Friday, April 21, 2006

We're All off to Rather Cloudy Spain Actually

TSA will be taking a well earned holiday next week to recharge its batteries before the hectic summer ahead. Those who cannot survive without their daily dose of analysis, comment and grammatical errors, well, you need to take a good look at your lives really.

Now, where's me sombrero.....?

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The Small Matter of a Game of Rugger on Sunday

The North Terrace at Lansdowne Road is not one of sport's more salubrious quarters. It bears no comparison with any part of the San Siro or the Bernabeu, with Murrayfield or Twickenham. As terraces go, it pales beside the Sudtribune at Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, with its space for 25,000 souls, or Hill 16 at Croker. It is even a less charming billet than the South Terrace which stands opposite it, being something of a runtish little brother to that modest facility. But as I write, someone has declared himself content to pay EUR 1,002 for two tickets to stand there for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon.

Welcome to the Heineken Cup Semi-Final, brought to you by Ebay.

It is the 126th meeting of Munster and Leinster, and the previous 125 might as well never have happened. All those murky interprovincials down the decades at Thomond or Donnybrook, the keenly fought Celtic League matches of recent years - at the time they all would have seemed like big matches; there was always the huge rivalry, international team-mates facing up to each other, the supporters keen to secure bragging rights. There was always the contrast in backgrounds, the Dublin elite against the yeomen of the south. It always meant something.

Maybe its the hype; maybe its the RTE promos with the thumping, driving Arcade Fire soundtrack; maybe its the acres of preview inches in the papers, or the T.V. and radio competitions offering as prizes the hottest tickets in town since Brian Boru was a boy. Maybe its the omnipresence of Brian O'Driscoll, so comfy in his diplomatic-well-spoken-isn't-he-a-nice-lad skin that it's difficult to even imagine him as the ferocious tackling dervish at the centre of Leinster's finest fifteen to date.

Whatever, you will, by now, be well aware that this is - in the parlance of these things - a rather big one.

It is usually only GAA fixtures which provide Ireland with the sort of rambunctious domestic occasion which is the bread and butter of sporting passions elsewhere. International matches are all well and good, and give opportunity for the nation to unite in the cause of misty-eyed balladry and fist-clenching "passion", which in reality just means scaring foreigners by pretending to be a bit mad.

Domestic rivalry is a different and more satisfying genre. When international teams come to Dublin and get a beating, they disappear afterwards towards the airport with their tail between their legs. Fine, but where's the fun in that? Pummeling the shower of tossers down the road provides glorious hours of opportunity to practice our true national sport: The Slagging.

Until now only GAA has provided the good people of this windswept isle with the facilities, means and copious coaching in The Slagging. No son of Mayo has come of age until he has vented spleen about the Tribesmen to the immediate south; no Meathman can wear the green and gold till he was poured scorn on the scumbags of the Metropolis. There is no escape: take a beating and you suffer the lashing the following day in school, workplace or nursing home (the aul fellas are the worst, by the way). The texts come hither, the coarse email parodies thither. In effect, this is what it is all about really; for in the dank dungeon of despair in which the defeated reside, grows the resolve and malicious intent to revisit the pains of today on the vanquished of tomorrow.

And it's great craic too, is The Slagging.

So now you see why the country has gone doo-lally about Munster v Leinster, swimming in the hype and drinking it in like we've never had such a big day out in our lives. There's all the culture clash stuff, of course - the well-worn archetypes of the two tribes' rugby profiles laid against each other like it was Charlie v Garret all over again. Fascinating, and great copy. But fundamentally, everyone is just so excited that, come Sunday evening, one of Irish rugby's big two will be on the other end of what can only be described as the Champions League of Slaggings - a trophy which, for a while anyway, will make the Heineken Cup look like a rusty old chamberpot.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Frustration, But Cautious Optimism for Arsenal

The history of European football is full of unlikely victories by teams like Villarreal in fixtures in which they seemed to have finally overreached themeselves. In recent years alone the progress of Porto and Liverpool towards ultimate glory were both characterised by a persistent sense that at some stage someone would end the madness. Arsenal would do well to remember that as they take their one goal lead to El Madrigal next Tuesday. While they would appear to have the whip hand in this one, the Yellow Submarine is far from sunk just yet (can you sink submarines? Any nautical experts out there please feel free to advise..).

It was a rather frustrating last European evening at Highbury for Arsene Wenger and his hitherto buccaneering troops. Arsenal only intermittently reached the level of fluidity which bamboozled Juventus at the corresponding stage of the quarter-final. Their game is, of course, based on such finely calibrated machinery that it is not unprecedented for it to stutter on occasion. But while they never rose to the heights of the Juve game (Cesc Fabregas in particular failed to dominate as he did in that fixture), Villarreal displayed a gnarly obstinacy and aptitude for pragmatic matchplay that both explains how they have made it this far and gives Arsenal cause for worry for next Tuesday.

A club of Villarreal's size does not make it to the Champions League semi-final by taking on the big boys toe to toe. Manuel Pellegrini's game-plan was quite clearly, and justifiably, based on the notion of disrupting Arsenal's momentum and flow. The Gunners' hopes of fully subjugating Villarreal disappeared with each exaggerated injury stoppage and and foul. Also, the Submari, while rarely threatening to get the away goals which did for Rangers and Inter Milan in the previous rounds, consistently attempted to keep possession when they had it, passing the ball around between Senna, Riquelme, Forlan and Sorin with little menace but with the desire to take the sting and pulse out of Arsenal's efforts to kill the tie.

Pellegrini will have drawn a measure of satisfaction from the result, although his side lost the game. Wenger too will have been highly satisfied by the performance of Gilberto Silva in nullifying Juan Roman Riquelme. While previews of the match had suggested that the Arsenal manager would not detail anyone to man-marking the Argentine, the sight of Gilberto doggedly snapping at Riquelme's heels throughout the game looked a lot like man-marking to me.

It is one of the fascinations of this advanced stage of the Champions League to watch how top level coaches approach the game and the tactical measures they choose. A pity then that the quality of the officiating was not similarly of the highest quality. Both sides suffered - principally Villarreal with the denial of a penalty for Gilberto's first half tackle on Jose Mari, and Arsenal with a goal by Henry wrongly disallowed for offside - but there were countless other errors, particularly incorrect offside calls. These were not even errors mired in the confusion of the active/inactive fog, just plain pub league incompetence.

The possession of a lead, and the bonus of not yielding an away goal leaves Arsenal in control of this tie and with one foot, apparently in the final. Furthermore, their capacity for swift counter-attacking suggests that an away goal of their own in El Madrigal is well within their grasp, particularly as Villarreal must attack at some stage. But the Spanish side are resolute and will be patient. If Arsenal attempt to sit in and defend their lead, they will present their opponents with the slow type of game which a peerless lock-picker like Riquelme was made for. Taking the game to their opponents with their customary dash carries its own inherent risks as well.

However, if reassurance is needed, Arsenal know that they only need to continue what they have achieved in nine previous Champions League matches in succession: keep another clean sheet.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006


European rugby chiefs have averted a potential logistical nightmare by moving a scheduled Heineken Cup fixture out of Limerick to avoid clashing with Sunday's gaelic football National League Div.1 Final in the city. The GAA's showpiece occasion is scheduled for a 5.30pm throw-in at the Gaelic Grounds - and the city would have been plunged into gridlock had the meeting of Munster and Leinster gone ahead at nearby Thomond Park. "It was a case of the ERC blinking first," said a GAA insider. "We have a ground in Dublin lying idle which we could always have used if they didn't back down, but we're glad they didn't go to war on this one." Leinster rugby sources are furious at the inconvenience likely to be caused to their supporters, with the Merrion Road expected to be "bumper to bumper all the way to Blackrock."

Liverpool and England midfield ace Steven Gerrard has delighted his legions of fans by committing his interminable summer transfer wranglings to Spanish giants Real Madrid. "Enough is enough. It's time I put the fans' minds at ease and made it clear that I am fully intent on spending the summer as the subject of endless speculation about a move to Madrid," the 25-year old announced today. "Real are a wonderful club, and I look forward to spending many summer afternoons in secret hotel suites with their executives, thrashing out never-to-exist personal terms," he added. Gerrard had fond words for his previous suitors too: "Don't get me wrong, I spent some great summers considering £100,000-a-week plus 20% of image rights deals with Chelsea; but at this stage of my career, Real are the ideal club to lead on for three months before turning down at the last minute."

Alarmed by the perceived dull image of modern snooker players, World Snooker Association brass are renewing their search for even more morally dubious sponsorship in an effort to spice up proceedings on the green baize. "Everyone knows that smoking is cool, and for years our game's association with the likes of Embassy, Benson & Hedges and Rothmans gave our pale, wan stars the appearance of louche, amoral anti-heroes," revealed a WSA exec yesterday. "We thought that bringing gambling websites on board would maintain the ne'er-do-well mystique, but it's not working." WSA big cheeses are believed to be locked in talks with organised crime, and hope soon to reveal plans for next year's Mafia World Snooker Championships, the Heroin Masters, and the Crack-Whore Open at Preston Guild Hall.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Weekend of Controversy Flags Up Offside Mess

Some serious issues currently face the footocrats within FIFA whose ruminations and machinations in secluded Swiss committee rooms direct the substance of how the world's favourite game is played down to its grassroots. These matters include securing plum reservations in Germany's top restaurants and hotels during the World Cup, jockeying for position at the top table with Sepp Blatter and Franz Beckenbauer at the official FIFA pre-tournament dinner, and perhaps picking up a few new suits for the gruelling month of gladhandling that lies ahead.

Critical as these matters are, however, down amongst the lumpen masses who actually play and support the game, each weekend brings new and more dispiriting examples of two problems which are immeasurably harming the integrity of the game: diving and the craziness of the current interpretation of the offside rule.

While the former is a cancer which has long afflicted the game (just yesterday Eurosport showed highlights of the 1974 World Cup Final, in which Wim Jansen of Holland delicately brushed the fibres of Bernd Holzenbein's sock, sending the German into penalty-winning orbit) and has roots in the diverse cultures and attitudes within the game and the natures of those that play it, the latter is - pure and simple - a fiasco of the game's own making, the resolution of which should be at the top of FIFA's, I mean, agenda.

Last weekend's Premiership fixtures provided the latest exhibits, in the form of Djibril Cisse's 'non-interference' with the move that led to Robbie Fowler's winning goal for Liverpool at Blackburn, and Kevin Philips' movement from an offside position to contribute to Gary Cahill's astonishing second for Aston Villa against Birmingham.

Both cases highlight separate nonsenses which the definitions within the law foster. In Philips' case, the problem is a simple one of confusion, and the removal of the concept of a clear-cut offside decision from the match officials' repertoires. If an attacker is occupying an offside position when a dead ball is played into the box, the linesman (we will have no truck here with the assistant referee nomenclature, thank you) will not raise his flag immediately, only doing so when the attacker becomes involved with active play.

Fine. But as football has proven since the days of waxed moustaches and baggy shorts, referees are human - and therefore fallible - and rather than introduce measures to make their job easier or to reduce the potential for human error, the latest definition simply provides a bountiful habitat for the proliferation of cock-ups. Linesmen, addled by confusion, keep their flags in a default "down" position, hoping that the clearly offside attacker disappears into obscurity by the time the move has resolved itself.

At Villa Park the linesman must have seen that Philips was offside, then, like a copper tracking a shoplifter on a busy high street, lost him, guv. Philips, Artful Dodger-like, reappeared as the ball arrived into the box, ghosted through the crowd and got his head on the cross: in other words, became involved in active play. A perfect example, therefore, of a linesman mired in the precarious quicksand of the offside law's current guise.

While this example featured the time-honoured vista of the befuddled official, the Cisse case involved a more pernicious display of the new interpretation's pitfalls. Taking the semantics of Law 11 to their conclusion, referee Alan Wiley and linesman Barry Sygmuta adjudged Cisse not to be involved in active play as he was not "interfering with play, interfering with an opponent or gaining an advantage by being in that position."

Delve further into Law 11, specifically the definitions of active play as detailed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) meeting in London in February 2005, and you find the following:

-Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team mate.

-Interfering with an opponent means preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent's line of vision or movements or making a gesture or movement which, in the opinion of the referee, deceives or distracts an opponent.

Cisse quite clearly did not play or touch the ball. However, did he interfere with an opponent? Did he, by making that 'gesture or movement' toward the ball deceive or distract the Blackburn defence? Not in the opinion of Messrs Wiley and Sygmuta, for whom Cisse's very presence at that moment in the Blackburn 18-yard box was entirely inconsequential - indeed the bold Djibril may as well have been playing tennis with the Dalai Lama for all the involvement he was having on the play at that moment. Needless to say, Mark Hughes and his Blackburn players had some quibbles with this interpretation.

The offside rule, as football's one major regulation against total on-pitch free expression, needs to be kept simple and dogmatic, not convoluted and labyrinthe in its formulation.

Now, we're generally not given around these parts to those hoary old one-liners that get copied and pasted onto forwarded emails, so that we can read of the no-nonsense working class wisdom which bygone managers have imparted and apply it to the daft and shiny-fangled world of modern football. But, in this case, the last word is left to Bill Shankly: "If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?"

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

We're Still Snooker...Loopy!

For a sport that is regarded to be in the doldrums commercially, snooker retains an enduring appeal, especially on television. The World Championships, which begin this weekend in Sheffield, are at the centre of this popularity, and even if you believe today's players don't have the charisma of that quintessential curio of 1980s pop-culture, the 'Snooker Loopy' Matchroom Mob, come the May bank holiday Monday and the last session of the final, you will be hanging on every shot.

So why do we still love the sleepy business at the Crucible so?

If there is one demographic for whom the world of sport remains a complete irrelevance, it is the beloved Grannys. They came of age in a time long before ladette culture and the hitherto unimaginable phenomenon of women at football matches became a reality. But snooker has always been their preserve. When the camera scans the audience over the next two weeks. trying counting the number of snoozy matrons rustling their sweetie papers. The quietness of the game, and the hypnotic clack of the balls, as well as the sight of reassuringly well-behaved and tidily dressed young men, is manna from heaven for our dear Grandmammas.

Drag Racer, by the Doug Wood Band, before you ask. Like all of the Beeb's great theme tunes, this one is so completely evocative of snooker as to make you imagine that it is David Vine himself on lead guitar, with Dougie Donnelly keeping time on drums and John Parrott weighing in with the throbbing bassline. Despite being scandalously remixed in recent years, somehow, for a brief moment, it makes the sport seem ineffably exciting.

At some point over the two weeks, in a shopping mall or garden centre in Sheffield, the Waistcoated Wonder will gather his adoring public around him closely, the better to witness his supernatural manipulations of coloured spheres on baize, and the better to hear his dazzling verbiage and scabrous wit. One of the great performers of our, or any other time.

When Scott Joplin sat down in 1902 and began to compose his ragtime masterpiece "The Entertainer", he undoubtedly had in mind that it would, in a utopian future, be used to soundtrack a hilariously edited montage of snooker players picking their noses, pulling funny faces and having mishaps with their bow ties. Were he alive to see it, Joplin would surely shed a tear.

For those of us that came of age in the 1980s, Steve 'Interesting' Davis was the pantomime villain to boo and hiss as he dully crushed the slatternly entertainers whom we loved. The joy of Dennis Taylor's 1985 triumph was only multiplied by the fact that it was the icy Davis who had been usurped. But what's this, we thought, as Davis' peak years passed and the Romford Nugget became the very epitome of self-effacing charm and even a dorky wit? A salutary allegory for all of us on the passing of youth and the benefits of maturity. Or something.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gah Season Starts Here!

The keener eyed of readers will have noticed that, despite the hurling and football National Leagues having been running for the past couple of months, they have received scarcely a nod or passing comment in these parts. This is not a sin of omission, however. Rather, to these eyes, the National Leagues are glorified pre-season tournaments, half-throttle (events in Omagh excepted) dress rehearsals for the Broadway run of the summer. Not that they aren't approached seriously by the county panels involved, but there is undoubtedly a sense of boot camp about the competitions, wherein any failures or problems are excused by the hope that they will be rectified by the summer.

That said, the arrival of the knock-out stages in the Leagues brings the promise of silverware, and the knowledge that the white heat of the Championship lies just over the horizon. So which teams are freewheeling toward the summer and which sides are at the side of the road with a puncture?


Looking Good: Mayo, Laois, Galway
In a league without an outstanding team and in which many hardy perennials stubbornly refused to bloom, Mayo had the most fulfilling campaign. Inter-county management's wandering minstrels, Mickey Moran and John Morrison, have received plaudits for how quickly Mayo have settled and the level their players have reached - even without Ciaran McDonald. Battled for a point against Tyrone to secure qualification for the semis, and theirs was a strong division to top.

Laois continued to be the aesthetes of football, their free-flowing style brightening up many a chilly county ground over recent Sundays. Got a bit of a rattle by a physical Kildare last Sunday, just when defeating the Ulster triumvirate of Armagh, Derry and Down over previous weeks might have convinced them they had the weapons to handle brawnier opponents.

Galway are the form side it seems; after a slow start, they won their last four games in a row, putting up hefty scores in the process - the return of the Salthill-Knocknacarra lads putting some timely pep in their step.

Nothing Special, But You Know They'll Be There in the Summer: Kerry, Tyrone
Kerry may have qualified for the semis but defeats to Monaghan and Tyrone and a draw with a similarly inconsistent Dublin means it wasn't a stellar league for the kingdom. Tyrone missed out on the semi-finals for the first time in five seasons, albeit they were in the tougher of the divisions. Both sides will, of course, be the teams to beat in the summer, but although Tyrone only missed out on points difference, they will be mindful of how they've liked maintain standards in League and Championship in previous years, and will hope that this rare failure to qualify won't spell a lasting drop in those levels.

Lot of Work To Do: Dublin, Armagh
The Dubs just couldn't get into their stride. Thought they'd laid down a marker by beating Tyrone, then lost to relegated Monaghan; disposed comfortably of Offaly, then edged out by Cork; beaten by Fermanagh then went on to drub table-toppers Mayo. However, Pillar Caffrey tried a lot of new players and will no doubt think of the league as a laboratory for the future months.
Armagh could easily have been relegated, had Meath not shipped four goals at Galway, and while none will write them off, like Tyrone they have prided themselves on greedily competing for silverware of any kind. Is it getting too hard to rouse themselves for the chilly spring Sundays?

Honourable Mentions: Donegal, Limerick, Louth
Donegal did as expected, Limerick lived up to potential, but it was Louth who provided the fairytale of the league in winning promotion to Division One.


Looking Good: Kilkenny, Clare, Limerick
How determined are the Cats going to be this season? Skipped through the league campaign handily enough, the highlight being a comfortable defeat of their 2005 conquerors Galway - and even more reassuring the fact that they condeded only 0-10 against the Westerners, as opposed to 5-18 in the aforementioned All-Ireland semi.

Clare, whilst never dazzling and probably overrelying on Niall Gilligan for scores, will be delighted with the scalps of Cork and Waterford with the Munster Championship in mind, and will enjoy the opportunity of a run-out at Semple Stadium, a ground they are often said to have problems with.

For Limerick it's all about muscling their way up amongst the leading contenders and at last starting to fulfil the promise of their consecutive U-21 All-Irelands at the beginning of the decade. With that in mind, defeating Galway and drawing with Kilkenny and Waterford are a step in the right direction.

Nothing Special, But You Know They'll Be There in the Summer: Cork, Waterford
Inconsistent, and in Waterford's case at times woeful, the recent pedigree in Munster remains with these two - and in the case of Cork, only a fool wouldn't believe that the prize which their eyes are on is in Septmeber, in the form of the fabled three-in-a-row.

Lot of Work To Do: Tipperary, Galway
Dark times in Tipperary, with a draw with Limerick being the summit of their league achievements. Cue public berating of his panel by Babs Keating and much soul-searching about Tipp lads having to put in too many hours on the farm to cope with the demands of the modern game. Overreliance on Eoin Kelly only the beginning of their problems.

Galway also had a dire league, the defeat to Antrim being the nadir. However, they have a bright shining light in the form of Portumna's Joe Canning, the 17-year old who almost singlehandedly won his club the All-Ireland title on St.Patrick's Day. The temptation to promote him up the ranks will be huge for Conor Hayes.

Honourable Mention: Offaly
In the quarter-finals, and will be delighted with the rout of Waterford; however, how interested the Deise were last Sunday is open to question.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rooney the Key to United Revival

In a bar-room conversation last Saturday night with a rabid Liverpool fan - one of the ambulance-troubling type, the chip on whose shoulder required planning permission - about the relative merits of his team and the current Manchester United side - I, much to his chagrin, posited the old chestnut that the league table doesn't lie.

Stripping away the layers of prejudice in his arguments, there was one central, troubling kernel of doubt: didn't Liverpool play United off the park only six or seven weeks ago, and can United really have improved that much in such a short time? Was their impressive run of league form since then merely the inevitable statistical manifestation of playing a who's who of Premiership duffers, the cream of which was a Bolton side collapsing faster than an Italian coalition government?

The convincing defeat of Arsenal on Sunday duly followed. Arsenal, the team for which we had all emptied our larder of superlatives, as they breezed by Europe giants with bravura over recent weeks. Despite the resting of Thierry Henry, surely the manner of this victory showed that United were in fine fettle and returning to the grandeur of old?

Perhaps, but improved they certainly have. So what has changed in those intervening weeks?

The majority of the mud slung at United after their FA Cup elimination at Anfield was related to the puniness of their midfield, the catchweight nature of the contest between their middle four and Liverpool's muscular equivalents being central to their timid demise.

But is their midfield much more impressive now? On Sunday they played Ronaldo, Giggs, O'Shea and Park, as opposed to the quartet of Ronaldo, Giggs, Richardson and Fletcher at Anfield. Are the lugubrious Irishman and the fleet-footed South Korean the reason for the newly formidable United? O'Shea has actually been quietly impressive of late, reading the game well, in addition to demonstrating his natural ability.

But Arsenal are not noted for physical domination of midfield anymore and Cesc Fabregas was visibly fatigued by the burden's of the recent weeks' successes. Indeed if anyone had earned a rest from Wenger's starting eleven it was the 18-year old.

Defensively, United were not particularly punished for their lack of possession at Anfield in February, but that may have been more to do with the miserable scoring form which would lead to Liverpool's elimination from the Champions League a few weeks later. A few weeks previously, however, they had shipped four in losing at Blackburn, and, going back to the derby defeat by Manchester City - and, if you like, even further back to the home defeat by Blackburn in September - have suffered from a soft centre in front of their own goal, particularly in the shape of a lack of decisiveness in dealing with balls into the box.

Nemanja Vidic's impressive display on Sunday, which included a number of crunching tackles and solid clearances might suggest that this vulnerability has been addressed also. The big Serb certainly appears to possess the required traditional centre-half qualities to accompany Rio Ferdinand's more genteel talents.

But all this amounts only to trimmings. Staring in the face, the answer to why United are suddenly playing like the champions they will, rather probably, not become: Mr Wayne Rooney. Gosh, that wasn't blindingly obvious. The guy who scored the first and set up the second and was at the core of everything good his side did - what perceptive analysis!

Yes it is obvious, but just as the 20-year old carries England's hopes of winning the World Cup, so too is his current effervescence at the core of United's revival. Rooney went through something of a lull during the first six or seven weeks of 2006, as if made sluggish by excessive consumption of Christmas pudding.

He is operating now at full capacity, however, and the explosiveness that hallmarks his game was never more present than on Sunday. What makes Rooney a great player is different to what defines Ronaldinho's genius. The Brazilian astounds us with his seemingly unthinking execution of the impossible; the performance of skills and manouevres which are simply not in the repertoire of any other player, and seem intrinsically related to his physiology and his lithe frame.

Rooney's talent, on the other hand, is in the perfection of his execution of textbook footballing skills. There is little that Rooney does that is in itself specific to him - no Cruyff turn, or Zidane roll - but his control, vision, powerful running, passing and shooting are all consistently completed to a standard way above those around him. Take his goal on Sunday: flawless control, followed by an unstoppable shot. Or his famous goal against Newcastle at Old Trafford last year: a volley, no doubt, but one that no-one playing today could similarly produce.

As a tangent to the aforementioned pub discussion, it was asked where exactly United were superior to their old foes. That debate is easily ended by simply pointing to the identity of the Red Devils no.8, and his presence in current form weighs heavily in the favour of arguments for both club and country.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Lefty A True Master Now

It's one of sport's happy endings. Imagine a movie of Phil Mickelson's early career - a bit like Walk the Line, but featuring the 2004 US Masters instead of the Folsom Prison concert. The childhood chipping around in his back yard, the triumphs of a successful amateur career and early tour wins, then the plot twist as our hero repeatedly fails to win at the majors, the infamous 'choke' against Payne Stewart at the 1999 US Open being his nadir.

But the thrilling win at Augusta in 2004 would be the send-'em-home-smiling, feel-good denouement; then, as the shot of Mickelson - played, perhaps, by Jeff Daniels - clad in green jacket and surrounded by his wife and chilren fades, the stirring score swells and a caption reads: "Phil Mickelson went on to win many more majors and become one of the greatest golfers of all time."

Mickelson is there now; the troubling figure, who, prior to 2004, could not win the major titles his ability deserved is a distant memory. The man whose popularity (partially due to his buccaneering style, a risk-taking inclination that probably prevented him from winning a biggie much earlier) made people turn away dolefully when he blew another one, shaking their heads. "Philly, Philly, Philly."

This golfer is no more. Mickelson wears the green jacket today, but also the mantle of one of golf's superstars with ease. While yesterday's final round proved rather flat, with none of the other contenders able to keep their game together enough to challenge, Mickelson's consistency was admirable. His only glitch was a bogey at the last, and even then he had two putts to spare.

In an anecdote of the kind beloved of American sportswriters, it is said that, when Mickelson's wife and newborn baby were seriously ill due to complications during childbirth in 2003, his prayers included an undertaking to give up gambling (Mickelson was extremely fond of a high-stakes flutter) should their lives be spared. They were, and he did, and for the more imaginative commentator the inference was that he reigned in not only his extra-curricular punting, but also his high-risk golf style - thereby enabling him to at last win majors.

It's probably just a trite connection that would fit well in a script for the aforementioned movie, but whatever the cause, Mickelson cuts an impressively mature figure now. He has the length, he has the short game and he has the mental attitude. It would seem that his latest major victory will have many sequels.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

I'm Hearing Voices

The lengthening of several holes at Augusta National is not the only controversial change Masters-watchers are coming to terms with this year. BBC have this year diversified Gary Lineker's portfolio by giving the erstwhile golden-boy of English football and keen-golfer the plum anchor gig at the Masters following Steve Rider's departure to ITV. However, where the velvet-voiced Rider's unflappability and vaguely beige smoothness were tailor-made for the genteel proceedings at Augusta, something about Lineker's rather flat East Midlands patter - maybe the fact that it is usually the soundtrack for the more proletarian delights of Match of the Day - jarred with the azalea and pine visuals.

So should the familiar voices of sport not be allowed outside their own regular beats, or should this cross-pollination be encouraged? Let's look at these hypothetical examples:

Bill McClaren & "One Man and His Dog":
One imagines the great Scotsman - doyen of rugby commentators for almost fifty years -enjoying his retirement in his native Hawick, bestriding the Cheviots on wintry afternoons with a loyal hound by his side and reminiscing over the many great contests to which he lent his sturdy burr down through the years. Who better then to front the surely inevitable return of the sadly lamented BBC 2 Sunday evening fixture, in which similarly ruddy-faced rural types demonstrated mystical telepathy with keen-eyed border collies for the purpose of speeding daft sheep to the succour of the pen? "He's a good laddie. Well done Shep!"

Sid Waddell & Ice Skating
The Geordie who made the use of similes into an art form ("It's like trying to stop a waterbuffalo with a pea-shooter) and critically acclaimed scriptwriter (he wrote Jossie's Giants) is frankly in need of a new challenge away from games of misspent youth. His arrival into the chintzy world of ice skating would be a breath of fresh air for that sport. Rather than Barry Davies haughtily moaning "Wonderful!" over the lutzes and salkos, Waddell would craft gems like "the Russian was like a Sputnik in tights on that jump," or "ooh, the Canadian girl landed like a hippo with vertigo there."

Dan Maskell & Formula One
Ok, he's dead. But is a crime that the voice of tennis never stretched himself and subbed for Murray Walker for an odd Grand Prix here and there. Imagine, six laps of racing, not a word. Then Prost overtakes Mansell in the straight and Maskell exclaims "oh, I say!". Class.

Michael O Muircheartaigh & Snooker
"Davis off the seat, takes the cue, approaches the table. Still Davis now at the top of the table, checks the angle - it's a protractor he needs, not a cue - hits the shot but its wide, wide of the pocket and now here comes Higgins, the man from Beal Feirsde, round and round the table he goes, he looks once, he looks twice - he stops for a drink - now back to the table and the ball's in the pocket, its a point! And now the black, the colour of death but Higgins' hopes are alive and kicking now....

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Villarreal - Wigan of the Mediterranean

Actually, the above headline, meant to convey the obscurity of the town and the parallels with the Lancashire club's similar rags to riches tale, is a little misleading. Wigan, in comparison with the small town of 47,000-odd people just north of Valencia whose team have just qualified for the Champions League semi-finals, is a veritable metropolis of 81,203 souls. Although, in defence of the Latics, Vila-real does not possess a competing rugby league club of any note....

The magnitude of Villarreal's achievement is underlined by a perusal of the club's history. Like Wigan Athletic, who spent much of their history bouncing between various regional and non-League divisions before election to the Football League in 1977, their past is an inconsequential one. From their foundation in 1923 - their first board included a chemist, a bank official and a postal worker - until their promotion to the country's second tier in 1992/93, save for a brief two season period in the Segunda Division from 1970-72, they inhabited the lower reaches of Spanish football.

Accession to the second division seemed achievement above their station enough for the Sub-Mari (the club's nickname is the 'Yellow Submarines', in reference to the colour of their jerseys), their attendances averaging around 3,500 and their finances impecunious. However, just as Dave Whelan's sports-goods millions were diverted toward the aim of propelling Wigan Athletic into the Premiership, so too, in 1997, did local ceramics millionaire Fernando Roig Alfonso bestow his largesse upon Villarreal.

Despite Roig's wealth and ambition for the club, the trajectory upon which Villarreal then embarked - which reached its apex so far with the elimination of mighty Inter Milan in Tuesday nights Champions League quarter-final - was still as stunning as it was unlikely. Promotion to the Primera Liga was achieved in 1998. Although they were relegated that season, they returned to the top-flight in 2000 and have remained there ever since. They won the Intertoto Cup in 2003 and 2004, and also reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in the latter season.

Their recent success has been built around a resolutely South American core. Of the fourteen players involved on Tuesday night, eight were of South American origin, as is coach Manuel Pellegrini, who hails from Chile. Argentinians Juan Roman Riquelme - whose sublime skills were deemed surplus to requirements at Barcelona - Diego Forlan, Juan Pablo Sorin, and goalscorer Rodolfo Arruabarrena have been key to Villarreal's progress, their policy of purchasing low-cost foreigners instead of over-priced natives mirroring that other Lancastrian success story, Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce.

And so Villarreal will take the field at Highbury in a fortnight's time understandable underdogs, comparative minnows in terms of history, achievement and riches: when Arsenal were winning their three League titles in a row under Herbert Chapman, Villarreal were celebrating winning the 1st Regional category Championship. But the club from the tiny Spanish town's stellar progression appears to be taking little of notice of football's traditional power-structure, and, suddenly, no-one is writing them off.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

For the Calming of Nervous Arsenal Fans

For Arsenal fans these afternoon hours are tortuous. It's that stomach-knotting feeling you get before big European matches that makes you incapable of all but the most basic survival dependent tasks - breathing, bowel movements, smoking fags. You stare out of the window running the impending events through your mind, willing the hours to tick by so that your suffering can cease....In order to minimise your discomfort, Arsenal fans, and to allow you a few moments of happy thoughts, here - based on meticulous study of match statistics and form, the zodiac and the wisdom of the Tarot, as well as my many years of midweek evenings spent slumped in front of European football ties - is the best case scenario for your team:

7.43pm - Final ad break ends, Champions League music swells in background, shots of two teams in tunnel, patting heads of mascots and puffing cheeks nervously. Eamon Dunphy summarises thusly: "Juve are finished, washed up; their nickname is the 'Old Lady' and that's right because my granny could move faster than their midfield. Arsenal to go through with bells on."

7.45pm - Match kicks off and George Hamilton makes reference to the home ground being called the Stadio Delle Alpi, and the fact that that is appropriate because of the mountain that the home side have to climb etc. Jim Beglin icily ignores George's carefully conceived metaphor, proceeds with conventional-style analysis - causing Hamilton to die a little inside.

7.50pm - Juve, contrary to expectations, have besieged Arsenal in the opening minutes, in the hope that an early goal will rattle the youthful Gunners' confident mien. No dice. Lehmann parries a wicked Nedved free kick to safety, the loose ball is picked up by Reyes, who feeds Henry - the Frenchman glides around Cannavaro as if the defender were a 1500-year old Giant Redwood, slamming the ball past a despairing Buffon.1-0 Arsenal! Cut to shot of incandescent Fabio Capello.

8.10pm - Conscious that their great gamble has failed, and paralysed by the fear of Arsenal's counter-attack, Juve descend into a funk, a stupor which says "we've won the league, that'll do for us, can we go now?". Aimless balls are punted for a disinterested Zlatan Ibrahimovic to half-chase; the Temperamental Striker throws his arms to heaven, mouthing filthy Swedish epithets.

8.20pm - Zambrotta, infuriated by Henry's repeated nutmegs, clatters through the Arsenal striker for a yellow-card. Referee Herbert Fandel, keen to prevent the indiscipline of the first leg (and impress watching FIFA refereeing bods in World Cup year) delivers stern finger-wagging admonishment. Zambrotta responds by spitting on his shoes and heading straight for the dressing rooms. Cut to shot of incandescent Fabio Capello. "Silly, silly man" says Hamilton, "You've got that right, George", agrees Beglin. Hamilton's eyes light up at the affirmation.

8.30pm - Half-time and the teams leave the field, Arsenal to the lilting air of "1-0 to the Ar-sen-al" from their fans high up in the curva, Juve to a chorus of boos from what remains of their supporters - namely, their mothers and the ground staff.

8.35pm - Studio verdict on Juve: Gilesy: "a disgrace", Dunphy: "foul and pestilent".

8.45pm - Second half kicks off. More of the same, except Juve have dispensed even with the long balls to Ibrahimovic, since the Temperamental Striker has taken to loitering on the touchline, smoking what appears to be some sort of reefer. Cut to shot of incandescent Fabio Capello.

8.50pm-9.10pm - Match continues in the following vein: Arsenal pinballing the sphere around gracefully, Juve hoofing winsome Gunners attackers into the air, garnering yellow and red cards with exemplary efficiency. Soon only Buffon and Thuram remain. TV director forced to resort to stock footage of incandescent Fabio Capello, as Juve boss is now long home, sniggering at low-brow gameshows on TV.

9.15pm - Near-empty Stadio Delle Alpi stands lit up by fires and flares, police baton charges follow as local Ultras show their disapproval. "I'm sure UEFA will have something to say about that tomorrow Jim", says George Hamilton. "They certainly will George", concurs Beglin. Hamilton swoons.

9.25pm - Thuram collapses with exhaustion while attempting to head a corner which he has taken himself. Ljungberg and Henry juggle the ball up the field before laying it on to Fabregas to slot it past Buffon, who by this time is crouched in his goal mouth sucking his thumb.2-0 Arsenal!

9.30pm - Final whistle. Arsenal players hug and jump around, celebrating reaching their first Champions League semi-final. George Hamilton, emboldened: "A few weeks ago the Winter Olympics were here and there was plenty of sliding around. But there was no slipping by Arsenal tonight and in truth, they were never even on thin ice!". Jim Beglin grimaces silently.

Studio verdict: Gilesy - "All credit to Arsenal", Dunphy- "Juve are scoundrels and vagabonds".

Fabio Capello, tucked up in bed, relaxes with Angels and Demons, his favourite of the Dan Brown books.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Greatest Masters

Twenty years ago this week, Jack Nicklaus arrived at Augusta for the US Masters out of form and widely regarded to be over-the-hill. Languishing 160th on the PGA Tour money list, he hadn't won a tournament in two years nor a major in six. He had missed the cut in three of the four tournaments he played that year. Yet, by Sunday, he had stormed to his sixth Masters title in the most thrilling fashion imaginable.

One contemporary correspondent summed up the consensus on Nicklaus' chances in his pre-tournament write-up. Tom McCollister of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in an article which was clipped and pinned to the door of the refrigerator in the house where the Nicklauses were staying, said "Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's ruined from lack of use. He's 46 and no-one that age wins the Masters."

It wasn't a sentiment which Nicklaus himself totally disagreed with. Speaking to Golf Digest magazine this month, he admitted "By 1986 I was not the player I was 15 years earlier. And I've always felt the Masters was a young man's tournament because of the speed of the greens, the firmness of the course and the demands it puts on your nerves." Still, the man regarded as the greatest golfer of them all did not want to go quietly, especially where the US Masters - arguably the greatest tournament in golf - was concerned.

The standard that year was immensely high, and in the vanguard were a group of immensely talented foreign players. After three rounds the field was led by Greg Norman on -6, followed closely by a quartet of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Donnie Hammond and Nick Price (who had shot a course record 63 on the Saturday, including lipping a putt for 62 on the 18th) on -5. Nicklaus lay ninth, on -2, after playing comfortably the best golf of his year in the opening rounds.

Going into the final day, he believed he would need 65 to win. It would be the score he would sign off on before collecting his sixth green jacket.

Not that it seemed that way going out. He seemed in the opening holes to be compiling a workmanlike round, missing a few putts and ending up in trees on the second and eighth - the hole which would ignite a famous charge. Hitting a three-wood out of dense trees, he wound up just short of the green, from where he made his par.

His first birdie of the day came at nine, but, at the time, it seemed academic. Ballesteros and Tom Kite had both just made eagles, leaving him five shots off the pace at the turn, despite his birdie. However, he followed it with birdies at 10 and 11, which, following a Ballesteros bogey, suddenly left him only two shots off the pace, and seemingly with all the momentum. The 12th, however, saw him tighten up and pull his tee shot at the par 3 hole. After a poor chip he was forced to take bogey and his charge seemed stalled.

For Nicklaus himself, it was the cue to get aggressive. Birdie and par were taken on 13 and 14, but Ballesteros had just made his second eagle to enjoy a two stroke lead over Kite and a four stroke lead over Nicklaus and Norman; the Spaniard looked to be cruising to the title. Not that anyone told Nicklaus: on 15 he putted from 12 feet for an eagle to move further up the jostling pack behind Ballesteros, now level with Kite on -7.

Now hitting beautifully, Nicklaus played one of his best shots of the day at the par 3 16th - a 5-iron which missed the hole by inches, allowing him to hole from 3 1/2 feet for yet another birdie. By now the noise of the crowd upon every brilliant stroke was deafening, as if being made in a roofed-over stadium, and it created a sense of building excitement which intimidated his opponents as much as it carried Nicklaus along.

Ballesteros, on the 15th, began to feel the pressure.

The Spaniard, having heard the cheers for Nicklaus on 16, took a 4-iron approach to the green - and promptly put it in the water. The magnitude of the closing holes of the Masters is substantial enough in normal times, but with the whole crowd seemingly willing their beloved Nicklaus on to an unlikely success, Ballesteros appeared to have succumbed to the atmosphere - and the cheers which accompanied his ball into the soup cannot have helped.

There was now a three way tie for the lead between Ballesteros, Nicklaus and Kite on -8, with Norman and Tom Watson on -6. Nicklaus hit a poor drive on 17, but followed with a superb shot between trees to within 12 feet. As if the concept of nerves did not exist, he rolled his putt in, to the most almighty roar of the day.

He now had the lead.

After making a good par on 18 he walked off the course to another tumultuous cheer, arm in arm with Jackie, his son and caddie - to wait. Kite and Norman were the only men who could beat him now. Kite, a shot behind, had a ten foot birdie putt on 18 to force a playoff. He underhit it and it broke left.

Norman however, had birdied 17 and was tied with Nicklaus as he stood over his approach to the 18th green. He chose a four-iron and attacked the shot. It flew into the spectators gallery, from where he chipped to 10 feet for a putt to bring the tournament to a play-off. He missed and the Golden Bear was the 1986 Masters champion, his last major, twenty-four years after his first and twenty-three after his first win at Augusta.

Jack Nicklaus played his last round at the Masters in 2005, and bowed out from professional golf in fitting style, at the Open Championship at St.Andrews last July.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

The Battle Lines Are Drawn

Which side are you on? Normally it would be an easy one. Munster, the heartland; the pulsing red heart of Irish rugby, passion, heart and steam rising off sodden scrums. Versus Leinster, the dandies; blue, like the blood of effete aristocrats, hot air rising from well-fed mouths. Easy. Except - and leaving aside for a moment the monumental struggle which awaits in three weeks time - if you asked me today who I'd rather watch, who I would, objectively and with purely my own recreation in mind, rather part with my hard-earned to see, then I would don Sunday best, spit on my shoes and go cheer on Drico and co, and to hell with values.

As a native of neither, the great ideological struggle that defines Irish rugby is of great fascination. Based purely on results in recent years, Munster have dwelt comfortably in their moral superiority. Not only has their way been the more righteous, it has also been the more successful by far. On Saturday evening however, amongst the milling red hordes around Ballsbridge and Baggot Street, there was just perceptible the furrowing of brows, the metaphorical glances over shoulders brought on by Leinster's epochal triumph in Toulouse.

Such was the sheer joy of Leinster's performance and the stunning elan of the way that Michael Cheika and David Knox - and the genius of Felipe Contepomi - have got their team playing, that it is no longer easy to just dismiss Leinster as foppish wastrels, profligate offspring who are destined to disappoint.

Used to doing their talking on the field, it is not the Munster way to strut and brag. Cuter than that, what you would hear was more like "ah yeah, they're looking good Leinster - Jesus if we play like we did today against them they'll murder us" - a sly old statement which says: "they are good and merit our respect, but we have more to come, and don't you forget it". All the same, that Leinster are a force to be reckoned with at last is evident on their rivals' countenances.

The way that the two sides are playing, based on Saturday's day of days, polarises the two sides and their respective ethoi more than ever. Munster heaved and squeezed and ground their way to the semi-finals, ten-man style; Leinster are in danger of inventing eight-man rugby: Keith Gleeson digging out what he can and then, taking it from there, the men behind, that Magnificient Seven which reads as mouth-wateringly to Irish rugby fans as movie-goers in 1960 must have perused the names of Brynner, McQueen, Coburn and friends.

In fairness, as Malcolm O'Kelly pointed out, the Leinster pack performed admirably on Saturday, holding their own as they needed to, giving just enough breathing space for the backs. And Munster will have a couple of Celtic League matches to get some fitness into Christian Cullen's legs and will undoubtedly craft a better solution in the centre than Tomas O'Leary, the converted novice scrum-half. But history's broad panorama doesn't really pick up such light and shade.

There are three long weeks to go, plenty time to speculate. In one vision I can see a damp day at Lansdowne, O'Gara and Stringer at the helm and the monster in front of them rolling all over the gentle flowers of the local parish. A different premonition sees Munster, blunted by Leinster's visceral tackling and their own attacking shortcomings, coughing up possession and being caught repeatedly by rapier counter-attacks of their opponents' blue steel.

Nothing for it then. Roll on April 23rd - the soul of Irish rugby is up for grabs!

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