Friday, September 29, 2006

Long Road to the Promised Land for Irish Clubs

And so the Irish interest in another season's European club competitions comes to an end in the now-familiar fashion - gallant, but ultimately clear-cut.

The pattern of Irish clubs' involvement in the early weeks of the European competitions has taken on the shape of an almost identical annual choreography, with only the identity of the performers changing:

- An early round is negotiated against equally downmarket opposition from one of Europe's equally downmarket leagues, with summer football giving the Irish team a telling advantage.

- (Optional) A famous victory is notched up over a slightly more upmarket outfit from a slightly more upmarket league, with summer football giving the Irish team a telling advantage.

- A glorious failure and exit follows at the hands of a strong team from a strong league, with summer football mattering not a whit with the opposition's superior players in full regular season stride.

The positive reasons for summer league football are several, and one of them was the fact of the advantage it provided Irish clubs in negotiating the perilous waters of the early qualifying rounds.

In 2003/04 - a season after the introduction of summer football - Bohemians overcame Bate Borisov in sufficiently impressive style to generate some confidence at a packed Dalymount Park for their second qualifying round tie against Rosenborg. The seasoned Norwegians soon dampened such giddyness with a 1-0 victory and underlined a clear superiority with a 4-0 thumping in the second leg.

Shelbourne raised the bar the following season, defeating KR of Reyjkavik, then, in thrilling fashion, Hadjuk Split of Croatia. With the hallowed ground of the group stages almost within view, a rusty Deportivo La Coruna disposed of Shels 3-0 on aggregate.

Last season Glentoran were comfortably dispatched by Shelbourne again, before Steau Bucharest dispensed the now familiar medicine in the second qualifying round, and this season Cork City defeated Apollon Nicosia and subsequently lost to Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade to your old man).

Similar campaigns were enjoyed by Irish clubs in the UEFA Cup, Derry's victories over IFK Gothenburg and Gretna and loss to Paris St. Germain following the regular pattern closely.

So while Irish clubs have clambered a few notches up the precarious ladder of European club football - the embarassing first round exits seem a thing of the past - the glass ceiling is all too perceptible.

Summer football certainly gives the clubs an advantage in those early rounds, but its benefits run dry when the stronger teams are fully submerged into their own seasons. The impression at the moment is of the Irish clubs pressing their faces up against the window of European football's gala party, but having had their invitations lost in the post.

Still, incremental improvement is better than none at all. Ireland's country coefficient rating (the calculation used by UEFA to decide on seedings for the club competitions and a figure dependent on club performances in Europe over the five most recent seasons) has improved drastically in the last three seasons. Hypothetically, were this seasons performances to be repeated or improved upon over the next several seasons, our country cooefficient could conceivably overtake that of the likes of Sweden, Croatia or Israel.

Eventually, more favourable draws might become a regular occurence, stronger seeded teams would be avoided and a place in the UEFA Cup group stage could be achievable.

And who knows, further down the line that famous anthem might yet ring out to herald an Irish club's entry into that promised land, the Champions League group stage.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Loughnane the Lip Returns

There must have been high fives and cheers audible for miles around in the sports departments of our nation's media outlets in recent days. What might have began as excited water cooler conversation a few weeks ago will have developed into outright glee; long, boozy lunches might have been indulged in yesterday, when it became clear that Ger Loughnane's flirtation with the Galway hurling manager position was reaching consummation.

Any sore heads the GAA correspondents of this land may be suffering this morning will have been assuaged by the text of Loughnane's inauguration speech last night. Not for the bold Ger the language of caution, the management of expectations. Not for the Feakle Flash humble talk of the challenges facing the team, how Kilkenny and Cork are very strong and how much work had to be done.

"The aim is to win the All-Ireland, absolutely. I don't aim for anything else. If I haven't won the All-Ireland after the first year that year will be a failure."


- Mr Loughnane, with these 24-carat quotes you are spoiling us!

- No problem boys, I got plenty more where that came from...

Loughnane, of course, guarantees good copy. The controversy engendered by his book Raising the Banner and his fearless punditry on RTE are evidence of that. His zeal as a hurling manager extended to his public image, manifested in an obsession with winning and an inability to accept what he saw as inferiority in others.

Of course, the reason he is allowed such platforms and the reason his return to management six years after his reign as Clare manager ended has caused such interest do not lie only in his quotability or the charisma of his personality. His success as Clare manager in the 1990s and the voracious drive that achieved that success made many counties covet his services. Even all those whom he offended over the years would have been envious of having that alchemy in their own counties.

While the press pack will be delighted at how much spicier this appointment already makes next season's hurling fare, it would be interesting to know how the Galway hurlers are feeling. Like the Florida keys in the hours preceding a hurricane, perhaps.

Some will be mulling over the infamous quote attributed to a Clare player of the 1990s: "Ger Loughnane was fair, he treated us all the same during training - like dogs." While we do not yet know if Loughnane's training and management styles will have evolved since his Clare heyday, it's probably fair to say that the Galway players can look forward to many winter evenings traversing the county's picturesque sand dunes.

Undoubtedly Loughnane will have seen the potential to achieve the feat he has so bombastically claimed possible for this team. It was only last year that they made it to the All-Ireland final, with a team full of potential and who, Loughnane's predecessor, Conor Hayes, believed, had an All-Ireland in them.

Still, unlike much of the glory years for Clare, Loughnane will now be operating in an environment where Cork and Kilkenny have aggressively retaken their customary place at the top of hurling's pile, making the modern quest for Liam McCarthy a lot less open than it was a decade ago.

However he fares next season, the affairs of Galway hurling will be more prominently discussed than ever before - and there will be plenty more of those quotes as well.

....Read more!

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Cup That Runneth Over

Amid the astonishingly lubricated celebrations of Europe's thumping Ryder Cup victory yesterday, Ian Woosnam passed the baton of captaincy on to Nick Faldo, who will lead the holders in 2008 in Louisville, and so brought to an end one of Irish sport's biggest weeks.

At the cinema last night, the trailers before the main feature included the AIB advertisement for the tournament - the one responsible for the portentous "This Will Be Epic" tagline. Watching the ad as the circus in Straffan was being dismantled reminded one of reading a Santa letter in January: the reminder in the excited voiceover tones and stirring music of the level of anticipation and hype that this event engendered, coupled with the vague sense of confusion as to what all the fuss was about.

The emotional nature of the celebrations, in particular as expressed towards Darren Clarke's heart-wrenching weekend, undercuts to some extent a fair amount of any cynicism that the staging of the Ryder Cup attracted. However, it remains true that, in vintage Irish style, opinions in the run-up to the event were polarised into either whooping, bandwagon-jumping enthusiasm on the one hand and sneering scepticism on the other.

The Whoopers were divided into several types. There were the genuine golf enthusiasts - of which there are many in this country which will soon be divided not into counties, but rather into autonomous units of 18 holes - excited at the prospect of so many of the world's top golfers coming to these shores.

Then there were the guffawing socialites and corporate hospitality whores who foresaw a spectacular addition to their "season" of frolicking in marquees, pissed on Dom Perignon and as either obsequious or obnoxious as the occasion deemed necessary.

Shoring up this disparate bunch were the decent, good-natured oul' patriots, delighted at any bit of excitement and attention coming into Ireland, positing that "sure it's good for the country", who would have shed a wee tear over their pint yesterday evening as the crowds sang 'Ole, Ole', sentimentally in wonder at "how far we've come."

Obviously in this group too would be the rip-off merchants of our avaricious isle, foreseeing as they did the arrival of thousands of big daft Yanks desparate to throw their money away. However these people cannot feel positive emotions due to having sold their souls in exchange for an S.U.V.

Huddled in musty corners, whispering to each other conspiratorially and curling their lips in disapproval were the Sneerers. Some hated golf. Nothing more than that. The hatred of golf, in its purest form is a simple thing. It may come from a commitment to class struggle (less marked now in these days when plasterers and fitters contemplate on golf club committees the pleading membership applications of lowly barristers); from a dislike of the pace and genteelness of the game borne of rambunctious youths spent trading punches on GAA pitches; or it could simply be a distrust of any sport that seemingly does not require one to 'tog out'. Whatever, it is an irreemable, unchanging kernel of incomprehension and dismay that resides tumour-like within such people.

The moderate wing of this group were those who have no problem with golf, think it to be a fine examination of a man's skill and nerve but find the Ryder Cup an abomination of the sport, being based as it is on team play. These people feel that if you wanted to play on a team with sticks and balls, then hockey, not golf, is the game for you.

Not as committed, but Sneerers nonetheless, were the people who think almost everything is nonsense. They think the world has gone stone mad anyway - Mobile phones is it? Internet? Hair gel? Nonsense - and the sight of Ireland's giddiness, whether it be for a Eurovision Song Contest or a general election, elicits a shake of the head, a roll of the eyes and the resumption of the perusal of the death notices in the Indo. Bloody Ryder Cup. Big fuss over nothing if you ask me.

You know what the great thing was though? They all got their way. The Ryder Cup delivered on all fronts. The Whoopers had the many fine matches, great shots and bold matchplay; present and correct were the hurrahing hospitality and a flock of helicopters no less impressive were it directed by Coppola; there was the fair-play-to-us stuff that the whole thing went off ok; and, of course, the place was full of cheerfully compliant victims for our scam society. Those that don't like golf could laugh at the weather, those that don't like the Ryder Cup could point to the ridiculous anomaly of Europe's win despite the fact that only one of their ranks possessed a major and for those who have no time for big fusses, well, there was a big fuss.

A success, then.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Here We Go Le Guen

If, at 2.30pm tomorrow, Paul Le Guen finds himself on the losing side in his first Old Firm derby, he can at least take consoloation in the details of his victorious opposite number's first twelve months as Celtic manager. Thirteen months ago, the miserable opening weeks of Gordon Strachan's tenure as Celtic manager continued when his nine-man team lost 3-1 to Rangers in last season's first meeting of the two sides.

That game proved something of a watershed in Strachan's first term: his team subsequently went on a 13 match unbeaten run - which included a double victory over Rangers in league and CIS Cup duty in November - that did much to give Celtic the initiative in the title race.

Tomorrow's clash comes much later into the season, but Le Guen's first months as Rangers manager have been almost as traumatic as Strachan's. His side have only impressed in one match, the 2-0 defeat of Hearts at Ibrox, have drawn thrice and reserved their poorest display of the season for the defeat at Hibernian last Sunday, a mere six days before the definitive club fixture in Scottish football.

Le Guen's reputation, garnered from his title-winning and Champions League-excelling years at Lyon, was hefty. His recruitment by Rangers was seen as an excellent piece of business by the Ibrox club, but, in a summer marked by underinvestment in comparison with their ancient cross-city rivals, amounted to pretty much the only positive thing achieved by his new bosses over the close season.

Where Celtic's robust transfer campaign saw chief exectuive Peter Lawell and Strachan doing business with Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSV Eindhoven, Rangers recruiting centred ratherly strangely on the unlikely source of Austria Vienna. Libor Sionko, Sasa Papac and Filip Sebo all arrived from that club, bolstered by loan signings from Manchester United in Lee Martin and Philip Bardsley, and young Lyon midfielder Jeremy Clement.

While a transition period for any new manager is understandable, a leeway which also applies to new signings - whatever their pedigree - Le Guen has already been troubled by what could be called 'the Kris Boyd dilemma'. Le Guen seems clearly not to fancy the prolific striker, feeling that his predatory abilities do not make up for a non-existent contribution outside the box. But Boyd - an extremely committed player and popular with the supporters - continues to score goals when selected, raising an early challenge to Le Guen's will to inforce his own vision on the team.

Le Guen will be aware by now of the finite patience which is generally stored within the walls of Ibrox. This tolerance will only be more strained if a perception develops that Celtic are improving at a higher rate. While anything is possible in tomorrow's match, the sudden adjustment, or reversal, in the respective clubs' financial strength means that Le Guen's best efforts on the pitch may be futile in the long term until his club can again afford to match their rivals' spending power.

....Read more!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Practice Imperfect

Nature abhors a vacuum. So you're putting on the biggest sporting shindig in this country's history. You've invited over every media organisation from Dublin to Djibouti. You've even built a big new fancy road especially for it. And then they try and tell you it's only three days long!

No way, Jose, as Seve might have said to Olazabal when the little fella thought he might carry the water.

And so we have the practice days.

Well, the hospitality marquees are ready; they're practically bursting to be hospitable. The mean, burly security guards are poised, knuckles menacingly cracking, ready to dispossess you of anything other than the Pringle jumper on your back and the big umbrella the bank gave you for opening a student account.

The media people are already swarming around, thankful that Hurricane Gordon or Percy or Fat Controller has given them - oooh - a story! "Weather Crap in Ireland! Send on the Pulitzer right now!" And the junkets! Every man woman and child who ever bought something off another man, woman or child need to be schmoozed, as the rather unpleasant sounding word goes, shown how valued a client they are, how - if you stick with me, buddy - it'll marquees and champagne flutes and smiling, blonde girls forever; sure never mind the rubbish I sold you last month, look, there's Monty!

And the golfers are here. They're practicing. Apparently it's what they do when they're not actually playing golf. They practice it.

So here's the wheeze: all the people come down - the schmoozers; the journalists; the smiling, blonde hospitality people in their marquees; the mean, burly security guards with their knuckles; hell, we'll even sell normal people tickets to all this - and they can all watch the golfers practicing! Hitting balls around. Tweaking their swings. Ironing out kinks. That sort of thing.


And, it follows therefore, that people can boo the golfers if they don't like the way they are practicing! What a fine shindig this Ryder Cup is going to be!

....Read more!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bung to Rights?

The whispers about last night's Panorama investigation into corruption in English football had promised revelations that would 'rock' the game; judging by this morning's reaction from many football supporters, it seems that many were instead 'rocked' to sleep by the program.

The general response to the BBC's undercover investigation underlines the widespread perception of the current ethical state of the game: a dirty business, but someone's gotta do it. It seems that while the program failed to catch a manager in the dastardly act of accepting a 'bung', the heavy inference of Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp's openness to accepting such 'sweeteners' has caused little in the way of shock among football supporters.

We knew it went on anyway, always had an idea of who might be involved and, most likely, will now carry on about our business regardless, perhaps keeping a closer eye on the findings of the Lord Stevens inquiry, announced on October 2.

Does this reaction, however, say more about our ethical laxity when it comes to big money dealings in football and in business in general than it does about a prissy, tale-telling media, anxious, in the 'fake Sheikh' era to reveal scandal and misdeed where most of us see only business practicality?

Behind the 'much ado about nothing' response to last night's revelations lies an attitude of everyday tolerance of corruption and stroke-pulling which has come to assume a cosy legitimacy in our free-market world, where anything which oils the wheels of 'business' is perfectly legitimate. Ethics in business are an illusory concept, as many of the executives being wined and dined at the K Club this weekend will delightedly testify.

Mike Newell, the Luton manager who earlier this year publicly declared his knowledge of 'bungs' in football and on last night's show identified two of the agents involved as having offered him such inducements in the past, can be seen as the classic do-gooder figure here, subject to the patronising admonishments of his colleagues 'in the game', whose savvy and, to paraphrase one of the agents on the Panorama show, 'like of a deal' make them the conduits for most of these arrangements.

Newell's central problem with this culture is that it involves, ultimately, the misappropriation of supporters' money. One way of doing one of these deals involved a manager agreeing to give the agent a larger percentage of a transfer fee as his cut - say £130,000 instead of £100,000 - the difference then being paid back to the manager in return for his cooperation in the transfer. £30,000, even at today's prices, represents quite a few season tickets.

Whether the money is siphoned from a club's coffers into their manager or chief scout's offshore account, or comes from a shady millionaire backer (as in the case of the Panorama investigation's sting operation) the other compromise to the purchasing club's integrity is in the fact of a manager's signing policy being influenced by the potential benefits of dealing with a certain agent and the player he represents. That player may indeed be the ideal one for the club at that time, but the conflict of interest involved is clear.

While the show failed in its ultimate aim of finding a manager with his nose in the trough, the claim of one of the agents, Charles Collymore, that "four or five" managers would be worth approaching in the execution of this 'business plan' was interesting: if there is nothing much wrong with what the bent bosses are up to, then why isn't everyone at it? And the obvious secrecy in the manner of the dealings (the show's inference of the significance of Craig Allardyce's 'closeness' to his father in business terms got me thinking of Tony Soprano's desire to delegate the running of the family to his trusted nephew, Christopher Moltisanti - okay, steady on, this is Bolton we're talking about here...) doesn't give the impression of de facto legitimacy within the game.

The investigation's least successful portion was the revelations of 'tapping up', which implicated Chelsea in particular in being open to the clandestine recruitment of a Middlesbrough youth player. While 'tapping up' remains against F.A.'s transfer regulations, it is one misdemeanour which carries little weight in the wider world, given the necessarily secretive way in which most of us would seek to find a new employer in the event of dissatisfaction with our existing one.

Ultimately the Panorama investigation fell short of its claim that it would "blow the lid off football", but only in the sense that the seedy inner workings of the game are so well-known to most of its followers that it felt like we knew exactly what was under the lid in the first place. Indeed the fact that so few managers were implicated suggests that ethical standards do exist, and that perhaps those who like a 'bung' for their buck are more the rogue element than we hitherto thought.

....Read more!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Dazed and Confused on Grand Slam Sunday

Sunday was a hard day for the remote control. Following the events in Croke Park, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford required a dexterity and nimbleness usually neither necessary nor recommmended in the post-Sunday roast hours.

Still, it was 'Grand Slam Sunday'. The temptation, therefore, to leave the Premiership's false gods alone for an afternoon and keep holy the Gael's most sacred Sabbath had to be resisted in the fore-knowledge of the interminable Bolton v Fulhams of Sundays to come, lest we be left cursing the missing of the day all of the big four were in action.

How to manage it? How to retain some sort of handle on what was going on, and avoid the dangers of televisual gluttony?

The dangers? How could I forget Champions League 2004-05 last 16?

Milan v Manchester United, Chelsea v Barcelona. Start off in Milan. Fifteen minutes of nothing. Over to London: 2-0 Chelsea. Crap! Back to Milan for a bit. Flick: 3-0 Chelsea. Bollocks! Right, this game's over, back to Milan. Flick: Ronaldinho penalty, 3-1 - Classic! Throw remote control out of window.

A cautionary tale.

Down the country at a wedding over the weekend, Operation Total Sporting Immersion took place at my girlfriend's parents' house. Two televisions, four remote controls (one for the kitchen telly, one for the sitting room telly, another for cable and then that other one that is always lying around someone else's living room and might be for a DVD player, maybe a music system, or might, just perhaps, be for controlling a revolving wall behind the fireplace which hides a secret lair in which previous visitors are imprisoned and heinously tortured. But probably for a DVD player).

Anyway, Micheal O'Se shared airspace with Ian Darke, Richard Keys and Michael Lyster duelled bon mots, Andy Gray growled while Martin Carney whined. Pimply-faced minors earning minimum wage pumping petrol on Saturday afternoons gave way to Coles and Ballacks sashaying around Stamford Bridge on about a grand a minute. Lehmann squared up to O'Shea then Brady roughed up Donaghy.

And it was all more trouble than it was worth. As Alan Partridge said about ladyboys, "I don't find them attractive, it's just confusing." I even missed the best bits of Roy Keane's studio analysis, arriving late from Brolly and O'Rourke just in time to notice his woefully constructed tie knot.

It seems you can't have your cake and eat. Unless you have some cake, and then eat it (Ah, but then you wouldn't have it anymore - so that's what that saying means!). No. Next year, I will watch Donegal's historic triumph over Kerry in the All-Ireland, then leave Grand Slam Sunday to be enjoyed in the pleasantly sedate company of Adrian Chiles and Match of the Day 2.

I may even have some cake.

....Read more!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Kerry Won't Find Greatness in Crushing Mayo

To lose one All-Ireland final in humiliating circumstances at the hands of a barnstorming Kerry side utilising direct balls into a big man in the full-forward line was unfortunate; to lose two in such a manner, frankly tiresome.

Two years ago Kerry's utter obliteration of Mayo in gaelic football's showpiece occasion was built around the use of pinpoint, raking balls into the veteran John Crowley, whose physical domination of his various markers from early on that day helped cow Mayo into a whimpering submission which their supporters would have hoped never to have to endure again.

Quantum leap: 2006; Kieran Donaghy. Oh boy.

In the lead up to the game I wondered, while perusing the rainforest-decimating quantities of preview coverage, whether the bottom line for yesterday's game could possibly be so simple. Mayo would have to either a) win such a huge amount of clean or broken possession in midfield as to deny Kerry the raw materials to deliver toward Kieran Donaghy; or b) failing the execution of a), when the inevitable good stuff was directed at the towering full-forward, somehow scrap, spoil or kick away its usefulness through diligent and ferocious marking.

Of course it wasn't that simple. None of that allows for the timeless wisdom of Seamus Moynihan's performance, or the failure of Mayo's half backs to even do their direct opponents the courtesy of introducing themselves at any useful point, or the glimpse into the future and the glittering All-Ireland medal haul that awaits Colm Cooper as his ascension to greatness continues.

But still, when Donaghy pulled that ball out of the air after eight minutes, dispensing of David Heaney like a man taking off a vaguely troublesome cardigan, it did look awfully, shockingly straightforward.

Then again, it is one thing knowing someone is going to shoot you, another altogether to catch the bullet.

When I used the word 'tiresome' to describe yesterday's events, I'm sure it was an adjective I did not alone deem necessary. 2004 was pitiful for Mayo; we turned away, shook our heads and left them with it, once again.

This time, they were back, and, we could only presume, the better for it. The word throughout the recent weeks was that they had learned lessons from 2004: they were taut, mean, had not gotten carried away with hype but rather had kept themselves coiled to spring into action, tearing at the unsuspecting Kerrymen's throats. Moran and Morrison had created a vastly different psychological habitat: one in which the Mayoman was not persecuted and wretched, but rather walked tall, and was unforgiving of demeanour.

So when these supposedly hardy stormtroopers turned out to be the same old Home Guard of previous campaigns, we groaned: "I've seen this episode before, and it was rubbish then."

All this tortured "whither Mayo?" discussion is a distraction from the main question today, however. Namely, is this Kerry team, gulp....great?

Order, order, please gentlemen!

Yes, yes, okay! Savaging the gentle herbivores of Mayo twice does certainly not a great team maketh. But, taking the last five seasons as an epoch of sorts (2001 being the absolute end of Meath's prominent days and the year of John O'Mahony's Galway team's last All-Ireland), Kerry have played in four All-Ireland finals and a semi-final, and won two.

If you consider that the Armagh and Tyrone teams (the only other winners outside of the Kingdom) of that time have there own claims on posterity, not solely in terms of achievement, but in the way they intensified the fundamentals of what it meant to play top-class inter-county football, then due credit must be paid to the way in which Kerry - unlike the other traditionally strong footballing powers - have remained at the level, or thereabouts, that can be construed as the benchmark.

And yet, and yet. While their cathartic defeat of Armagh in this season's competition will be offered as further proof that the Kingdom have risen back to the unquestioned pinnacle, students of the county's football history will still feel that a victory for the ages on the most hallowed of September Sundays remains an outstanding prerequisite for this team to share wallspace prominence with the legends of the '70s and '80s.

That is why all of us who slumped back into our seats eight minutes into yesterday's match, cursing poor Mayo for, well, just being themselves, and anyone who wants to see this Kerry team get another chance at that indisputable respect they remain just short of, are hoping. Hoping that, many miles north of Killarney, injuries are being recovered from, loins being girded and plans being hatched to bring the other team to have won two All-Irelands in five years back to Croke Park in September.

Anyone for best of five?

....Read more!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Strachan Attempts to Slay the Red Giant

Predictably, much of the media angling in advance of tonight's Champions League Group F tie between Manchester United and Celtic at Old Trafford has concerned the thorny relationship between the two managerial combatants, Sir Alex Ferguson and Gordon Strachan. While the sensationalist requirements of the bookselling business have meant that the differences between the two during their time working together at Aberdeen and Manchester United have been luridly detailed, there is no doubt about the fiery nature of the two men's clashes and the differences in their approaches to the game.

Ferguson was described by Strachan in his autobiography as having broken down in tears on the occasion of an illness to his wife. According to the Celtic manager, Ferguson, then in the early years of his Old Trafford reign, was wracked with guilt over his failings as a husband and father, caused by his total devotion to success in football management.

Along with the stresses of the final days of his Coventry stewardship which culminated in his sacking following their 2001 relegation, this was an event that obviously influenced both Strachan's decision to leave Southampton for a sabbatical from the game and his subsequent avowed determination not to allow his career to damage his family life. His noted fondness for a cheeky quip in his managerial career contrasts with Ferguson's brooding rages, and he is known to have a much more conciliatory dressing room manner than the man who patented the 'hairdryer'.

Strachan's initial problems with Ferguson lay in the latter's aggressive approach to management, both at Aberdeen and later at Manchester United. Ferguson's management style - certainly as regards the little red-headed right-sided midfield player in his Aberdeen side - veered more toward the stick than the carrot. A well-known example of this occurred when Strachan was seeking to leave the Pittodrie club, Ferguson declaring to him in front of his team-mates "who would want a crap player like you?!".

Strachan, an intelligent and opinionated man even in those days, understandably resented his manager's draconian attitude - and even more so when Ferguson arrived at United adopting the same militaristic policy. The older and more experienced Strachan (fresh from an impressive World Cup for Scotland) was now even less prepared to accept what he saw as bullying than before and the pair's relationship deteriorated to the point of their respective cattish autobiographical remarks. Ferguson, dismayed by what he perceived as duplicity in Strachan's transfer dealings, wrote that Strachan "could not be trusted an inch," Strachan referring to Ferguson as a "bully".

The odds against the Hoops getting a result tonight (10-1 being quoted by some bookmakers) suggest that the English league leaders victory will be a formality. But while the expensively assembled home side, who boast a 100% Premiership record thus far, seem to have all the advantages, Celtic can look to their manager for inspiration. It is easy to perceive in Strachan's attitude the classic attitude of the smaller man, always prepared to fight his corner in the face of perceived victimisation by those stronger than him. His determination in this regard is a trait that Celtic would do well to adopt this evening.

....Read more!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Champions League Starts Today By The Way!

In case you hadn't noticed, the Champions League group stages begin this evening, with 16 of the 32 combatants commencing a journey which will end for two of them in the Olympic Stadium in Athens at next May's final. For some teams the achievement of reaching group stages in themselves is worthy of back-slapping jubilation, others peer hopefully at the next round, crossing their fingers that they may still be standing when springtime and the higher octane of the knockout rounds come around.

For the elite clubs of Europe's big leagues, however, the group stages, while providing an essential and hefty portion of financial income, are often little more than troublesome annoyances to be overcome efficiently in the hope that they do not distract from league duties.

England's four representatives would generally like to be classified in this category, Manchester United's humiliating exit at the bottom of their group last season notwithstanding. Indeed, this is the exception that proves the rule, as United had become so accustomed to sleepwalking through the competition's opening stages that last year's malfunction was subsequently all the more harrowing.

The Premiership's four representatives approach this year's Champions League with differing back stories. For Chelsea, whose foul-humoured clashes with Barcelona are amongst the most memorable contests of the two most recent seasons, the addition of Europe's most prestigious honour is of paramount importance.

The great Stamford Bridge project to become the biggest and bestest club in the world was made to look flimsy by their exit at Barcelona's hands last season. Controversy and talking points aside, the Catalans highlighted a significant gulf in class between themselves and England's top club in that tie. This subsequently led to Chelsea's pursuit and capture of Andrij Shevchenko and Michael Ballack in an attempt to gild to the finest quality their already sturdy edifice. The claiming of the Champions League trophy will undoubtedly be the prime target this season for Jose Mourinho's team.

Manchester United and Liverpool, on the other hand, may not pursue the famous trophy so intently. United would welcome any honour that would confirm their return to football's elite after several worryingly trophyless seasons. But while the Champions League trophy would be welcomed enthusiastically, it is the reclamation of the Premiership title which will more drive Sir Alex Ferguson this season.

The Scot will see the usurpation of Chelsea and United's restoration to domestic preeminence as the last great challenge of his career and, given that United's squad lacks the depth of their London rivals, would prefer to focus on the League should his team still be in contention in the spring.

Liverpool too would be best to focus on domestic matters. The Champions League victory of 2005 bought Rafael Benitez a huge amount of goodwill and probably the benefit of several seasons to bring Liverpool toward the long awaited goal of winning their first title since 1990. He will know, however, that it is that league title, once almost the sole property of the Anfield Road denizens, which is now the holy grail for the club's followers. After a disappointing start to the season (in particular Saturday's defeat in the Merseyside derby) Benitez could find that focussing on European success as another league challenge slips away disappointingly early will not work the same trick it did in 2004/05.

Arsenal, similarly, have had a poor start to the league and, in an era where dropped points are more costly than ever, to be 10 points (albeit with a game in hand) behind the leaders already suggests that a repeat of last season's European exploits may be the Gunners' best hope of glory this season.

Elsewhere amongst the big guns, renewed challenges from two of Europe's great names have an ominous look about them. Real Madrid's belated pursuit of sanity in the recruitment of Fabio Capello as coach and subsequently Fabio Cannavaro, Emerson and Ruud van Nistelrooy, coupled with the impatience inevitable in that club at their prolonged estrangement from the trophy they have won 9 times and the success of their bitter rivals, Barcelona, means they should go close this time.

Inter Milan, like Real, have been shopping in Turin at the Great Juventus Fire Sale, picking up Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add to such luminaries as Luis Figo, Adriano, Hernan Crespo and Javier Zanetti to name but a very few from a fearsome looking squad. While they too will hope to take advantage of the domestic woes of their Serie A competitors and finally claim the scudetto for the first time since 1989, their squad looks big enough to compete on both fronts.

If Roberto Mancini can control and satisfy the extraordinary number of star players and their corresponding egos at his disposal it is they who I feel will provide the biggest challenge to the holders' equally stellar regiment of artists.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

The Clothes Maketh the Man?

As regular readers may have noticed, this Almanac professes a fondness for Celtic F.C. when not providing utterly unbiased, objective analysis of the day's sporting affairs. The other day, while travelling on a public bus, the Bentley being in the garage having it's steering wheel re-diamond encrusted, my eye was caught by a cherub-faced young urchin of the inner city, due to his sporting a green and white hooped jersey, as is often the fashion in those parts.

However, rather than having my weary heart cheered by the famous garment, I instead turned away a little grumpily.

You see the young whippersnapper was wearing the jersey from the 2004/05 season, which, as any Celtic fan knows, was the season which culminated in the horrific last minute loss of the league title at Motherwell, was the first term of the post-Larsson era and which was hallmarked by the deathly lurch of Martin O'Neill's glorious reign to its ignominious end.

Anyhow, well over a year later, and I find that the poor, unfortunate garment that the team wore seems stained by the failure and disappointment of that seasaon. I find myself repulsed by the little black trim under an unfashionably prominent collar (perhaps not coincidentally, it was the last jersey that Umbro would design for the club before the current contract with Nike) and quickly compare it unfavourable with the sleek, well cut shirt from the 2000-01 season (O'Neill's first and treble-winning term) and the natty button collar number from 2002-03 (the season in which the club reached the UEFA Cup Final).

Was the jersey fatally flawed? Is it simply the fact of the season's failure that tainted that particular design, or was there something fundamentally wrong with it from drawing board to factory, to the torso of such unlamented personages as Henri Camara? Can a team overcome bad threads?

There is some sporting attire which is evidently horrendous - Scotland's bizarre striped shorts from the 1986 World Cup, for example, the point of which seemed to be to make the Scottish players' genitalia appear victims of some oversized censor's marker.

I have always wondered if the Carlow GAA team's outfit, a three-tone (red, yellow and green) number, while bright and gaily coloured, was a little too bright and gaily coloured for the teak tough terrain of inter-county Gaelic football. One can picture a gap-toothed Carlow full-back spitting in frustration as his attempts at the pre-match intimidation of his opponent are garner in response only generous compliments on the attractiveness of his plumage.

Then there are strips which are clearly fingered as responsible for their team's demise: Manchester United's short lived grey number being the most famous example. While the height of mid 90s street fashion, the sartorial requirements for sneery loitering in shopping malls were not, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, commensurate with those for sporting excellence.

Following a 6-3 defeat to Southampton at the Dell in 1996, Ferguson suggested that the grey shirt blended too easily into the crowd's presumably ghostly pallor, thereby making it difficult for the players to pick each other out. The shirt, like anything subject to the cantankerous knight's wrath, was banished forever.

Some strips, on the other hand, demand success. Was it not inevitable that, after patenting the now popular figure-hugging tight shirt in association with Kappa, the Italian national football team would eventually wear the apex of sporting style all the way to the greatest honour of all?

The 1970 Brazilian team may have played football in a manner superior to any before or since, but, in that magnificient, timeless strip, they could hardly start knocking it long, could they?

It is difficult to prove whether the quality of strip design has a direct influence on team success or not, and unfortunately universities are too busy attempting to find cures for cancer and such to mount a proper empirical study. But I like to think that when a top player is lining up a shot at goal for last minute winner, or a goalkeeper is preparing to thrust himself toward a spectacular save, they won't be distracted by the troubling thought: "I LOOK RIDICULOUS IN THIS OUTFIT!"

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Irish Satisfied with Staunton Ban

UEFA's Control and Disciplinary body today handed the Republic of Ireland a huge boost for next month's Euro 2008 qualifier against Cyprus by banning manager Steve Staunton from the sideline for the crucial game.

While they had hoped for Staunton to receive a longer punishment following his sending-off in last Saturday's defeat to Germany, FAI officials expressed themselves "reasonably happy" that the national team will be able to take on the Cypriots without the interference of the monotone Louthman.

"While ideally we would have hoped Stan would be banished to the stands for four or five matches," confided a Merrion Square insider, "at least this small respite will give the players the chance to get on with what will be difficult encounter without the distraction of Stan's drain-like drawl."

Irish players contacted today were united in their appreciation of UEFA's move. Newcastle's Damien Duff spoke appreciatively about the Swiss-based footocrats' decision, commenting "Its nice for the players to know when preparing for such a big game that from the moment we enter the stadium to when the final whistle blows we won't be bothered by shouts of "laaaads, squeeze de play!" or "Duffor, will ye howld yer position" in that unsettling, flat accent. It can be very annoying you know."

While Staunton himself refused to comment, a UEFA official in Nyon revealed that the dirgeful Droghedian left accompanied by Kevin McDonald, reportedly muttering to his assistant something about "gettin' de feckin' phone number for dat tannoy announcor in Nicosia."

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Maracana Maravilhosa

The Cristo Redentor statue which stands atop the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro is, of course, one of the city's most instantly recognisable sights; it is as much secular brand logo for Rio as religious icon, visible as images of it are on the side of buses chugging along the Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana or on municipal billboards around the sprawling city.

The imposing sculpture's power is derived not only from the aesthetic grandeur of its form and the audacity of its location, but also in its relationship to the city which lies beneath. Guardian, protector, proud host, the statue's slightly forward tilting head and outstretched arms seem to suggest that, while being a key part of the city's breathtaking vista, it itself is as impressed and awed by the spectacle of the Cidade Maravilhosa as the tourists that teem around its feet.

The impression on its face seems to be suggesting: "Not bad, eh?"

This city of superlative spectacle - the carneval, the Sugarloaf mountain, the sweep of the south city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, the Corcovado itself - also boasts one of football's most famous edifices: the Maracana stadium.

The vast and almost circular bowl which was constructed for the 1950 World Cup and into which 200,000 souls crammed to see Brazil's shocking loss in that tournament's final game no longer possesses such a mind-boggling capacity. Indeed when I visited it the stadium only held a maximum of 45,000, being in the process of renovation for the 2007 Pan-American Games, for which its capacity will approach a respectable 100,000.

The capacity on the night I visited was academic, as the Brazilian Championship game between Fluminense, one of the four big Rio teams, and Corinthians of Sao Paulo only drew around 10,000 people. A late 10pm Wednesday night kick-off and the clashing attraction of the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) between two other Brazilian sides, Sao Paulo and Internacional, meant that only the core 'Flu' fans populated their end of the stadium.

Close your eyes, however, and the noise they made made them seem a multitude ten times their size.

Three separate samba ensembles kept a constant and overlapping rhythm, others were detailed to wave the gigantic flags in the club's tricolore of maroon, white and green; some released flares at moments of emotional peaks and the rest called and responded in a deep, guttural roar the many chants, songs and insults that soundtracked the game.

Due to the manageable size of the crowd we were able to sit amongst the Flu fans, rather than taking our seats with the rest of the placid tourists in the better seats along the sideline, thereby enjoying the full effect of the home supporters cacophonous output.

The game itself provided little for them to cheer. While Corinthians, last year's national champions, languished in last place in this year's campaign (the instability inherent in the MSI group's ownership of the club being one of the main reasons for their struggles), in one of his last games before leaving for West Ham, Carlos Tevez tormented the home side incessantly.

The little Argentinian's runs and touches pinned Flu back for the opening period, and he was able to get on the end of a cross to score the first while later setting up numerous chances for his team-mates in what was devilish display of forward play. One imagines Marlon Harewood may be spending quite some time on the bench this season.

Predictably, while both teams had tactical flaws - Corinthians left Tevez up front on his own after taking the lead when a limp Fluminense were there for the taking, while Flu started off with a 'no full-backs' strategy then attacked their deficit with the sharpness of feather duster - the level of technique on display was consistently impressive.

It wasn't juggly, flicking-the-ball-over-your-shoulder samba stuff - the game was played at a serious and competitive pace - but rather every player's touch was good, little shoulder-dropping dribbles occurred all over the field and one-twos and flicks generally came off.

This level of technical ability, standard throughout Brazilian football, is of course the reason why Brazil acts as a farm for producing players for the wealthier European leagues.

While Tevez and Javier Mascherano were helping Corinthians to victory against Fluminense shortly before packing their bags for London, Rafael Sobis, the Internacional star striker whose two goals in the first leg of the Libertadores final ensured their ultimate victory, was announcing that he had played his last game for the South American champions: his time had come to move to Europe. Sure enough, he completed his transfer to Real Betis shortly before the end of the recent transfer window.

While the notion of selling on the best talent is a familiar one to football supporters of every country outside of those predators who reside at the top of the game's economic food chain, the inevitability of the drain of talent from Brazil, while logically rooted in the financial imperatives of the country's relative poverty, is no less sad for it.

The all-consuming passion for Futebol in this country of 180 million people is unavoidable, and the love of the game, as it is played on the beach, the street or in the stadium means that it still must grate to see every new talent that comes along disappear towards the riches of Europe almost before their own people have had a chance to appreciate them.

Perhaps this only adds to the country's devotion to the Selecao, the national team who play in football's most fabled colours. When they line up at the Maracana it must feel to the locals like a visit from the gods, a chance to see and feel the best of the native genius of what their country does best, before it disappears on airplanes back to its distant, untouchable exile, waved off by the proud statue on the hill.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

TSA '06 Comeback Special

The lights dim, the audience hushes and all over the nation literally tens of people huddle around their PCs, the better to see the return of a man many had thought long dead.

Some believed that he had become a Scientologist, others that he had been taken in and worshipped by a tribe of the Amazonian rainforest whose rather peculiar primitive beliefs held that their God would come uttering pithy asides and ill-informed opinions about sporting matters in early 21st century northwestern Europe.

Others still believed that he had attempted to accompany Ellen McArthur in circumnavigating the globe, but soon returned to shore appalled by the celebrated seafarer's excessive and little-publicised penchant for piracy.

There were tales, muttered in dimly-lit liquor dens in the seedy part of town, which described labyrinthe conpiracies connecting the elusive character with putting Marco Materazzi up to the shameful "slagging of Zidane's Ma/ethnic heritage" then disappearing into the Berlin night with what eye-witnesses swore was the Italian's very mortal soul.

Several crackpot lunatics long committed to the care of high security psychiatric institutions were heard to scream in the night about how, early in the year, he had sabotaged the Tyrone football team's training sessions by firing plutonic gamma rays at Brian McGuigan, Brian Dooher, Collie Holmes and Stephen O'Neill, thereby causing them to sustain debilitating injuries, then subsequently slipped Francie Bellew a mickey before the All-Ireland quarter final allowing that big young fella to get the better of him against Kerry.

The deranged mentalists who propagated this story claim that they saw the shadowy spectre accept a briefcase from a man with a strong Killarney brogue who whispered "yerra, that'll teach those northern feckers to make off with our championship, he he he he..."

People who claim to know about these things believed he was engaged by that adjunct of the Christian fundamentalist Bush administration and military industrial complex, the US Ryder Cup team, to destabilise their European foes in the upcoming jumpers and jingoism extravaganza. He was supposedly refused payment after trying convince his sinister bosses that he had something to do with Padraig Harrington finishing second all the bleeding time.

Hurling insiders believed he had been brought into the Kilkenny camp as a mind-guru, whose insidious tactic was to repeat into various Cats' ears the mantra "three-in-a-row, three-in-a-row".

Many gave credence to the notion that he was the super-agent who brokered the Tevez-Mascherano transfer to West Ham, others thought he planted testosterone in Floyd Landis' corn flakes, some swore passionately that he was the man who designed Roger Federer's fetching Wimbledon suit or cut Ciaran McDonald's hair or put Big Ron back on telly....

It mattered little, the conjecture, for presently the lights rose with the bulbs making out the form of a giant T.S.A. and revealed a leather-clad figure hunched over a keyboard.....

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