Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Superior Being Falls To Earth

Having gotten through four directors of football and seven first team coaches, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez finally turned his pistol on himself last night, and resigned his position. The progenitor of the 'Galacticos' concept, staring at the prospect of a third trophyless season for the world's richest club, admitted the need for a "change of direction" at the club, his mind having been made up by Real's latest humbling at the hands of Real Mallorca at the weekend. So how did it go so wrong for the man referred to by Emilio Butragueno as a "superior being"?

It is very easy to forget how right it went in the first three years of Perez's stewardship. By the end of the 2003 season Real had notched up two Primera Division titles and a Champions League success. In many ways, however, his success off the field was even greater.

Perez masterminded the shady deal which saw the club's vast EUR 200m debt wiped out by the sale of their training ground to the Madrid Regional Council for a hugely inflated fee of around EUR 350m. In addition the council provided land in the north-east of the city on which the club were able to build a new training complex and, if this largesse was not enough, allowed Real to manage two of the four office blocks constructed on the club's old training ground.

Real's privileged position in Spanish society was clearly evident in this deal, and opposition political parties and rival clubs were understandably hugely critical of what was, in effect, the use of public monies to bail Real out of their self-induced financial mess.

The club's immediate financial difficulties sorted out, Perez began to implement the policies that would culminate in Real overhauling Manchester United as the world's richest club - but would, with heavy irony, lead to their downfall in footballing terms. The practice was often referred to as 'Zidanes and Pavons' - where the regular recruitment of global superstars would be augmented by graduates of the clubs own youth system to full out the less glamourous squad numbers.

Real's global popularity and marketability soared, but their initial on-field success depended on a delicate balance. While the Champions League winning team of 2002 included the bountiful talents of Zidane, Figo, Raul and Roberto Carlos, it was stiffened by the experience of Fernando Hierro, Claude Makalele and Ivan Helguera. The unassuming presence of coach Vicente del Bosque allowed the team to flourish and Perez's vision looked complete. It was the abondonment of this balance which led to Real's downfall, and to that of Perez.

In 2003 Real allowed Makalele, Hierro and Del Bosque to leave, and signed David Beckham. While the Englishman has generally performed well at the Bernabeu, and is highly regarded in Spain, his signature was symbolic as the full embodiment of the Galactico policy, in which a player's commercial value was as relevant, if not more so, as his footballing value. It was around this time that Perez uttered this telling quote: "Just look how handsome Beckham is, the class he has, the image. The whole of Asia has fallen in love with us because of Beckham. Between Ronaldinho and Beckham, I'd go for Beckham a hundred times. Ronaldinho was too ugly to play for Madrid."

With footballing considerations sidelined more and more in favour of commercial imperatives, the reality of the president's vision began to infect Real Madrid. The unprecedented collection of egos that gathered at the Bernabeu - Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Raul, Roberto Carlos - proved unmanageable for a succession of coaches and the lack of defensive midfielders and experienced defenders made them consistently vulnerable.

The complicity of the Spanish press and the sychophancy of his Bernabeu minions, meanwhile, kept Perez invulnerable, as the players and coaches were subjected to the criticism which his bloated, malfunctioning empire had created. The success of Madrid's bitter rivals, Barcelona, under Frank Rijkaard, crystallized Real's woes, specifically in the form of several humiliating defeats. The need for drastic reform of Real's onfield fortunes was underlined in recent weeks with the 6-1 loss to Real Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey being followed by the defeats to Arsenal and Mallorca last week.

It seems therefore fitting that, as Real look to haul themselves back to their customary position of footballing eminence, it should be without the man whose flawed vision has left them in the state in which they now find themselves.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Shall We Sing A Song For You?

It was announced yesterday that Robbie Williams has become a shareholder in Port Vale FC, the pop star parting with an undisclosed amount of his ill-gotten gains to help alleviate the League One club's penury. Williams, who grew up in Stoke-on-Trent and is a lifelong Vale fan, may not be every pop picker's cup of tea, but represents a rare injection of glamour for the Black Country toilers. Many other clubs enjoy support from the musical fraternity - but not all of them endow their clubs with that elusive rock 'n' roll cool.

So is your club more Cliff Richard than Keith Richards?

Keef: Ian Brown (Stone Roses), Richard Ashcroft (The Verve), Tim Burgess (The Charlatans)

Cliff: Mick Hucknall (Simply Red)

Thankfully this investigation only applies to the music world, as the presence of the oleaginous Northern Irish triumvirate of Messrs Holmes, Kielty and Nesbitt would otherwise have counted strongly against United. As it is, the mighty Ian Brown, ably backed by fellow charismatic, floppy haired indie gods Ashcroft and Burgess, are just about enough to outcool the archetypal ginger prat, Mick Hucknall.

Elvis Costello, Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen), Ian Broudie (Lightening Seeds). Er, Gerry Marsden? (Gerry and the Pacemakers)

Cliff: Cilla Black, Mel C, Mark Owen, Chris De Burgh

For a city with such a reknowned musical heritage, this is a surprisingly tough call. A solid line-up of credibility is almost completely undermined by the presence of the Argentine babysitter-fancier and his soft-focus schmaltz. Some may wonder at the absence of any member of the Beatles, but there is little evidence of any real Fab fanaticism for the Reds. Saving 'Pool's bacon on a technicality is the presence on the bench of the late, great John Peel, not a musician per se, but then, well, he was John Peel after all...

Keef: John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon (Sex Pistols)

Cliff: Appleton sisters (All Saints), Dido, Rachel Stevens

Arsenal's celebrity fans tend to be the of the TV or literary type, and the musical wing of their fanbase is worryingly heavy on manufactured popettes. In years gone by the support of the original sultan of sneer and punk legend Lydon would have safely ensured the Gunners cache, but these days - since the I'm A Celebrity appearance - the former Mr Rotten is merely a day-glo irritant, as dangerous as Aled Jones, despite what he himself may think.

Keef/Cliff (interchangeable, depending on your attitude to 'irony' in music): Chas 'n' Dave, Status Quo

Definitely Cliff: Phil Collins

Now bear with me on this one. Can you really dismiss the group which brought us Ossie's Dream? Or the majesty of Snooker Loopy and Rabbit? Please, they should be headlining Glastonbury every year. Supported by the Quo. For Collins, see Hucknall, replacing 'ginger' with 'bald'.

Keef: Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

Cliff: Liam Gallagher (Oasis)

Big bro is the creator of the soundtrack to the mid-90s, an entertaining and actually rather engaging fellow - and, one gets the feeling, conscious of his group's limitations. Little bro genuinely thinks he is the reincarnation of John Lennon and apparently thought that Spinal Tap was a real documentary. Berk.

Keef: Mogwai, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, Fran Healy (Travis), Rod (circa Maggie Mae)

Cliff: Jim Kerr (Simple Minds), Rod (circa Do Ya Think I'm Sexy)

Decent line-up here, with Mogwai, the mighty Scream and the venerable Fannies the highlights of a high indie-cred bunch. Almost scuppered by the poor man's Bono and the hugely disturbing memory of Mr Stewart in lycra leggings. But then he does have a football pitch in his back yard, kicks balls into the crowd at gigs and mentioned Celtic in a song from his 1970s heyday, so you can't doubt the lad's commitment.

Keef: Ian McCallum (Stiff Little Fingers guitarist), Midge Ure

Cliff: Wet Wet Wet.

Nuff said.

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Ireland Get It Right

The word 'pivotal' was used often in the run-up to yesterday's match, and was a fitting adjective when you imagine the contrasting moods in the Irish and Welsh camps this morning, looking towards the climax of the Six Nations Championship. If this pivotal match had a pivotal moment, it occured after 18 minutes when Stephen Jones, the Welsh out-half, limped out of the match. From that moment, Ireland grew, while Wales shrivelled.

Having spent the opening quarter camped in Ireland's half, and notching the first try of the game, the Welsh suddenly and dramatically collapsed. It was as if, with the absence of Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin, to name but three backs in a longer injury list, Jones had alone kept the flame of the Welsh Grand Slam team burning, the number 10 running the whole game in a masterful opening spell. In his absence, Wales collapsed, unable to cope with yet another crucial absentee, and were unrecognisable as a team who had swept all before them a year ago.

It is tempting to pour scorn on someone like Gavin Henson, whose primped and plucked appearance invites derision. True he missed a tackle on Andrew Trimble, which allowed the young Ulsterman to make Ireland's first serious foray into Welsh territory and ultimately culminated in Ireland's opening try, and kicked woefully and too often. But Henson was playing only his second match in seven months and his first for Wales since the Slam was sealed, and it was too much to expect him to take on Jones' formidable mantle in such circumstances.

Last week we speculated as to how Ireland would approach the game. The outcome was a clear vindication for Eddie O'Sullivan and his players. Forget the question of loose or tight tactics, Ireland simply playing winning rugby yesterday. Doing enough in the scrum, solid and efficient in the line-out, mauling wisely, sharp in the breakdown and rucks, and then really exploiting the talent in the backs with several breathtaking sequences, the pick of which - an interchange involving Horgan, O'Driscoll and O'Gara - saw Jerry Flannery held up just short when a try seemed inevitable.

As well as the coach, several players will be feeling vindicated this morning. Peter Stringer capped a fine performance with a late try, and it does the heart good to see the little tyke finally responding to long-standing criticism. Malcolm O'Kelly also deserves huge credit for making the absence of Paul O'Connell as unnoticeable as possible, just when it seemed his career at the top level was in danger. Geordan Murphy's class should never be in doubt, but he came up with a solid display to assuages worries over his recent form.

As a team, though, most importantly, it was at last a display approaching, or even suggesting at, the potential within the squad of players - and a timely shot in the arm for Eddie O'Sullivan's stewardship.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Bedraggled Wales Face Embattled Ireland - Fun Results

On the third week of the Six Nations most interest will be focused on Lansdowne Road on Sunday for the visit of Wales. The Calcutta Cup tie at Murrayfield tomorrow may be tumultuous with patriotic fervour - all skirling pipes and fireworks - but although neither side may win the tournament, the circumstances of recent weeks mean that the meeting of Ireland and Wales will carry the most fascination.

Wales arrive less their Grand Slam winning coach and their inspirational captain, and plus the controversial playboy centre whose prose activities earned him no favours with his team mates. That, of course, doesn't tell half the story of what as been a typically wounding few weeks for the Welsh. How dispiriting must it be for the Welsh supporters to have followed up their rousing success of last year, and seeming return to international respectability, with the shambles of Mike Ruddock's demise, which given its similarities to Irish soccer's darkest hour, should henceforth be known as the Dai-pan affair.

The timeline of events has been covered in detail elsewhere, so the focus now is on the Scott Johnson era - apparently to be shortlived according to claims from within the Australian's home union yesterday - and whether the charismatic skills coach's ethos, now unfettered, will result in a Welsh performance of gay, running abandon. Ruddock was given credit for steadying the Welsh set-piece sufficiently to allow their Johnson-inspired improvisational formula room to breathe. Indeed, the succession of shoves on the Scottish scrum which led to Wales' first try a fortnight ago can be attributed to Ruddock's influence.

Of course no rugby side can survive by flair alone, and surely Wales will not abandon core virtues on Sunday. However Kevin Mitchell's piece in last Sunday's Observer provides some interesting data about the Welsh forwards. For those too lazy to read it, basically, based on statistics from last season's championship, Welsh forwards passed the ball exponentially more than their opponents. For example, against Scotland last year, the Welsh forwards made 46 passes in the first half, three fewer than Ireland's forwards did in the whole championship, and in their match against Wales, English forwards passed the ball only twice.

Mitchell uses this data as evidence to support Ruddock, whose province the forwards were. However it is difficult not to detect the hand of Johnson - the skills coach - in all this passing around, and one wonders if this influence will be even more pronounced on Sunday.

Just as interesting to see will be the Irish reaction to the peculiar afternoon in Paris two weeks ago. Almost saved by the tactic of running and moving the ball, will Ireland attempt to take on the Welsh at their own game? Or will they revert to a tactic of grinding down the front five in the tight and limiting the time the ball spends in impish Welsh hands? Its a major decision for Eddie O'Sullivan, a coach whose long term future is now a popular subject for conjecture.

It is a worrying fact that we should still be speculating about how Ireland will play, about whether O'Sullivan can get the best out of the players and about whether he really knows how he wants his team to play. Is his heart really in making Ireland a running team, given his reputation for structure?

He may feel queasy at the thought of the Welsh back row, particularly Martyn Williams, passing off the fringes, and Dwayne Peel tapping and running everything and decide to attempt to slow the game down. But then he may feel morally obliged to try and cut loose the instincts that saw Ireland put four tries second half on France, knowing that if successful it could give his coaching reign a serious fillip.

Big call Eddie.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

TSA News in Brief...TSA News in Brief...TSA News in Brief...


LONDON:-Andrew Murray's meteoric rise continued apace as the teenage British tennis star finally overtook Cecil "Spiffer" Jenkins as the British no.1, following is victory over Lleyton Hewitt in the SAP Open Final in San Jose. Jenkins, who won the Eton School Doubles title in 1898 and 1901 accompanied by loyal chum Walter Clothbottom, topped the LTA rankings for decades since his historic victory in the 1905 Henley Village Racquets Jamboree. He also notched up the mixed doubles crown alongside sweetheart Emily Morningside. It is regarded as unlikely, however, that Murray will surpass Jenkins in adding the West Chiltington All-comers Conkers title to his roll of honour.



DUBLIN:-Rugby star Gavin Henson and aging crooner Tom Jones today signed a historic agreement which will see them tighten their already steely grip on Wales' tan stocks. Henson and Jones are believed to control 98% of the country's pigmentation resources, and it is thought the new accord will strengthen their dominance. Human rights activists have decried the concentration of Welsh tan in Henson and Jones' hands, pointing to the dangerous levels of paleness endured by much of the population. As Welsh rugby supporters gathered in Dublin today, sporting their traditional pasty, freckled countenances, many experts predicted that it would be some years before most Welsh people looked "in any way healthy, or attractive at all".

LANCASHIRE:-It was tally-ho and up for the Cup for thousands of ruddy faced northern folk today, as the followers of Manchester United and Wigan Athletic boarded locomotives and omnibuses destined for the Big Match in Cardiff on Sunday. Coal mines and cotton mills lay silent, and flat caps were donned as the intrepid hordes ventured south, their spirits heightened no doubt by copious flagons of frothy ale! Look at this fellow: hasn't seen a bath in weeks, but he won't let his filthy odour dampen his good humour! Win, lose or draw, these cheery masses will enjoy a good drink and a fight afterwards, and go back to their slums happy as sandboys!

DUBLIN:- It has been reported today that an incident of banter occurred last night in a Dublin pub between two inebriated GAA fans. One fan, who hailed from the southwest county of Kerry is believed to have baited a fellow drinker, thought to have been a local Dublin native, stating that "ye Dubs, sure ye are only gurriers, the Kingdom would make mincemeat of ye". The Dublin resident is reported to have responded swiftly "At least we bleedin' bet dem nordies up in T'rone, and we bet them in the row as well, more than you culchies managed anyway!". The banter apparently continued in this vein until the barman, a Longford native, appeared, and was subjected by the erstwhile adversaries to a two-pronged "slagging" attack regarding his county's footballing prowess.

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World Rolls Its Eyes At Jose's Complaints

Its difficult to know how history will judge Jose Mourinho - he is, after all, still a relatively young manager. His career so far has been a glittering one, the FA Cup being the only major trophy available to him which he is yet to win. He achieved the unthinkable with Porto in winning the Champions League with a team from outside of Europe's major leagues. He stormed into English football dripping with dusky charisma, straddling the Chelsea beast to bust up the stale hegemony of Manchester United and Arsenal. And Britain has anointed him a high level star in the new celebrity firmament.

But on nights like last night, watching his team beaten by mesmeric Barcelona, and listening to his sour rant after the match, it is clear that, for all his success, he will never occupy the pantheon of managerial greats - Michels, Zagalo, Busby, Stein, Shankly, Paisley, Sacchi, Lobanovsky to name but a few - men who inspired people to love the game. Even dear old Alex Ferguson, for all his arrogance and mindgames, produced breathtaking football teams.

Last night's match, and possibly now the tie, hung on the dismissal of Asier del Horno after 35 minutes, but no one who has the good of football at heart will feel sorry for Chelsea this morning, even if they felt that Del Horno's red card was harsh. The matter of Abramovich's billions aside, Chelsea's credit at the morality bank was negligible for anyone who has watched them under Mourinho. For anyone who watched the same fixture last year, and saw the choreographed cheat by Ricardo Carvalho which led to John Terry's winner, and then listened to Mourinho's complaints about del Horno's sending off and Messi's role in it, Chelsea's right to feel hard done by is gladly waived.

Having made his name on the concept of living by the sword, you'd think Mourinho would have accepted dying by it.

That's not to suggest that del Horno's sending off was unjustified. The Spaniard's challenge on the little Argentine, who had been in the process of giving the full-back on old fashioned roasting (titter ye not) on the right wing, was reckless and referee Terje Hauge was within his rights to send del Horno off for violent conduct. Messi may have overdone the dramatic rolls once floored, but del Horno did likewise in an attempt to play the "you wouldn't book an injured man, would you?" card.

Chelsea's best characteristics came to the fore thereafter, digging in manfully with ten men and forcing an unlikely lead via an own goal from a wicked Lampard free kick. Whatever else comes up on footballing Judgement Day for Mourinho, his Chelsea team will be credited with immense spirit and resolve, and looked like they would grind out a famous result as Barcelona seemed to toil against the resolute home side.

The substitution of Henrik Larsson for Motta was timed to prefection by Frank Rijkaard - it was seemed to provide the Catalans with another gear as the tiring Chelsea rearguard began to spring leaks from repeated piercings by Ronaldinho, Messi and co. One wonders if the final irony about last night's titanic encounter was that Chelsea's ten men tired rapidly due to the heaviness of their controversial pitch?

Like all of the last 16 ties, this one will have another few twists in store in a fortnight, and you wouldn't put it past Chelsea to summon their sense of grievance and resolve into a heroic last stand, but for most football fans, not just those of Barcelona, there was the sense that a bit of justice was done last night.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Doing Business the Barca Way

By the way, while slagging off Real Madrid earlier, I didn't mention that as Thierry Henry is widely regarded as The Coolest Footballer In The World (c), I would imagine that if he were to move that he would surely choose Barcelona, an infinitely cooler club than Franco's XI.

Okay, they may be sadly getting sponsors on their jerseys for the first time, but they still possess a sense style that Madrid's vulgar, establishment minions could never match.

Then today Barca vice-president Ferran Soriano responded to the speculation concerning Henry in a dignified manner which their opponents this evening would do well do adopt: "There are a lot of rumours in this industry. Everybody would like to have Thierry Henry in their team, but he has a team and a contract, and we respect that. One day if he is available we would talk - but not now. Anyway, we're happy with the players we've got."

Class. You can't buy it.

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Contrasting Fortunes for Gunners and Liverpool on Travels

Now Arsenal supporters won't be short of reasons to smile this morning, but if their historic victory in the Bernabeu last night, and the textbook European performance that brought it about, wasn't enough, any Gunner who saw David Beckham's typically supercilious interview on ITV before the match will have had even more reason for satisfaction.

Beckham, asked about Thierry Henry and his future, smirked knowingly at the notion that the Frenchman might end up playing alongside him at Real Madrid, rather than at Barcelona, where speculation suggests he would go if he left North London. Arsenal fans will feel a little vindication today that not only did their team wipe the aforementioned smirk off Beckham's face, but also that they weighed in with a huge result which can only help Henry feel that he can still achieve great things with the club.
Of course, no team should go to the Bernabeu these days with the same trepidation as in the earlier years of this millenium, when Raul was prince of strikers, Zidane and Figo were in their prime and Claude Makalele was the silent steel who allowed them all to play. Aging and defensively vulnerable now, Madrid can often seem like the footballing personification of Gloria Swanson's washed-up old silent movie star in Sunset Boulevard - "we're still big, its just the Champions League that got smaller!".

All that said, they still possess an abundance of talent, and have improved of sufficiently of late under new coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, to have worried an Arsenal side that have struggled so wanly in domestic football this year. That the Gunners will look back on last night, and the missed opportunities by Henry, Diaby, Reyes and Ljungberg, as a squandered chance to have killed the tie, is testament to Arsene Wenger's simple and effective tactical set-up and a timely display of fortitude by his young team.

This time last year Liverpool were in the process of trying to convince their talisman, Steven Gerrard, that he could realise his own grand ambitions on Merseyside. Then came Istanbul and all that and Liverpool's progression to being serious challengers for big honours. Last night in Lisbon was a little reminder both of Gerrard's importance to Liverpool's offensive thrust, and also, yet again, of the fact that their progress under Rafa Benitez will be held up until they add some real menace into their forward line.

The recruitment of Robbie Fowler in January was popular, and he has shown qualities in link up play thus far, but Liverpool are devoid of pace up front at the moment, an attribute - as demonstrated so starkly by Henry and Arsenal last night - which is so important away from home in Europe.

As normal of late, Liverpool controlled possession, their precise one-touch passing now a familiar Benitez hallmark. But on no occasion did the Benfica defence - admittedly brilliantly marshalled by goalscoring hero Luisao - feel stretched, for all the Reds territorial dominance. The worry for Liverpool is that, although a one goal deficit seems a puny one to bring to one of Europe's toughest arenas, if Benfica are similarly well-organised in the second leg they will have a decent chance of frustrating a home side which is not bursting with goals these days.

So while Arsenal are in the nice position of knowing that Real must attack them at Highbury, leaving more opportunities for the sort of counter-attacks we saw last night, Liverpool will know that the hard work is just beginning.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Yippee, Its the Champions League Last 16!

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the commencement of what can be called the Business End of the Football season. Pull up your armchairs, listen for the stirring tones of everyone’s favourite Eurochoir and prepare for dollops of Glamour, Excitement and Messages from our Sponsors.

It’s the last 16 of the Champions League, in case you hadn’t guessed.

European football’s top table dons napkins and prepares to nosh down on the feast it began preparing last July, filleting over the ensuing months the gristle of the continent’s minnows: unwanted offal from Albania, Armenia, Ireland and Iceland; indigestible innards from Faroes, Finland, Malta and Macedonia.

Since the discarding of the unwieldy second group stage for the 2003-04 season, the last 16 has been a much more interesting proposition – knockout football worthy of excitement and interest after the chilling winter of the domestic grind. As such it is always an enlightening snapshot of European club football, and how the balance of power lies.

'02 '03 '04 '05 '06 Total
Eng 3 3 3 4 3 16
Spa 3 4 4 2 3 16
Ita 2 4 2 3 3 14
Ger 2 2 2 3 2 11
Fra 1 0 2 2 1 6
Por 2 0 1 1 1 5
Hol 0 1 0 1 2 4
Rus 0 1 1 0 0 2
Czh 1 0 1 0 0 2
Sco 0 0 0 0 1 1
Swz 0 1 0 0 0 1
Tur 1 0 0 0 0 1
Gre 1 0 0 0 0 1

Taking the last five years into account (as UEFA does for coefficient purposes) the overall picture is entirely predictable: England and Spain, closely followed by Italy, then Germany, occupy the vast majority of last 16 places. English clubs have been the most consistent of the top nations, never having less than three places in the last 16, while Spain’s anomalous 2005 campaign, when poor Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia teams failed to make the cut, is all that prevents them from assuming top spot.

As for Europe’s smaller leagues, the remaining places are scattered amongst them like so many crumbs from the big boys’ table. 2002 was a relatively halcyon year for the minnows, with the Panathanaikos, Galatasary, Sparta Prague and two Portuguese teams (Porto and Boavista) bustling into the big time. If anything, the past two seasons has seen consolidation of power amongst the stronger leagues. In 2005 Porto and PSV Eindhoven were the only qualifiers outside the Big Four and their lesser adjunct, France, while this year, Rangers, PSV and Ajax find themselves as the sole standard bearers for the continents less glamourous outposts.

A look at some of the names of four or five years ago can feel like examining the names of FA Cup finalists of the Victorian era: for Wanderers, Old Carthusians and Royal Engineers, read Nantes, Panathanaikos, Basle,and indeed Newcastle, clubs who were only admitted to the VIP area on guest passes.

The mouthwatering nature of this year’s second round fixture list attests to the fact that, aside from the odd gatecrasher, this is a more exclusive party than ever.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

A New Code for Rugby in London

Last Saturday I caught some of the drawn rugby league Super League contest between Bradford Bulls and Harlequins RL. This was the second match for the new London rugby league franchise, and the latest attempt to establish the 13 man game in the capital.

Rather like when FIFA granted the football World Cup to the USA in an attempt to spread the game to a previously uninterested constituency, not everyone in rugby league, outwith the game's governing body, is convinced by the persistent efforts to popularise the game down south. Many would rather see the expenditure on the sport in London, and indeed the city's Super League slot, given to smaller clubs in the game's northern heartland.

The most striking thing about the new London club is the fact that it is a full collaboration between the the two rugby codes, with the union and league outfits sharing Harlequins traditional home at the Stoop and both wearing the famous Quins multi-hued strip. Indeed the league team even took three of their union counterparts on their pre-season training trip to the south of France.

Both sides have been thus far positively ecumenical in their sentiments; Dean Richards, the union team's director of rugby said “Whilst the two sports are of course very different, there are a number of skills that are transferable....It has been so refreshing to have another sport to train alongside. So far, I think both codes have benefited greatly from our relationship”, while his league counterpart Tony Rea agreed:"There are lots of good athletes in the union squad and we have been very impressed with the way things are going".

This is all a far cry from the historical rivalry between the codes which began in 1895 when the Northern Rugby Union was formed in the George Hotel in Huddersfield in response to the Rugby Football Union's continued refusal to allow compensation be paid to players for time off work due to rugby commitments("broken-time payments"). This affected the clubs in the working class north whose players therefore could not afford to take time off work in order to play.

The RFU had seen how professionalism had affected Association Football as working-class clubs came to dominate the game in its early years and were determined to prevent such a power shift in rugby, with one contemporary quote - "if they can't afford to play, they should go without the game" - illustrating the attitude of the southern gentlemen of union. A split was therefore inevitable and the two codes' histories continued to be played out against vastly different social backdrops.

There is something a little Darwinian about the development of the two codes thereafter, in the way they both evolved differently to suit their environments. League reduced the number of players, eliminated the emphasis on set-pieces like line out and scrum, and abandoned rucking, all in an attempt to make the sport more exciting to spectators. The economic imperative of running a professional sport meaning that league was focussed on the entertainment factor long before the whistles and bells of the Super League. Union on the other hand remained, while not exactly refined, more tactically complex and less visceral, not requiring the same mass appeal in order to survive.

Despite the London efforts, and the recent popularity of league defensive systems in union, the battles lines drawn in the George Hotel in 1895 remain in place, with an English person's affinity largely decided by geographical location and social status, leaving the neutral to appreciate league's crash-bang-wallop on one hand, and union's stouter virtues on the other.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Er...TSA Words Inspire Liverpool...?

A preview of today's FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Manchester United in influential sports blog 'Tom's Sporting Almanac' is believed to have inspired the Anfield side to their 1-0 victory.

The preview, which tipped United to win on account of their superior desire, left Reds boss Rafael Benitez fuming, and the Spaniard is claimed to have pinned up a print-out of the article in the home dressing room in a successful attempt to inspire his troops.

One source within the club revealed that Benitez "marched into the dressing room with the article in hand, screaming 'look at what thees eediot has written - let us go and show thees Tom what we are made of', to which the players responded 'yeah!!'".

Tom responded to the claims today, making the following statement to press: "In my defence, I was not to know that Alex Ferguson would select his flimsiest midfield configuration against one of the Premiership's most physically robust sides, yielding total domination of possession to Liverpool for most of the match. In a grim new era for United midfields, the quartet of Ronaldo, Giggs, Fletcher and Richardson was a new low", before draining his martini and returning to his nearby yacht.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

United's Greater Need to Tell

Football's rulebook has unfortunately diluted the potential pantomime factor for tomorrow's Liverpool v Manchester United FA Cup Fifth Round tie. Imagine the fun the opposing supporters would have had, had their already robust mutual loathing been cheerled by Scouse-hater extraordinaire Gary Neville on one side and arch-scally and former City boy Robbie Fowler on the other...

As it is, due to Fowler being cup-tied, Neville alone carries the flame for hiss-boo tribal villainry, a part which he his only too delighted to play. As much as Neville can appear a ridiculous character when he allows himself to be drawn into the kind of lurid conflict with Liverpool fans which we saw at the end of the recent league fixture at Old Trafford, his obvious passion for United and empathy with the club's supporters are still quite endearing, and refreshing, in today's game.

However, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor's claim that most rival supporters held a "grudging respect" for Neville would not gain much credence in the surrounds of Anfield tomorrow morning, when the United captain's name will be inserted into several ditties which will, no doubt, fail to reveal Liverpool fans' "respect" for the man.

Whoever the participants, English football's premier fixture needs no extra subplots to sharpen its fervour. However, the fact that the two clubs have seemingly cemented themselves as the country's Second Tier means that any league and Cup battles between the two have special relevance, aside from north-west bragging rights in purely footballing terms. United and Liverpool are obviously flawed in comparison with the Chelsea machine above them, but remain more complete than the works-in-progress, or in Arsenal's case, fading forces, who lie beneath them.

For all that, there is no doubt that United's need is greater. Liverpool will anticipate the impending resumption of their Champions League campaign with some relish, retaining as they do the solidity of last season coupled with a greater fluidity in midfield, and a favourable draw against Benfica. A lack of striking explosiveness remains their one achilles heel, but they have already proved, as Porto did before them, that that is not a prerequisite for winning in Europe.

United on the other hand will crave the FA Cup. The Carling Cup final awaits in a few weeks, but for a club like United, the FA Cup is the minimum acceptable measurement of success. Arsenal's larcenous victory in last year's final and the absence of European distractions mean that every fibre of the club's being will be focused on victory tomorrow. As they have demonstrated already this season, however else they may have slipped, the ability to dig out results in big domestic matches as not yet escaped them.

Liverpool will dominate the midfield tomorrow, and the possession statistics, but if there is to be a winner tomorrow United's greater threat up front, but more importantly the necessity of victory, will carry them through.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

TSA News in Brief...TSA News in Brief...TSA News in Brief...

World Wrestling head honcho Vince McMahon has challenged GAA president Sean Kelly to a final showdown to decide the Ultimate Intercontinental Smackdown title. McMahon chided yesterday "Kelly has been running that two bit federation over there showing disrespect to the WWE at every turn: well now its time for some pain!". McMahon was especially perturbed at the running of the Omagh Raw! primetime special (which featured the roughest, toughest names in the GAA in a long awaited grudge match) in competition with the WWE Royal Rumble event. Kelly responded yesterday, stating "this is a matter for the Central Fixtures Committee to address, and they will decide in due course if ass-whupping is appropriate in this case".

Stockport County were today toasting the 2006 Football Rich List, published yesterday by financial boffins Deloitte and Touche. The Hatters surged to 532nd on the list, finally surpassing long time incumbents Bury. County chief Kevan Taylor cited merchandising growth as the reason for the club's success: "Sausage roll sales have gone through the roof this season and represent a key growth area for our brand. Hatters Ham and Cheese Sarnies have also gotten the cash registers ticking over and while our core revenue streams are healthy, we will look to expand into new markets, in particular Cheadle and Wilmslow."

Welsh rugby bosses patience with coach Mike Ruddock finally snapped after Saturday's win over Scotland at the Millenium Stadium cost the boss his job. Sources in the principality suggest that following the debacle of last season's Grand Slam win, WRU Chiefs told Ruddock that "any more wins would not be tolerated". One insider added "the WRU feel that they have spent thirty years turning Wales from rugby's most powerful nation into a laughing stock only for Ruddock to come along and reverse all that good work". Ruddock received a stay of execution after the false dawn of defeat to England, but WRU top brass were maddened by the flagrant domination of the Taffs scrum against the Scots, not least the embarassment of scoring four tries.

Republic of Ireland fans gained their first insight into Sir Bobby Robson's role in the country's new international set-up yesterday when the 73 year old striker was named amongst the new caps in Staunton's first squad for the upcoming frientdly against Sweden. "Some say Bobby is a bit long in the tooth, but that's just ageism - I'm sure he can teach these youngsters a thing or two around the box".
Robson, believed to have qualified for Ireland through a misinterpretation of the the phrase "grandparent rule", was excited about the new challenge, enthusing "I'll be asking Duffer to keep the ball coming with the laces facing out, and I'll stick'em in the onion bag". Robson's superior pace is thought to have earned him the nod over Gary Doherty.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wenger's Voyage Enters Its Choppiest Waters

Over the last few years transformation has been the keyword for England's top clubs. Whether it is the wholesale change in ownership, status and fortunes at Chelsea, or the 'Rafalution' at Liverpool which has seen their European and domestic reputation restored, or the Glazer family's tumultuous takeover at Manchester United, coupled with Alex Ferguson's attempts to build yet another new team in the twilight of his career - the landscape at the top of the Premiership has been dramatically altered. It may seem as if Arsenal are the most inert of all these clubs, retaining stable managerial and boardroom structures, but they are, in fact, going through changes as great as any of their rivals.

Arsene Wenger, while no pauper about the football marketplace, never had the financial clout to match his actual achievements. More typical of Wenger was the kind of careful husbandry which either saw a $500,000 fee for Nicolas Snelka transformed into a £22m sale to Real Madrid, or the competitive £4m paid in 1996 for the club's figurehead skipper, Patrick Vieira.

Arsenal's move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium is the key manouevre in boosting their financial competitiveness, adding as it will 22,000 spectators to their ground. The emotional impact of the switch has been matched by the stress placed on Wenger's custodianship of the club, however, as it has further curtailed the manager's ability to maintain the quality of his squad.

This difficulty was entirely expected by the Arsenal board, and they have never wavered from their commitment to and support of their manager, seeing in him the qualities of vision and leadership to bring the club through such a huge transition.

The sense of trust in Wenger's abilities was not even widely questioned when he sold Vieira to Juventus for the healthy fee of £13.7m. It was almost a matter of faith that 'Le Boss' would know best, and believed that Vieira could be satisfactorily replaced from within.

The loss of his captain, has - at the most difficult time in his tenure, as the club copes simultaneously with the domination of Chelsea and the huge unrest of moving ground - destabilised Arsenal on the field beyond any predictions. Vieira's leadership qualities have been woefully lacking in the Gunners' feeble defeats in the North-west to Bolton (twice) and to Liverpool last night.

It seems now apparent that Vieira was the mainspring from which the entire side drew its spirit, and the absence of fight in the team last night has been the key criticism from their supporters. Wenger has found that his other senior players - Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell - have been sadly incapable of providing the qualities the former captain possessed in abundance, in particular leadership for Arsenal's glut of exciting young players.

Wenger's position and Arsenal's plans are both long term, but the manager knows that if the club is to avoid slipping out of the financially crucial Champions League places and losing the benefit of his decade of great work, some short term measures are desprately needed to stabilise what is a dangerously listing vessel

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day Manager Courting Special

Suitor: England

Talent: Martin O'Neill, Guus Hiddink, Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley, Steve McClaren

Chances?: Despite regarding itself as a real player, England's chances of everlasting happiness are endangered by their hurt from previous messy break-ups. They always go for the complete opposite of the cad they've just got rid of: Dodgy Tel was followed by saintly Glenda, fun-loving Kev was followed by serious Sven. Now they're not sure if they fell out of love with Sven because he was foreign or because he wasn't passionate enough - or his fondness for flirting with other potential paramours. O'Neill might not be available, or else might be deterred by England's emotional baggage, and the rest are a bit too eager - and we all know how off-putting that is. Will probably end up settling for a nice, steady local fella.

Suitor: Newcastle United

Talent: Martin O'Neill, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Sven Goran Eriksson, Alan Shearer

Chances?: Gossip has it that big busty Freddie Shepherd tried it on with Sven, but the Swede was uncharacteristically disinterested. What's crystal clear is that Magpies are making a big play for O'Neill, trying to turn his head with a magnificient display of plumage. Having had a rough time of it recently, frankly the heartbreak will be too much to bear if coy Martin spurns their advances, but the Toon could find solace in the experienced hands of grizzled German lothario Ottmar Hitzfeld. Some say they're carrying a soft spot for the boy next door, but Alan Shearer's obviously not ready for a serious relationship yet.

Suitor: Rangers

Talent: Paul Le Guen, Graeme Souness

Chances?: Rangers were obviously living a lie in the latter stages of their most recent marriage, and were probably only staying together for the sake of the kids. When said kids lined up after the defeat to Hibs to shout obscenities into the parents bedroom it was clearly time to end the pretence. Catty neighbours had said that Rangers were seducing suave Frenchman Le Guen as early as last autumn - poor Alex McLeish, the shame! The humilation! It's the lies that hurt most you know!
Now its out in the open the sophisticated former Lyon beau could be finding himself attracted to a bit of rough in the south side of Glasgow - he even got his best friend to pass a note along saying he was interested last Sunday. Failing that, Graeme Souness lurks, Heathcliff-style, with dark and brooding intent, whispering about "unfinished business"....

*NOTE: Walsall will be mainly staying in tonight with a microwave meal for one, six cans of Dutch Gold and and a Jenna Jameson box set.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Was Ireland's Comeback Meaningless?

Let's be clear on one thing. Ireland were remarkably close to pulling off the greatest comeback in the history of rugby - indeed, probably since Jesus went to pay his respects at his mate Lazarus' funeral - last Saturday in Stade de France. Had they managed to score a fifth try following another O'Driscoll break instead of being penalised there is enough evidence to suggest that the French, exhausted and in disarray, would have yielded the match.

So can an Irish team who came close to pulling off such a feat be forgiven the embarassment of the first fifty minutes?France's capitulation in the second half cannot be taken in isolation, of course. Their blitz defence, up close tackling and dominant scrummaging, which contributed largely to Ireland's downfall, all demanded a physical effort which was such that once the match was seen to have been secured, and handsomely so, the plug was pulled.

As slipshod as Ireland had been, they had too much talent to be afforded the freedom of St.Denis. Where their misplaced attempts at expansiveness in the first half had been eagerly crushed by the frenetic French effort, so in the second half the natural running and ball-carrying ability in the side - in particular O'Driscoll and D'Arcy in the backs, O'Connell, Wallace and Leamy in the forwards - profited handsomely from the hosts' almost total reversal of intensity. By the time France realised what was happening, it was almost too late to shift back up the gears.

But what use is this? For the second week in a row Ireland's desire to move the ball wide has been halted by a side defending in their faces, and by the fact that their inability to secure a solid scrum meant that they were consistently attempting to run bad ball. If it can be said that Ireland handed France four tries on Saturday, it must be added that at the root of those errors was the kind of scrappy, uncontrolled, rushed possession that came from Ireland's routing up front.

We know Ireland have talented backs, but it seems that the set-pieces are unable to provide them with the control of the game to properly use their ability. Also, when people ask why the Leinster backs struggled to produce their Heineken Cup form for Ireland, they forget that Felipe Contepomi, the sublime architect for the province, does not pull on a green number ten jersey.

I fear that Saturday's stirring comeback will remain a curio of this championship, to be looked back on in puzzlement. As foolish as the French looked in their miscalculation of Ireland's recovery ability, they can be forgiven for giving a sucker an even break, as, for the first fifty minutes - not to put too fine a point on it - Ireland certainly did suck.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Essential Winter Olympics 2006 Checklist

Your cut-out-and-keep guide to complete enjoyment of the slippery business in Turin

1. Drug Scandal: With 8 cross-country skiers already caught on EPO, you can tick this one off already. Expect some speed-skaters and bobsleighers to be trotting out the "it was from a cold medication, honest!" excuses. Look out also for the obligatory hapless snow-boarder on weed.

2. Snow/Peace metaphor during opening ceremony: Bored commentator reading from IOC script - and unable to deviate into Wogan-style mockery under pain of death by luge - intones daft explanation of some schoolkids in white lycra jumpsuits dancing to Jean Michel Jarre music, suggesting their lame efforts will induce world-wide bad folk to down tools for the duration.

3. Poncey Barry Davies ice skating commentary: The Beeb's snooty aesthete secretly loathes football and such oikish activites, but must commentate on them to put ciabatta on the table. Professionally, he lives for the ice skating at the Winter Olympics, where he can come on like the the ballet correspondent for Le Monde with equanimity. Listen out for exclamations of "such poise and grace by the Russian pair", "a beautiful triple salko by the Canadian!", and regular cries of "Oh I say!".

4. Ice Hockey scraps: The sport has a reputation for toughness due to outbreaks of fisticuffs every five minutes, however because the players are so padded and don't even use their sticks they actually only feel a mild tickling sensation when struck. Its a bit like pub sumo wrestling really.

5. Everyone Takes 'Ironic' Interest in Curling: Because on TV curling looks a bit like Tetris, so people become similarly addicted. They watch it for hours on end and are utterly fascinated in it. Unfortunately, because of all the brushing and yelping, it is rather uncool, so to share their devotion with others people pretend to like it in an ironic way, a bit like ABBA or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

6. Secretly wishing for a bear to attack a cross-country skier: If you were skiing through miles of snowy forest terrain in real life, surely there would be inherent dangers from the beasts that dwell therein. Olympic stewards should allow wildlife to attack competitors, with bonus points awarded for number of animals skinned along the way.

7. Brit downhill ski hope crashing into tree: The BBC give lots of airtime to the prospects of a lad whose best skiing is done on the plastic slope outside Milton Keynes; he proceeds to plummet into an unyielding conifer, breaking several limbs but recovering for chummy interview with Gary Lineker in Sports Review of the Year.

8. Finnish bloke wins Ski-jumping: Finnish people don't have cars. They ski-jump everywhere.

9. Speed Skating final ends in farcical pile-up: The world's top three short course speed-skaters are tied neck and neck going into the final lap of a thrilling Olympic Final, when one slips and takes out everyone except the thrice lapped also-ran from Lesotho, who tearfully crossing the line in a hastily spun "fulfillment of the Olympic dream".

10. Irish team decide to stay in chalet getting pissed: Shocked at being informed that they are expected to ski on the black slopes, the intrepid four person Irish team boycott the 2006 Winter Olympics on the basis that it is fecking freezing.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Euro 2008 Fixture List - Stan a Happy Man?

Sept 2 (a) Germany
Oct 7 (a) Cyprus
October 11 (h) Czech Rep
November 15 (h) San Marino
Feb 7 (a) San Marino
Mar 24 (h) Wales
Mar 28 (h) Slovakia
Sept 8 (a) Czech Rep
Sept 12 (a) Slovakia
Oct 13 (h) Germany
Oct 17 (h) Cyprus
Nov 17 (a) Wales

The great Euro 2008 fixture poker game was played out in a smoky room in a seedy district of Frankfurt today, and Slim Staunton walked out with the shirt on his back and an I.O.U. from Jurgen Klinsmann.

My thinking is that Stan 'n' Bob have cut the Czech loose here, and instead have gone after the Germans with gusto. Their key aims (aside from successfully avoiding fixtures in June - we all know how Stan hates the heat...) were getting one of the big two just after the World Cup, and to get Germany at home towards the end of the campaign. If we are happy to let the Czech's sail off over the horizon and target Germany, then they can be satisfied that it is the Germans - a couple of months after the hullaballoo of hosting a World Cup - who will be welcoming us first up. A reasonably motivated Ireland could capitalise on any 'after the Lord Mayor's show' feelings around der Vaterland.

Having hopefully matched or exceeded the Germans until October 2007, the next aim was to have them lined up for a tumultuous, Holland in '01, Spain in '89 style tilt for glory with the backing of a full Croke Park: mission accomplished for October 13 2007.

All this is presupposing our campaign has not gone horribly off the rails from the get-go - it is highly conceivable that the opening three games could yield only single point, if Germany and the Czechs defeat us and a highly motivated Cyprus hold us to a point.

Even if we emerge successfully from our opening matches, the fixture list holds a double-header as precarious as a temp job in the Danish embassy in Tehran: the Czechs and Slovaks away in September 2007. One can foresee already the fragile flower of our qualifying dreams being crushed under Mitteleuropan boot, leaving the blue riband fixture against Germany at Croker on a double bill with the Tommy Murphy Cup Final.

The first soccer match at Croke Park will be the visit of Wales, a nice soft one for the team, and against fellow Celts, a political marshmallow also.

So the a satisfactory first result for our intrepid new management team, lets hope its so easy on the field....

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Manchester United ace Wayne Rooney has revealed that he worries for the future of washed up old pro Eric Cantona. "Eric was a hero round these parts once, though you'd never know it now", the young striker opined, as images of the bloated failed thespian caused Old Trafford fans to fear for the Red Devils legend. "I remember when he got the job on that film, Elizabeth, and he was doing all the poetry then as well, he was so good at 33. Now five or six years later at 39, finished, he can't even get a gig in ads on French telly. Finished." Rooney urged Cantona to "stick in with the acting classes and look to work your way through repertory, maybe a part in Les Mis might be on the cards".

Hearts's boss Graham Rix has moved quickly to reassure Jambos fans that club owner Vladimir Romanov is still picking the team. Rumours were rife yesterday on club fan websites and message boards that Rix had gone over Romanov's head and had insisted on naming the eleven to face Dundee United in last night's Scottish Premierleague clash. However the boss laughed off suggestions that he had assumed control of selection matters - chortled Rix: "Vladimir has done an excellent job all season in putting out a team that has gotten us into second place - why would I stick my nose into his business?". Romanov too slammed yesterday's rumours, adding "I can assure fans that in no way is Graham Rix having anything to do with team selection. No way at all".

The builders they have in at Wembley are really starting to get on local Football Association chairman Brian Barwick's NERVES! Barwick is having some work done on his stadium - a few new walls, some seating, new roof, play area for the kids, some landscape gardening, that sort of thing - and the blighters told him they'd have it ready for his big summer party in May. But now the doss merchants are nowhere to be found and there's an upside down wheelbarrow, three cement caked shovels and a pile of used tea-bags where the nice new royal box was supposed to be! Barwick was only mildly reassured when he finally got in touch with the foreman, O'Reilly or some such, to be told that the boys were fierce busy and not to worry, sure it'll be right as rain on the day.
It has transpired that following the final whistle of Scotland's Six Nations triumph over France last Sunday, Fraser Mackintosh, of Edinburgh law firm Mackintosh Fairlie Mackintosh, urged wife Morag to "fetch his kilt and sporran" as, in the opinion of of Mr.Mackintosh "the time has come for Scots to rise and free ourselves from the yoke of foul Lizzie and her Sassenach henchmen, in the name of Wallace and the Bruce!". Mr Mackintosh's rebellion was subsequently quashed when Mrs. Mackintosh revealed that she had prepared his favourite, grilled sea-bass with a fennel ramoulade for his tea, and had a nice bottle of Orvieto chilling.
Mr Mackintosh accepted the terms offered.
Scientists working in the field of patronising football cliches are praying that this year's African Nations Cup reaches it conclusion with no further drain on the football media's dwindling Condescending Stereotype (CS) resources. "We are at dangerously low levels of CS now, the lowest perhaps since the guy from Zaire ran out of the ball to kick the ball away from the free kick against Brazil in the 1974 World Cup", Professor Charles Parsnip of European Council for Amusing Patronising Remarks announced gravely yesterday. "Pray we never return to those dark days again. The Angola v Congo match earlier in the tournament was unprecedented for the use of the word "naive" and references to questionable temperament amongst goalkeepers." With Togo, Trinidad and Angola all qualified for this year's World Cup, the strain on the globe's condescension resources could be catastrophic.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Battle of Omagh Will Not End The War

The GAA has been the beneficiary of pretty positive P.R. in recent years. The magnificient edifice of Croke Park thrown into even more flattering relief when compared to the struggles to define the future of the crumbling Lansdowne Road and the teams that play there. The endlessly clicking turnstiles at GAA grounds, even for humble O'Byrne and McKenna Cup ties and, spectacularly, during championship summers, revealing the massive popularity of the games and the commercial success story the modern GAA has become - as do lucrative sponsorship and television deals. The GAA has also received praise for its belated progressiveness over the Croke Park issue while all the time retaining a venerated status as a guardian of Irish cultural identity.

Last Sunday, however, the one issue which consistently embarrasses the organisation and reveals the conflicting values at the heart of it raised its ugly head again, in the form of the ugly scenes of on-field violence in Omagh during the Tyrone v Dublin league opener.

The GAA president, Sean Kelly, was predictably grave in his condemnation of Sunday's events. "Some of the incidents were totally unacceptable" said Kelly, adding that a full investigation would take place. Kelly has been at the forefront of promoting the modern GAA's image of progressiveness where conservatism once dwelled. He will be well aware, then, that the pictures of Sunday's brawl will confirm in those who remain suspicious of the association the impression of licensed savagery, of the toleration of the basest thuggery.

The problem for Kelly and those who wish to eliminate these sort of violent incidents is that the very nature of gaelic football (hurling remains largely innocent of the phenomenon), and the necessary aggression it requires mean that explosions of violence are always near the surface, given the requisite spark. Furthermore, this bubbling belligerence is at the heart of the attraction of supporters to the game - not specifically to violent incidents as such, but to the passion and excitement that such commitment results in. Add the fact that almost all GAA is wrapped up in local rivalries, and the whiff of combat is never far away.

From a technical aspect, the fact that the ball is carried close to the body in gaelic football and that the tackle involves repeated blows to the midriff of the player in possession provides a further path to potential trouble, as does the traditional one-on-one marking system, which creates 14 mini-conflicts around the park.

This is not to adopt the defeatist attitude that the problem of violence in gaelic football is unconquerable: how could it be, when there has never been a serious and concerted effort to eliminate it, in the form of proper punishments for melees like last Sunday's? The tokenistic nature of disciplinary measures until now is a product of the underlying ethos of the game, and will remain so in the absence of a genuine will to change it.

So while the corridors of power and commentary boxes fill with the harsh tones of condemnation, the stands and dressing rooms will await whatever punishment is handed down with little concern that a few suspensions and fines will change a culture which is a fundamental part of the game at all levels.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Scots Victory Tae Make Us Think Again

Yesterday at Murayfield you had a pretty nice summation of what the Six Nations Championship is all about. Last Friday I wrote about how the Six Nations is one of those sporting events that transcends the normal constituency of the sport in question, and becomes a subject of broader popular interest and debate. In other words, back page news becomes front page news.

Today Scots who would generally not pay much attention to rugby will be walking a little taller and feeling a bit better about themselves, and, like I mentioned previously, be praising the merits of Scotland's set-piece discipline and expansive running where usually they would debating outcomes of the weekend's football action. Indeed, for a relative minority sport, rugby has a strange and singular way of bolstering a traditional sense of Scottishness.

The reason for this perhaps lies in the fact that the game's stronghold is in Edinburgh, the traditional home of the wholesome, shortbread tin variety of Caledonianism, rather than in tribalist, working class Glasgow. I contend that Scotland's Grand Slam victory in 1990 over England - when David Sole led his team on a slow march around Murrayfield, thereby whipping the crowd into a ferocious frenzy of patriotic fervour - was a psychological milestone on the road to Scottish devolution in 1997, similar to the way that Ray Houghton's goal against England in 1988 is regarded as a sort of symbolic spark to Ireland's subsequent economic and social revolution.

Scotland's staggering performance yesterday confounded all expectations, even of those which predicted an improvement in their performance for this year's campaign. It was, in essence, a triumph for Frank Hadden, Scotland's new coach, but one of management as much as of coaching. Central to the astonishment at their performance was the fact that the result was achieved with pretty much the same group of players that struggled so badly under Matt Williams last year.

This underlines the success Hadden has had in creating a hitherto non-existent sense of self-confidence and tactical maturity, which was so in evidence yesterday. These new attributes meant that the Scots were able to execute their coach's plan in the white heat of battle, and provided them with the character to ride out the inevitable French storm.

When held in comparison with Ireland's puzzling lack of a sense of purpose, or even of a plan to execute at all against Italy on Saturday, it raises further pointed question marks over Eddie O'Sullivan's ability to deliver the results his squad's talents merit.

Paris on Saturday will undoubtedly need to provide satisfactory answers these riddles, and is a game which carries monumental significance for the fortunes of the Irish national side in advance of next year's World Cup.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Idiots Guide to the Six Nations

So you're having a pint with your soccer-loving mate and he floors you with his criticisms of Ireland's "off-loading in the tackle". Or you're at the water cooler and the Kilkenny hurling fan from accounts is holding forth on the importance of "getting a solid set-piece platform".

What the hell is going on?

Ahhh, of course, its Six Nations time, when the often impenetrable curiosities of the oval ball game become part of the vernacular and dogs in the street purr in knowledgeable appreciation of Brian O'Driscoll's "angles of running".

So if you spend the rest of the year in blissful ignorance of the rugby and everything to do with it, to spare you the embarassment of making a faux pas in front of that bit of posh tottie you've had you're eye on while watching an Ireland match in the pub, here is your idiots guide to surviving the Six Nations .

Ah la France, memories of Sella and Blanco, audacious flair at the back and broken nosed ugly Basques battering in the forwards. Enduring image, yet true. One of the secrets of the Six Nations success is the oppsrtunity it provides for enjoyable away trips, and Paris is the pick of the venues, especially as it great for "the wives".
Always there or thereabouts. The French are generally only defeated by themselves: be it indiscipline, or simply taking the huff. Generally always have at least one bona fide genius and names like Yannick Jauzion, Frédéric Michalak, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Damien Traille and Benoît Baby will light up this year's championship. Worthy favourites and the side with fewest question marks hanging over them.

Smart sounding thing to say: "This year's championship will be decided by the quality of centres, and the French are certainly well stocked in that regard"

Odds: 4-5

Like in all sports, we don't like them, and victory over them is, of course, the sweetest of all. Indeed, it is rumoured that only victory over Bumface (the dastardly Will Carling) and co. in 1993 and 1994 stopped Ireland from chucking rugby altogether in the grim early days of the 1990s.
However we prefer them to their football counterparts because they have manners and are proper posh, don't riot and the only headhunting they do is of the executive variety rather than the Chelsea kind.
Toiling since winning the World Cup in 2003, their rugby is traditionally stout and based on yeomanry in the forwards, and they only do well when they poach someone from rugby league to add some flair, of which they currently have little and so will continue to struggle.

Smart sounding thing to say: "Sheridan is dominating as expected in the scrum, but England lack imagination in the loose to capitalise on their superior possession"

Odds: 15-8

The boys from the valleys, hewn from coal and lusty of voice, Welsh rugby has a proletarian essence all of its own. Red faced and, according, apparently, smell slightly of cheese. Also have a proud and distinctive style of improvisational rugby which was reborn in glorious style with last year's glorious Grand Slam success. As thrilling as Wales were last year, they took advantage of peculiar championship where the English were leaden, the French at their most schizophrenic, the Irish limp and the Scots and Italians woeful.
Injuries and suspension have dimmed their prospects this year, but if their scrum can hold up they still have plenty of flair to cause problems

Smart sounding thing to say: "Young Peel's display was reminiscient of Gareth Edwards in his prime"

Odds: 8-1

Having long progressed from the give it a lash, pint-swilling days of Neil Francis and the Claw, Ireland have in recent years some of the best teams in their rugby history and can be said to have adapted best of the Celtic nations to the professional era. We're not quite sure what to think of ourselves right at this moment in time however, as November's grim humblings and incantations of doom were followed by the explosive abandon of January's Heineken Cup successes and a wave of new optimism.
Question marks persist about coach Eddie O'Sullivan's ability to successfully graft the Munster pack/Leinster backs combination and free the innate creativity of the latter. The front row is also an area for worry, as John Hayes has been long considered fit of the international scrapheap yet remains for lack of an alternative, and Jerry Flannery, while a success in the Heineken Cup, is untested at this level.

Smart sounding thing to say: "Wallace's natural ball carrying abilities are superb, but he has really added a new dimension in his possession-snaffling at the breakdown"

Odds: 9-1 - but a tempting sixes for the Triple Crown which is generous given England's less than fearsome form. Also Geordan Murphy, mesmeric for Leicester this season, is at 6-1 to be Ireland's to try scorer - snap it up.

Closest spiritually to Ireland in rugby terms in that the have a small player base taken from well to do private schools in the capital, Ednburgh, and from a separate, more prosaic (i.e. sheep worrying) southern enclave, the Border region. Also similar in that there best rugby is based on passion and overwhelming opponents in the manner of dervishes.
Emerging from a desperate low period having struggled to adapt to the professional era, this is an important championship for the Scots in restoring self esteem. Possess an enviable back row in Jason White, Simon Taylor and Alistair Hogg, but are weak in the half backs and have struggled to add scoring penetration to spells on top.

Smart sounding thing to say: "Scotland are looking to get their traditional rucking game going here"

Odds: 50-1

Suspicion persists that Italy were only added to the Six Nations rota to provide another attractive trip for "the wives". Sole aim is to justify their continued participation by picking off whichever one of the Celtic nations is currently weak, so will be looking at the visit of Scotland to the Stadio Flamini in Rome with eager anticipation. Always fearfully strong in the scrum, they will give anyone a torrid time up front, but are virtually barren in back line potential.

Smart sounding thing to say: "It is strange that Italian rugby has never been able to exhibit the flair which comes to so naturally to them in other aspects of life"

Odds: 1000-1

* Odds courtesy of A.Synnott Sportsbook

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Victory Papers Over Serious Cracks for Celtic

In a history peppered with records, successes and remarkable feats, Celtic last night were a mere whisker from the unenviable achievement of elimination from three cup competitions in unprecedentedly shambolic style. Following the very public humiliations by Artmedia Bratislava in the Champions League second qualifying round and Clyde in the third round of the Scottish Cup, Motherwell were denied a hooped scalp by a combination of a lack of killer instinct, denial of some borderline penalty decisions and a late defensive blunder.

Gordon Strachan's Celtic were soundly outplayed last night, and the manager must have been mightily relieved at being spared another public immolation in the face of on-field catastrophe.

It has been a most peculiar season thus far for the new incumbent of Glasgow's East End's hottest seat. Faced with the twin challenges of transitioning the aging but erstwhile successful side of his universally adored predecessor and, in turn, handling the very difficulty of following such a venerated figure in the eyes of the club's support, Strachan will have returned a 'satisfactory' verdict on the first half season of his tenure.

The Hogmanay victory over their closest rivals, Hearts, left Celtic seven points clear at the top of the SPL. The 'Palaver in Bratislava' had been largely forgotten - or at least Strachan's culpability in it had been diluted; the team had begun to play some extremely attractive football, the squad fitness levels were evidently improved and even the early season defensive problems appeared to have been minimised due to diligent work on the training ground.

Capping it all was a resounding double of victories over Rangers in the SPL and CIS Cup in November, the elation at which was, of course, multiplied by their bitter rivals bedraggled state. Roy Keane's signature in December further served to augment the feelgood factor at Parkhead.

Of course such optimism is usually punished in football, and Strachan is having the dimensions of his task further reinforced at present. In retrospect, Celtic's current league position must be taken into context with the plight of a Rangers team who endured the club's worst winless run in their 132 year history, and with the bizarre machinations of the Romanov dynasty at Hearts, where George Burley's unbeaten record was rewarded with the sack.

Now, while Rangers would appear to be too far in the distance to be a threat, Hearts will have taken Celtic's uncertainty and their own January player investment as a sign of reinvigoration of their title bid.

In the shape of their grim performances against Dunfermline, Clyde, Dundee United and last night against Motherwell, their is ample evidence that an eight point lead is currently not watertight insurance for Celtic. While the defensive woes have returned, to blame the admittedly unsettled back four is only partial explanation. The absence of closing down by midfielders - due to pressing of opponents being contrary to messrs Nakamura and Maloney's instincts, to Neil Lennon's fading engine and to Stilian Petrov's tendency towards anonymity - has left the beleaugured back four subject to repeated pummelling from even the most modest opponents. As one of the panellists on Setanta's coverage of last night's game mentioned, Dundee United were made to look like Real Madrid as they stole through for their equaliser on Saturday.

Furthermore the teak-toughness and competitive spirit which characterised the success of the O'Neill era has been conspicuous by its absence, and the thought arises that Strachan has thrown the baby out with the bathwater in endeavouring to move to a more elegant style of play without retaining the more unpleasant, but fundamental, precepts of winning football. Indeed, one message board contributor recently made the alarming comment that "sometimes this season I feel like I have been transported back in time to the Tommy Burns years" in reference to the pretty but ultimately unsuccessful football of that era.

Strachan's post-match comments were predictably harsh last night, claiming it to have been a worse performance than those in Bratislava and Broadwood. "There cannot be joy, euphoria or happiness. I am not having it, just being in the cup final. There are standards that have to be set. What this has done is crystallise the job I have to do here" added the manager.

While the Celtic support are aware of the rebuilding task in hand, what will worry them is the fact that, at this advanced stage of his first season in charge, Strachan has not yet resolved the team's fundamental frailty, and that his team could exhibit such diffidence in an important match. Crucially, it would appear that the manager's vision for his team is an awful long way from being incarnate on the field.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Buds of a New Sporting Year Begin to, er, Blossom

January, bah. Good riddance, ye miserable, godforsaken wretch of month! Have we, as humans, not achieved a sufficiently advanced degree of control over our own happiness and the pursuit thereof to be able to come up with a better opening month to the year than January? Has no-one ever raised their heads from the drudgery to exclaim: "Come on lads, is this the best we can do?".

The penury. The darkness. The cold. There must be a better way!

As ever, the Australians appear to have it sussed. They have their summer in January, and they don't go too crazy about the whole Christmas thing (have you ever tried to cook a turkey on a barbecue?), so they're not as broke as we are. They've moved their January to July and even then its not as bad as the real January.

Thank God (well, he invented Janaury, so it was the least he could do) for the Heineken Cup and a couple of feisty FA cup ties to warm the cockles, otherwise TSA's visit to Auschwitz last Monday would have been the cheery highpoint of the month. - (note to self: refer last sentence to Blogger bad taste checker, as may be borderline)

Anyway, the arrival of spring sees a rosier hue in the cheeks of the sporting community, with the return this weekend of serious inter-county GAA action in the form of the National Leagues and, in particular, with the clarion call of the first big hullabaloo of the year in the form of rugby's Six Nations championship.

This time next week the dark days of January will be but a memory and the weeks and months will only fly in as Winter Olympics, Grand Nationals, US Masters, Cheltenhams, Snooker World Championships, Grand Prixs, Champions League nights and then high summer in Germany all come hurtling at us, the brightly coloured and noisy cavalcade of fantastic nonsense that our world is now unimaginable without.

So fare thee well January, you're good for nothing. Bloody hell, even your transfer window is depressing.

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