Friday, December 16, 2005

Celtic Finally Replace Ulrik Laursen

I haven't got the figures to hand, but it is quite probable that the new incumbent of the Celtic number 16 jersey has sold a few more strips of that number than the previous owner (the Danish full-back in the headline, for those at the back).

So Roy's a Bhoy. The man who has cast a brooding shadow over Irish and English football for over a decade has elected to end his tumultuous journey at Parkhead. Keane has always been big news in this country, his very character having been dissected as much over the the years as his football. Just as he has always railed against mediocrity and blandness as a player, the debate which he provokes has never been characterised by unanimity or platitude - fittingly, more anger and impassion.

So too the latest chapter in his career. From the endgame days of his Manchester United career he was either a coruscating thorn in the side of a bloated, failing empire, or an unforgivable traitor who slayed his comrades in public. Now the discussion continues: has Keane diminished his legacyt by choosing to see out his days in a footballing backwater, or has he elected to add another glorious chapter to his career by fulfilling a long held wish to pull on one of the great jerseys of world football?

Why then, did Roy Keane join Celtic?

Irish Celtic fans will be well aware of the coverage which the club often endures in this country. The club's stature is, of course, held in question due to the nature of the league in which it plays. Most commentary on Keane's move has included the specualtion as to how he would react to going to places like Falkirk, Kilmarnock or Dunfermline. These places do indeed seem rather far from the glamour and strut of the Premiership's principal theatres.

But those who seek to define Celtic's stature in relation to the clubs it frequently must play are reminscient of the 'prawn sandwich' munchers of Keane's ire: they seem not to understand football. Keane has undoubted fondness for Celtic, albeit he is not a die-hard Celtic fan from childhood as has often been carelessly stated in recent weeks. But to suggest that a man of his professionalism, and with his regard for the standards to which he has always adhered, would allow his last days as a player to be a disservice to his career thus far for the sake of sentimentalism is an obvious nonsense.

Roy Keane a sentimentalist! You're having a laugh!

It is rather more likely that Keane sees in Celtic (and has done for some time) embodiments of values that he holds dear. Anyone visiting Parkhead must be struck by the fundamentally
proletarian passion still pervades and defines the nature of the club. It has often been mentioned how Keane's background in working class Cork provided him with the steel and backbone which coloured his career. It has also been well documented how it pained him to see the soft, apathetic culture which developed at Old Trafford as affluence sated his colleagues' hunger.

And, indeed, that of United's supporters.

Perhaps Keane wants to taste again that feeling of a success that means something. A success that provides supporters with meaning to the very fibre of their being. Success that makes men walk tall for a week. If he stays fit and capable to take his place in a Celtic team in next year's Champions League, he will know a fulfillment of his ideals that he was never going to retrieve at Old Trafford.

Football means a lot to Roy Keane. And now he's playing for people who feel the same.

....Read more!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Alex Wept - There Were No More Worlds to Conquer

A tumultuous week, then, for football's two Alexes. Both beleagured of late, one received a shot in the harm, the other a kick in the teeth.

Ferguson and McLeish have been linked since their mutual participation in Aberdeen's glory years, and whether through the media's liking for ropey parallels, or genuine similarities in their characters they have intertwined several times since - most notably when Manchester United met Rangers in the Champions League two seasons ago, affording the media ample opportunity for "master and apprentice" type profiles

It is flattering for McLeish to have such comparisons made, for in reality he doesn't possess that ferocious will and the image of the cantankerous dictator that his old gaffer embodies. In fact, he generally comes across as a decent, normal enough bloke, for whom the insanity of Old Firm management and the pressures of Rangers' recent struggles seem sort of inappropriate, as far as jobs go.

His relative normality has meant that he has never been a figure of hatred for Celtic fans, unlike, say Graeme "The Beast" Souness. But then he is a figure of hatred for most people.

This decency was one of the characteristics which Rangers chairman David Murray cited in explanation of his decision to grant football's equivalent of the gubernatorial reprieve. Of course, the main factor was Rangers' unprecedented progression to the second stage of the Champions League, Murray reading the attendant feel-good factor from Tuesday night's exploits as enough to save his manager. Another suggested reason for McLeish's survival - that Murray was unable to attract replacements of any note, has been predictably denied by the chairman.

Murray has always dwelt in the realm of public relations. See memorable quotes such as "for every fiver Celtic spend we will spend ten", and his long-running mastery of the poodles of the Scottish football media. However, in interpreting Tuesday night's success as redressing the deficiency in McLeish's stock he would appear, for once, to be largely out of kilter with his public.

Despite the bragging rights that Rangers' fans hope to retrieve through Europe, the supporters, having waited ten dismal games for a win of any sort, are not fooled. There is real doubt as to whether a home draw against a tepidly interested Inter Milan, and progression from what was clearly one of the worst Champions League groups in recent memory, compensates for a domestic predicament which has the 51 times Scottish champions competing for a place in the top six of the Premierleague, rather than for the title. And there is even more serious doubt as to whether McLeish is the man to remedy the situation.

Both Alex's received backing from their respective superiors at their clubs this week. While Ferguson would still seem to be approaching the natural endgame of his glorious reign, there remains the sense that all McLeish has gotten is a stay of execution.

....Read more!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Right Royal Mess

In years to come, some opportunistic self-help guru will surely publish a book and conduct a nationwide tour entitled "Fielding the High Ball: Secrets of GAA Success", in an effort to tap into the demented yearning within the good people of middle Ireland for emotional Septembers with booze-filled cups winding their way through exultant villages.

The sagacious person in question will couch his exhortations with a cautionary tale: a chapter entitled "Meath: a lesson in what not to do"....

As this is the GAA inter-county off-season, the oxygen of publicity from the national papers has whipped gale-like around the Eamonn Barry affair in the Royal County in the absence of on-field league or championship action. Although we are not unused to county board fiascos and back-room skullduggery, this affair's significance is partially in how it has underlined how far once mighty Meath have fallen.

In his the closing years of his epoch as Meath manager Sean Boylan came to resemble that other wilting emperor, Alex Ferguson. Enshrined and protected by the phenomenal legacy of his achievement and his charismatic persona, Boylan, like Ferguson, seemed impotent in the face of the reality of coping with the inferior armoury of talent at his disposal, when compared to the gleaming arsenal of his heyday.

However Meath's demise since their hammering by Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland final has, if anything, been much more sudden and devastating. They appear so far away from reentering the winners enclosure they last graced in 1999 that they are now being firmly reclassed amid the lower tiers of Gaelic Football. This is a chastening reality for the Royal county, who walked so tall for most of Boylan's 23 year tenure.

The farcical and hugely damaging events of recent weeks suggest it will be some time before they regain their elite status. Certainly Eamonn Barry appears the quintessential lame duck manager, his authority surely terminally diminished by the "binding framework" forced on him by the county board. Indeed, the only thing likely to be binding about this fiasco is the figurative noose now placed around Barry's neck.

Barry may have received justified criticism for a slight lack of diplomacy in nominating to his staff two persons, physio Dermot Rogers and Barry's brother Martin, whose appointment would prove difficult for the county brass to stomach. However, as John O'Mahony recently pointed out in reflecting on his successful time as Galway manager, high achievement in inter-county management can only come with the full and unconditional support of the county board.

Full and unconditional support. Position that phrase next to such gems from the board diktat, sorry "binding framework", as:

-All officers of Meath County Board... are deserving of respect regardless of who they are.

"I demand to have some respect around here!"

-The Chairman and secretary are entitled to be present in Meath dressing rooms as well as at meetings, games and training sessions

Sounds a bit like when the inspector used to come to the school - "Children! behave!!"

- The relevant county official will supply jerseys and kit... and they will be collected after each game by the kitman and a county official for return to Meath County Board.

"Lads, I'm missing a sock here. Now come on Geraghty, hand it over, I know what you're up to..."

Is it the case that after 23 years of Boylan hegemony the county board in Meath have gotten drunk, nay, rotten paralytically pissed on their new found absolute power? Whatever. Eamonn Barry should have walked away from this one, not only for the sake of his own dignity, but for the long term good of his county. That those in charge remain unable to see the wood of success for the trees of internecine squabbling marks this job as a poisoned chalice.

When sounded out previously about his interest in the job, Colm O'Rourke, a figure reaching the status of exiled messiah the more his county suffers, stipulated far-reaching conditions which would need to be met were he to accept the position. These included root and branch reform of the youth system, serious investment in developing an elite culture and the instigation of three year terms for management (as opposed to the annual review currently in place). O'Rourke's absence from the recent succession contest suggests these measures - essential if the county is to even approach its former glory - are nowhere near implementation. One imagines that the will to implement them is also absent.

Barry, and any other candidate, would be better serving Meath by having nothing to do with the bizarre junta which emasculated him last Monday night.

....Read more!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Reds a Menace to the Title?

Its only fair, really, to come back to Liverpool.

Last week I was obfuscated to their progress a little by the fact grinding nature of their tedious victory over Manchester City. But fair is fair. Grind? It made Cliff Thorburn look like Liberace. Some geologists watching were overheard comparing the game unfavourably to the formation of the Himalayas for entertainment value. Many of the Maine Road crowd used the opportunity to put their tax returns in order.

So I apologise for not noting in this domain that the Rafalution is establishing at last the hallmarks of a championship winning team.

(NOTE: the above sentence applies, of course, in a utopian Chelski-less world, simpler times when when purple-faced beasts roamed the planet with equanimity, untroubled by tanned and overcoated hunters)

In further mitigation, I did mention the absence of Xabi Alonso and the presence of Djibril Cisse as hindrances to the Reds on that day at Maine Road which were absent for last Saturday's altogether more impressive victory. However, despite the turgidity of that game nine days ago the defensive solidity Liverpool exhibited (the foundation stone of their Champions League-winning edifice) plus their new-found and gnarled faculty for ekeing out wins are perennially stated characteristics of truly successful teams - and are of course, persistently in evidence down the King's Road this past season and a half or so.

Saturday's domination of a spirited Wigan side bodes well for Liverpool (with the caveat that Wigan's lofty status belies their true level due to the kindness of their early season fixture list) but, of course, Rafa Benitez's prime source of satisfaction will be the timely relief that came with the popping of Peter Crouch's goalscoring cherry. Benitez stuck manfully in recent weeks to the line that Crouch's worth was not to be measured in goals, but will undoubtedly be delighted at the end of striker's drought.

Justification, however, for the claim that Crouch's value is broader than simple goalscoring came shortly after the second goal, when his delightful flick into Steven Gerrard's path gave the midfielder an opportunity for a trade mark goal, denied only by a brilliant save by Mike Pollitt.

Pollitt's name, it now transpires, will go against that goal which seemingly released Crouch from his hex, an unfortunate circumstance when in truth the Wigan goalkeeper saved his team from the drubbing which Liverpool seemed capable of inflicting.

So to resilience and grit, Liverpool on Saturday added flair and essential goals from up front.

It seems, then, that over their seven match winning run, and particularly in the last two league performances Liverpool have shown that the championship winning feeling - so long absent from Merseyside as to be almost a folk memory now - may be returning.

Just a shame there isn't really a league to win anymore.

....Read more!