Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Goal Celebration Hell

Peter Crouch added a new and grim chapter to the annals of terrible goal celebrations last night. The “robot dance” which was unveiled after the Liverpool striker scored England’s third goal in the friendly against Hungary was supposedly a reprise of Crouch’s ‘performance’ on the dancefloor at the Beckhams' gala party last weekend. The call from Celebrity X-Factor’s producers was, one presumes, unforthcoming.

Here are some other culprits from When Footballers Celebrate…

ROBBIE KEANE: The Crap Tumble-Six Gun Shooter

This effort is especially loathsome given how the Spurs and Ireland striker has stuck with it over the years. Wolves, Coventry, Inter Milan, Leeds, Premiership games for Spurs, even World Cup finals matches with Ireland, Keane has resolutely persisted with the sort of celebration which many of us attempted having seen the great Mexican Hugo Sanchez somersault in our youth, but soon abandoned due to the sort of sack-of-potatoes gymnastics that Keane continues to demonstrate. The pistols at the end were presumably tacked on to redeem the messy lurch that had just preceded them. For God’s sake Robbie, you’re captain of Ireland now. Stop it!

TIM CAHILL: Rocky of the Corner Flag

Quite well executed and a well-conceived idea, using the pitchside paraphernalia as a prop, but Cahill’s snot-nosed brattishness sees him, rather than use this celebration as a self-deprecating fun gesture, believe that he actually is really tough, just like a boxer, right? Big Duncan should have clipped him around the ear quicksmart.

BEBETO: Rocking the Baby

Surely not! This is a classic celebration, a beautiful moment of tender paternal love in the midst of the maelstrom of a World Cup finals tie. Bebeto’s baby-rocking celebration of his goal against Holland in the 1994 World Cup finals is condemned not for itself, but for the license it gave every footballer who had managed to procreate to burden us with his unseemly familial joy. And as we all know, there is nothing worse than other people’s babies. The whole genre, however, was redeemed by Fred, Lyon’s Brazilian striker, who during this season’s Champions League at last gave it a different spin by concealing a pacifier (Soother? Dummy? Whatever) in his shorts, which he promptly stuck in his mouth upon scoring.

ALAN SHEARER: Flat Hand in the Air Accompanied By Smug Grin

Shearer famously celebrated winning the only major trophy of his career, Blackburn’s 1995 Premiership triumph, by creosoting his garden fence, so it is fitting that his goal celebrations are equally colourless. The other end of the spectrum altogether to the Lua-Lua somersault type of stuff, the fact of the Geordie fence-sitter’s prolific scoring record meant that we had to see this 1950s throwback celebration hundreds of times. Once again: ball hits net, Shearer runs away along the by-line, hand raised flat in the air, arm slightly forward (almost in the fascist style we might venture), and…..cue smug grin! Repeat ad infinitum….

THIERRY HENRY: Bust of a Roman Emperor

Henry is actually as careful and contrived a manipulator of his public image as the much-maligned David Beckham. The only difference is that Beckham hones his persona for the Heat-reading tabloid types, whereas Henry plays up to the broadsheet-perusing chattering classes, thereby avoiding the scorn Beckham attracts. He has developed the image of the philosopher-footballer, as patented by Eric Cantona, and with his Va-Va Voom adverts and his sleek Gallic cool, he seemingly achieves the impossible feat of being a bona-fide hip footballer. Thing is, as demonstrated by his occasional unsmiling, statuesque reaction to a goal, it's all a construct, and, as any teenager will tell you, there’s nothing less cool than someone trying to be cool.

....Read more!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

World Cup Problem Page

Dear TSA,

I am in a bit of a state. You see for five years I was in a steady managerial job; life was predictable: qualifiers were easy, my team was settled, exits from major tournaments were limp but had convenient scapegoats. Oh there were high points - beating Germany and Argentina, those were good times, don't get me wrong.

But I was in a rut, I admit it.

First I decided I was going to leave my job. Then when my top striker, Wayne, got injured, I don't know what happened to me, I just flipped. It was like all the years of doing the safe thing caught up on me and I just couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't except that Wayne was injured - I was in denial, I guess, still am.

Then I went a picked a 16-year old who has never played at the top level for the World Cup. It was foolish, I know, I just got carried away; he was so young and carefree, so unlike the old me I had come to resent so much. And just yesterday I decided to play Jamie, my stalwart defensive back-up, in the holding midfielder role I had spent years convincing myself we didn't need.

What is wrong with me?

Sven, London

TSA writes: Sven, you're going through a classic fin de siecle scenario. It is the end of an era for you, and the resulting insecurity about the future, fears about fulfilment and the desire to ensure your legacy have sent you into a tailspin where you are questioning everything you have ever done. My advice is to relax and let the World Cup look after itself. It'll all fall into place and you'll go out in the semis on penalties. Wayne's injury and some refereeing controversy will ensure you are fondly remembered as the manager who had the World Cup snatched away from him.


Dear TSA,

I just can't stop eating. I've always loved my food, but managed to look after my body. But the World Cup is coming up and I'm out of shape.

I won the tournament single-handedly last time after a bad experience in the previous campaign in 1998, and since then I've just drifted a bit. I found myself eating to replace the loss of the excitement that I wasn't getting out of the game anymore. I always thought it would come back but in the morning when I wake up, instead of thinking about scoring the winner for Brazil in the final, I think about eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes and Nutella.

What can I do to stop eating so much?

Ronaldo, Madrid.

TSA writes: The thrill has gone, hasn't it? The traumatic experience in 1998 drove you on, and you achieved such a sense of catharsis and redemption in 2002 that you subconsciously felt there was nothing else to live for, and your eating is symptomatic of the pointlessness you feel. You NEED to snap out of it. Basically 2002 was a bad World Cup. Brazil were the best team, but they beat an average German side in the final, your supposed finest hour. This time Argentina, England, Italy, France and plenty others will be much tougher, so this is the tournament to really write yourself into Brazilian football history. Toss the doughnuts into the bin, get your Nikes on and just do it.


Dear TSA,

I am manager of France, but I feel like schoolteacher in charge of a bunch of unruly kids. I can't control them, there are factions fighting in the squad and I have a problem with my goalkeepers fighting,

What can I do?

Raymond, Paris

TSA writes: For a start, drop Barthez and put Coupet in. That bald eejit has been a liability for years now and only keeps his place because of some misplaced sense of connection with the great sides of 1998 and 2000. You need to make it clear to the old guard that you are in charge, but get the likes of Makalele, Vieira and Zidane onside. Bring in the nifty young fellas like Malouda to back up Zizou and Pat and stop going on about astrology.


Dear TSA,

Of all the times to be manager of Italy at a World Cup, I get to do it in the middle of the biggest scandal to ever hit Italian football. Worst thing is, I'm sort of involved, as my son has been implicated and I used to manage Juventus, the main culprits.

All of Italy is up in arms (a bit rich if you ask me, as everyone has known there was funny business going on in Italian football for years, and now they're pretending to be outraged), the players get asked about nothing else, and its just really difficult to focus on the tournament.

Help please!

Marcello, Turin.

TSA writes: Let me ease your worries Marcello. Once the tournament starts the match-fixing scandal will be put on hold, that much is for sure. And what you have here is every manager's dream: a siege mentality situation, all set up. Italian football is being shamed in front of the world, after a season when the country's club teams were humbled in Europe: but the players sense of injured pride will work for your benefit, bonding the squad and reinforcing camaraderie. And, just in the nick of time, it looks like Totti will be fit...

....Read more!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Champions Experience Divergent Fortunes

The fortunes of the two holders of the GAA's premier tropies could not have been more contrasting yesterday, as both Tyrone and Cork began the defence of their football and hurling titles respectively. The prospect of a third All-Ireland in four years for the Ulstermen seems incredibly remote as they survey the wreckage of their now expired Ulster Championship campaign, while Cork looked imperious in dispatching Clare at Semple Stadium.

If you hadn't seen it, it would be difficult to conjure in the imagination a game as mean-spirited and ugly as Derry victory over their neighbours in Omagh. However, if you have watched much Ulster football in recent years the nature of the match was pretty familiar. The success of Derry's gameplan in smothering Tyrone is transparently evident in the fact that the All-Ireland champions mustered only 5 points in a woeful display.

While Derry had their own injury problems, the stripping from Tyrone of such peerless attacking forces as Peter Canavan, Brian McGuigan and Stephen O'Neill has left them looking pale and surprisingly impotent. With only O'Neill of that triumvirate to return, the travails of a qualifier campaign which begins at the earliest possible stage are foreboding following this dispiriting, humiliating defeat.

Still, their other great provincial rivals, Armagh, made it all the way to the All-Ireland final in 2003 following a similar early ambush by Monaghan and, with such painful scars to heal, a couple of soft fixtures far from the sturm und drang of Ulster should offer the best possible recuperation.

Cork, on the other hand, had no such problems. In the end Ben O'Connor was left on the bench following his recovery from injury, but an opening ten minute salvo from Clare aside, it was as if Cork had simply pressed pause in September 2005, and then resumed from where they left off. It was all there, clever puck-outs from Donal Og Cusack, the dominating athleticism of that magnificient half-back line, the searing running of Tom Kenny and Jerry O'Connor in midfield and a typically impish and clinical display from Joe Deane.

Deane doesn't seem to receive the attention that a player of his consistency and lethal scoring ability deserves, but for the duration of this current Cork team's eminence in hurling he has been a key weapon in their armoury. His metronomic precision with frees aside, he works so well as a foil to Brian Corcoran since the latter's return to the inter-county scene and, given the lack of scoring contribution from the half-forwards in particular, is as important a factor in their success as their fabled half-backs.

For me, however, the moment of the day was undoubtedly Tom Kenny's point in the first half, a move which began deep in the Cork half, but achieved fruition following a run by Kenny through a small gap in the Clare midfield that led one to suspect that the Corkman had some form of rocket-powered boots on, as Banner defenders burned up in his wake.

They won't be the last suffer that fate this year, it seems.

....Read more!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tick, Tick, Boom!: Finally Championship Explodes

Like a rusty Morris Minor on an icy January morning, the GAA championship just can't seem to get properly started. Low-wattage opening fixtures in the Ulster Championship, the washout of the intriguing Connacht fixture between Galway and Sligo and a wretched last Sunday afternoon in Portlaoise which was presumably intended as an effort to have hurling included in the next Olympic regatta. An incendiary display from Eoin Kelly for Tipperary apart, there was little to light up the sodden opening weekends of the 2006 championship.

Despair not, ye GAA enthusiasts, for, like a crate of ice-cold beer to a dusty, parched chain-gang, this weekend's fixtures should bring sweet relief and the true lighting of this year's championship touchpaper.

Wham! The rescheduled Galway v Sligo match on Saturday.

Splat! A Leinster football double header at Croker with Meath aiming to continue their quest to reenter the winners enclosure against Wexford, followed by the derby fascination of Offaly v Kildare.

Pow! All-Ireland football champions Tyrone begin their attempt to enter sporting Valhalla against the dark horses of Derry, no doubt bristling with the particular jealousy of subjugated local rivals.

Kazaam! The most nourishing feast that the kitchen of Irish sport can offer: a Munster hurling championship match from Semple Stadium. Cork, Clare, passion, colour, the immortality-seeking Rebels and the never-say-die Banner.

That enough for you?!

Inevitably, as reflected in the choices of RTE for their live broadcasts, the main attention will focus on the form of the reigning champions in both codes. Tyrone could not have asked for a tougher baptism, for the reasons outlined above, and the holders of the Sam Maguire cannot be relishing the fixture. Already deprived of Peter Canavan through retirement and Brian McGuigan through injury from last year's panel, Tyrone must also begin their campaign without the sublime talents of Stephen O'Neill, amongst others.

The loss of that jaw-dropping trio would, of course, be terminal for most other counties, however the champions can still name a robust looking team, a testament to their strength in depth. Still, in the absence of O'Neill's regular cache of points, there is enormous responsibility to deliver on the shoulders of Owen Mulligan, against a team in Derry whose lethal looking full-forward line contains both Bradley brothers (Paddy and Eoin) and Enda Muldoon. This one should explode.

Cork, following the announcement of Ben O'Connor's health, can name the same 15 that started last year's All-Ireland final. Whether this a frightening statement of consistency and a testament to the fitness and professionalism of the county's hurlers or a reflection of the lack of competition below that storied first 15, or most likely a little from column A, a little from column B, the Rebels settled side is an unusual phenomenon in the modern game where injuries are a regular factor.

At some stage, however, Cork will surely be struck with an injury crisis of some sort, and if not, one wonders at the sort of complacency almost guaranteed selection could engender in players who already have 2 All-Irelands on the mantelpiece. No better side than Clare, that whirling dervish of a hurling team, to test their mentality.

Plenty to enjoy this weekend, and by Sunday evening that championship feelin' will be alive and well.

....Read more!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

TSA Report: Chile Con Carnage

So this is the craic. We finish our long club season, have a bit of a session, then we're heading off to the Algarve for a week with Ireland. Few rounds of golf, bit of a kickaround with Stan and the lads, then that's it. A nice six week break with the wives or girlfriends, or both if we can manage it; watch the World Cup, down to Dubai for some sun, visit the Mammy then back to the grindstone.

Oh yeah, we have to drop in to Lansdump and play Chile or somebody at some stage as well...
Apparently the honeymoon is over. Now, its nothing personal Stan, but as far as honeymoons go, I can think of better companions with whom to spend two weeks in a Seychelles paradise resort than a pasty, lanky Droghedonian with a doughy face and a voice like engine oil being poured down a sink. Gina Lollobrigida he ain't.

But surely lack of physical and sensual beauty is a shallow reason to end a delightful honeymoon, isn't it? I mean it was only a few days ago we were gazing dreamily into those puffy eyes at wonderment at how Stan, adept in the field of long-term weather forecasting as in all others, predicted several months ago when the activites of the last week were organised that Ireland would endure a week of monsoon rainfall in late May, therefore necessitating a training camp in sunny Portugal instead. "Isn't he wonderful?", we thought! How clever!

And oh, the early days of courtship - be still my fluttering heart - and the hammering of Sweden, the masterstroke of making Robbie captain, attentively going around the Eircom league grounds, the coquettish press conferences - "what formation is it Stan?"; "11 v 11"; "Oh Stan! You do amuse!" - boy did he press all our buttons!

So no, I'm not going to throw away all those good times, that gay springtime whirl, over one disappointing friendly! To HELL with you; me and Stan are still on honeymoon!

Look at it like this. It was a friendly. It took place on 23rd May, two and a half weeks after most players' club seasons finished. It was an experimental line-up, trying a few different formations, giving a few new boys a run-out. And as the reactor core of Irish football is the whole in-your-face-get-amongst-them attitude thing, and as this match took place when the only thing players would wish to get amongst is the doubles bar in their Ayia Napa resort, isn't it forgiveable that they were a little laissez faire last night? And don't we learn much more about what we have from a defeat than a facile victory against disinterested tourists?

Don't we now know that using Irish footballers to try out unconventional formations like the 3-4-3 of the opening quarter of last night's match is like playing Mozart on the spoons? Don't we now know that if ever again we see an Irish central midfield containing Liam Miller and John O'Shea lined up to face the cream of our planet's international opposition, verily we can flagellate our wretched souls while croaking "the horror, the horror"?

Don't we now know that, when we are regarding Kevin Kilbane as a more fit and proper centre-half option than Gary Breen, then it is surely time that the the former Sunderland man's international submarine has sailed? And that Stephen Reid, after driving Blackburn impressively through the centre of midfield to an unexpected UEFA Cup spot, is not, nor ever will be, a right sided midfielder and should not be asked to play as such.

And don't we know that until Irish footballers learn to hold on to possession with the ease with which their humble (by the measure of the FIFA rankings that is) Chilean counterparts did last night that our international also-ran status will remain? And that, as impressively as Kevin Doyle contributed in winning numerous headers, the notion of Ireland as a team that can dominate aerially in the opposition's penalty box is outdated? And that we need therefore to either exponentially improve the quality of deliveries into the box or devise subtler methods to break open sides than merely tossing in crosses which carry all the penetrative threat of a lace doily?

See, we know all this now. So go easy on the big dolt, a bit of loyalty called for here.

Stan, c'm'ere. I can't stay mad at you for long......

....Read more!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Barry Bonds and the Tarnishing of a Game

Baseball is a numbers game. Rows and tables of statistics form the molecular structure of the game, defining and classifying each pitcher, batter and team. More so than any other sport batting percentages and pitching averages are the gospel on what constitutes excellence or egregiousness within 'America's pastime'. Amidst the ocean of numbers several figures represent and denote those feats which are regarded as the crested peaks of the game. These milestones are treated with reverence by baseball fans, as monumental to them as Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty are to the average American.

Possibly the most famous of these is Hank Aaron's record of 755 career home runs. Second on this hefty list with 714 are the legendary Babe Ruth and, since last Saturday, the controversial San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds, he of the taint of involvement with the BALCO doping case in recent years.

While Aaron holds the record itself, and, given Bonds' current injury and form difficulties and the fact that it has taken the 41-year old left fielder 20 months to move from the 700 homer mark to his current total, will probably retain it for the foreseeable future, it is with Ruth that the game's soul lies.

The Babe's feats are legion and alone he occupies a huge part of baseball lore. The game's history is coloured by phrases and tales like "The House that Ruth Built" (the common nickname for Yankee Stadium), "the Curse of the Bambino"(a reference to recently broken hoodoo which supposedly denied his former club, the Boston Red Sox, the prize of the World Series for 86 years) and the story of the 'called shot' (when supposedly Ruth pointed to a spot in the stands before receiving a pitch, and then proceeded to hit the ball to that precise point).

This partially explains the less than enthusiastic reaction to Bonds' achievement. In the eyes of baseball fans, the great Ruth has been overtaken by a man who is tarnished by the steroid and EPO controversy which has beset the sport in recent years. The publication of the book "Game of Shadows" by San Francisco journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in March of this year has only darkened the cloud of suspicion under which Bonds resides.

According to the authors, Bonds began using proscribed substances as far back as 1998, inspired by the attention received by Mark McGwire of the St.Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs as they chased the single-season home run record in that year. Greg Anderson, a local trainer who pleaded guilty to sterood distribution buring the BALCO investigation, is alleged by the authors to have been enlisted by Bonds to procure illegal performance enhancing substances.

While Bonds has never tested positive for the use of substances and his unpopularity is as much to do with his less than charming personality as with the allegations he has faced - a view predictably held among rival fans who have booed him when batting - the loss of the lustre of baseball's most revered numbers is a matter of great sadness for the sport's fans.

It is also a testament to the dangers of sporting authorities not taking the issue of performance-enhancing drugs seriously. American sports have received much criticism for only belatedly taking the problem seriously and their inaction has undoubtedly tarnished the games which they administer. The case of baseball, where it almost seems like the feats of heroes like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson need to be ringfenced from assault by the tainted likes of Bonds, is illustrative of the damage that can be caused by carelessly tearing out the pages of sports history.

....Read more!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Excerpts from the Book of Munster

23 May 3006:- Academics in the field of early 21st century Irish history at Eddie Hobbs University in Dublin yesterday claimed to have uncovered a document which purports to describe the origins of the popular 'Munster Men' myths which are thought to date from this period in Ireland's past. The scrolls, which have been dubbed "the Book of Munster", describe in detail many of the legends and stories which modern Irish children have, for generations, grown up with.

Until now it was believed that these tales were entirely fictitious. Colourful characters such as O'Connell Rua, the friendly monster as beloved by his own people as he was feared by the enemy, and Rog, the warrior who, curiously, slayed his foes using only his right boot, were presumed to have been propaganda creations used to garner popular support for moving Ireland's capital from Dublin to Cork in 2116. This change became necessary, of course, due to the final completion of the sale of Dublin to Tesco in 2115.

The Book, which dates from around the year 2006, describes an unrecognisably primitive Ireland dominated by bizarre superstitions and barbaric practices. It was the lot of the average Irish person at the turn of the second millenium to spend much of their lives in desperate drudgery in what were known as 'offices', which bear no relation to the fulfillment-pods where modern Irish meditate daily to generate the nation's ample Utopium supplies.

While we have come to take for granted the efficient functioning of a thoroughly modern nation popularly known as 'the new Eden', the Irish of a millenium ago, when temporarily released from their slave-'jobs', spent their meagre allowances on 'beer', a revolting concoction suited only to the rotting of brain cells, which given the dire artistic and cultural climate of the time was probably sweet relief for our ancestors benighted grey matter.

They travelled in 'cars' (teleporting was four centuries away from invention, and even the humble levitation sky-paths of the early 22nd century were but a pipe dream) the foul discharge from which is believed to have led to the necessity of exchanging with the Andromedans Australia and Canada, in return for a new sky in 2452.

This is the miserable context which led to the Munster Men tales described in the Book. They tell of a great battle with a fearsome enemy from France, part of the modern day Belgian Empire. The battle took place in the town of Cardiff, and the book describes how during the weekend in which the battle took place the streets of the town were "painted red", a remark which is thought to refer to the bloody nature of the conflict.

The days preceding the battle appear to have been occupied with talk of "hord yords" and "fronting up in the tight" and with trepidatious whispers that the fearsome O'Connell had been wounded in a prior minor skirmish and would not be able to lead the Munster Men into battle effectively.

Every schoolchild knows what happened next, when, amidst the thunder and the terrible chaos of the battle, a "slip of a boy, not four feet in height and with the callow face of youth, summoning all the courage in his puny frame, stole in where the enemy defences were weak to strike the fatal blow." The boy was, of course, the legendary 'Stringer', whose image still adorns our coinage today, and whose tales of derring-do against the odds are used as moral instruction to Irish manhood to this day.

The book proceeds to describe the homecoming of the heroes, which in the quaint tradition of the time involved being driven in an open-topped carriage in the rain (a bizarre practice which historians believe was an ancient method of washing away the sins of battle; similar evidence has been found in relation to the 'soccer wars' of the late 20th century). They were feted in song and story and received the ultimate honour of the times, a visit to the ceremonial "Late Late Show" chapel and also the commendation of Bertie, the notorious high priest of the era.

Note: Academics often also refer to a fabled 'Book of Leinster', which was said to contain fantastical and scarcely believeable stories from around the period; however this document is believed to have been extremely flimsy and is thought to have disintegrated upon the first touch of human hand.

....Read more!

Friday, May 19, 2006

O'Connell Inherits the Earth

The Indo had a daft little story on Tuesday headlined “Keano’s Role in Munster’s Cup Bid”, which documented a visit the then Manchester United skipper had made to the province’s camp prior to their opening Heineken Cup match, a defeat at Sale Sharks. Roy had popped in on his fellow Munstermen to wish them well for the season, and his oval ball counterparts quizzed him on this and that, as you would.

To suggest that Keane descended like the spirit of some pagan war-god and blessed the Munster camp for the battles to come might be a tad overstating the matter, but the piece did make the valid point about how Keane’s famously driven approach finds its parallels in Munster’s attitude to the 15-man game and particularly the fact that “O'Connell, such a talismanic figure, has been….readily transposed as the team's nearest equivalent to the Mayfield maestro.”

To expand further than that, as Munster prepare for Saturday’s advance on Cardiff for the Heineken Cup final against Biarritz, it has become clear over the course of this season that, with Keane’s career in its twilight, O’Connell has inherited his mantle as the outstanding incarnation of athletic excellence to come from these shores.

The subject of individual inspiration in team games has come up several times this week, since last Saturday’s ‘Gerrard Final’, also in Cardiff. But, as magnificient a player as O’Connell, like Keane before him, is, both of them contribute as much with their leadership and their understanding of how to get their team playing as with their individual gifts.

O’Connell, at only 26, has already a plethora of heroic performances under his belt; too many to mention, in fact, suffice to say that most of Ireland and Munster’s finest hours in recent years have featured the flame-haired Limerick behemoth at his best. For instance, take this Daily Telegraph write-up following Ireland’s defeat of England at Twickenham in 2004:

It was a moment drenched in symbolism. It was the 79th minute and Lawrence Dallaglio was in possession, cheeks blowing with familiar commitment. Then along came a monster called Paul O'Connell with a ferocious tackle….That hit was O'Connell's last contribution in a monumental performance on a historic afternoon.

The Munster lock epitomised the astonishing Irish pack effort and O'Connell, just 24, can lay claim to being the outstanding forward in world rugby. England missed Martin Johnson more than they will ever admit. What Sir Clive Woodward did not realise was Ireland had poached his former captain and put him in a green jersey. A long way to go before the legend status is granted, but there is so much of Johnno in O'Connell. Edge, a huge physical presence and streetwise beyond his years.

O'Connell's line-out steals set the tone of the match; his athletic re-start takes testament to his agility. The Munster forward was powerful in the loose and raw-boned aggression in defence. The greatest Irish lock of them all, Willie-John McBride, would have been puffing on his pipe last night and purring with pleasure.

Martin Johnson, Willie-John and O’Connell. Good company indeed. Fast forward to a few weeks ago and that merciless destruction of Leinster. Munster deciding to put a kickable penalty into the corner, O’Connell soaring in the line-out, winning the ball that led to Leamy’s opening try. Before Leinster knew what had hit them, they had been grasped by the neck by the Big Red Monster (O’Connell or Munster, the epithet fits both), put up against the wall with their little legs dangling and firmly told: “Back off!”

Unlike Roy Keane - whose career bears the hallmarks of Shakespearean tragedy: the vaulting ambition which led to him being denied at the moment of his greatest success by the very character traits which made him great – the only destruction which O’Connell wreaks is on the opposition, not himself.

Where Keane missed out on the European Cup final that would have been his definitive glory, O’Connell is now poised on the brink of his greatest achievement. This shuddering combination of awesome physicality, towering leadership and game-shaping nous will be the driving force behind everything this Munster side will do to procure their most coveted quarry; and O'Connell has the look of a man who won't be denied this time.

....Read more!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Make No Mistake, Barca Deserved the Cup

It is February 22 and Barcelona are 1-0 down to a 10-man Chelsea side midway through the second half.. Henrik Larsson comes on and contributes handsomely to the overturning of that deficit and an ultimate 2-1 victory for the Catalans. Sound familiar?

What a swansong for the man devotedly dubbed 'King of Kings' by his erstwhile disciples at Celtic. He is now a certifiable hero in the Catalunyan capital as well as in the East End of Glasgow. Of the many things which Thierry Henry said after the game last night, the most measured and accurate was his verdict on the Swede's contribution: "You talk about Ronaoldinho, I didn't see him...Henrik Larsson was the difference, but I didn't see Ronaldinho and I didn't see Eto'o at any point." True enough in the case of the feted Brazilian (in fairness to Eto'o, he did make the not insignificant contribution of scoring a goal). Ronaldinho's impact in such a monumental game was minimal, and even the famous goofy smile was missing.

Filtered through the English media, the performance of referee Terje Hauge and his Norwegian compatriots on the line (God only knows what the chap with the Barca jersey would have been like) was the major story of this final. The sending off of Lehmann was undoubtedly the pivotal moment in the match, and one which, with the smallest modicum of common sense, could have played out with a more satisfying outcome.

Arsenal were scuppered by the sending off, but one must remember that the referee actually did not "get it wrong". Hauge's decision was correct; the operation of the advantage principal is entirely at his discretion and carries no obligation. Too little, it seems, has been made of the fact that the alternative to the decision made was to grant Barcelona a 1-0 lead. Indeed, Hauge would also have been within his rights to allow the advantage and Giuly to score, and then pull the play back to red-card Lehmann for the original foul. No doubt, for the neutral the loss of numerical equivalance ended the prospect of the classic final we all hoped for, but to ascribe the actual outcome of the game to that moment is excessive.

More pertinent to question would be fact that Eto'o was just offside when Larsson fed him for the equaliser. It was a very tight call, and the officials may have mistaken Larsson's slight touch for a dummy, but it was wrong nonetheless; and only one of several poor decisions.

It is no consolation to Arsenal, but the long and the short of it is that the Champions League of 2006 has a winner worthy of the trophy. Who can really argue with the contention that Barca were Europe's best team this season? Yesterday we stated here that, if the situation arose that a lock needed to be picked, then undoubtedly Barcelona had the wherewithal. When your World's Greatest Footballer is having a stinker and you can bring a couple of guys off the bench to do it, well, that's quite a team you have there.

....Read more!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

History Awaits the Champions League Final

It's here, It's here!! Barcelona v Arsenal, come quickly, the Champions League final! For football lovers today is Christmas morning. Bursting with expectation and excitement, giddied by weeks of anticipation, we'll tip-toe into our living rooms and turn on the TV and.....will it be the gleaming new 18-speed mountain bike, or the knitted jumper with reindeer patterns?

Usually the gathering blizzard of preview chatter before a game like this debates the relative merits of the competing teams. This year, attracting equal attention and speculation, is the question of whether or not the game will be an all-out, certifiable, hang-it-on-your-wall CLASSIC! As a result of the fact that Europe's two most exciting, technically gifted and stylish club sides meet in Europe's showpiece occasion, those who curate the game's spirit and burnish its most treasured memories are excitedly anticipating a Champions League final for the annals.

The first thing to say is that we are after a refined sort of classic here. Liverpool's victories in last season's Champions League final and in last Saturday's Cup Final will live long in the memory and were fashioned from an indefatigable spirit and, especially in the case of the former, the raw reservoir of emotion from which that club can frequently draw.

But that won't do this time. No, no, dear boy. While we appreciate the visceral charge of the lung-busting, end-to-end, never-say-die thriller sort of final, and will happily accept a dollop of that sort of thing tonight, what we're talking about here is aesthetics. When aficionados of the European game talk reverently about Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960 or AC Milan v Barcelona in 1994, they don't refer to last-gasp equalisers or unlikely comebacks. These occasions haved lived in the memory because of the rare spectacle of the the game played in its most beautiful form, by its most accomplished practitioners, on its greatest occasion.

Tonight then. We have the occasion: the Champions League final is, of course, the most prestigious club match, and given the slow marginalisation of international football, can be argued to have more genuine relevance than its World Cup equivalent. We have the players. Ronaldinho and Henry alone dazzle from the cast list, before the chorus, which includes Eto'o, Deco, Messi, Giuly, Larsson, Fabregas, Reyes, Hleb, Bergkamp and Pires is considered.

Will we have the game?

Well, sublimely gilded as both rosters are, we can take instruction from the more prosaic joys of Saturday's Cup final. It unfolded as it did because West Ham, as is their nature, 'had a go', as the expression goes, and scored early enough to open the game up and render the natural inhibition and caution that inhabits such an occasion obselete. Put simply, if one one team decides to go for the jugular, or if we have an early goal, then, given the pure talent on either side, what would follow should be glorious.

Should the game remain deadlocked for a significant length of time, then, even in these buccaneering squads, the pressure of the occasion and the imperative of victory would take over. Both teams have shown ample ability to close fixtures down, and Arsenal, for all the plaudits their football attracts, navigated the qualifying stages scoring only 4 goals in 6 matches. It follows, obviously, that resolute defence has been as important as pinball passing moves. That their conservative second leg performances against Juventus and Villareal were their least impressive doesn't alter the fact that they were successful.

Barca too, while they coughed up potentially chances for both Benfica and Milan in the earlier rounds, have displayed capability in the arts of security, the second leg against Chelsea a particular demonstration of a tie being killed. Gifted as both sides may be, neither will feel obliged to provide anything but a win; this evening it will be only the neutrals whose first wish is for a glorious match.

So, come 10.30pm Paris time, and hopefully we're swooning with delight at it all, who will have been victorious? Barcelona start worthy favourites. Frank Rijkaard has crafted a double La Liga winning side, one which marries the loudly heralded gifts of their many-pronged attacking talents - and while Lionel Messi cannot be fully fit, his naming in the squad for tonight only adds to that artillery - to a less reknowned defensive stoutness. It's is not often mentioned that they have the best defensive record in Spain this season. In front of the redoubtable Carlos Puyol, the likes of Edmilson and Thiago Motta have swept up behind the storied names ahead of them. Rijkaard can then choose the underrated gifts of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, just returned from injury and one of the finest passing playmakers in the game.

But Arsenal have every chance. Henry will drift out to the left, as he does, and the Frenchman who could be playing his last match for Arsenal will, of course, be at the core of their chances. But the other wing could provide their biggest chance.

If you were Rijkaard, you wouldn't ask Ronaldinho to defend, would you? No. But still, his billet, nominally on the left side of midfield, is regarded as a possible area for exploitation by Arsenal, if left vulnerable by the great man's less than diligent tracking. Swift raids up the flanks are the Gunners' stock-in-trade and Emmanuel Eboue, Arsenal's fleet-footed Ivorian right full-back will relish that space to attack. That is if the youngster isn't terrified of advance by the thought of the space he is leaving for the buck-toothed fella behind him.

Here you have the game in a nutshell. Both teams have the capability to attack from anywhere, but will know that the opposition are capable of punishing any overexuberance. Whichever way it goes, Barcelona have the edge, I feel. If it is a tight game they have the artifice to pick any lock. If it opens up, they will be happy to outslug anyone; they have Spain's leading defensive record alright, but, of course, they top the scoring charts by a country mile also.

Barca to write their name into those annals, hopefully with the indelible ink of a memorable match.

....Read more!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kelly Answers Babs' Prayers

It was a weekend for one-man bands. If Steven Gerrard's Boy's Own exploits in clawing his crippled Liverpool team towards the F.A. Cup were not enough for you, then Eoin Kelly, the Michael Jordan of Mullinahone, underlined the value of having even one good 'un in your ranks, no matter what your prospects beforehand were.

Tipperary have fairly bounced out of Sunday's victory over Limerick. The line is that Babs, Gandalf-like, has ridden in on a white steed to restore the proper order of things. Going to Mass in St.Patrick's College, then beating Limerick again. "Old values were restored today" said Keating, and all Tipperary surely howled its approval.

Still, when Babs kneeled down to pray on Sunday morning with his players, he will have offered a special invocation to the hurling gods regarding the form of his number 15. Eoin Kelly's haul of 14 points, nine from play, was highly impressive in itself. The fact that, on another day he could have had 2-14 (he had one shot brilliantly saved by Limerick keeper Brian Murray, and another disallowed after Redser O'Grady was adjudged to have picked the ball off the ground in the build-up) renders his performance as truly spectacular. His points tally was probably commensurate with the number of times Limerick changed his marker, with Mark Foley, TJ Ryan and Damien Reale all vainly having a go.

Make no bones about it, for all the rabble-rousing talk afterwards, Kelly was the single most important factor in Tipp's win, and he stood so far above those around him, both friend and foe, that he may as well have had a beatific glow, such was his unearthliness. Maybe those prayers worked after all.

All the same, in a 15 man game, no matter how outstanding the leading man, there has to be supporting players. The anomaly of the opening minutes aside, in which the two Limerick goals which prevented the scoreline from depicting the drubbing it should have were scored, the intensity and sharpness of Tipperary around the field were in stark contrast to their opponents, who appeared paralysed by their early lead.

Tipp captain O'Grady, John Carroll, Diarmuid Fitzgerald and Declan Fanning all stood out, and Fitzgerald, in particular, played a huge part in the latter stages in quashing any fightback momentum Limerick might have been summoning. In general, however, the Tipp gameplan is redolent of Brian Clough's instructions to Nottingham Forest's erstwhile record signing Trevor Francis: "Don't worry too much about what to do, just give the ball to John Robertson and he'll do the rest."

Using words like 'intensity' and 'sharpness' in discussing a side's victory in a championship match is pretty de rigeur, and Tipperary's performance on Sunday is proof, were it needed, how dispensable league form is in plotting the expected course of championship games. That Tipp side on Sunday, for all Limerick's rabbit-in-the-headlights bamboozlement, was so unrecognisable from the one which lurched through the league and provoked multitudinous doomsday scenarios for Tipp hurling, as to make league performances seem as useful for predicting Munster championship results as the old pin-and-blindfold method is for tipping Grand National winners.

So what of this Tipp team then? Is a Babs resurgence afoot - a spot of late 80s nostalgia? Steady on now. Some other team will mark Kelly even a little bit better than Limerick. Or, maybe, he might just not have as good a day at the office the next time. Even if, like Gooch Cooper, you can never totally mark him out of the game, the inevitable day that Kelly only finishes with a meagre half-dozen or so points, and the slack is demanded off the lesser lights around him, will see a proper evaluation of this Tipp side.

With only a sorely depleted Waterford awaiting in the semis, we will likely have to wait until the Munster final on June 25th for the results of that particular reckoning.

....Read more!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Is It a Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It's Stevie G!

Great yarn, shame about the ending. Saturday's F.A. Cup final was a thrilling rollercoaster ride alright, to borrow the phrase beloved of lowbrow movie reviewers, but the climax could have been handled in any number of superior ways.

Here's the pitch: Marlon Harewood, crippled and possibly gangrenous, swings his only remaining limb at a loose ball at the far post; it slices into the top corner and victory is West Ham's! In the victorious dressing room a telegram arrives from Sven Goran Eriksson, announcing that Harewood has been drafted in as a last minute England squad member for the World Cup, cut to credits with S Club 7's Reach for the Stars.

No? Ok, how about: West Ham get a free kick with minutes to go, just outside the box. Teddy Sheringham, wily old Teddy, shoos away the whippersnappers around him - "back off Reo-Coker, I knew your Dad when he was REO Speedwagon" - and bends the free kick into the top corner winning the cup with the last kick of his career. In the victorious dressing room a telegram arrives from Sven Goran Eriksson, announcing that Sheringham has been drafted in as a last minute England squad member for the World Cup. Everyone turns to Teddy, but he's gone, no-one knows where. "Who was that man?" says Alan Pardew, as Teddy's Theme , a new composition by John Barry, swells in the background.

But what's this? A penalty shoot-out? And Liverpool win? But they're not even the underdogs! Hmmm, this isn't going to play well in the sticks....

Still when it comes to all-action superheroes, the feats of Liverpool's seemingly bionic captain, Steven Gerrard, are beginning to shame the Splat! and Blam! of Marvel Comics. Just as Sven's decoy manouevre in plucking Theo Walcott from the Arsenal reserves and thrusting him in front of the poking and prodding of a bemused media succeeded in putting the minutiae of Wayne Rooney's recovery off the agenda for a few days, so Gerrard's commando performance will have given the English public that tingly feeling that everything will be all right, as long as 'he' is around.

Like any good superhero, his people feel safer when he's near.

Perhaps it is because of the prolonged will-he-won't-he-oh-please-just-make-your-mind-up transfer sagas of recent summers, or perhaps it is because he plays the game at times with a sort of surly cheerlessness rather than with grim snarl, but for some reason Gerrard has not yet been garlanded with the sort of warrior-legend epithets which Roy Keane attracted following, for example, his 1999 Champions League semi-final performance in Turin.

Gerrard, by now, has produced countless such displays for Liverpool; matches in which he dragged his team to results with galloping drive and contempt for whatever hopeless predicament they find themselves in. Last season's late winner against Olympiakos in the Champions League group stages which qualified Liverpool for the knockout stage was a taster, but paled in comparison to his improbable propulsion of a ragged Liverpool to ultimate glory in the final in Istanbul, when his headed goal and penalty-winning run breathed life into the European Cup's most astonishing story.

Saturday was even more eye-rubbingly heroic, even if the prize was not as treasured. The sight of Liverpool's players, including their captain himself, hobbling lamely with cramp as West Ham's gutsy and fearless display appeared to have secured their fourth F.A. Cup, provided Gerrard with the sort of against-all-odds set-up he appears to glory in defying. Gerrard had already created Liverpool's first and rasped in their first equaliser. Cue a thirty yard volley in the 91st minute that even seemed to have that elliptic trajectory beloved of Roy of the Rovers comic artists.

Fast forward through a tense extra-time and penalty shoot-out, and the hero of the hour gets to lift the cup he did so much to win.

Maybe this story had a fitting ending after all.

....Read more!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Would you Adam and Eve It? It's the Cup Final!

Oi'm forever blaaaawing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the ai-ya,
They fly so hoigh,
Nearly reach the skoiy,
Then loike moiy dreams,
They fayyde and doi-ee.
Fawwtune's awways hoiding,
Oi've looked everywhere,
Oi'm forever blaahwing bubbles,
Pretty baaaabbles in the aaair.

Awright me ole chinas? 'Ere in the East End, we're awll off to Cardiff tomorrah, for the ole kitchen vinyl. Oh Oi do apologise: cockney rhyming slang, ain'it? Kitchen vinyl - Cup Foinal! See? Laaahvely!

Only fing is, 'snot a propa Cup Foinal is it? Oi mean, its not in blaahdy Laahhndon is it?! Blaaahdy Cardiff, wots that awll abaaaaht?!! Still, its awll abaaht the Cup tradition for the 'Appy 'Ammers; we go roight back with the Cup, back to 1923 an' the first game at dear ole Wembley, wiv the big white horse an awll that, remember?

Then we 'ad the glory days of the 60s: Bobby Moore, pickin' up the tin pot in 1964; then of couwrse the 'Ammers won the Wowld Caap single-'andedly in '66 - Bobby, Geoff 'Urst and Martin Peters. And remember Bobby, Gawd rest his soul, pickin' up the ole Jules Rimet (what woulda bin lost awltogethah if it weren't for Pickles, who wos a Cockney as well mind, we would all 'ave been Daffy Ducked then, eh?) from 'Er Majesty the Queen, Gawd bless 'er.

We laahve the royals daahn the East End, after the dear ole Queen Mum came daahn to visit us during the blitz. See she could look us in the oiye, cos 'er Mickey Mouse 'ad been bombed 'n all, although she could piss owff to blaahdy Windsor Castle while 'er horse's hoof was being fixed! We 'ad to live in the bloomin' Undergraahnd for five years! Gawdon Bennett!

'Orse's 'Oof? Roof, you blaaady idiot! What are you, a blaahdy Scousah?!!

Nah, Bobby Moore was the real royalty araahnd the East End; now 'e's braahn bread, Sir Trev is the main man. Scored the winnah in the Cup Foinal in 1980 did our Trev, proper 'Ammer he was too. Smart geezer, Sir Trev; can turn his hand to anyfing you know? Played for the 'Ammers and England, top pundit wiv the Beeb, big cheese at the F.A., managed the 'Ammers an' all - Christ 'e even 'as two blaahdy A-levels!!

We beat the Arsenal that day, in 1980. We wos underdogs that day 'n all, ev'ryone fought the Arse 'ad won the Cup awlready by beating the Scousahs in the semi. Bollocks, we were blaahwing bubbles for weeks afterwards I can tell ya! What a soide! Sir Trev of course, then you 'ad Billy Bonds, Phil Parkes, Alan Devonshire (what a blaahdy left peg 'e 'ad!), Ray Stewart, Frankie Lampaaahd - Senior, mind you, we don't mention his James Blunt of a son raahnd 'ere no more - proper legends...

Can we do it again? You better Adam and Eve it! Pardy 'as got us playin' the West Ham way again, and a great season was capped awff by puttin' the Yids aaht of the Champions League on the last day; awnly fing was the dirty sods got the trots all over the Upton Park dressing rooms didn't they?! Fnaarr-harr-harrrrr!!

So we're off now, we got the Fools an' 'Orses and Minder DVDs awll set up to play on the bus, but before that we're gonna 'ave a few Dame Ednas (Everage, beverage - keep up!) and a bit of a singsong araahnd the ole Joanna....altogether now.....

Roll out the barrel,
We'll have a barrel of fun,
Roll out the barrel,
We've got the blues on the run......

....Read more!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

And While We're At It, How About A Hurling Championship Preview?

Cork and Kilkenny, Kilkenny and Cork. The Cats and the Rebels. "Welcome to Croke Park for this All-Ireland Hurling Final where Kilkenny will take on Cork"..."Cork go for three in a row against Kilkenny today in the Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Final against Kilkenny...". It's not that inevitable is it? Sure didn't Galway put Kilkenny out last year? Didn't Cork only just about get past Clare in the other semi?

The statistics, however, are foreboding. Six of the last seven All-Irelands have gone either Noreside or Leeside since 1999, when Cork ended the madness of the mid-90s when the Liam McCarthy cup was passed around like a dog-eared paperback. The sides met in three of those finals and this year Cork, like Kilkenny in 2004, are aiming for a third title on the bounce.

So can the hegemony be broken?


As cases for the defence go, the prospects of hurlings hitherto also-rans would, these days, try the skills of Rumpole of the Bailey in his pomp. Not only have the Terrible Two dominated All-Irelands in recent years, but Kilkenny have also won four of the last five National Leagues, and Cork are expected to pursue the immortal treble with the steeliest intensity.

The depth of the potential challenge has been damaged already with Waterford's injury and suspension troubles. The Decies' most powerful artillery has been almost entirely decimated, with John Mullane and Ken McGrath suffering serious injuries which will rules them out for most of the summer, and Paul Flynn and Eoin Kelly receiving four and twelve week suspensions respectively for misdemeanours in the league. However while Waterford are a write-off for the Munster Championship, there is a suggestion that they could benefit in the All-Ireland series if most or all of those players return and they emerge into the quarter-final stage sharp and fresh from the qualifiers.

Galway may have endured a disappointing League, with defeats against Antrim and heavily to Kilkenny being particularly galling, however there is no reason to suggest that last year's achievement in reaching an All-Ireland final was a fluke. A young side, the general consensus was that last year's run would do wonders for Galway and, given the potential in their ranks, there is no reason to doubt Conor Hayes' feeling that there was an All-Ireland in them at some stage. Also, with the trajectory of Galway's championship meaning a late start in the qualifier groups, they cannot have been approaching any sort of peak during the league, and will continue to benefit, as they did last year, from the extra games the new system provides. The best chance of an upset.

Limerick were the big good news story of the league and their clash with Tipperary in Sunday's Munster championship opener should provide a revealing insight into their progress. The perennial question about Limerick is as to whether they can fulfil the demonstrable potential evident in their three All-Ireland u-21 successes in the early part of this decade. Although they performed admirably in last year's quarter final loss to Kilkenny, the latter's sieve-like performance against Galway showed that they were not the team of yore. Reshuffled under Joe McKenna, they seem competitive this year and have some fine hurlers in Andrew O'Shaughnessy, Mark Keane and Stephen Lucey as well as the timeless TJ Ryan. A semi-final place should be their aim.

Tipp put their poor league start right to a degree by reaching the semi-final, where they were comfortably beaten by Kilkenny. The loss of Paul Kelly and Benny Dunne for Sunday's opener suggests they will exit Munster early, and the Premier county look a long way off regaining their former elite status.

Clare and Wexford have provided some of the best memories of recent championship seasons; in Wexford's case the thrilling draw with Cork in 2003 and similarly last-gasp triumph over Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster final, and Clare with the murderous double-header against Kilkenny in 2004 and last year's valiant semi-final defeat to Cork. But whereas Wexford inevitably follow good performances with humiliatingly bad ones, and appear now in serious regression, Clare seem to die on the field every time they play and are almost always good value if you like your championship hurling fierce and feisty. They could make another semi this year.

For Offaly it's all about respect this year, following last term's disastrous showing which included that 31 point defeat to Kilkenny in Leinster. A good season would be a return to the quarter-finals and maybe taking down Wexford in Leinster.


The only way the above ramshackle bunch can prevent the seemingly inevitable is if there is unexpected decay in the leading pair. If Kilkenny have wiped out the memory of the loss of five goals against Galway - and the league suggests they have - their forensically rejuvenated and massively deep squad will be stronger than all the rest, and the conveyor belt of talent has never been more plentiful.

Cork's major worry will be about injuries. They do not have Kilkenny's numbers, but their quality overrides any deficiency in quantity. However, injuries to the likes of Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Sean Og O hAilpin, the O'Connors or Ronan Curran would be debilitating, especially if they occured amongst their inspirational defensive division.

Barring such troubles, none of the challengers look capable of getting near these two, drilled as they are in the ways of big championship hurling days. Both will be focused for different reasons, and, in some ways by each other: Kilkenny to prevent their rivals from achieving the magical three-in-a-row, and Cork to grasp the very holy grail that was beyond the Cats' reach in 2004.

Little separates them, but a freshened Kilkenny will not let another year without an All-Ireland go by.

....Read more!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Only Days After All the Newspapers Did It, That Football Championship Preview in Full

Much like the Tour de France's opening prologue stage, last Sunday's All-Ireland Football Championship opener, Down v Cavan, will ultimately mean nothing to the overall classification but got one into the swing of things gently. So this weekend, with one of the 'Big Three' (as it is now apparently obligatory to call them), Armagh, in action, as well the shimmering gates of Croke Park being opened for a double-header in Leinster, the real action begins.

Here, then, is your cut-out and keep, fail-safe, take it to the bank, dead cert, bin all the rest preview of the Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Football Championship......

Starting at the top, cartographically and figuratively. Three of the last four All-Irelands have gone up to the place where they have different money and talk endlessly about "siteeayshuns". Having recently earmarked £600m for development of potential Olympic medal winners for the London 2012 Games, the British government would do well to push for the inclusion of Gaelic football in the Olympics: they are dominating the sport at the moment...

While swatting aside pesky provincial also-rans in the opening rounds, Tyrone and Armagh will peer grimly into the middle distance at the summer's first great day of bloodletting on July 9th. While great nations will compete in Berlin on that day for the World Cup trophy, no conflagration of international forces will be quite as explosive as if these two meet in yet another Ulster Final.

Is it that straighforward? Yes. Armagh are finally looking mortal, after a mediocre league and with the weary limbs of Bellew, McGeeney, McConville and McGrane still propping the side up. But, contrary to accepted wisdom, they have infused youth into the squad, with Ronan Clarke, Aaron Kernan and Ciaran McKeever coming in. Monaghan will trouble them, in the way a small yappy dog might trouble a Doberman, and then they will have a manageable semi-final most probably against Fermanagh, who, if they can recapture the effervescence of Charlie Mulgrew's first term two years ago, will prove a decent barometer of how rich this Orchard harvest is.

Tyrone have the tougher half of the draw, but the loss of Brian McGuigan and Peter Canavan won't be tested until July 9th. Derry are Ulster's dark horses, and in Sean Marty Lockhart, the Bradleys and Enda Muldoon they have some top class players; but those names carry too heavy a burden for the Oak Leaf county. A straightforward semi-final against Donegal or Down - neither of whom appear anywhere near ready to return to the higher echelons - would follow for Tyrone, before that tumultuous second Sunday in July, a contest too unpredictable and close too even bother calling at this juncture.

As sleepy and uncompetitive as the province's hurling Championship is thrilling and closely-fought, the Munster football championship has suffered in recent years through Cork's time in the wilderness. Kerry too have suffered. Who can argue that their gentle perambulation to the All-Ireland final last year, when only a gnarly Limerick provided much bother, cost them when faced with a battle hardened Tyrone in the September denouement. This year they have freshened, with Darren O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy coming in, but a return to form for Mike Frank Russell would be a timely help out for the country's greatest player, 'Gooch' Cooper.

The Leesiders need to step up now, and with a good sprinkling of under-21s coming through should mount a more serious challenge, but a middling league suggests for Cork that Kerry should have their usual casual jaunt to the provincial title. Limerick hit their glass ceiling with those Munster final appearances, and along with Clare and a sprightly Tipperary will go early into the purgatorial opening qualifier rounds.

Connacht reminds me a bit of Oasis. Two warring siblings at the front then three sort of anonymous figures in the rear who intermittently pop up in interviews but always end up taking about the main two. This year's draw suggests it will again be Galway and Mayo in the July 16th decider, but as usual Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim will provide a few feisty, if not particularly pretty afternoon of discomfort as a prelude.

Under Mickey Moran and John Morrison, Mayo made a rip-roaring start to the league, even before the return of Ciaran McDonald. Have an impressive array of forward talent and with the fillip of an All-Ireland u-21 success (the county first victory in 15 finals at all levels!) should go well again this year. However Galway unceremoniously dumped them out of the league, the Tribesmen physically dominating Mayo in a match that sets up the Connacht championship nicely. Its now or never for many of Galway's 1998 and 2001 stalwarts, backed as they are by exciting youngsters like Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong, but time after time in recent seasons, the lack of hunger from the likes of Donnellan, Joyce and Savage has been only too evident as their county tamely exited championships. But they will have enough to claim another provincial title.

Existing in a happy-clappy, bouncy castle, all-the-fun-of-the-fair world of its own in recent seasons, Leinster has provided most of the annual entertainment of late, hosting a keenly fought, good to watch and equitably distributed championship, but one which has had about as much bearing on the ultimate destination of the Sam Maguire as the Oslo and District Cod Filleting Tournament.

Any change this year? Yes, for Dublin are this season's dark horses. They should have progressed where their Leinster rivals have retreated, stalled or improved insufficiently. Laois are treading water now, despite playing some of the country's most pleasant football through forwards like Ross Munnelly and Donie Brennan. They have not added the steal to suggest that lame quarter-final or qualifier exit to one of the big teams will not be their lot again.

Meath are one of those counties whose name is fast losing its forbidding ring, but they will be eyeing a return to the provincial final given that their on the opposite side of the draw to Laois and Dublin. That side os the draw will be a fascinating dogfight, however. Westmeath, sans Dessia Dolan, can probably be discounted, Wexford will - strike me down! - be overdependent on that-man-Mattie-Forde, and Louth, bless them, well they might give their fans a few value-for-money qualifier wins to enjoy. So Meath or Kildare to fight it out to be Dublin's final victims.

The Dubs gave Tyrone one hell of a game in last year's quarter final and a decent league - the bizarre loss to Monaghan being the only really bad performance - allied to the galvanising force of a full Croke Park on even a half decent Dublin side makes them Leinster strongest flag-bearer in a while.

OK, lets pretend that the back door had never been thrown open. As the draw lies, Munster and Ulster's champions are due to meet in the semi-finals. This means that, more than likely, if Kerry are to reclaim their birthright, they will have to face up to at least one, and very possibly two, of their erstwhile Ulster nemeses. The other one will be cut loose to tear into some poor, unfortunate fellow qualifiers.

Meanwhile Dublin and Galway, Mayo and Laois and then maybe a joker from the Ulster pack - Derry perhaps - will rough and tumble it out to be at the top table and, effectively, earn the right to join, or even replace one of the 'big three'. I think Dublin will edge out Armagh and find themselves back at Croke Park in September.

There Kerry will await, and will be victorious. They have to end this thing sometime, and I don't know if Tyrone can so easily get over Canavan and McGuigan. Many times in tight situations last year, these two seemed to bring a gloss of class, just when needed. Without that contribution, someone will take them down. As well as that, without wanting to sound crass, the McAnallen factor will not be as strong.

I'm not convinced it will be a great Kerry team that will do it, nor that it will be a great year for Gaelic football, but it ought to see a little shift in what, in recent seasons has been a very familiar landscape.

....Read more!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sven's Big Gamble

Sven-Goran Eriksson has come over all final-term president. The idea is that the commander-in-chief, sentient to the fact that he never again will need to seek re-election, cuts loose in the dying days of his incumbency, seeks to secure his legacy and throws off the careful strategic manouevres of earlier days. So, hello Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon, and Stewart Downing, farewell Shaun Wright Phillips, Darren Bent, and Ledley King; Jermaine Defoe? The stand-by desk is this way sir. Owen Hargreaves is presumably maintained by Sven as a keepsake from less wild days.

The Swede doth protest too much when referring to his capping of a 17-year old Wayne Rooney in a vital Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey as evidence of his fondness for a gamble. Rooney, at least, had a full season of Premiership football behind him, and also, importantly had international caps to his name at that stage. Walcott, on the other hand, possesses only 21 starts for Southampton in the Championship, the approval of Arsene Wenger and the benefit of Eriksson's "instinct", as derived from observation of Arsenal training workouts and some video-clip packages.

Eriksson, inhabiting his boldness with surprising ease, has fairly flat-footed English football observers and insiders with this one. Reactions to yesterday's squad announcement ranged from apoplexy (from those within the clubs whose players were spurned in favour of the Arsenal ingenue, particular Darren Bent's Charlton Athletic) to a sense of stunned approval. Many had pointed to Eriksson's famed conservatism and loyalty as suggestion that Wright-Phillips and Bent would be retained, and that the notion of Ledley King's versatility would be too mouth-watering for the Swede to ignore.

The squad announcement painted Sven in entirely new light, as a buccaneering adventurer whose attractiveness for women seemed suddenly more plausible, and has provided the English with a little excited bounce that had dissipated when Rooney's metatarsal's snapped in Chelsea penalty box. For all that people might express surprise at yesterday's squad, everyone loves the idea of the young prodigy taking the world by storm, coming from nowhere - a year out of the Southampton youth team no less! - like a plotline out of a bad schoolboy essay.

Eriksson has earned cautious pats on the back for another reason. When England sleepwalked out of the 2002 World Cup and, upon losing Rooney, could not muster the beating of Portugal in Euro 2004, many bemoaned the Swede's inability to change a game and to seize the day in these clutch situations. By equipping himself, in the almost certain absence of Rooney's explosiveness again, with quick and unpredictable options such as Lennon and Walcott (attributes: speed, balance, trickery) he at least provides his team with backup plans other than the propulsion of Peter Crouch at opposition defences.

But while Walcott amounts to a genuine bolt-from-the-blue risk, a true joker for a situation which England hope will not, but probably will, come about, there is logic and consideration in the rest. As Sven pointed out, Wright-Phillips' (who so recently appeared to have David Beckham's right-midfield berth wrestled from the Real Madrid man's impeccably manicured grasp) problem was not just his lack of first-team football with Chelsea. Had Aaron Lennon not appeared on the scene, the little former Manchester City winger would undoubtedly have made the cut. But Lennon's claim is based on white-hot form, a quality an international manager desires as much as any in his tourament squad.

Bent and Defoe (who would be called up in the absence of Rooney or the still struggling Michael Owen) suffer in comparison to Walcott for a different reason. While the 17-year-old is in because of what he might be able to do, Bent in, particular, and Defoe are out because of what it is known they can do. Eriksson has obviously decided, based on Bent's single friendly appearance against Uruguay, that the Charlton man is not a top international striker. Similarly with Defoe, who has struggled to display the maturity and stature to be Tottenham's main man, never mind England's. So Eriksson's instincts, and the scantiest of evidence, told him Walcott had these qualities.

With Rooney and Owen being brought to Germany on stretchers, and Eriksson rolling the dice further on Walcott - and, to a lesser extent, Lennon - the other metatarsal invalid, Ledley King, was a gamble too far. The manager's soft spot for Owen Hargreaves - who many suspect to possess incriminating photgraphs of Eriksson such is his loyalty to the Bayern Munich player - as a midfield and defensive utility man meant it was pointless to take a chance on King. Ironically, Michael Carrick's advancing claims on a possible holding midfielder role put the kybosh on his Spurs' teammate's possible usefulness.

So there you have it. Once this all dies down we can get back to 24-hour Rooney-watch, but as President Sven faces into the last days of his turbulent regime and the last days of his dealings with his friends in the English press, he will undoubtedly enjoyed yesterday, when he made his bid for posterity.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Premiership 2005-06: A Study in Verse

Now come all ye supporters of football cross-channel,
Who are thinking of losses and chances a-rueing,
There's no more Super Sunday and no more analyst's panel,
So it's time for us to be Premiership reviewing.

The season just gone held barely a surprise
The title: Chelsea's - of that they're delighted;
But with Jose's complaints and Drogba's lies,
The Blues are more hated than ever were United..

Whose tactic was strange, bizarre and insane,
No central midfielders - how totally looney!
Only for the presence of the boy called Wayne;
They'd never've come second without Mr.Rooney.

Liverpool were third, another season of progress,
The reverse of United they've a strong middle four,
With Gerrard's drive and Alonso's finesse,
But with Crouch and Cisse, they just couldn't score.

In North London we had the last day's only query,
Arsenal took fourth and Spurs couldn't foil it,
A fitting end as they leave dear Highbury,
The only consolation for Spurs: another trip to the toilet.

Next up were Blackburn, for a UEFA Cup place,
They beat off Newcastle, who are now Shearer-less,
Craig Bellamy's success was a slap in the face,
But at least they got rid of Graeme Souness.

A late season slump meant eighth place for Bolton,
Only one point ahead of Cup finalists West Ham,
The Hammers had flair, Wand'rers were revoltin',
So no England job for dear old Fat Sam.

The success of the season, no doubt, non-pareil,
Wigan Athletic were afraid of no-one,
No England shout for Paul Jewell?
One place ahead of Moyesie's Everton.

Whose flirtation with Europe is best left forgotten;
Fulham came next - for their fans it was hard,
Their away form was a joke, completely rotten,
But watch them next year: they've got Jimmy Bullard!

End of an era for Charlton and Curbs,
15 years -Alan, here, have a beer!
But fading is one of their favourite verbs,
They wish the season would end at New Year!

Strange season for Boro' - Europe saved face,
Though their league form was poor, at times even shitty,
McClaren for England despite 14th place,
Just two points ahead of Pearce and Man City.

We come to the dregs and David O'Leary,
His Villa received the supporters flack,
They way he speaks is often quite eerie;
In his future I predict only the sack.

The relegation mire, where nerves must be held,
Brum, Portsmouth and Albion avoiding the trap
'Twas Pompey this time whose worst fears were quelled,
Because of the magic of old Harry Redknapp!

Which brings us to last place, poor Sunderland
My how they struggled, toiled for a win!
Relegation was certain, but the future's in hand,
Over the horizon, here comes Niall Quinn.

That's it for now, until August no league,
Seem's way too long, my patience is up!
Thank God for one thing, to ease my fatigue,
Only four weeks until the World Cup!

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Friday, May 05, 2006

King of Hearts Does It His Way

Way back in the early months of the football season which is currently dragging itself towards its final weekends, we looked on with pleasant surprise as the Scottish Premierleague took on the most peculiar shape, providing as it did the first genuine signs of competitiveness outside the traditional Old Firm rivalry in a generation.

The early growing pains of Gordon Strachan's Celtic stewardship and the persistent wretchedness of Rangers, coupled with Heart of Midlothian's Lithuanian revolution financed by banker Vladimir Romanov and the fine form of Tony Mowbray's effervescent young Hibernian side conspired to provide the top of the league with a quartet of contenders, a situation not witnessed since two decades previously, during the 'New Firm' pomp of Aberdeen and Dundee United in the 1980s.

As it transpired, the title race finished in familiar fashion, with Celtic triumphing by a similar margin to that enjoyed by Martin O'Neill's side in his three championship-winning seasons. However, in holding off a recovering Rangers for second place and access to the Champions League qualifiers, Hearts made sure that the season will still go down as a momentous one: they became the first side outwith the Old Firm to achieve a Champions League place, and the first side to split the Glasgow clubs in 11 years.

The success enjoyed by Hearts this season is proportional to the controversy and self-induced unrest which the club endured in parallel, and indeed almost challenges the notion that a club can only succeed in a stable environment with a strong manager and supportive board. George Burley's sacking after 11 unbeaten games and with his team occupying top spot (they had just taken a point from Parkhead, in a game which appeared to cement the seriousness of their challenge) appeared baffling at the least, if not downright suicidal. Sure enough the club's title challenge faltered under new coach Graham Rix and by the time Celtic defeated them at Tynecastle on New Year's Day, they trailed in second by five points.

Subsequently Rix - whose management had been undermined by the fact that Romanov appeared to retain a strong hand in team selection - felt the full force of a Lithuanian boot on his posterior and was replaced as interim first-team coach by Valdas Ivanauskas, Romanov's countryman and a former Lithuanian international, under whose charge Hearts stabilised and retained second spot.

Romanov has not only brought an unfamiliar look to the league table. He has also challenged much of the conventional practice within the game in Scotland. The idea that a club owner should have a heavy influence in matters relating to team selection and player recruitment is anathema in Britain, where the cult of manager as all-powerful benevolent dictator - as created by the likes of Stein, Busby, Shankly, Clough etc. - enjoys its strongest hold.

This notion, however, is actually quite unusual, with most countries in Europe operating with a culture which acknowledges the rather understandable notion that he who pays the piper can decide whether said musician should play at left-back or not. The outraged reaction of the Scottish football establishment at Romanov's interference was baffling to the Lithuanian: hadn't he, after all, saved the club from their enormous debts and the prospect of having to sell their spiritual home to housing developers? Did that not entitle him to call the shots?

Yesterday Romanov - as if feeling vindicated by the confirmation of their second place finish - provided his most robust defence of his methods yet. "Too often there has been a very limited approach by the coach, in terms of how you deploy your resources and why you change players," said Romanov. "Why is it like this? Why do the coaches not use players to maximum effect, depending on the type of match or the type of opponent? Also, it always seems to be 4-4-2, with little scope for variety.

"I've given my coaches full control of the team, full rights, and then the games have been lost. The only question I'm asking of my coaches all the time is: 'Show me the analysis. Show me the rationale'. But never once have I received an answer to those questions. It seemed to me that my driver back in Kaunas could have done a better job than Rix."

Romanov continued "The question I commonly ask the coaches is, 'have you forgotten that this is a game of 90 minutes?' The answer they always give is 'no'. So I say, 'well, why is the team only playing for 45 minutes? Do you know why the team is playing like this?' When the answer comes back 'yes,' then I say, 'well, if you don't put it right for the next game, I'll remove you.'"

The Lithuanian banking millionaire appears to fall into the category of charismatic, but rather mad club owners and presidents like the late Jesus Gil of Atletico Madrid or Florentino Perez of Real Madrid. Whether his methods can continue to be successful in British football, where managers have tended to be mandated to the hilt and given time to achieve results, remains to be seen. If Ivanauskas keeps the job of first team coach he will provide his chairman with a compliant and understanding employee. If Ivanauskas is not kept on, and after his experiences with Burley and Rix, one would imagine Romanov would not be keen to hire another British manager.

There is still much mystery as to the Romanov's long-term aims for Hearts, and as to why he chose to invest in the Edinburgh club. Perhaps, like Roman Abramovich with Chelsea, he desires the respectability and the path into British corporate society that ownership of a football club provides. Perhaps he wishes to make a genuine long term commitment to establish Hearts as Scotland's top club, as he has claimed. Whatever, in his first season he has resculpted the Scottish football landscape noticeably, both as evidenced by the league table and also in the unconventional style by which he carries out his business, and he will undoubtedly see the success of his first season in Scotland as his cue to carry on regardless.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

No Need To Be Down About Championship Opener

The country's highest profile sporting event gets under way this weekend, not that you'd notice. The competition that, over the course of its five month duration, attracts more spectators, occupies more television hours and generates more bar-room invective than any other sneaks into existence this Sunday when Down and Cavan travel to Casement Park for the preliminary round tie in the Ulster Championship - the opening fire of the Bank of Ireland Senior Football Championship.

A worthy tie, two tradition-soused counties and, as it is Ulster, it will surely be a rambunctious affair. Still, with the football Championship being the centrepiece in the nation's sporting tapestry, as an opener Down v Cavan doesn't come upon us with fanfare and fireworks, but resembles as an occasion rather the cutting of a ribbon on the new parish bingo hall.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism. The GAA in its shiny, designer-suited 21st century guise still retains a heartwarming reluctance to drown their showpieces with much in the way of showbiz flannel and dancing girls. The 2006 Championship will probably pull in more revenue, more spectators and more media coverage than any which preceded it - and that's in a soccer World Cup year too - but come Sunday at Casement Park, a pipe band will lead the players around the field, the announcer will read out the names of the thirty combatants, a hand-shake here and a jostle there and the quest for Sam will begin.

The closest you'll get to fireworks will be through eating ill-advised curried chips at half time.

It might not always be thus, however. Maybe the GAA will rebrand itself as 'Sports Entertainment' and recast the Championship as update on Gladiator (the TV show, not the Roman epic...although there's an idea: Francie Bellew versus a lion in a battle to the death. Poor pussy...): Tyrone will be captained by 'Dragon', hungry for vengeance on his mortal foe 'Snake', leader of Armagh. Motley Crue will be commissioned to compose the pulsating theme tune 'Hungry Like a Bainisteoir', to be played at every drawing of blood (the method by which scores will be kept).

Ok, they might not go that far. But if Sky Sports bankrolled the GAA they would surely demand a more glamourous curtain raiser to boost subscriptions than the stodgy fare of Down and Cavan. With a small dash of knavery and a couple of complicit officials, the Championship draw - lo and behold! - would throw up Dublin v Meath in the Leinster first round, available only to Championship Plus subscribers mind; 82,000 would scramble into Croke Park and we'd be off and running in the most fantabulous Championship ever.

Not that this tie would always have been low-key, though. Maybe in the late 1950s, early '60s Down and Cavan would have been a damn fine way to kick off. Cavan's glory years were still in recent memory, and Down were establishing themselves as Ulster's kingpins, winning three All-Irelands in the decade commonly known as 'swinging'.

The Mournemen have toiled for some years now, but for those of us who came of age in Ulster in the late 1980s and early 1990s those red and black jerseys still carry some menace. In the 1991 Ulster final they strolled to an eight point victory over a Donegal side that a young TSA had travelled to support - one that would themselves emerge from the wilderness in 1992.

That Down side, which won All-Irelands in 1991 (the first Ulster county to do so since their 1968 predecessors) and 1994 possessed a mean athleticism and brawny finesse that inspired the successes of their provincial rivals at the time (as well as Donegal in 1992, Derry won the third of four Ulster Sam Maguires in 1993) and, to me, was the blueprint for the spirit which inhabits Ulster's nationally dominant counties of the current period.

The breakthrough of Down in 1991 was a triumph of belief as much as of footballing excellence. In 1991 few under the age of 30 could remember an Ulster team winning the Sam Maguire and, strange as it seems today in a province reknowned for gnarl, snarl and the darker arts of winning football, the counties of the north were usually soft-bellied semi-final fodder for the majesterial traditional powers of the south.

It was often stated then and since that only Down could have reversed this polarity, and made the current of fear and inadequacy run instead through the patricians of Kerry, Dublin, Meath and the rest. Only Down had the ancient, but dusty and lost, alchemy of victory anywhere within their footballing psyche.

So while there won't be too many party-poppers going off at Casement on Sunday as two counties unlikely to be troubling the trophy-engravers go into battle, some day, some year, sooner rather than later - if history tells us anything - Down will be back. Expect fireworks.

**Next week: Full Previews of the Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Football Championship and the Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Championship**

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

When Long John met El Diego

John Daly and Diego Maradona don't just share a tendency to put on a few pounds - although the newly stomach-stapled and sleek Maradona that featured in last night's When Gary met Diego documentary on BBC1 looks as fit as he ever has. They have also both lived lives of excess, voracious consumption, and equal amounts of triumph and disaster.

But while the bold Diego has redeemed himself in spectacular fashion, hosting a bizarre but highly successful chat show on Argentine television which has featured as guests the likes Fidel Castro, Mike Tyson, Robbie Williams and Pele, Daly has revealed in a new autobiography how his gambling addiction has cost him in the region of $33m in the last decade. He said "If I don't get control of my gambling, it's going to flat-out ruin me."

Again like Maradona, Daly's every trouble and crisis has been followed by fans who adore him for his swashbuckling approach to golf and to life. His rejection of the country club ethos which characterises much of the golf world earned him hero status enough, but, when added to his "grip it and rip it" style of golf, makes him a cult figure. He also travels to events in a RV motor home, and donated generously to charity, burnishing his man-of-the-people reputation.

His roll call of extra-curricular activities is colourful: alcoholism, which saw him checking into AA and the Betty Ford Clinic at least three times, three divorces, and more recently the revelation about his gambling problems - most notably the loss of $1.5m on $5000 slot machines. Not exactly Scott Verplank.

Maradona's recovery from the brink of death has been so unlikely as to give hope to all of sport's wayward geniuses. The central theme in Maradona's story was the quasi-religious love which he inspired in 'his people', and the devotional nature of the support he received as he battled for his life after two heart attacks.

While stomach-stapling and a chat-show are probably out of the question, one hopes Daly can take heart in his current struggles from the example of El Diego.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Rooney's Foot Makes Bad News

Attempting, via the portal of Sky News, to monitor last week's developments in the damp corner of the planet that these islands constitute, two recurring narratives intertwined, alternating their prominence and seemingly merging into one headline-generating uberconglomerate of scandal, misfortune and incompetence.

The fortunes of the British Labour government and those of the Football Association and the international team which it runs are so eerily similar in their coverage that one imagines that the major British media outlets have some sort of time-saving computer program for generating stories on both: simply log on and select between the following: 'Blair' or 'Barwick'; 'McClaren' or 'Prescott'; 'mishandling of foreign managers' or 'mishandling of foreign prisoners'; 'broken metatarsal' or 'banjaxed health service'; 'tawdry affair with secretary' or 'tawdry affair with secretary'. Then press Enter and watch circulations rise!

Infamously, New Labour adviser Jo Moore lost her job after sending an email memo to party staff on September 11, 2001 suggesting that that event would provide an opportune time to release and 'bury' any bad news which government departments might be sitting on. As the Blair government lurched from scandal to crisis to humiliation last week, the snapping of a bone in Wayne Rooney's foot could not have come at a more timely moment to nudge aside - if not exactly 'bury'' - in the consciousness of the nation the wretched events of the week which its political leadership had endured.

Professional football and the hullaballoo it generates is, in normal times, about as newsworthy and as central to the thoughts of the masses as 'proper' news, and often more so. But, in the run-up to a World Cup in which England are involved, the build-up of hysteria and media attention resembles the moments before the eruption of a particularly explosive volcano - one which releases its molten discharge throughout each quadrennial June in the form of St.George Cross flags on white vans, rampant jingoism and a thousand square miles of cash-in merchandising tat.

So the demise of Rooney's metatarsal and the howl of collective anguish it provoked was so impeccably timed for Tony Blair that one was tempted to check if Paulo Ferreira had been doing a bit of canvassing for Labour in London West of late. As if the normal blanket football coverage that World Cup summers provide was not enough to wipe the inconsequential doings of humble Westminster folk off the front pages, the focus of 50 million pairs of eyes on the well-being of the right foot of a 20-year old prodigy relegates the turmoil of Britain's government to the 'In Brief' section of most people's minds.

We can expect or have already seen any or all of the following: Yuri Geller being called upon again, like a football version of Mr.Wolf from Pulp Fiction, to fix Rooney's foot, just because he made Gary McAllister miss that penalty in 1996; every foot-surgeon (if such a thing exists) in Britain and beyond being asked if Rooney will be fit, until one gin-sodden polytechnic lecturer says he will, upon which he is presented with an MBE; the following conversation taking place around 17,497 times between assorted ashen-faced Sky Sports News personnel and assorted ashen-faced Manchester United or England personnel:

SKY: "Any news on Wayne?"

MAN IN TRACKSUIT: "No, nothing as yet."

SKY: "So are you hopeful he will be fit?"

M.I.T.: "No, it doesn't look good."

SKY: "So are you ruling him out of the World Cup?"

M.I.T.:"Well that's not for me to say."

SKY: "So you're not ruling him out of the World Cup then?"

M.I.T.: "Well, I mean, I'm not saying he definintely won't but...."

SKY: "There you have it, postive news about Wayne Rooney here from this man in a tracksuit, back to you in the studio Jim...."

It will all be tedious, mindless and seemingly interminable.

Still, beats another story about John Prescott's four-times-a-night sex romps.

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