Wenger has not been totally convincing about the former, and unless there is some unexpected transfer activity, or an alteration in the team's shape, an awful lot would appear to rest on the young shoulders of Cesc Fabregas.

The Bergkamp succession is a major issue also, the peerless Dutchman's sheer class is irreplacable, so Wenger may have to rejig the Arsenal blueprint. Whatever he comes up with, with attacking options like Reyes, Ljungberg, Van Persie, Pires and new signing Aleksandr Hleb, it will be continue to be fluid, quick and it will be beautiful to watch- and Thierry Henry will be the most valuable player in the league again, and the most admired, and the top scorer.

Verdict: 2nd. Could get a little closer to Chelsea, but the loss of Vieira will not be easily overcome.

Makes 'em tick: Gilberto Silva- strange choice, I know, but the Gunners just work better when he's there, and now he'll be even more important.

What he'll say: "Well of course we are the best team in the league....."

What he means: " a deconstructionist perspective, of course. The league table is bourgeois text, open to interpretation!"


The White Hart Lane Youth Club is open every Saturday afternoon; kids can partake in such well known activities as "Free Flowing Football", "Entertaining the Punters", "Timid Capitulation on Cold Winter Nights in Grim Northern Places", "Lacking Substance" and "Finishing Ninth".

Looks good for Spurs, they've signed pretty much all the best young native talent to add to an already gifted squad, added the grit and class of Edgar Davids, appear to be full of goals and have England's goalkeeper and in Ledley King a great talent at the back. Martin Jol appears also to have the gruff forcefulness to implement his ideas.

But it's Spurs, isn't it? You know how its going to go- plenty flair. lovely football, loads of goals, and then.....the wheels will come off for a spell as the drudgery of the league campaign bites. Its not glamour that wins leagues, and that's what Spurs do best.

Verdict: 6th. For all that, there is much to look forward to for Spurs fans, a breakthrough into the top four or five is a few seasons away, but not making Europe would be a disappointment. Oh, and they love the Cup don't they.....?

Makes 'em tick: OK, he hasn't played for them yet, and he is 32 now, and if he was as good as he used to be, well, he wouldn't be at Spurs, but Edgar Davids is exactly what Spurs have needed for a long time.

What he'll say: "Winning 6-5? Yesh, thish ish exactly as I planned"

What he means: "I am Dutch, and therefore never wrong"


So much to admire about Charlton. The exemplary housekeeping shown in how they carefully built the club up from the yo-yo years to an established Premiership outfit, and the part played by loyalty to (and from) a long term manager in that; the community iniatives the club is involved in; the regeneration of the Valley from overgrown dump to spiritual home again.

But it seems that no matter how much Charlton grow organically, they can never seem to dispel the sense that they are a survivalist club. This can be the only explanation for why Charlton stall consistently. Despite Alan Curbishley's protestations to the contrary (and we must presume that he does not proclaim in the dressing room, when forty points has been reached, "Right that'll do lads, here's the holiday brochures, I hear Dubai is the place to be this summer") there must be a pervading sense within the club that they do not belong at the top table. Even if they are challenging for a top six place, as they have been in recent seasons, the slump comes as inevitably as Spring.

Maybe they're happy like that, maybe they are right, maybe they don't belong any higher. Maybe they've read about Icarus, and are happy to stay on the ground. In keeping with their reputation for careful husbandry, its all very prudent, wise and safe.

I mean who wants to "live the dream".......

Verdict: 11th. Or thereabouts. This year, and the next, and the next. Till one year they appoint Kevin Keegan, give him £40 million, get to the Champions League Final and go bust.

Makes 'em tick: Alexei Smertin should prove a good buy for a side who've never preoperly replaced the now despised Scott Parker.

What he'll say: "Well we'll hope to push on from here, Europe is a definite possibility"

What he means:"Quite fancy Florida this year"


The archetype of the modern Premiership nonentity- hovering just above the relegation zone, bereft of ambition and a protagonist in many of Sky Sports' dullest Monday evenings. It got so bad last year that their supporters began to chant "4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2" in a show of dismay at the continual deployment of 4-5-1, that belt and braces of formations.

Chris Coleman, of course, has done an excellent job in keeping up a plaything with which Mohamed Al-Fayed has long become bored. However one feels that perhaps this could be a year too far. Andy Cole is gone, and the vultures are hovering around Steed Malbranque (although Manchester City's interest appears to have dissapated) and Luis Boa Morte, so scoring goals could be a problem. Edwin Van der Saar, who saved Fulham on many occasions last season, is gone, so stopping goals could be a problem.

You just wonder, if things go wrong, do they have the heart for a relegation struggle?

Verdict: If Malbranque and Boa Morte stay, 16th; if they go, 18th.

Makes 'em tick: Malbranque, a fine attacking force, at his best.

What he'll say: "Mister Al Fayed and I see eye to eye on everything"

What he means: "If it wasn't for the Harrods discount card..."


Bobby Moore isn't it, enduring image, the 'appy 'ammers, forever blowing bubbles, East Enders, the spirit of the blitz- "look there's the Queen Mum, ain't she marvellous?!"- oooh the Krays, nasty lot, loved their Mum though....

Its great to have West Ham back. There's something very heart warming about the club, the hackneyed east London charm, but also the history and the sense that the claret and blue are an integral part of the fabric of English football. The fabled youth system also symbolises a club that is in touch with football's soul, the nurturing of talent often appearing to be done for its own sake.

Lets hope that the two years outside the top flight have not scarred the club too much, but I fear it may take another bounce down a division before they regain stability at the highest level. Relegation hit hard, and their squad has a bare bones look about it, compared to the relatively glittering side that took them down. Alan Pardew has struggled to be accepted at Upton Park and would most probably not be there now had the Hammers not scraped into the play-offs in sixth.

Ireland fans will be interested to see how Israel's Yossi Benayoun fares in the Premiership, but the fact that he will be playing behind the likes of Marlon Harewood and Bobby Zamora does not augur well.

Verdict: 19th- a shame, but they'll be back.

Makes 'em tick: Teddy Sheringham. Will be worth the ticket price alone to see the man with the best brain in football in the Premeirship in surely his valedictory season.

What he'll say: "I'm sure Marlon and Bobby will click soon"

What he means: "Well would you rather Glenn Roeder back?!"

....Read more!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Final Reprise: Old Foes- Same Old Story?

Ten months on from last year's crushing All-Ireland final defeat, Mayo fetch up at Jones' Road this Sunday to face the self-same oppressors, Kerry, in the second of the day's All-Ireland Senior Football Quarter Finals.

The magnitude of that reverse last September leads to the inescapable conclusion that this Sunday represents a forlorn task for the Westerners. Aside from the harsh statistics of it, the psychological damage that Gooch Cooper and his colleagues inflicted on a county already haunted by past failures on big days must have been severe.

In the football championship equivalent of a wife-swap, Sunday's four quarter finalists come from the Connacht and Munster final line-ups, Kerry exhanging Cork for Mayo, and Mayo offering up Galway to the Rebels. Curiously both finals were similarly poor quality, low-scoring affairs, meaning that form analysts must scratch their heads to figure out who comes into the closing stretch in the best shape.

Kerry, of course, carry the sheen of champions, their team, indeed squad, laden with golden names and dripping with quality. But there has been a distinct lack of sparkle about the kingdom this year so far. The victory over Limerick was a grind, and close analysis could only pick out Cooper as having performed satisfactorily that day. The win over Cork was also unspectacular.

That Jack O'Connor has droped Paul Galvin from Sunday's team illustrates two opposing things for Kerry. Firstly the acknowlegement that the talented half-forward, like several of his team-mates, has not impressed this year. Secondly though, the very fact that O'Connor feels able to drop an All-Star forward of such ability, bringing in William Kirby to midfield and pushing Eoin Brosnan forward a notch, speaks volumes for the sheer embarassment of riches that Kerry possess- and the competitive nature of their panel.

One could not imagine John Maughan being able to consider dropping Ciaran McDonald under any circumstances (okay, an unfair comparison, as McDonald is more key a player to Mayo than Galvin is to Kerry), and as usual much of Mayo's hopes rest on how he can function with the rest of his forward line. Encouragingly for Mayo their defence has been outstandingly tight so far, this the maligned back-line who yielded so flimsily in the face of the Kingdom assault last September. It must happen further forward for them on Sunday, and this will require sharper shooting than displayed against Cavan in last weekend's qualifier, as well as McDonald delivering more quick hurtful ball inside, eliminating the sand dancing.

The only hope for Mayo is that Kerry might have a touch of the Kilkenny's about them this year. If you remember last year, the Cats, aiming for a historic three in a row of hurling titles, never really hit top gear (the thrashing of Galway aside), never seemed to flow in the big games, and when it came to the final against Cork there was nothing in the tank, despite the rich panel and the famously competitive training: road weariness had set in. Of course the fact that Kerry haven't excelled yet does not necessarily mean that they won't, but for Mayo, it appears, the only hope is that they aren't able to turn that magic on like a tap.

For, if they do, the western tragedians will be scribbling again.

....Read more!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Pride- and Hope- Salvaged From The Wreck of Bratislava

So that's the end of that.

Gallant failure, the most frustrating kind, and on so many occasions as the evening progressed one's mind drifted back to those horrendous closing stages in Bratislava, and how the task could have been less daunting-but for all that, and for all the reality of a European exit in early August, Planet Celtic is a much more hospitable place this evening than it was six days ago.

In recent days the media have taken it upon themselves to put words into Celtic supporters mouths, specifically suggesting that Celtic fans wished Gordon Strachan sacked. As is almost always the case in situations like these, the truth is very different. Sure there was wailing and gnashing of teeth in Paradise, sure the new manager's tactics were questioned, but Celtic supporters are also under no illusions about where the club stands at the moment, and the size of the task Strachan was faced with.

The question was: had last Wednesday night irreparably damaged Strachan's credibilty, with his players and his board, and indeed the supporters, to the extent that he would be made a lame duck, such was the severity of the humbling?

The most important outcome from tonight's game, short of pulling off the miracle, was to draw a line under last Wednesday, to say: We're going in the right direction, it will take a while, but we can get there. To regain pride, of course, but also to display unity, to dispel the whispers that the succession had not been warmly accepted in the dressing room, and to provide the supporters with a satisfactory sense that this was a job of work that would be done.

Probably slightly crassly, I've taken to calling last Wednesday night Ground Zero. The unforgettable horror of it provided the smallest comfort that things could not get any worse, and the reality now is that everything must flow from here.

Celtic supporters had, over the past five years, become accustomed to European football as a inalienable right, something which can be put in context when one reviews the club's dismal European record immediately prior to 2001. It has also been forgotten that Martin O'Neill achieved little in Europe in his first season, exiting the UEFA Cup in October 2000 at the hands of Bordeaux.

The focus then, of course, was on regaining domestic supremacy, and this is the challenge that now faces Strachan's Celtic. It is not long since Celtic fans were contemplating the possibility of a generation of dominance over their city rivals, and the club must now recover the momentum which has stalled over the past twelve months. How far would a resounding win at Ibrox in three weeks time go to erasing the memory of Bratislava?

There is another droplet of positivity for Celtic supporters is in the already evident fact that Strachan's team will attempt to play a far more attractive style of football than his predecessor did. It was always a caveat for Celtic supporters during the O'Neill years: accept the poor football, as long as the results kept coming. As the traditional resounding thrashings of SPL fodder last season began to turn into alarming defeats and with the loss of the precious fortress value of Parkhead, the pact was broken and all bets were off. It was just about acceptable watching that, while the results were good, but when they began to turn.....

So the fact that, a traumatic first week aside, the supporters can see evidence of a return to football being played "the Glasgow Celtic way", can only help Strachan as he aims to steady a ship that seemed stricken only a few days ago.

The new manager will be pleased with the enthusiasm with which his team attacked the impossible task, with the maturity shown by Shaun Maloney and Craig Beattie, and most importantly, the sense that the senior players, thought to be recalcitrant O'Neill cronies, are now on-message with the new regime. With a stable looking goalkeeper in Artur Boruc, and Shunsuke Nakamura, Chris Sutton and Didier Agathe all possible first teamers missing from the home leg, the glass seems to have crept up to half-full again.

The stain of such a humbling exit from Europe, on the club's reputation as well as its balance sheet, will take a long time to redress, and it has wiped out a few of Strachan's lives. But a line has been drawn, by all concerned, and there is at least hope for a future positive enough to wipe out the memory of Bratislava.

....Read more!