Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Tyrone and the Spirit in the Sky

It sort of made all the acres of newsprint and guff from the likes of myself seem more like meaningless fluff than normal, the way Mickey Harte broke down after the game on Sunday as thousands of his countymen swarmed around him. Anyone who mused on the likely factors to influence last Sunday's All-Ireland final glibly positioned Tyrone's Corman McAnallen factor in the same paragraph as one might discuss their erstwhile midfield problems or Kerry's oft-repeated need to exorcise the northern ghosts.

Sunday revealed how inappropriate that was.

It is now completely apparent how much the tragic demise of their captain affected Tyrone, and as evidenced by the outpouring of emotion following Sunday's final whistle, how much the young man from Eglish's memory inspired them.

"Cormac said at 23 that he didn't want to look back on his career and not win another [All-Ireland]", Harte said on Sunday evening. "Those words stuck with this team. We just had to give him one more, and now we can say we've done it for him."

One can examine Sunday's intensely riveting spectable objectively and point out how Kerry's fears about their lack of previous comparable tests proved correct. One could commend how Tyrone and Ryan McMenamin in particular responded to inevitable Gooch issue. One could point out that Kerry seemed to run out of ideas when the early ball into Cooper and O'Cinneide ceased to be effective. One would have to compare Tyrone's slick off-loading with the way Kerry began to fumble and hestitate as the game went on.

Sub-clauses and appendices all. There was a higher force at work for Tyrone and the emotion of the post-match celebrations and the words of their manager and captain demonstrated the source of their county's superhuman intensity, and the sheer force of their belief.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Five Steps to Heaven

1. The Gooch Factor
Ok, you can't really stop him. Not altogether. The finest forward in the game always hurts you- damage limitation is the only practicable tactic. There are many tremendous forward talents playing the game at the moment, several of whom will occupy the sacred sward on Sunday, but Colm Cooper is a notch above even the likes of O'Neill and Canavan. He never seems to be ineffectual, off the pace, disinterested, physically intimidated, crowded out or dominated. Instead, in game after game he is sharp, wholehearted and utterly devastating. So will the dark prince of corner backs, Ryan McMenamin, who seems likely to be detailed the unenviable task of marking the 'Gooch', be the man to finally subdue the boy genius? He couldn't on his own, so look for trademark Tyrone defence in numbers- you won't see Cooper one on one with McMenamin at any stage on Sunday. A side issue, but one that could be important: Will the task of minding Gooch prevent McMenamin from making his usual counter breaks up the field, which have been a key weapon for Tyrone?

2.Does midfield matter?
Tyrone have ceded midfield control repeatedly this season. Without Kevin Hughes, and with Sean Cavanagh just not mad into that side of things, the Ulstermen have been happy to live on scraps, defend in numbers when the opposition wins the ball, take it off them then break with deadly precision. But they could have lost against an Armagh team that they repeatedly outplayed, and they only finally shook off a much inferior Dublin outfit in the last quarter of the 140 minutes of their contest, due to the fact that by giving up so much in midfield, you are always throwing a sucker an even break. Expect Tyrone to swarm all over Darragh O'Se with even more freneticism than usual when he plucks kickouts from the air. They will know that Kerry's forward divisions cannot be allowed to be easily fed.

2002 and 2003 and all that. Keeps coming back to those dark days for Kerry. The emotional trauma of those defeats still drives the Kingdom, and will likely do so until they've won another thirty-three All-Irelands. But this is the first test since then. Will the old demons come back? Will Eoin Brosnan's heart sink when he looks up and finds himself surrounded by half a dozen red and white shirts again? Not likely. Kerry have taken on board so many lessons from those defeats, and matured into a grown-up football team under Jack O'Connor so as to barely resemble their 2003 incarnation. They know the dark underbelly of the game now, and can go their if necessary.
Still, we won't really know the ultimate answer to the biggest question mark over Kerry until quarter past five on Sunday evening.

4.What's in the tank?
Tyrone have maintained such an energetic tempo throughout their gruelling program of fixtures that to suggest that they may run out of gas on Sunday seems almost disrespectful. But the contrast in their championship campaign so far and that of Kerry is so marked that you do wonder what impact it will have. Kerry can be said to have experienced the Invisible Championship so far, arriving at this stage (much as their great teams of the 1970s and 1980s often did) with barely a bead of sweat being broken. This could play out in two ways: Kerry could find the sudden increase in intensity impossible to reach, or Tyrone could finally wilt after the exertions of their torrid campaign.

Ok, so its not really going to be an issue, is it? These boys are all too hairy-arsed to let the big day get to them, and almost all have been through it before successfully. But this game is huge, particularly for Kerry. Their 2004 win, while accomplished with elan, kind of has an asterisk under it because of the fact that they never played the terrible twins from the north, so there will be a tension within Kerry due to the deep desire to put that right. Tyrone have been through everything you could possibly imagine, on field and off, so will take whatever the big day throws at them with nonchalance.
Still, it is a big day, the biggest of them all, and all it might take is for one man's legs to wobble in the maelstrom of it all to change the destiny of the 2005 All-Ireland Football Championship.

I'm not even gonna go there.......

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fasten Your Seatbelts, Its the All-Ireland Final Preview!

It feels a bit like the past five months have been a prelude to this Sunday; well, you could say the past twenty five months have been.

That's how long it is since Kerry lost a championship match, but more pertinently, that is how long it has been since they played one of Ulster's big two in the championship. The defeat to Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final was Kerry football's nadir, the point where even they had to question the very fundamentals of how they played their football and how they approached it; as Eoin Brosnan said this week "we went into that game thinking that Kerry football, free-flowing football, might win us the game. We were possibly a bit little naive and our game plan was destroyed and thrown out the door".

2003 turned out to be Year Zero for the new Kerry, as envisioned and realised by Jack O'Connor who took the reigns as manager following that defeat and led the Kingdom back to the pinnacle with aplomb last year. They have, in fact, strolled through their championship matches since 2003, not to detract anything from the awesome splendour of their hammering of Mayo in last year's final.

But the sense that the ensuing twenty-five months, as flawless as they have been, have spared Kerry the real test, namely that from either of their tormentors of 2002 and 2003, lingers.

Tyrone meanwhile have been asked and answered the toughest questions so many times that to doubt anything about their character and will would be pure folly. The death of Cormac McAnallen, of course, looms over all their trials since 2003, but when you consider the way in which they have slogged through this most testing of seasons, it is possible to believe there is some supernatural forcing driving the O'Neill men along. The replayed quarter final with Dublin was testing enough, as Tyrone faced down the enthusiastic blue hordes in their own back yard, sending them away, in the end, with a whimper.

But the gruelling trilogy with Armagh forced Tyrone to stare deepest into their souls. They must have felt robbed after the controversial replayed Ulster Final, when the Anglo-Celt was snatched from them due, in substantial part, to referee Michael Collins' error in ordering off Stephen O'Neill.

Tyrone's self-belief never wavered, however, and their awareness of the fact that they had been the better side in the previous clashes with Armagh served them well, even as they trailed in the dying minutes of the semi. Self-belief can never have been a problem for Peter Canavan, and as he nonchalantly stroked Tyrone to victory with an injury time free, deserved revenge was

On Sunday, barring a draw, one of these sides will ascend to the pantheon of great teams, nosing in front of their two competitors (lest we forget Armagh) in this current, most keenly contested rivalry.

Its all been building up to this....

Tomorrow: the five questions that will decide this year's All-Ireland Senior Football Champions

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Scottish Football in 'Interesting' Shock

"FIFA president Sepp Blatter has dismissed English Premiership leaders Chelsea's hopes of escaping their constrictive domestic surroundings and gaining access to the lucrative and intensely competitive Scottish Premierleague. Stamford Bridge Chief Executive Peter Kenyon has claimed that their club was being "choked" by the lack of competition in England and that regular trips to Pittodrie and Brockville were desperately needed in order for Chelsea to progress, while manager Jose Mourinho added yesterday "of course I'd love to pit my wits against George Burley and Gordon Strachan and try to challenge Hearts and Celtic next season...it would be a dream for me". Blatter, however, has dampened any hopes the sleeping giants have of gaining access to the SPL millions........"

Sorry I was miles away there.....

The SPL table has a somewhat more sensible look on it this week, with Celtic and Rangers occupying two of the top three spots, but the dream is still very much alive at Tynecastle as Hearts astonishing 100% start to the season, their best in 91 years, continued with a single goal away win at Inverness, thus maintaining a five point lead in first.

The trip to the highlands was something of a litmus test for George Burley and the new owner Vladimir Romanov's Lithuanian revolution, being just the kind of difficult venue where points are generally hard wrought and challengers credentials must be presented wholeheartedly. Hearts departed not just with all three points, but also with the prize of being able to say "its a sign of a good team when you win without playing well", that perpetually handy explanation for a jammy win.

As much as last weekend's contest was a test for New Hearts, this Saturday sees the first genuine examination of their progress: namely the first meeting with one of the Old Firm, as Rangers come to visit. It has been something of a boon for Burley's side not to have had to meet either of the Glasgow giants until relatively late into the first cycle of fixtures, given the tumultuous player turnover that Hearts have experienced since the close of the last season. The most remarkable thing about Hearts' success thus far, however, has been the very fact of how quickly they have settled despite what must have been a far from settled summer.

The player to have settled the best is Czech striker Rudi Skacel, whose remarkable feat of scoring in seven consecutive league fixtures has made him an immediate cult figure in Gorgie. For all the impression made by Skacel and the other imports such as his fellow Czech, striker Roman Bednar, Greek European Championship winning left back Takis Fyssas, and Lithuanian Edgaras Jankauskas, crucial to Hearts' success so far has been the cornerstone provided by the Scottish quartet of Craig Gordon in goal, Steven Pressley and Andy Webster in central defence and Paul Hartley in midfield. It was hardly coincidental, but a happy stroke of fortune for Walter Smith, that Scotland's recent impressive World Cup qualifier performances transpired alongside Hearts' impressive start, given that this quartet perform the same roles for clulb and country.

Hartley's form is very much continuation of last season's, when he was nominated for the Player of the Year awards and was the subject of a January transfer bid from Parkhead. Hearts' wisdom in not accepting that offer is now sharply apparent, as Hartley has been an almost bionic figure for the Jambos so far. His energetic, goalscoring performances from midfield have made him the league's outstanding player so far, which is all the stranger when one considers the less than glittering trajectory of his career until now- his C.V. includes sojourns at Hamilton, Hibs, St. Johnstone, Morton, Raith Rovers and Millwall.

Whether Hartley's belated success will prove a metaphor for his club, who haven't won the league since 1960, remains to be seen. While Romanov has provided stability and funds, as well as luring a manager of Burley's standing, his desire to recruit players of his own choosing, which so far has been good-naturedly tolerated by the manager, could become an issue if Burley's authority is seen to be diminished. Additionally Hearts' squad remains thin in comparison to their Glasgow rivals'. However they are undoubtedly well placed to fulfil this season's aim of closing the gap and finishing third, and whether the three year plan to overhaul the Old Firm comes to fruition or not, the full houses down Gorgie way testify to a feel-good factor which has been long overdue in Scottish football.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

They Used to Play Two Strikers in the Old Days You Know!

Erm, that wasn't up to much, was it? One of the Premiership's blue riband fixtures, the clash of the reds, a powderkeg no matter the context, the one the fans look for when the fixture list comes out, the one they save their cruellest and wittiest chants for- was it worth skipping the lie-in?

Following the mind-numbing Chelsea v Arsenal contest a few weeks ago, the newly maligned Premiership cannot now, it seems, even look to its marquee attractions to provide the sort of explosive drama the whole gravy train was built on. Its one thing grumbling at your Sky Sports direct debit after Bolton and Blackburn hasten you to your Sunday afternoon slumber, but when the big four's clashes are similarly somnambulant then you might feel those precious funds would be more thrillingly spent. Like on that new lawnmower you've been eyeing up maybe.

This, of course, is a scenario which the powerbrokers of the English games top echelon- BSkyB and the Premier League- would dread: the slipping away of subscriptions in the face of a deteriorating product.

Now at this stage it is worth making a point. I, like any true football fan, appreciate the less spectacular qualities of the game- a well organised defence, a good tactical battle, the thankless diligence of the defensive midfielder, the telepathy of a flawless offside trap. Things to be admired, and all essential for success.

The problem with the Premiership is the contraction of philosophy that is now prevalent. The reduction of ambition to the most basic kernel of defeat-avoidance. The straight jacket of fear that shackles most of the league. Now this phenomenon is nothing new. 4-5-1 was last season's must-have accoutrement for the more down-at-heel Premiership club, and we didn't really expect much more this season, even though some of those clubs could be said to be in position where they should be "pushing on".

But surely, we thought, in light of the fact that Chelsea had redefined how the Championship had to be competed for- namely that, from the first Saturday, every three points was a prisoner, for the simple reason that there looked so few fixtures in which Chelsea might fail to win- the top teams would chase every victory like Soviet-era Muscovites after a loaf.

Which makes Sunday's tentative encounter all the more surprising. Both Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez are substantially wilier gentlemen than myself, and perhaps felt that a point is always a good result against each other, especially as both have yet to play Chelsea, but imagine the statement a victory yesterday would have made for either team? Imagine the momentum? Might even have given Jose Mourinho, who calmly perched himself on the advertising hoardings on Saturday as his team extracted with precision another three points from the Valley, something to worry about.

Now having said all that stuff about philosophy and fear, there is another point to make about Manchester United and Liverpool. Both look extremely well-organised defensively these days, good goalkeepers, settled defences. But, frankly, neither look to have a clue what they're doing up front. United, you could argue, haven't done so since they evolved from the simpler, all-conquering days of 4-4-2 with flying wide men and exocet crosses etc. Liverpool are still a work in progress, but it looks like they will remain so until they find a natural goalscorer, to which the recent disappointment of their fans at missing out on Michael Owen was testament.

Both sides appear patternless in their attacks, and a sense of improvisation pervades their attempts to score, a tactic that generally only works if you learned your craft in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.

It was with some sense of refreshment that I watched the Bulgarian Martin Petrov's performance for Atletico Madrid in their defeat of Barcelona last night, specifically his driving run down the left and whipped cross from the byline onto the head of Fernando Torres for Atletico's first.

Its a simple game, as a wise man once said.


The above stuff about negative gameplans and 4-5-1 has been put into glorious relief by West Ham's start to the season and the mentality behind it. I haven't enjoyed a Premiership match as much as their 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa last week for a long time and their declared intention to attack, and by definition play for victories, is in keeping with the club's tradition and a ray of sunshine in the dank grimness that is the world of McClaren, Big Sam and Steve Bruce.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ashes to Ashes?

So to England the Ashes.

What a strange and wonderful thing it all was. Here we were, in Ireland of the eight hundred years and the chips on the shoulders and even we were rapt, on those nail-biting Sunday and Monday afternoons, hoping Freddie Flintoff would continue his transformation from human to jutting-jawed boys adventure comic character, all improbable feats ands gallant sportsmanship, watching Michael Vaughan make winning the Ashes seem like a village fete prize jam competition with his genial, twinkly ease.

Strange times indeed, but of course the England cricket team has always escaped the opprobrium felt in these parts for their football and rugby counterparts. Mainly, of course, because of the fact that throughout most of the last two decades, and particularly in the latter part of the 1990s, they were a byword for ineptitude, poster-children for incompetence, exemplars of spinelessness, market leaders in mediocrity. Many commentators have this week recalled the nadir, 1999, when England failed to qualify for the second round of the World Cup being played on home soil, and captain Nasser Hussain was booed on the balcony at the Oval after defeat to New Zealand and England's regression to being the lowest ranked test nation in cricket. I mean, in the face of all that, a little pity was obviously more appropriate.

But there was more to it than that. The English cricket team never carried the perennial banners of their football counterparts- the sense of thuggish threat, the whiff of xenophobia, the odious media corps with their screaming, sensationalist chip-wrappers; nor their rugby ones- block headed arrogance and Will bloody Carling. No, the whole thing was always much more agreeable. The cricket only hung around for a few months in the summer, the media coverage was low-key and tasteful and the gentility of the whole thing was a perfectly palatable version of Englishness. Nothing to dislike there.

But now as the victorious Vaughan and co become public property, with Flintoff the new Gazza, and Kevin Pietersen's night-time activities are as publicised as Wayne Rooney's, will this sense of timeless English wholesomeness disappear? Will the English themselves devour their hitherto chummy cricketers like they have their footballers, leaving them as haggard and dried up media whores?

The move of test cricket to Sky television certainly won't help.....

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

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Well thank Christ their gaelic football team is still a bit dodgy! The clear dominant force in hurling, proudly atop the Eircom League, home of Ireland's two greatest sportspeople of the last 15 years, added to their general bolshie superiority complex- had Billy Morgan's team somehow beaten Kerry a few weeks ago the People's Republic of Cork would surely have become a political reality.

As it is the Leesiders have to be content with adding another Liam McCarthy Cup to the honour roll, and with it the anointing of a new generation of hurling legends. The current team, with three final appearances and two titles, has an impressive enough CV, until you consider that that the backbone of the team (Cusack, O hAilpin, O'Sullivan, Deane, Corcoran) already have winners medals from 1999.

If last year's campaign was defined by Kilkenny's quest for three in a row, and Cork's rise as the new power in halting them, this year was all about confirmation of that status for the Rebels, and the fact that they did it while never needing to produce a performance as good as in last year's semi-final and final endorses their eminence.

That said last Sunday's victory was impressive because of the complete control of it. Cork showed their experience by grasping the big occasion by the scruff of the neck, in the knowledge that their young Galwegian opponents should not be allowed the opportunity to settle into the game. Galway's feisty refusal to be cowed and their doggedness in keeping in touch almost all the way speaks volumes for their potential and suggests that, as manager Conor Hayes believes, there is indeed an All-Ireland in this team.

In full flow (and I know we haven't seen it too often this season) this Cork side are such a joy to behold. The athleticism of O hAilpin, the rousing power of O Sullivan (his clearance that led to the goal was the type of intervention that gets men into history books), the mesmerising running of the O'Connors. They tore into the flesh of the match hungrily, and Brian Corcoran's imperiousness in the first half especially spoke volumes of a team who looked, throughout, completely comfortable with their destiny.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

What Have You Done For Me Lately, Ireland?

The dream is dying!

A few months ago, when FIFA announced the details of the lottery for World Cup 2006 tickets which took place earlier this year (which I enthusiastically but unsuccessfully entered) I got talking about the subject to a colleague of mine of slightly more advanced years, and of infinitely more advanced responsibilities which would preclude him from going to Germany next year. He regaled me, however, on the subject of his trips to that country in 1988 for the European Championships, and to Italy in 1990 for the World Cup.

The tales spilled out like the verses of a Christy Moore song, as this chap Joxer'ed it from Stuttgart to Rome, his eyes sparkling at the memory of being present at those epochal moments in Ireland's history, and the inference I drew was: young man, they were the best of times.

So I didn't get tickets in the first offering, but no matter, I'd be there and sure we'd all get in somehow. It was going to be the big one. Germany, a short hop away, it'd be brilliantly organised, the stadiums and transport would be fantastic, the steins would runneth over and the frauleins would runneth away. Now was the time, with the World Cup not returning to Europe for 12 years, for my generation's turn!

And then there was Israel, and then Henry, and its all slipping away.

It might seem childish to sulk over the Irish team's recent failures denying me a boozy few weeks on the continent, but what is international football for if not to create opportunities for periodical belt-looseningly boozy, jingoistic, sun-burned, fiscally draining, national psyche defining, zeitgeist hugging explosions of ill-advised clothing and ropey ballads?

The dream isn't dead, of course, not just yet. But as we stare down the barrel of a trip to Cyprus without the only player who can be said to possess the necessary spine for it, and as we ponder whether this meek and humble looking collection of players could ever summon the fire to roll over the confounded Swiss in October, the chances of us enjoying a summer for the ages look slimmer all the time.

Something fundamental occured to me in looking at how Ireland have let go so many opportunities to take hold of this torpid group. Ok, we can question Brian Kerr's infamous negativism, the failure to close out so many games, the antics of our friendly Israeli goalkeeper. But Ireland, really have performed to the sum of their parts. They have punched their weight. The problem is that the Ireland which gave my colleague the best summers of his life, which rallied this nation's spirit on all those balmy summer evenings did not do that.

The reason Ireland as football nation achieved the status it did since 1988 was precisely because they were always more than the sum of their parts. They made dreams come true, they did the impossible, they slung-shot the giants with impudence. Ireland's greatest days were laced with good fortune on occasion, but were absolutely always coated in an indefatigable spirit and courage. Of course their were poor days much worse than last Wednesday night, but its been so long now since Ireland really rose above what they are, a collection of decent footballers and a few very good ones, that I've forgotten what that feeling was like.

Perhaps its Brian Kerr's overly measured management, and perhaps its the absence of a truly granite will within the current squad, and perhaps the fading of Roy Keane's fire shows how we over relied on him for that. But right now it feels like it'll be long time before the nation will don novelty leprechaun hat and cry happily in a foreign field at the derring-do of eleven men in green.

Wonder what I'll be doing in 12 years....?

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