Friday, March 31, 2006

No Quarter Given for Irish Provinces

Will the curse of Lansdowne Road strike again? After doing for the high hopes of both of Ireland's major provinces in the Heineken Cup knock-out stages in recent years - Leinster limply against Perpignan in 2003 and Munster in more thrilling, but no less disappointing fashion in 2004 against Wasps - the old ground stages another crucial contest tomorrow. By the time Munster and Perpignan take to the field in Dublin, they will know how Leinster have fared in their daredevil mission to Toulouse, and an unlikely win would undoubtedly inspire the Munster men.

Had these ties taken place six weeks ago, the Irish provinces would have been in chipper shape. The two form sides in the continent, they had just come off the back of rip-roaring concluding performances in their Heineken Cup groups. Leinster's demolition of Bath alone was as good a demonstration of attacking rugby as will be seen in this hemisphere this year, and Munster had grafted a new finesse in their back division to complement their perenially dominant forwards.

For Munster, the intervening weeks have brought one, major black spot. The injury to Barry Murphy, sustained in a Celtic League match at Ravenhill, is more worrisome than is normally the case for the omission of such a relative newcomer to this level. But the 23 year-old had made a massive contribution to Munster's improved attacking edge and his loss has left Declan Kidney experimenting with Tomas O'Leary at outside-centre.

While you would still fancy Munster nous and familiar turf to help them advance, Leinster face the mother of all battles in the atmospheric cauldron of the Stade Ernest Wallon. The intervening weeks have not been damaging in themselves, per se, and most of the interational contingent go into the tie in good form. Whether they can switch back on the fluidity of January is not yet known, as is the question over their ability to attain parity up front against Fabian Pelous and co.

They will undoubtedly throw everything at it however, and the tie in the south of France looks to be the pick of the round.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dante's Sporting Inferno

The request by the FA of FIFA to introduce laws to retrospectively punish divers is in keeping with the recent stiffening in resolve of the football authorities to tackle the problem. UEFA and FIFA themselves have also spoken out about it of late. If any measures are to be successful, then the simulator needs to become the game's most reviled character.

Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy and Fiorentina fan, would have placed them well along his nine circles of sporting hell, which might have looked a little like this:

First Circle: GAA brawlers, soccer defenders who brazenly grapple opposing strikers, rugby forwards who grab opponents testicles in scrums - None of them get punished in the real world, so in theory they're doing nothing wrong; but still, down with that sort of thing.

Second Circle: Glory hunting soccer fans, corporate junkees at rugby matches, school team coaches who use underage teams as vehicles for self-glorification - All people who, despite being on the outside of sport, abuse the spirit of it on the name of avarice and vainglory. Boo!

Third Circle: Reserved for this guy: "The most infamous [fencing] scandal of all was in the 1976 Olympic pentathlon, when one of the world's best pentathletes, the Russian Boris Onishenko, was discovered by Jim Fox, the British team captain, to have rewired his sword
to produce a contact, and thus a hit, at will. The British team won the gold medal; the disqualified and re-christened DisOnishenko disappeared back to Russia and was found drowned in a swimming pool some years later".

Fourth Circle: Psychotic tennis fathers - Unlike the victims of the overzealous school coaches in the second circle, the likes of Jelena Dokic don't escape their insane progenitors so easily. Dokic's career has been probably irreversibly hampered by her overbearing father's crackpot behaviour. Her former coach, he has been banned from all the grand slam tournaments at one time or another and is infamous for his offensive outbursts. How about this for supportive parenting: "Other coaches, when she loses, say, 'Take your time. There is always next year.' I say, 'No, you don't have time. You must go faster, harder. If you stop, it's over." Also blamed her recent return to Australia on a conspiracy between that country, Croatia and the Vatican...

Fifth Circle: Divers, and players who try to get opponents yellow-carded or sent-off - Football is currently finding itself shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more" in the direction of the cheats and vagabonds who are destroying the game through base artifice and gamesmanship. Previously happy in its ivory tower, believing the problem to be - like bird flu - a foreign affliction, British football is now ravaged with playacting and general skullduggery.

Sixth Circle: Eye Gougers - I'm sorry, I just can't get my head around this. Some rugby players actually look to gain advantage by sticking their fingers into an opponent's eye-socket like their head was a bowling ball? I mean come on, this is the 21st century - the Spanish Inquistion would have baulked at such thuggery!

Seventh Circle:Don King - The Don has been sued by everyone from Muhammad Ali to Lloyd's of London, was questioned by the Senate in 1992 on his connections with mafia boss John Gotti, shot and killed a man in 1954, was convicted of stamping to death an employee who owed him $600 in 1966, and is responsible for putting countless past-it pugs into the ring with no regard to any danger to the fighters. Probably solely responsible for giving boxing a bad name. But fair dues, he did organise "The Rumble in the Jungle".

Eighth Circle: Match fixers - Betraying yourself, your team, your coaches, your supporters, your country even. Few cried when Hansie Cronje crashed into a mountain. John Fashanu was acquitted of match fixing allegations but still went from presenting 'Gladiators' with Ulrika Jonsson to a late night slot on Bravo.

Ninth Circle:Drug cheats - sport's traditional pantomime villains, whether in the form of hairy East German female shot-putters, pupil-dilatingly muscular Canadian sprinters, or suddenly - and suspiciously - world-class Irish swimmers, the chemically enhanced are universally despised. Their guilt is doubly reinforced by the fact that none ever admit their crimes. Cold remedy my ass!

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006


When Patrick Vieira looked down after 40 minutes of last night's electrifying Champions League quarter-final and saw Robert Pires wrapped around his ankles, robbing him of possession with an impertinence he surely never witnessed in all the years they shared a training ground at Arsenal, he must have sensed trouble. Bobby, the gliding wide-man with the penchant for funny facial hair and wanton simulation, widely accepted to be past it and presumed to be following Vieira out of London. Surely not!

As Pires passed to Thierry Henry who in turn fed Cesc Fabregas to score, it was a moment that both seemed to vindicate Arsene Wenger's decision to sell his former captain and also to symbolise the coming of age of his new team. Principally, it marked the latest phase of the precocious Fabregas' seemingly inevitable rise to midfield greatness. For a game laden with obvious angles and stories, mainly with regard to Vieira's return to his former manor, the Frenchman's teenage successor's contribution could not have been more fitting.

The lasting impression of last night's game was of a Juventus side utterly routed - and the beneficiaries of a flattering scoreline. However, until that 40th minute goal, the game had been largely even, with Arsenal perhaps sniffing around the more menacingly. How did the Italians leave London in such disarray then, having ceded both the game and their discipline?

While the opening half had the appearance of parity, what was actually happening was the footballing equivalent of the front-runner in middle distance track races. Arsenal took to the game at a ferocious pace, and Juve were forced to respond, to lift the speed of their game to match their opponents. The first forty minutes looked equal, cagey even, but Arsenal were, in effect, burning Juventus off.

Completely unused to playing at such a pace, and facing a youthful team who were in their element, Juve blew themselves out. Without the ball carrying ability of Pavel Nedved and Alessandro Del Piero, they were unable to serve their strikers whenever they did have the ball. When they didn't have it, the damning indictment of Vieira and his midfield colleague, Emerson, was that they found it so hard to get it back.

Praise for Arsenal's success this morning has been couched in bewilderment at how poor Juve were. Eight points clear on top of Serie A, laden with famous names, how could they have lost it so? Their indiscipline was the mark of a team which had no idea what had just happened to it. They could not match the velocity and intensity of Arsenal and could not get a hold of the ball to dictate the pace of the game to suit their own, less explosive limbs.

Arsenal's only regret is that they did not kill the tie last night, but the swiftness of their counter-attacking and the resoluteness of their young, makeshift defence (who have now gone 649 minutes without conceding a Champions League goal) augur well for Turin.

It was a triumph for youth and finesse, and a manifestation of exactly what Wenger would have had in mind when he finally let his talismanic captain leave last summer. Vieira will now miss the return leg next Wednesday through suspension, and while his former manager will have taken no satisfaction in seeing his erstwhile lieutenant reduced so, he will have undoubtedly rejoiced in the reward for his faith in the new generation.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Alternative England World Cup Anthems

It was announced today that lumpen indie journeymen Embrace are to be given the dubious honour of recording England's official World Cup anthem, the latest band entrusted with the task of regaining for the genre the credibilty briefly won by New Order's seminal World In Motion.

The title of the track, World at Your Feet, with its tiresome play on words, bodes ill for their prospects. In the spirit of the august Sun newspaper (you know when they accompany some fabricated titbit of news with an hilarious top ten of punned song titles - for example if there was a story about frog's legs being served in a restaurant in Newcastle, the songs would be Frog on the Tyne, The Long and Winding Toad, Newt Kids on the Block etc.) here are the songs Embrace should be miming to on Top of the Pops...

1. Don't Wanna Miss a Pen - Aerosmith
2. When Two Tribes Go to War - Frankie Goes to Hollywood (to be released in the event of a sleepy German hamlet getting the Bomber Harris treatment)
3. Sven Where's Yer Troosers - Andy Stewart (frisky high-jinks in the corridors of England's castle base are inevitable)
4. Lonely at the Top - Randy Newman (a paean to Peter Crouch as he bangs his head off another dressing room door)
5. You're So Vain - Carly Simon (as David Beckham smoulders for the cameras before driving yet another free-kick into the wall)
6. Every Breath You Take - The Police (BBC and ITV bring us exclusive breaking news on what Jamie Carragher had for breakfast)
7. Without You I'm Nothing - Placebo (Sven in reflective mood on his fear of Wayne Rooney getting injured)
8. I'm So Excited - Pointer Sister (whipped up by a tabloid frenzy, the English nation interprets workmanlike victory over Trinidad & Tobago as evidence of certain glory)
9. Crying - Roy Orbison (Rooney's dismissal in quarter-final defeat to Brazil leads to Gazza-style waterworks, nation takes red-faced blubberer into hearts, buys cash-in, ghost-written World Cup Diary in droves)
10. I Shall Be Released - Bob Dylan (Sven celebrates freedom from nation of gossip-crazed prudes and attentions of rabid, xenophobic tabloid press)

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Monday, March 27, 2006

"Press the Red Button To Mute Andy Gray"

In yesterday's Observer there was a brief mention of the success of a recent experiment in the U.S.A. to broadcast an American football match with no commentary, and also of the ratings boost which the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation received when its announcers went on strike last year.

In conversation with a close TSA consigliere last night, the possibilities of this development were excitedly expanded on. Given that modern sports commentators (in particular, but not exclusively, those assigned to football) seem to exist to provide a service to the viewer ranging from the statement of the bleeding obvious, to downright irritation bordering on fury, we contemplated the utopian time - surely close at hand in these interactive days - when viewers can elect to mute all commentary and enjoy the match as nature intended, with only the roar of the crowd and the peep of the referees whistle as accompaniment.

Never again would we be burdened by Motty's belief that his upcoming pointless statistic should be accorded the lead-in of "interestingly enough". No more would our Sunday afternoon slumber be disturbed by the lupine growl of Andy Gray, howling "OPEN THE TOP DRAWER, TAKE THAT GOAL, AND PUT IT IN - THAT'S HOW GOOD THAT WAS!!". We would be spared the unfortunate sound of a bewildered Jimmy Magee trying to pronounce the name of Arsenal's latest wonderkid from the Ivory Coast. We could live out our days in the contentment brought about by never again having to hear Clive Tyldesley refer to "that night in Barcelona" every time a team requires two goals in injury time.

Of course the "Colemanballs" industry, which has spread from Private Eye to the pages of just about every football website and 'offbeat' sports column, would not appreciate such a development and for all his faults, no-one would like to see John Motson standing with a placard outside Broadcasting House, yelling "Scab, Scab, Scab!" as Garth Crooks is bundled inside by police escort under a hail of angrily flung microphones....

On second thoughts....

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Premiership 2005-2006: Endgame

The good Lord giveth, and the good Lord taketh away. Its one of life's cruel jokes that, just as one's mood begins to lift at the lengthening of the evenings, the brightening of the weather (no, really) and the skimpening of ladies garments, so too does the crushing reality of the end of the football season become apparent.

Its a time of year all football fans dread; as March rolls into April and the Easter fixtures are negotiated, a sense of denial takes hold. After the youthful exuberance of the season's opening months, and the mature acceptance of the winter trudge, if your team is not involved in an 'issue' yet to be resolved, the closing weeks can often seem like a slow death - no-one wants it to end, but the joy has often gone. But, if there is still something at stake for your team, the next couple of months can be the most exciting of all, ample distraction from the impending emptiness of summer.

So what remains to be decided in this Premiership season?

"Don't be daft!", I hear you say, "Chelsea have that long wrapped up!" You may be right, you very, very probably are right. But they've been a bit rickety of late haven't they? Losing at a Fulham team who are in dire form is certainly not the sign of a team galloping away to their second title and there is a sense that, after the Barcelona and West Brom debacles, Jose Mourinho's idiosyncracies are getting a little old. Manchester United have been in excellent form and if they win their game in hand and Chelsea drop points at gnarly away grounds like Ewood Park and the Reebok Stadium, then maybe, just maybe, there will yet be something to play for when the teams meet on 29 April.

The perennial shaking of heads will soon ensue, as pundits and hacks bemoan a modern game which makes the claiming of fourth place in the league tantamount to winning a trophy in itself. A field of four line-up for this one. Its Spurs by a nose at the moment, with Arsenal, the form team, closing rapidly on them. Blackburn Rovers, also in terrific form, are only a point behind, then come Bolton. Sam Allardyce's men have two games in hand and would leapfrog all three into fourth should they win them. Bolton must play Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs however, the latter also having a tricky run-in. Blackburn and Arsenal's closing fixtures are easier - Rovers still have all three bottom sides left to play - and they are the teams in form, with Arsenal's momentum and experience taking them over the line.

With one of the FA Cup semi-finals featuring teams unlikely to qualify for Europe by their league position - Middlesbrough (who could yet win the UEFA Cup), West Ham and Charlton - and therefore providing a finalist who will enter the UEFA Cup through the FA Cup route, it now seems likely that only fifth and sixth in the league will be awarded European places. Basically,two of the four Champions League chasers will receive this consolation, with the fourth left contemplating the indignity of the Intertoto Cup.

Like last season, one team will be celebrating a great escape come 7 May. Sunderland are, of course, long gone. Three points separate West Brom, Birmingham City and Portsmouth. None of their run-ins look charitable, with Birmingham's being chock-full of top-half sides and finished off with a daunting trip to Bolton on the final day. West Brom have previous with escapology, but Portsmouth have suddenly stumbled upon some form, are scoring a few goals, and while their last game is against Liverpool, it is at home and may be against a side with nothing to play for.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Top Five Sporting Defections

The news that nine athletes - seven Sierra Leoneans, a Tanzanian and a Bangladeshi - have disappeared from the Commonwealth Games heralds the latest in a grand sporting tradition: defecting, doing a runner, legging it. Now, we're presuming that the nine in question were not fleeing from inadequate facilities in the athletes village, nor merely adopting the local custom of going 'walkabout', but rather are properly on the lam. Defecting has changed since the good old days of the Cold War, when Soviet bloc prodigies were smuggled into the west as ideological foot soldiers in the struggle against their former homelands. Now its mainly third world athletes looking for an escape from poverty.

Here are some other great escapes...

1. Martina Navratilova
Not the most dramatic defection, but among the most high profile. After losing to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 U.S. Open, the 18-year-old Czech walked into the offices of the Immigration and Naturalizations Service in Manhattan. Within a month, she received her green card. She later wrote of her arrival in the U.S., "For the first time in my life I was able to see America without the filter of a Communist education, Communist propaganda. And it felt right. ... I honestly believe I was born to be an American. With all due respect to my homeland, things never really felt right until the day I got off the plane in Florida." Defected, became world tennis number 1, then came out as a lesbian. Tough lady.

2. Orlando Hernandez
'El Duque' is the highest profile baseball defectee from Cuba to the U.S.A., having fetched up in a small sailboat off the coast of the Bahamas in 1997 with his wife and seven other Cuban refugees. Hernandez had been expected to be the top pitcher for Cuba's 1996 Olympic team, but was banned from Cuban baseball following the defection in 1995 of his half-brother Livan Hernandez, the Castro government fearing another high-profile bunk. Regarded as one of the finest players to come from the baseball-crazy island, his story had a fitting Hollywood-style conclusion when he helped the Chicago White Sox to World Series glory last Autumn. Now plying his trade with the Florida Marlins.

3.Afghanistan Football Team
Soccer teams are devils for this sort of carry on, with various African nations having lost members of their first XI on overseas trips - including the disappearance of the entire Ethiopian football squad in Rome while en route to an African Nations Cup match. But imagine your country is playing its first international fixture in 25 years, having been freed from mediaeval tyranny by kindly western folk, and most of your team does a runner - as nine Afghani players did in 2004. Worse than Saipan that. Four were later arrested but five claimed asylum in other countries after having bailed it from a disco in Verona. Would never have happeded under the Taliban.

4.Nadia Comaneci
The original 'perfect 10' - the score she achieved a record seven times at the Montreal Olympics of 1976 - demonstrated unusually poor timing when she defected from Romania in 1989 - a matter of months before the collapse of the Ceaucescu Communist regime. Inevitably ended up in the U.S. Like all the best defectees to the States she has become a poster child for the American way, marrying fellow Olympic champion Bart Conner and leading an incredibly full life, performing exhibitions, signing commercial endorsements for major companies, partaking in charity events, and is a partner with her husband in a gymnastics equipment company.

5.Peter Nicol
Defecting from a repressive Communist regime? Escaping third world poverty and risking your life to be smuggled into the west? That's nothing. Peter Nicol has performed the most treasonous defection of them all: the squash player changed his nationality from Scottish to English! Nicol won Commonwealth Games gold this week for England after achieving the same feat in Scottish colours in 1998, having subsequently switched nationalities after a funding row.
As George Mieras of Scottish squash commented dolefully, "Most of us who have never dreamt of having the chance would have died rather than changed." Its hard to imagine many glasses being raised in Scotland at Nicol's success - the dirty, traitorous scoundrel.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pay for Play: Has the Horse Bolted?

GAA director-general Liam Mulvihill, in his annual report yesterday, splashed his own bucket of cold water on the igniting debate on professionalism within the organisation's elite playing echelons. Mulvihill is the latest GAA bigwig to attempt to quell the increasingly testy argument about whether the best gaelic sportsmen should receive some reward for their considerable efforts. As the association's permanent Sir Humphrey, in contrast to elected Jim Hackers like Sean Kelly, Mulvihill's words carry some gravity. But have gaelic games already started down an irreversible path to professionalism?

The anti-professionalism rhetoric which has issued forth from within the GAA of late is as a result of the increasing militancy of the Gaelic Players Association. The GPA is currently campaigning strongly for the introduction of a grant system for elite players. On the face of it, this would hardly seem to be a measure worthy of revulsion for the GAA top brass. The grants would represent an equivalent of the tax breaks which other elite sportspeople enjoy and the funds would not come from GAA coffers, rather would be awarded by the Sports Council. They would also be in the form of fixed, and not astronomical, amounts. The GPA have been displeased with the GAA's lack of support on this issue, however outgoing president Kelly has stated that it is an issue which he feels should be addressed by Nicky Brennan, his successor, rather than the new man being handed a fait accompli.

But it is clear from the the GAA's recent crankiness that they possess a deep suspicion of the GPA's motives, and obviously regard the grants issue as a kind of stalking horse for professionalism - the thin end of the wedge, if you will. For the GAA - aside from the purely fiscal argument that the organisation could not support a professional game, and that the direction of revenues into top players' pockets would grievously damage the grassroots - there is a deeper, philosophical problem.

They feel that the creation of a defined elite - paid, privileged and elevated above the workaday grunts of the association's rank and file - would irreparably damage the fabric of an organisation whose brightest lights are theoretically of the same standing as its lowliest plodders. Those who hold the GAA dear revel in the fact that the guy who can score the winning point in a big championship match in front of 50,000 people on a Sunday can be found the following day teaching maths or fixing cars or selling double-glazing or in college lectures even, sitting alongside - and no better or worthier than - the guy who wheezes through training laps with the junior Bs.

The same fellow takes leave of his county team-mates after returning from a championship match which has been broadcast on national television and meets up with his local club-mates to prepare for the following week's clash with the arch-rivals from the next parish.

These are the things which have made the GAA what it is today and represent an ethos which has constructed a miraculously resilient and hugely popular amateur super-structure. It does not take a student of politics to see the parallels with Soviet socialist theory - and it does not take a student of history to see how it could be similarly derailed. The realities of human society, and the inability of the theory to cope with the practicality of greed, ambition and market forces did for communism, and the GAA could be finding that its lofty principles cannot survive the rigours of a modern Irish society whose values are as far from utopian socialism as you can get.

The notion of some being more equal than others is clearly already alive in the GAA. The quasi-professionalism of top county players means that they are, by definition, operating at a different level to most ordinary club players. The exponential rise in the association's commercial activities and the enduring popularity of the games means that the idea of there being a bountiful pie which top players eyes can view covetously is inevitable.

Furthermore, the players - now organised through the GPA - are confident enough to whisper threats of strike action (should they not be listened to over the grants issue), a weapon which has already been tested successfully by the Cork hurlers in 2002.

The players are not the only ones who are increasing their commitment. The desire for success at inter-county level has led to an alarming increase in county boards' expenditure on training and preparing county panels. As Mulvihill mentioned yesterday, up to twelve counties operated at a loss in 2005, a situation which Croke Park is understandably aggrieved about. Wealthy private donors are frequently revealed as having funded county teams and the concept of pure amateurism is made redundant in the way a lot of this increased expenditure finds its way into the wallets of managers and, indeed, players.

The sense of increasing pressure on the traditional values of the GAA is unavoidable. The seriousness with which the games are taken at the top level means that the commercial and sporting imperatives are competing against the association's principles, in a struggle that, even at this stage, looks dangerously one-sided. Liam Mulvihill and the GAA's leading adminstrators are right to fear for the organisation as we know it, as the pull of Mammon appears to be dragging it away from its perennial ideals. The GAA has dabbled with these forces until now with much success and financial reward. They may now be finding that the association's very soul is the price which the market demands in return.

You get the feeling that it is a little late to be closing the stable door.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Strachan's Celtic Plot Steady Course to Trophies

The CIS Insurance Cup, like all League Cups, is denuded of importance these days, but it has still provided useful milestones for Gordon Strachan's turbulent first year as Celtic manager. There was the rousing victory over Rangers in November's quarter-final, which seemed to provide the evidence that Strachan's 'difficult' opening weeks in charge had been consigned to painful memory. Then, in the semi-final at the beginning of February, Celtic struggled to get past Motherwell - a dire performance which, on top of the ignominious defeat to Clyde in the Scottish Cup and a 3-3 home draw against Dundee United, betrayed a team which was still deeply flawed and struggling to fulfil their manager's vision.

Last Sunday's victory over an admittedly limited Dunfermline Athletic came at the end of a difficult week for the club following the sad death of Jimmy Johnstone, but after a hugely satisfactory six weeks on the field, and demonstrated that the manager has gotten his team onto a very steady course which sees them as comfortably the country's top side.

The key to Celtic's improvement in recent weeks comes in the form of the new arrivals at the club in January, and in the timely return of a familiar face. Firstly, for all Roy Keane's recent complaints about his gammy hip and the possibility of his career coming to an end this summer, the Irishman has been a hugely influential performer for Celtic. Keane's presence - particularly in the home victory over Aberdeen and the 1-0 triumph over Rangers in February - has brought a general improvement in the players around him, and his desire to take responsibility in an attacking sense has been a crucial part of Celtic's recent good form, especially as it was thought that his best offensive days were behind him.

For all that Keane is benefitting from a less intense level of football, and from the covering presence of Neil Lennon in midfield, his quality and presence remain timeless, and his trademark ability to dictate the pace of a game is still unmistakable. That said, the only wobble in Celtic's form of late came in the first half against Hibs (by no coincidence the match after which Keane bemoaned the ravages of time on his body, having been given the runaround by Hibs' youthful midfielders), a game which turned when Stilian Petrov's younger legs were brought back to augment those of the grizzled veterans in the middle. Keane and Lennon's vintage means that the issue of succession of the central midfield lynchpins will be one that Strachan will have to address sooner rather than later, particularly if Keane carries through on his threat of retirement.

Celtic's second piece of new year shopping was the recruitment of Mark Wilson from Dundee United. A right-back by trade, his insertion into the troublesome left-back position seemed at first another square peg-round hole solution to a problem which Mo Camara and Ross Wallace had failed to address in their spells in that berth. Wilson, however, has been a revelation and has helped to steady a defence which had gone twelve games without a clean sheet, as well as bringing a natural footballing ability to his attacking contributions, developing a good understanding with Shaun Maloney in front of him.

The reversion of the Celtic defence to more miserly ways is also blatantly attributable to the return of Bobo Balde from the African Nations Cup in Egypt, at which he spent most of January. The Guinean colossus' form since his return has been excellent, a mirror opposite of the malaise that afflicted him long after his return from the 2004 African tournament.

Finally, the addition of Dion Dublin. The deadline day signature of the veteran striker caused the raising of some eyebrows amongst the Parkhead faithful, seeing an over-the-hill Leicester City cast-off as hardly the sort of signing a club of Celtic's stature should be making. While Dublin's on-field contribution has been limited to scoring the late third in Sunday's triumph, his presence and enthusiasm around the club has been the subject of much praise. He is also - like Paul Telfer - a disciple of Strachan's from previous incarnations and has been generally an all-round positive presence in the camp.

It is only a matter of time now before Celtic seal the league title, after a race which began as tussle but is ending in a procession. Strachan deserves to take much satisfaction from the way he has ridden out and reacted to the troublesome moments of his first season at Parkhead, but will be more than aware of that this term has been only a preparation for the big challenges of next year - namely the probable return to Champions League action, and more definitely, the resurgence of Rangers under new manager Paul Le Guen.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Ireland Grasp the Hand of Fortune

The best thing about it is this: doesn't it seem a long way from the days of moral victories? When you're sniggering up your sleeve about pilfering a win against England in the dying minutes and getting the benefit of a few decidedly dodgy calls, you know that things have changed. When you can condescendingly console the English, shrugging your shoulders as if to say "them's the breaks lads!", its clear that this Irish team have achieved something significant.

Breaking it down, Ireland have been the beneficiaries of a remarkable sequence of good fortune in this campaign. The two dubious tries against Italy, the timely demise of the hitherto dominant Welsh out-half Stephen Jones, two further calls in their favour against England and the broader happy circumstance of a campaign devoid of serious injuries to key players, Paul O'Connell's absence against Wales excepted.

That said, luck is so much a part of sporting fortunes that to quantify a success without considering it is pointless. The key thing about this campaign, and particularly about Saturday's success at Twickenham, was the Irish team's ability to pounce on the misfortune of others and capitalise on the breaks they were given. For all that Ireland may, on another day, have not been the recipient of those two touchline-width decisions that resulted in their first two tries, on both occasions the sharpness and opportunism of Irish players, namely Shane Horgan and Denis Leamy, meant that those decisions did indeed become crucial, game-turning talking points.

Moreover, there was nothing remotely fortunate about the way that Ireland, three points down with three minutes remaining and mired in their own 22, manufactured the game winning denouement. It must have been heartbreaking for England, a feeling we are used to in Ireland having been reared on the aforementioned moral victories and gallant defeats. However, when Michael Lynagh went over in the dying minutes of the 1991 World Cup quarter-final to snatch victory for Australia after Gordon Hamilton seemed to have won the day for Ireland, it was not robbery - it was the better team proving it.

Similarly on Saturday, when Horgan finished off the match-winning move, we need not have felt embarassed about the result of the contest; can you imagine pedestrian England finding such a thrilling knock-out blow had they been in the same position with the clock ticking down?

There has been a justifiable outbreak of exaltation after Saturday - the winning of the Triple Crown and the beating of England in Twickenham guarantees that. However I feel there is a bit of auto-pilot about the celebrations. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how beating England last year at Lansdowne Road did not carry the same sense of triumph as the previous Spring's victory in London, given how far England had deteriorated in that time. They haven't improved since then and Saturday's game, while thrilling in its narrative, would have been a bad one to lose - as we almost did.

Ireland can now class themselves as a significantly more talented and cohesive team than England. The only department they surpass us in is general beefiness, particularly in the front row. But this is such a crucial area that it almost cost us the game on Saturday, and had England a fraction more inventiveness in their ranks, it would have been telling. England enjoyed slightly more line-breaks than in the previous matches, but ultimately their tries were won through bludgeon rather than beauty.

This is the key for Ireland. There has been much talk about "the next level" in the last few days and blind eye has been turned to the black opening half in Paris. The crux of that reverse was Ireland being unable to secure a physical foothold against the French pack, which left their backs comically trying to toss the ball about while on their heels. The next level will only be reached when the Irish pack is able to - at the very least - match the strength of those of the strongest nations and allow the talent in our back row and backs the momentum to thrive.

That we needed the hand of fortune and the inspirational gifts of our backs to win against an inferior footballing side is a clear demonstration of that.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Where Would St.Pat Be Tomorrow?

Many people will tomorow turn their attention momentarily from their dangerously excessive booze consumption to attend one of the many sports events which traditionally take place on what is reverentially known as Paddy's Day. The All-Ireland club hurling and football finals, Schools Rugby Cup finals in Ulster, Munster and Leinster, Eircom League fixtures and of course the Gold Cup day at the Cheltenham festival.

But what about the man himself? If Patrick were alive today, where would he be found tomorrow?

As a Welshman the answer would seem obvious: surely he would be taking in the action at one of the schools Rugby finals at Lansdowne Road, Thomond Park or Ravenhill (the latter being convenient to his bishopric in Armagh), followed by a short hop over to London to take up the kind offer from the Archbishop of Canterbury of a premium ticket at Twickenham on Saturday?

I'm not so sure. He wouldn't go to Ravenhill anyway - the Ulster rugby crowd have always thought Patrick a bit too 'green' for their tastes. For all that he rose to be Bishop of Ireland and no doubt was a pretty heavy hitter in 5th century Ireland, in his Confessions he described himself as a "simple countryman" who lived amongst "barbarous tribes" - therefore he would perhaps not have been comfortable quaffing with the well-heeled old boys of Blackrock and St.Michaels in Ballsbridge for the Leinster Schools Final. If "barbarous tribes" are your thing, then Thomond Park for the Munster Final between St.Munchins and Presentation Brothers College would seem the logical destination, if he didn't mind the long trip down from Ulster, that is.

Then again he did spend those years in slavery, herding sheep on Sliabh Mis in County Antrim. Apparently he befriended the locals, learned the language and became well regarded in the area - surely then he would be cheering on St. Gall's of Belfast in Croke Park as they attempt to defeat Salthill in the All-Ireland club football final. Perhaps - but consider that he was mired in the glens of Antrim during those long years of slavery, so would probably have been more of a hurling man than a regular around the football clubs of the Falls Road.

You don't get to be Bishop of Ireland without being a sanctimonious sort, and it is likely that Patrick would have taken a dim view of the orgy of gambling brought on amongst his parishioners by the Cheltenham Festival. But I'm sure that even Pat, pious as he was, would have had a sneaky fiver on the chance that this could finally be Beef or Salmon's year....that is until an Angel visited him in his sleep and told him to put the house on Ruby Walsh on Hedgehunter at a generous 14/1...

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

All Credit To Guide Dogs

"There is a part of me who believes I have unfinished business in international football but it is not as simple as Roy Keane saying he wants to come back - that would be a matter for Brian Kerr." - Roy Keane, 19 Feb 2004, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind campaign launch day

"I couldn't possibly see myself at this moment in time working for the FAI but stranger things have happened I suppose. I think a lot of people still miss the point that for me to play for any manager, for the manager to accuse me of faking injury in front of my team-mates, I still won't accept." - Roy Keane, 14 Feb 2005, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind campaign launch day

"When I signed for Celtic I did say it would be best to maybe look at things in the summer....I am due to go back to the hip specialist in the summer. It is important to be fair to myself and the club if it is affecting me. I will weigh it up then but there are no guarantees about next season, I have to say." - Roy Keane, 14 March 2006, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind campaign launch day

Is it just me, or should the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind campaign launch day be re-named "Roy Keane's Address to the Nation"?

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Do You Really Want Another Tip? Well ok then....

What did I tell ya?!! Ok I must be getting good at this. Admittedly Dun Doire was a pick based not on studious perusal of the form guide and analysis of bloodlines, but on the stout logic of hearsay.

Still a winner's a winner, and having read the wisdom of numerous students of the turf over the last couple of days, and seen the outcomes of most of their predictions yesterday (Sweet Wake, I ask you!), I am convinced that hearing it on the grapevine is as good as good a way as any to pick one.

In that regard, and as much to dissuade you, dear reader, of the belief that I might know what I am talking about, here's a little double for today: Denham in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle at 2pm and Central House in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. That'll get you about 17 - 1. Denham appears to be a banker, and Central House's recent record is blemished only by the infamous race in Leopardstown when his jockey, Roger Loughran, pulled up mistakenly 100 yards before the finish, and the following race at Fairyhouse for which Loughran was suspended.

Or you could just shove it all on Moscow Flyer....

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I Have No Cheltenham Tips For You!

"Any tips for Cheltenham?"...."Who do you fancy, Brave Ince or Hardy Eustace?"..."Will the Flyer do it again, eh?"..."What's the going like?"..."Beef or Salmon? I'm not betting on that nag again! Ok maybe one last time....."

Now don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic week - tremendous fun, terrific excitement, the thrill of thoroughbreds racing neck and neck up the hill in the bracing Cotswolds air, cheering on your chosen steed. And the Irish - sure we love it don't we?! Over in our thousands, drunk on stout, craic and hope.

Thing is, its a bit of a racket isn't it? You realise this as you clutch your betting slip tightly as the Gold Cup gets under way, trying to remember who you actually didn't back because you're not used to this horse business and have heard so many names being whispered that you've suddenly found you've bet on half the field, and then that horse that you didn't bother betting on because you didn't like the name steals up on the inside and wins....and you feel like you've just been conned a bit but ah, sure it's only once a year, well apart from the Grand National anyway...

Its eejits like me and festivals like Cheltenham that put bookmakers in big houses. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not putting the deeds of TSA Manor on the four days of madness that are about to ensue, rather a small investment commensurate with my frugal means. But there's millions more eejits like me with their own small investments that get carried away in the whole hullabaloo and suddenly, despite spending the other 51 weeks of the year aloof from equine matters, begin professing wisdom on all manner of punting variables: the peculiar microclimate around Cheltenham and how it will effect the going, how such and such a horse won pulling up at Leopardstown or how some other beast is a good stayer; front runners, strong finishers, good jumpers, flat speed....

I actually think gambling quite a noble art. The best gamblers ally nerve, tireless research, sound judgement and cold reason. They look for value, and withhold their stake where there is none. They scour prices for anomalies, and then pounce like a carnivore of the African plains on a wounded gazelle. They question the madness of the crowd, are sceptical of accepted opinion and bar-room hearsay. It's the rest of us, who come along at times like this, caught up in the roar of the crowd and the cheers of the winners enclosure, tempted by the chance of easy money, who give it a bad name.

With that in mind I'm off to cheer on Dun Doire in the William Hill Trophy. A cert, apparently. Some guy told me....

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Jimmy Johnstone 1944-2006

June 10th, 1967 and the final whistle blows on the Alfredo Di Stefano testimonial at the Bernabeu Stadium. Celtic have beaten Real Madrid 1-0. The ball is where it has spent a large proportion of the previous ninety minutes - at the feet of Jimmy Johnstone. The Celtic winger picks it up and holds it in the air with one hand, taking the acclaim of 100,000 Madrilenos, whose tribute to their own retiring great has turned into a showcase for the mesmeric talent of the diminutive redhead in the Celtic no.7 jersey. The home support had cried "ole" at every dribble, flick and feint, and Di Stefano insisted on Johnstone joining his commemorative photograph along with Puskas, Santamaria and Gento.

I saw footage of this famous night in a video produced in the early 1990s, simply entitled Jinky. These pictures, and all the other footage included in the video, were a core text in my house growing up - a sacred catechism that was viewed repeatedly until the images of Jimmy Johnstone's brilliance in the muddy arenas of the late 1960s and early 1970s became indelibly imprinted onto my psyche. For my generation, who had never seem him play, these clips were to be treasured, primary evidence of the talent of the man who, even today, is regarded as the club's greatest ever player.

But the Di Stefano testimonial has always stood out for me in regards to memories of Jinky, even more so than the European Cup Final of the same year or the semi-final against Leeds in 1970, which also figure heavily in the video. Indeed, the latter two-legged tie was one of his crowning glories, when his genius bamboozled the formidable Leeds defence of the day, leading to the following exhange between Terry Cooper, the Leeds full-back and Johnstone's main victim, and the notorious Norman Hunter:

Hunter: "Kick him!!"

Cooper:"Kick him?! I can't get near him to kick him - you come out and kick him!"

Hunter duly tried, and met with as much success as his colleague, as Johnstone inspired Celtic to a famous 3-1 aggregate victory.

I remember the clips of the Di Stefano testimonial with fondness, however, because it seemed to feature Johnstone where he truly belonged - bestriding a pantheon of greats, and being showered with the recognition of legends, peers and fans alike. Because he played his football in one of Europe's smaller leagues and, internationally, for a Scottish team which did not qualify for a World Cup while he was at his prime, his greatness is often forgotten outside of the Celtic family and Scottish football.

At the time his reknown was spread throughout Europe. In France he became known as the "Flying Flea" after Celtic defeated Nantes in 1966. Then there is the story of the famous night when Celtic played Red Star Belgrade in the home leg of a European Cup tie at Parkhead. Jock Stein, aware that Johnstone was terrified of flying, promised him that he would excuse him from playing in the second leg if the winger helped create enough of a lead in the home leg in Glasgow.

True to form, Johnstone played out of his skin in Glasgow, scoring twice and making three of the five goals that would render his trip abroad unnecessary. The Yugoslavian pressmen begged him to play in the return leg, for the benefit of the locals' viewing pleasure, but Johnstone steadfastly refused.

Where George Best's pop star looks and flamboyant lifestyle embellished his legend as surely as his own wonderful talent, Johnstone's glory resided purely in his ability. Not only in the jaw-dropping insolence of his dribbling, but in the sheer courage of the 5ft 4inch winger's spirit in enduring the brutal treatment from defenders which was permitted at that time. Indeed, the deep love that the wee man inspired in Celtic supporters was partly due to the lionhearted way he refused to allow the savagery of his opponents to prevent him from embarking on yet another run.

It was a courage that he exhibited until his death this morning at age 61 from motor neurone disease, bearing his suffering with good humour and dignity. A hero to the end.

Rest in peace, Jinky.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Who Are These Kilted Wife-Stealers?!

Lock up your daughters, wives and girlfriends! Remember that time when the USS JFK docked in Dun Laoghaire for a few days and our dear womenfolk took leave of their senses and underwear, desperate to be carried off by some white uniformed, buzz-cut beefcake like at the end of that stupid Richard Gere movie? Well this is the only thing worse.

Why do Irish women love the Scots so much? Why do our fine, home-grown single chaps leave the Lynx in the cabinet and the party shirt in wardrobe on these weekends, well aware that, for the next few days, their presence is not required?

Why don't our damsels go crazy for the English? - Too old; wear wax jackets; drunk.

Why don't our maidens wobble at the knees at the sight of Welshmen? - Too pale; ruddy cheeked; drunk.

Why don't our mademoiselles go "ooh la la" for the French? - Too, well, French; wear strange handkerchiefs around their necks; not drunk enough.

The Scots, however, have a devastating, two-pronged approach to the seduction of the flower of our womenhood: The kilts and the accent.

The kilts operate in a very base, pornographic manner. In the same way a short skirt titillates men with the suggestion of what lies beneath, so too the swirl of tartan around a pair of sturdy Caledonian legs is mouth-watering for the ladies - the drunk ones in particular. From the most sophisticated professional career-woman to the bawdiest, blousiest tart, all have shuffled up to an unsuspecting beefy Scot and uttered the immortal, subtle line: "Whaddaya wear under yer kilt?!" To which the Scot, with the Highlander's nose for easy prey, responds - "Put it this way, I'm a real Scotsman...." and kindly provides the young lady with the answer to her query.

The accent? Well that's simple. Exhibit A: Sean Connery. Women, in general, don't like Bond movies. They're smart enough to see that it is basically the same plot every time, and have no interest in new, technologically ingenious methods of murder. All the same, there's a little, hidden part of them, that would like to be masterfully ravaged by a burly Scot in a tuxedo, then left in a pleasurable daze as he steals off in the night to defuse a nuclear bomb headed for Jupiter, patronising them wittily in a Edinburgh lilt as he goes. Therefore, this biennial weekend allows them the rare opportunity to indulge this shameful desire, even if they may have to settle for an overweight sheep-farmer called Dougie.

It's a formidable and unstoppable combination. Lads, don't say I didn't warn you.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Arsenal the Only Bloom Amongst a Poor English Crop

On the face of it, the fact that Arsenal are the only English team to reach the quarter finals of the Champions League would seem to open up the floor for a round of Premiership-bashing and general soul-searching within the English game, as each of Everton, Manchester United, Chelsea and now Liverpool exited the tournament as limply as the last. However before leaping gleefully onto that theme a note of caution should be sounded.

Had Chelsea drawn Villareal, say, instead of Barcelona, England would very likely have had two teams in the quarter finals and their competitor league, Spain, would be now bemoaning having only one representative. Indeed, this scenario would probably have occured had Villareal drawn anyone instead of Rangers. As we mentioned yesterday, margins are tight at this stage of the competition, and, for all that Liverpool were poor against Benfica last night, had they taken those early chances they too would more than likely be in tomorrow's quarter final draw.

Now that's out of the way, time for some knee-jerking. It is pretty clear that this is a poor Premiership crop. Barcelona are wonderful and everything, but they've still lost four games in La Liga this season and will meet sterner tests than Chelsea provided in the coming months. That England's best team by some margin were unable to provide that test does not reflect well on Chelsea, or the league they sit atop.

While the Blues have raised the bar in terms of consistency and winning efficiency, the division's other leading lights have never looked so flawed. Manchester United have propelled themselves to second place via the curious tactic of not having a midfield. Liverpool are hot on their heels due to the even more ingenious strategy of foregoing a strike force.

Arsenal are the saving grace this morning, and anyone who saw the breathtaking 90 minutes at Highbury last night will be glad for a moment to purge their memories of the Gunners cowering submissively while being battered about the north of England by Bolton Wanderers. Having offered up their metaphorical lunch money to Sam Allardyce and his ilk, it was a joy to watch Arsenal cavort gaily amongst like-minded individuals last night, and the match with Real had a cherub-faced, carefree innocence, such was the emphasis on all that is good about football.

That said, like Barcelona, to be ultimately successful they will have to face the reality of the Italians and their rather less dainty methods. Arsene Wenger would do well to urge caution amongst his acolytes, but will be cheered by the return of that breezy, Henry-inspired brilliance that is their hallmark.

Liverpool's disappointment will be severe - not just about the manner of their exit and the quality of their conquerors, but also the extra gloom of relinquishing their trophy. The killer for 'Pool was that late goal conceded in Lisbon. They had dominated the game but, rather than killing off the tie in the away leg, had been left needing goals at home against a side who were well organised, if little else. Then came worst case scenario of an away goal and Liverpool were presented with a target they would not have reached had they continued playing all evening.

It was the night when the magic fizzled out for Liverpool, the alchemy of last season, which produced all the comebacks and improbable feats played out in front of emotionally charged crowds, never materialised. Rafa Benitez is left with his patchy squad and a limited chequebook and with whispers of job offers in Madrid and Milan abounding. However, Liverpool have still made progress this season, and if they can provide him with sufficient financial support, will hope that the manager does not want to leave a job half done.

The man who Rafa Benitez succeeded had a rather more pleasant evening. Gerard Houllier has seemingly adopted a 'business as usual' attitude to Paul Le Guen's Lyon side, as they demolished PSV Eindhoven with that sleek style we have become accustomed to seeing at the Stade Louis Gerland in recent seasons. Lyon, Barcelona and Arsenal should provide the purest aesthetic pleasure as the tournament reaches its climax, but with the possibility of three Italian teams in the quarter finals, the fascination should lie in the prospect of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Where Now For Chelsea and Jose?

It may seem extreme to ask such a question about a team and a project which is proceeding with economical ease to a second successive league title, but the sight of Chelsea's Champions League ambitions being ended so comfortably by Barcelona will still engender significant soul-searching within Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea's ambitions are limitless, and the prestige of the Champions League trophy is something they covet greedily. However, unlike in league football - where Chelsea's squad strength, defensive discipline and resolve make them so consistently successful - the vagaries and unpredictabilities of the knock-out stages of Europe's biggest prize have thus far proved peskily fiendish for the club.

Criticisms of Chelsea's success - putting aside those of how their financial muscle was obtained - have largely centred around the general paucity of entertainment they have provided in proportion to the cash they have spent. Those at the court of Abramovich would until now have swatted these concerns aside with the enduring argument that a league championship provides.

However, it will have been blindingly obvious to the Stamford Bridge powerbrokers that the continent's most valuable trophy has been denied them by a team whose commitment to the beautiful game is as total as their own manager's dedication to effective, no-frills football. Now that Barcelona's Cavaliers have eliminated Chelsea's Roundheads, will Jose Mourinho's bosses be as happy to accept his formidable but charmless formula?

Aside from last night's defeat, there has been a clear desire of late on the part of the club to reverse their hitherto negative PR: it seems that Chelsea just want to be loved. Deploying Peter Kenyon, hardly reknowned for his cuddliness, to achieve this daunting feat is probably only one of the flaws in this plan. However, if they do want to achieve acceptance in the football world, they will surely know that it is the universal desire to watch attractive football that sways neutrals and garners respect and 'second-team' status for the likes of Barcelona.

Jose Mourinho alluded last night to his own positive experience with the slings and arrows of knock-out football when he mentioned his Porto team's last minute triumph over Manchester United in the 2004 Champions League - a success without which he could possibly have remained in relative obscurity for a little longer at least. It's difficult to tell whether his sourness and sense of grievance since the first leg defeat masks any genuine realisation about the limitations of his style, or if, having previously been on the happy side of the fine line between success and failure, he will feel that his time - and vindication - will come again. If his superiors at Stamford Bridge regard their long term project as being endangered by their manager's methods, it could bring about the first real rumblings of discontent of Mourinho's reign.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Some Facts and Statistics on A Wet Tuesday

1.The England rugby pack is regarded as the beefiest in this year's Six Nations championship, weighing in at a girthy 900kg+. Pansies! One fully grown African bull elephant would trample them and their sweet chariot - they weigh between 6000-7000kg, and even a 2 1/2 year old baby elephant would maul Martin Corry and his waifs over the line; these little cuties hit the scales at just over 1000kg. That's more than fourteen Peter Stringers by the way.

2.Shaun Alexander of the Seattle Seahawks became the highest paid running back in NFL history, signing a $62m, 8-year deal. Alexander rushed for 1880 yards last season- slouch! The NFL season lasts five months, but a garden snail named Archie, owned by Carl Branhorn of Pott Row, England, covered a 13 inch course in 2 minutes at the 1995 World Snail Racing Championships, held in Longhan, England; at this rate it would take Archie only just over a week to "rush" as far as moneybags Alexander. Travesty!

3. If you've been getting peeved at the antics of lily-livered professional footballers and their diving, whinging and faking, the tale of Arrichion of Phigalia, a three-time ancient Olympic champion in the "ultimate" wrestling sport of Pankration ought to make your blood boil. Arrichion lost his life in the 54th Olympiad in 564 B.C., when his opponent caught him in a suffocating scissors hold. Arrichion managed however to win the bout when, as he drew his dying breath, his opponent yielded the contest unable to withstand the strangling grip which Arrichion had on his neck. Proper bloke!

4. A healthy crowd of about 6,000 turned up to Pairc Tailteann in Navan to see a resurgent Meath team dispense with Laois in Sunday's National League Division One clash. A paltry gathering, my friends. Just up the road in Tara, the original gaffer, Daniel O'Connell, drew 750,000 through the turnstiles in 1843 for one of his "Monster Meetings". It is thought unlikely that these meetings featured large off-road trucks being driven in mud for the enjoyment of beer-swilling rednecks.

5. Rock of Gibraltar, the Coolmore thoroughbred responsible for the breakdown of the friendship between Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and the horse's erstwhile co-owners John Magnier and J.P. McManus, is thought likely to make as much as £150m in stud fees. Pacific Reproductive Services, a progressive sperm bank with offices in Pasadena and San Francisco, is currently looking for healthy men of all ethnicities to become paid sperm bank donors. PacRepro will compensate donors $60-$80 per "donation". Those interested would need to make 1,875,000 "donations" to earn as much as Rock of Gibraltar. Fergie's no fool.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Spurs and Ireland Reap Benefit of Keane's New Edge.

If Robbie Keane is one of those footballers who cuts out all his press clippings and compiles them in a scrapbook (as I recall Tony Cottee revealing he did in a late 1980s edition of Saint and Greavsie), then, very possibly, the first week of March, 2006, will have a whole volume dedicated to it.

First, there was the honour of being named as Ireland's new captain, which he celebrated with a fine goal and performance in a handsome friendly victory over Sweden. Then he returned to London to be awarded a new four-year contract with Spurs, an achievement he toasted by delivering a brace of goals and playing a crucial role in the third which gave Spurs an undeserved victory over Blackburn Rovers.

Any satisfaction that Keane might feel about his successful week can only be heightened if he looks back on his fortunes over the last year or so. The Dubliner was a permanent fixture of last summer's transfer tittle-tattle, with Everton, Newcastle and Celtic whispered to have made inquiries about his services. The inference was clear: Keane was going to be on his way again, a saleable asset at another club at which he had failed to make himself indispensable.

It was the great curiosity about Ireland's gifted number 10. Tottenham Hotspur were his fifth senior club when he joined them at the age of only 22, and it was hoped that in London he could finally find the settled environment in which his talents could thrive. In fairness, the move to Inter Milan came too early in his career to be a real success, and Leeds' financial meltdown contributed to his exit from Elland Road. However, he had slipped down the pecking order there, and the impression had begun to be formed of a flaky, unfocused talent, whose true worth, it seemed, would be lost.

His association with Tottenham was somewhat appropriate, given that club's similar reputation for flattering to deceive. He was the club's player of the year in his first two seasons, but by last season, the familiar malady had struck again. Keane appeared to be slipping down a striking pecking order which contained Jermaine Defoe, Mido and Fredi Kanoute, and, while his talents were always recognised, it was felt that once again he would be moved on: not good enough to start every game, too valuable to leave on the bench.

Whether his club travails had begun to influence his international form, or whether Ireland's stumbling World Cup qualifying campaign had taken the edge of his performances at Spurs it is difficult to tell, however Keane's reputation at home was not at its highest either. While only Shay Given emerged from Ireland's most recent campaign with credit, Keane, as one of the squad's few genuine top class players, bore more than the usual brunt of criticism for the national team's failure, particularly his lack of goals. His standing was not helped by his being spotted in a Dublin nightclub days before the home match against France, and the subsequent surliness of his reaction to the revelations.

As it turned out, Kanoute, not Keane, was sold last summer, Defoe's progression has stuttered and Keane seized his opportunity. Not only have his performances as a striker earned him his starting place, but he has displayed hitherto unsuspected leadership qualities in a young Spurs side, to such an extent that he has been named as the club's vice-captain by his manager, Martin Jol.

His two goals yesterday (both were dubious - the virtuoso first resulted from a wrongly awarded throw in, the second from a Keane handball) preceded a period of Blackburn dominance which was total, and led to a deserved equaliser from Craig Bellamy in 67 minutes. Only three minutes later, Keane seized possession in the Blackburn half and sent away Aaron Lennon to cross for Mido's winner. It was a heroic performance by the Irishman and his inspiration was the difference between the two teams.

Similarly with the Irish team: last Wednesday night, and in the lead up to the Sweden game, he fully performed his role as captain and demonstrated a maturity which Steve Staunton's new regime will greatly need if his young squad is to be successful.

Robbie Keane's great week was no coincidence. It would seem that the tricky, gifted ball player from Tallaght has grown up, and his new found maturity is paying rich dividends for his club, and hopefully, will do for his country.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Why David Gets a Bit Carried Away After Beating Goliath

Read Graham Spiers Sports Diary yesterday morning in the on-line Glasgow Herald (would have provided a shmancy link here but unfortunately the Herald have archived the online version) and came upon Speirs' defence of a piece written on Monday in which he bemoaned Scotland's "small nation syndrome", as evidenced in the reaction of media and populace alike to the victory of the nation's rugby team over England last Saturday.

Mr.Spiers is the tweed jacket wearing, thinking woman's crumpet of Scottish sportswriting, generally a voice of reason amongst the country's typically rabid pack of tabloid pit-bulls. His point was that all the gloating triumphalism was a rather embarassing sight, and a reflection of the country's fundamental immaturity, particularly with regard to their relationship with their neighbours to the south. It was also suggested, by English exiles, that the Scots had no idea of the level of their hatred for the Sassenach, which, at times, bordered on racism.

So is it wrong for the little guy to celebrate his rare coups over the big boys?

It's a question relevant to the Irish experience, sharing as we do a similar geographical and population dimensions as the Scots, and also a historical enmity with the English. We know all about the explosion of elation that comes from beating England; indeed Stuttgart in 1988 is hard-coded almost as much as the GPO in 1916 in the cultural identity of Irish folk. A friend has told me of the ale-sodden evening of 7th March 2004, when a Corkman of his aquaintance spat eloquently for twenty minutes an oration on why eight hundred years of oppression justifed the fullest celebratory abandon at Ireland's defeat of world champions England at Twickenham that afternoon. Well, I wouldn't have liked to have accused him of immaturity that night, but......

Actually rugby provides a bit more of a clue to the source of the whole thing I think. A year after Ireland put Clive Woodward's men to the sword, his successor Andy Robinson took his men to Lansdowne Road to be beaten again, to satisfied approval rather than jingoistic ecstasy from the green hordes whose team had their sights on a possible Grand Slam rather than a rare big scalp.

Meanwhile Scotland's victory last Saturday was only their third over England in 16 years of championship rugby, a statistic evokes many chilly afternoons of being pummelled senseless by muscly men in white. And also explains the giddiness that abounded following this most recent win.

So its fairly simple. For the little nation, beating the big nation is great, but only when the big nation is worth beating. When the big nation is not worth beating then the little nation doesn't get quite so excited about beating them. But if the big nation beats the little nation most of the time, and has done so in one form or another for centuries, then the little nation gets really rather excited about beating the big nation the odd time.

Case study: The USA would get excited about beating the Russians at ice hockey. The USA would not get excited about beating the Russians at baseball.

In fairness, Graham Spiers was not denying the Scots right to jubilation after beating England, just finding the crazed intensity of their bragging towards the English a little distasteful. I'd forgive them on this occasion though - its rare the poor sods get to celebrate beating anyone these days.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

TSA Report: Ireland v Sweden

Ah, international friendly night at Lansdowne Road. How many precious minutes of my existence have been carelessly cast away, spent standing on a Victorian terrace in Dublin 4, watching our beloved boys in green scamper about eagerly against disinterested visitors whose prime concern is to avoid sustaining injury from overenthusiastic tackles or the treacherous pitch? Feeling the life force ebb away as a half-dozen double subsititutions render the match, and, it seems, my existence, meaningless? Quite a few I'd say.

By those inexacting standards last night wasn't so bad.It was colder than a frosty morning on Pluto, Sweden were as enthusiastic as a teenager at mass and my half-time snack box contained a new, hybrid combination of avian flu and salmonella, but, all in all, it was a rather jolly affair.

There was the whole new gaffer novelty thing, an energetic and committed Irish performance in which most of the new caps impressed and several of the more familiar faces looked reinvigorated, and three fine, cockle-warming goals, all watched by a full house of 44,000 odd.

I often think that the Irish soccer team and the Dublin gaelic football team in tandem perform the role of providing the city with the sort of Newcastle-style unifying sporting cause to identify with, in the absence of a professional soccer team befitting the city's size and status. That hunger for top-class action must be why such hordes continue to flood to any friendly match in the old ground - be it Brazil or China - when nations like Scotland and Wales play their friendlies against the background of empty seats and general apathy.

Just as there was an air of positivity around the camp in recent days, so too the huddled masses seemed in good form. I even overheard some Gardai outside the ground giggling michievously about poor Charlie Bird's misfortunes on O'Connell St. last Saturday. There was none of the usual scowling at Ian Harte and John O'Shea, and the sense of a slate having been cleaned was palpable.

Anyhow, back on the field, as much as the Swedes - especially after Zlatan Ibrahimovic's enforced departure -were poor and as much as the extension of our record in friendlies at Lansdowne Road made people wonder if we couldn't host some kind of Friendly World Cup, there were several real positives to be drawn for the Gaffer and his sagacious sidekick.

Firstly, there was the obvious spirit, confidence and enthusiasm with which the Irish team played. They looked like a bunch of lads who were happy as Larry to be running around playing football on a February evening in front of thousands of people who had paid good money to watch them. Which, of course, is as it should be. Secondly, several players made timely contributions that bode well. Richard Dunne was absolutely immense at the back. Stephen Reid played with forceful vigour and maturity in central midfield. Duffer and Keano took responsibilty and led the team like they realised they were no longer the precocious whippersnappers anymore. Of the new caps, Joey O'Brien and subsititute Stephen Ireland looked absolutely at home in the international environment. Liam Miller would not have galloped confidently forward and smashed a twenty yard shot into the roof of the net a year ago, mired as he was in his Manchester United reserves nightmare.

Thirdly, goals. Ireland scored three of them, all quality and all differently fashioned. For a team that averaged only 1.2 goals per game in their World Cup Qualifying group, such prolific scoring, were it to be continued, would be a godsend. Sweden were uncharacteristically generous, but you still have to put the ball in the net.

My fear for this Irish team was that its lack of seasoned international pedigree and leadership would leave it exposed under the glare of the international spotlight. With the usual caveats about friendlies and their worth, and the obvious poverty of the Swedes effort, there were real signs that people like Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, Stephen Reid and Robbie Keane were prepared to stand up, seize the day and take ownership of this fledgling side. Youth need not be a disadvantage and the management will hope to exploit the obvious freshness and energy of their squad.

Stuttgart in September will be a whole different assignment, but if these lads continue to be happy in their work, then they should do a pretty good job.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ireland v Sweden: Time to Meet the New Boss

The first Englishman to step onto the Croke Park pitch since the Black and Tans, and a rather more genial one at that. For those who shudder at the thought of our erstwhile oppressors setting foot on Gaeldom's hallowed sod, the effervescent Sir Bobby Robson was a refreshing reminder that not all English soccer men are to be feared, and this one possesses the same pure sporting enthusiasm that built the grand palace he visited yesterday.

His second in command's good cheer has been in keeping with the tone of the first days of the Steve Staunton regime. Pressmen have been writing of cooperation and communication, where once there were scowls and silence. Mick Byrne, the confidant and vibemeister of the Charlton and McCarthy eras has been brought back into the fold. His ostensible job title, physio, is a cover for the role of providing Staunton's young squad with an experienced and friendly ear in times of trouble, and also as good luck charm from better days, when the nation's soccer team were kings.

The boss himself has talked a good game, giving the aura of control and seemingly at ease with the arrangement between himself and Robson, whatever that may turn out to entail. He has been helped in no small part by his "international consultant," both by his humility - Robson has repeatedly referred to doing whatever Staunton wants, or needs him to do - and by his ease with the press, his flow of patter keeping the scribes happy and channeling some of the attention away from the inexperienced boss.

Staunton was even comfortable enough to venture that rarest of commodites - a joke - yesterday. When asked about the formation of the team he had surprisingly just named, he responded "It's one to eleven."

All this is, of course, well and good, with no ball having been kicked in anger thus far. Almost all managerial stints begin with such optimism and good cheer, with talk of rectifying the mistakes of the past and giving the fans something to shout about. Remember the first days of the Brian Kerr regime? The talk of doing things right, dispensing with the slipshod half-arsedness of the past and introducing a new, methodical way of doing things?

What was that expression about the first shots of war rendering all battle plans irrelevant?

Let us hope the positivity around the Irish camp continues, buoyed by good results in the forthcoming campaign. The scale of the Irish task is immense, and, in fairness, the new management have spoken in terms of a four year plan to return Ireland to the elite of international football. Wise talk, after the loss of most of the squad's experienced performers from a squad which finished fourth in a poor World Cup qualification group.

As Staunton named Robbie Keane, a 25-year old centre forward, as his pick as captain from a fairly thin field, and selected his first team from his callow squad, the fear lingers that this happy camp could end up as lambs to the slaughter.

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