Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Munster Add Guile To Their Grunt

Not to be formulaic and predictable, but let's, like last week, begin with a snifter of Heineken. With the competition now breaking for the November internationals it was an important weekend for the combatants: would they send their international players off with a jaunty, top-of-the-table skip in their step, or a doleful, bottom-spanked trundle?

Of our gallant provinces, Munster are the only ones heading for the international break whistling a happy tune, their official Irish Rugby knapsacks on their musclebound backs. Not only have they grasped control of Pool 4 like a playground bully putting a headlock on a bespectacled Maths geek, but they made a big statement about their intentions for the tournament.

Those within the Munster camp have made it repeatedly clear that they did not see the achievement of finally winning the Heineken Cup as an end in itself, rather that last May's emotional heave for glory would be the first of several triumphs which would anoint the province with that true holy grail of baubles: the mantle of greatness.

However, as fiercely powerful a force that Munster rugby is and as stirringly as that has been often demonstrated in recent years, it was clear to dispassionate observers - a rare breed within the heady confines of Thomond Park - that the province would need to add something to their game to continue to keep their noses ahead of the pack: a little dash of spice to their normal, hearty fare.

Staying the best is a little like running to stand still. You must keep improving to stay at the top, despite the fact that the evidence of your improvement - usually gained by comparison with your peers - is invisible, as it appears that you are simply staying in the same position. This often causes successful sports teams and individuals to believe that merely carrying on with what they have been doing will assure them of continued pre-eminence, and is usually the reason for their regression into the chasing bunch.

Possessing all the requisite qualities in the pack (leavaing recent flutterings in the lineout aside for the moment) and the telepathy of Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer at half-back had got them this far; to progress further - or hold their position, if you like - Munster clearly had to bring a back-line cutting edge to bear in situations when teams would simply not be bludgeoned into submission by the force of a maul, or by the pressure or their loose play yielding penalties for the exocet boot of O'Gara.

About this time last year, Barry Murphy was breaking into the Munster team at centre, his bold, weaving lines of running seeming to bring to Munster, at last, some indigenous back-line flair to add to the province's peerless forward grunt. Murphy was especially impressive in the final pool game triumph over Sale at Thomond, but sustained an injury in a Celtic League match against Ulster which ended his season.

Munster went on to rely on traditional values in the three victorious games that followed, but last Saturday against Bourgoin Murphy - in tandem, it must be said, with his colleague at centre, Trevor Halstead - took up where he had left off in last season's group stages.

In general, Munster revealed an expansive, improvisational running game, dovetailed, for good measure, with a delightful lineout move for Frankie Sheahan's try and a trad-maul for Donnacha O'Callaghan's. Murphy was a constant, gain-line breaking force, and his guile fitted perfectly with Saturday's announcement of the next stage of this Munster side's progression. That they brought the quick and powerful Lifemi Mafi for Halstead suggest that Munster might just be doing the necessary to stay ahead of the game.

The other two provinces had less rosy weekends. Leinster are only ever 80 minutes away from disaster, and were rarely at their best against Edinburgh. But I would hold back the usual stinking bucket of rotten fruit that gets chucked in the direction of O'Driscoll and co. on these occasions. The trip to Edinburgh was always viewed with trepidation, especially as that team had defeated an almost full-strength Munster at Thomond Park a few weeks ago.

The eerie atmostphere generated by 5,000 souls within the cavernous Murrayfield did not help the game in general - you get the impression Leinster showbiz stars need the big stage to bring out their best material. Neither did the referee's harshness on the Irish side with regard to penalties awarded - albeit the officials did allow Leinster a try despite a clearly forward pass by Shane Horgan to Luke Fitzgerald.

Most of all, Leinster's pool is a bit of a curate's egg. Agen lead after an impressive victory at Gloucester, but needed a late penalty to beat Edinburgh at home. Edinburgh are tough, but limited (a big part of Leinster's dismay over Sunday's defeat would be that they outscored their vanquishers by three tries to one). All will take points off each other and none of the teams possesses Leinster's level of talent. You also suspect that Leinster will notch of more bonus points. All things being equal, Leinster are still favourites to progress.

Ulster's disappointment should be greater. There was a sneaky feeling abroad that the northerners were ready to step up and challenge Munster and Leinster as the island's leading side. Celtic League success, a good pack, an excellent half-back combination in David Humphreys and Isaac Boss and the flair of Andrew Trimble all suggested that the opening day humbling of Toulouse was no fluke.

But Ulster never looked like beating Llanelli at Stradey Park - a not inconsiderable task admittedly. The Scarlets pack dominated, Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones controlled and Ryan Jones was at his marauding best in combining with his dashing back line team-mates. Ulster always seemed on the back foot.

Still, being another of those pools without a whipping boy Italian side, this pool remains open enough and a bonus point for Ulster makes up for the one they missed out on against Toulouse last week.

All three provinces are alive, then, but, as ever, the Munster men have the bragging rights in the Irish dressing room for the next few weeks.

....Read more!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Most Accidents Happen in the Home

Yesterday the mobile phone company (or media network, or service provider, or Bond villain-style sinister telecommunications behemoth) 3 - just 3, as in 'three'. What does it mean? The IQ of the person who commissioned a marketing consultancy to come up with the company name, I should imagine - announced that, as of next week, their customers will be able to watch Eamon Dunphy pund, or whatever the verb form of pundit is, from the comfort of his sofa at home.

Dunphy will broadcast on Mondays and Fridays, providing the benefit of his erratic analysis to 3 subscribers without having to as much as tie his shoelaces. This is, apparently, a gas thing because of the fact that Dunphy loves his soup - he's a "notorious night owl" according to the report in this morning's Indo - so much that now he can tumble out of the scratcher after an evening's carousal, drop an Alka-Seltzer in a glass and crumple onto his sofa to hold forth on how manly Roy Keane is, and get paid for it!

It sounds like the dream job for a "noted reveller" like Dunphy. But does it herald a new era of slobbishness in broadcasting? Is Dunphy the pioneer for a slackening-down of TV production values, the final break with the days of dancing girls and tuxedos on the Generation Game to a brave new world of three-piece suites and background shots of Granny's photo on the mantelpiece? What next.........?

Hooky and Popey In The Bath
Outspoken and irrepressible, George Hook and his faithful sidekick, Brent Pope, bring you their famous brand of no-holds-barred rugby discussion from the steamy surrounds of Tom McGurk's jacuzzi bath. Every week the lads will discuss the major issues in Irish rugby while splish-splashing with new guest, a rubber ducky called The Claw. New features include "George's Loofah", which will see the lovable grotesque wave his trusty scrubbing sponge at the camera as he vents spleen on the unfortunate target of his ire - watch out meddling IRFU officialdom!

Cabbage Patch of the Day
Gary Lineker invites you to don wellies, grab a spade and join him in his Leicestershire allotment to look back at the day's football while he weeds his prize vegetable garden. Alan Hansen favours the no-nonsense root vegetables - trustworthy turnips and the humble spud - while Mark Lawrenson is on legumes.

Laundry with Lyster
RTE plan to 'clean up' in the ratings with this sure-fire format which sees Micheal Lyster combine his twin passions of GAA and his laundry duties in the basement of his Dublin home. Lyster is joined by Joe Brolly, who puts his visionary skills to good use in the troublesome area of pairing socks, and Colm O'Rourke, who tells it straight while helping Tomas Mulcahy fold the bedsheets. If Galway are eliminated from the Championship early, RTE hope to recruit Ger Loughnane for ironing duties.

Walker's Walk-In Closet
Legendary Formula One gibberer Murray Walker returns to our screens and talk about his passion for motor racing from within the domicile of his immaculately pressed shirts and neatly folded sweaters. Moving to the 'belts and shoes' section for his trip down memory lane, he brings it right back to the trouser department for his hard-hitting insight into today's racing game.

This one may be a one-off special.

Jimmy Hill's Sunday Supplement
In which the veteran broadcaster - now stick with me on this idea - is joined by football writers around his breakfast table to discuss....oh, erm...

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

International Rules Not OK

In this morning's Irish Times, Mickey Harte, the twice All-Ireland-winning Tyrone manager repeats his criticisms of the International Rules series, which first he stated this time last year around the time of the ill-fated visit of the Irish team to their AFL counterparts. In support of Harte, TSA republishes a piece written on October 28th last year, after the end of the series, under the headline, "Listen to Mickey and End the Madness". Most of it still applies.

One point not covered is the justification of the series through the arguments that the players enjoy it and that, with both games in this year's series likely to sell out, the public do too. My response is that the players would probably enjoy mudwrestling with Las Vegas hookers and, most likely, plenty people would pay to watch that too. Doesn't make it right.

So the annual absurdity that is the International Rules series is over again. The GAA and AFL's yearly bastardisation of their games saw Ireland comprehensively beaten by an Australian team who learned well the lessons from their own hammering last year. As big and tough as usual, they added speed and vastly improved kicking ability to leave the Irish looking feeble in comparison.

Right, can that be the end of it now please?

It may sound like sour grapes in the face of Ireland's defeat - like not wanting to play anymore and taking the ball home with you - but this series is surely more trouble than it is worth. The only valid role it plays, as far as I can see, is affording elite amateur GAA players the perk of a biennial jaunt to the Antipodes in well-earned reward for their unparalleled commitment throughout the inter-county season. But isn't that what the All-Star tour is for?

As a sporting entity the game's integrity is dubious. This mangled code often appears to be the equivalent of what watching Roger Federer play tennis with a cricket bat might look like: you can see the ability, but it is being refracted through a prism of sporting farce. The obvious panic in the Irish players' eyes as they try to dispense with the ball before being clattered is like that of a small boy being chased by playground bullies.

The definitive comment on the game is that it basically dispenses with many of both sports' finest characteristics. Namely, the GAA players cannot display the sidestep, the dummy, the mazy solo run, because the rules are weighted in favour of the Australian 'anything goes' tackling style. The glory of the tricky corner-forward bamboozling an exasperated corner-back is absent.

For the Aussies, the smaller dimensions of the pitch and the less dramatic canvas it thus provides detract from the awe-inspiring nature of their sport's mark-taking, and the breathless athleticism of their running.

Another driver behind the game's existence is the desire to have an 'international' element to Gaelic Games, with the belief that this code will perform some sort of missionary role for the GAA. Look, you can't go on about how the GAA is a cultural cornerstone of Irishness, how it helps define exactly what we are, and how it touches an innate part of our soul like no other game, and then bleat about internationalism! Isn't that what soccer is for?!

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is an outspoken critic of the game. He bemoans the promotion of this game at the expense of Gaelic Football and is wise to its fundamental pointlessness. He's a wise man, is Mickey, and I'm with him on this one.

....Read more!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I Am An Umpire

A Winter's day,
In an unseasonably warm October;
I am alone,
Gazing from the goalposts, in my nice white coat,
As the full-back's got the forward by the throat.

I am a rock,
I am an Umpire.

I've got my flags,
I signal them for scores,
That none may question,
I see all kinds of violence, but never tell the ref,
To screams of pain my ears are always deaf.

I am a rock,
I am an Umpire.

Don't talk of discipline,
Well I've heard the word before,
It's sleeping that I'd rather be,
I won't disturb my quiet life of raising little flags,
If I interfered they'd tear my coat to rags.

I am a rock,
I am an Umpire.

(Guitar solo, possibly accompanied by jaunty, flagwaving dance)

I have my books,
And my poetry to protect me,
That I read when play's at the other end,
The punches they may fly, or stamping in the eye,
But it's got nothing whatsoever to do with me.

I am a rock,
I am an Umpire.

And a rock feels no pain,
And an Umpire never cries.

....Read more!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Liverpool Walk Through a Storm

Rabid Liverpool Fan is one of our favourite local characters. Born and raised in Dun Laoghaire, he nonetheless sings You'll Never Walk Alone in a throaty Scouse howl, pronounces the word 'Shankly' as 'Shan-khlee', is fond, upon the consumption of a few ales, of teary-eyed, wistful remembrances of the 1980s; he espouses militant left-wing politics cribbed from an early 1980s Derek Hatton speech and hates Rupert Murdoch because of "what he's done to football", but really because Liverpool have never won the Premiership.

We talked to him in the aftermath of Liverpool's latest setback, Sunday's defeat against Manchester United....

TSA: Liverpool were rubbish on Sunday, weren't they?

RLF: How can you say that? United were rubbish more like! Anytime we beat them, no-one gives us the credit we deserve, then they beat us and everyone's fawning over them and their poncey players and their stupid big stadium.

TSA: Yeah, but Liverpool were still rubbish.

RLF: Hey, if Kuytey...

TSA: Kuytey?

RLF: Yeah, Kuytey; if he scores that header in the first half, we get organised and battle to a win, then everyone says how we've turned the corner away from home, how Rafa's tactical nous helped us get a battling away result like the ones we got when we won the European Cup for the fifth time.

TSA: Wondered how long it would take for that to come up. Surely you have to accept that Liverpool were poor in pretty much every department on Sunday. The keeper, unusually, wasn't particularly at fault for any of the goals, but the defence was hesitant and the midfield cover non-existent for the first, and for the second, the description is enough: Rio Ferdinand had time to trap the ball in the Liverpool box, bring it down, then sweep a left foot shot into the roof of the net..

RLF: Well Jamie had just taken a knock, otherwise he would have blocked it with one if his trademark last-ditch diving tackles...

TSA: I haven't finished. Looking at the two midfields, you would have imagined that Liverpool would gain a respectable foothold at least, if not outright domination of possession, being both numerically and physically superior and having done so at this venue last season when they were genuinely unfortunate to lose to, ahem, another Rio Ferdinand goal. But United swarmed over their opponents right from the first minutes when Darren Fletcher won about three sliding tackles in a row.

Kuyt was left isolated up front and support for him from the wings and from Stephen Gerrard was non-existent. As for the manager, aside from playing one man up front, his rotation policy is being made to look disruptive and the inability of his team to 'get up' for such a traditionally huge game is a worrying comment on his motivational skills. Quite simply United wanted it more.

RLF: Rafa knows best. That's all you need to know. Anyway Bellamy was injured, so he could only have started Crouch and Kuyt if he wanted to go with a two man attack, a pairing which makes little sense in terms of compatibility. Listen, he did the rotation thing at Valencia and won leagues with it and he had no trouble motivating the players at half-time in the European Cup final.

TSA: Will you stop bringing that up, please? Liverpool fans are, of course, totally right to back the manager, given his record to date. But do you sense that he has what it takes to make Liverpool champions again? Some are suggesting that he is merely an Iberian Houllier: never mind the league, look at those lovely cups!

RLF: Rafa is doing things his way. It took Alex Ferguson six seasons to build a championship-winning team. He is hamstrung at the moment by the amount of money that the likes of Chelsea and United are spending, is slowly building his squad using the money he has and spent much of the summer clearing out unwanted players. The revolution continues!

TSA: But he spent £25 million in the summer, whereas United only spent the £18.6 million on Carrick. Anyway, what about the suggestion that Benitez is struggling to make Liverpool a team that can dominate matches offensively, to transform them from the well-organised, defensively solid side that won the Champions League (damn!) into a more complete outfit that can get squeeze crucial victories at Bolton (the Reebok Stadium being the litmus test of a team's title credentials) or, indeed, Chelsea?

RLF: Admittedly, we seem to be treading water on the face of it. The areas we were strong in until now - defence and midfield - are struggling. But the defence will be sorted out, Carragher, Finnan and co. have not become poor players overnight. And Xabi Alonso will emerge from his current trough also. Himself and Sissoko have the ability to dominate any defence in the league.

TSA: Which brings us to the thorny issue of Steven Gerrard. Some say he should be played in the middle, some say Rafa is right to shove him wide. The player mumbles away about his discontent at not being 'the man', about how Rafa never pats him on the back, yet his displays in the middle for Liverpool and England do nothing to suggest he should be played there as a rule.

RLF: Sometimes I think Stevie G is more trouble than he is worth - but then he goes and does something astonishing like he did in the Olympiakos game, ahem, the Champions League final or the FA Cup final. His awesome talent means we have to accomodate him somewhere though. He doesn't do the bread and butter things a central midfielder needs to do: he can't dictate the pace of a game, hold possession and take the sting out of things.

His ego is such that he can't accept not playing in the middle, but seems to be playing in something of a sulk at the moment because of it. He was anonymous on Sunday, when he should have showed leadership, and when Rafa referred to his team needing to show character after the game, he must have been looking at Stevie.

TSA: Do you think he's annoyed that Alonso appears immovable in the middle despite his poor form, whereas Benitez refuses to give Gerrard a chance.

RLF: Xabi is Rafa's man. He's going through a tough spell, but he'll get through. Once he's sorted and the defence gets its act together, the rest will fall into place.

We're just enduring a spell of wind and rain at the moment....(breaks off into song......)

TSA: So you admit they were rubbish on Sunday then?

RLF: WALK ON, Walk oooooooon, with hooope in your......

TSA: Ah, forget it...

....Read more!

Monday, October 23, 2006

New Questions, Old Answers

It had seemed the archetypal champion's performance, and the archetypal Munster one at that. At 18-9 ahead, the Red Machine's innate savvy looked to be seeing them through to one of those victories that only silverware-validated, battle-hardened teams can achieve. Leicester, as they would be obliged to do in front of a jammed-in, baying Welford Road mob, had put it up to the Heineken Cup holders, but, as Munster eked out a nine point lead in a horrible down pour, we shook our heads and smirked: "Sorry lads, that's Munster for you!"

And then, as if the teeming midlands rain were laced with sulphuric acid, first the Munster line-out, and then the scrum, simply dissolved.

Leicester, now marshalled by a strutting Andy Goode, put Munster into their own half and then into the corners, the champions lineout betraying them repeatedly and the home side's pressure coming in waves as torrential as the deluge from the heavens.

Once encamped deep in Munster territory, the Leicester pack proceeded to obliterate an exhausted Munster scrum. The decimation of a scrum is one of rugby's most shocking sights, a humiliating and seemingly irreversible trauma. The decimation of the Munster scrum on the other hand, is so unusual as to cause more head-scratching puzzlement than pity.

There had been signs from earlier in the match that the Leicester pack had the measure of their vaunted opponents, but the concession of the penalty try and the 10 yards or so yielded at the half-way line by the Munster eight which led to the penalty which put Leicester ahead revealed a vulnerability hitherto unsuspected in the storied pack.

Not alone that, but just as worryingly, the Munster line-out could not have functioned any worse had someone dyed all their jerseys blue and put "Bank of Scotland" on the front. Lineouts are much like Swiss watches: comprising of a complex system of moving parts, and utterly useless if not working correctly. For all its complexity however, the hooker tends to get the bullet when things go wrong and Frankie Sheahan will be viewing the return from injury of Jerry Flannery with some trepidation.

So with Munster's bread and butter seemingly choking them, thankfully that other cornerstone of their reliability, Ronan O'Gara's boot, was as faithful as ever. There was a bit of luck involved in getting the kick at goal, Shane Jennings' dissent rendering it kickable at all. But such was the distance involved that the home support, having earlier seen O'Gara miss from closer range, must have felt safe in preparing some harsh words for the Corkman whose unusual pre-match loquaciousness had placed himself in the spotlight of self-justification.

His kick was astonishing: his left boot planted true in the boggy mire, the contact clean and strong, the ball - sodden and drab - heaving itself through the torrent and inches good. Stuart Barnes in the commentary box articulated the thoughts of every one of the soaking Leicester fans: "Uhngggfh," he barely exhaled.

Leinster offered also a familiar answer to the questions posed them by Gloucester a day earlier at Lansdowne Road. God love Gloucester, but they were daft. The club which offers the closest approximation of the Munster ideals in English rugby eschewed the rumbling pack game so famous in the West Country and, by virture of the presence of effervescent young backs like out-half Ryan Lamb and centres Jack Adams and Anthony Allen, chose to play it the Leinster way instead.

Of course, no-one plays the Leinster way quite like Leinster. Especially when Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and co. are in the swashbuckling mood they were in on Saturday. And so we were treated to a jolly entertaining late autumn evening of running rugby, both sides stretching each other's defences with speed and lovely lines of running and never the remotest doubt over who was going to win.

Perhaps Gloucester felt that they simply did not know how to play any other way. Fine. But the game amounted to little more than a glorified dance-off: each team showing, in turn, their flashiest steps, when everyone knows that Leinster have the best moves. None of which shows if Michael Cheika's team is any closer to conquering their southern rivals' European empire.

****Of course I haven't mentioned Ulster whose great recent form saw them achieve the result of the weekend against Toulouse and suggests that they are as worthy of consideration for the Heineken shake-up as the terrible twosome to their south. However I did not see their game the other day, so if anyone did and wishes to post their opinion on the chances of the Never on a Sunday chaps, please comment below.....

....Read more!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Some points on the Heineken Cup

My Name is....
The French call it the H Cup. Munster fans refer to it as 'the Holy Grail'. Leinster folk call it the 'Heino'.

Brits Out.
Ulster won it, irony of ironies, in the year of English clubs were not involved. Wouldn't it be great if it could be like that all the time?

Don't come home too soon
The Scots generally take the same attitude to qualifying from the group stages as their country's football teams do at World Cups. The exception is Edinburgh who made the quarter-finals in 2003/04 before gallant defeat at the hands of Toulouse.

Slings and arrows
English teams either love it (Leicester, winners in 2001 and 2002) or hate it (Gloucester and Sale, both famously garrotted at Thomond Park in recent seasons).

Toulouse (three time winners) are the unquestionable Real Madrid of the tournament.

The times they are a-changin'
Eleven years old, it has changed beyond recognition. Twelve teams, none of them English played in the 1995-96 season. Cardiff made the first final. They lost. To Toulouse. Okay, so not everything has changed.

From a trickle to a flood
A few thousand turned up to Thomond Park for Munster's first ever European Cup match, against Swansea on 1 November 1995. 75,000, mostly Munster fans, filled the Millenium Stadium. Most people don't even remember who Munster beat that day. It was Biarritz, in case you were wondering, who had the nerve to turn up.

Some French teams couldn't give a flying fromage about it. Bourgoin turned up at Lansdowne Road with half a team in December 2004, getting beat 92-17 by Leinster. At the same time, they were second in the French league.

Forza Italia
Overmach Parma will become the 54th team to play in the tournament when they go to Netherdale this evening to play Borders. Parma beat Newport-Gwent Dragons in a play-off to qualify. This is the first season in which three Italian clubs (Treviso and Calvisano are the others) will compete.

The west's asleep
Connacht have never played in it. Awww. Until the 2004-05 season they were never even allowed to try, but now the IRFU have deigned that if they finish in the top three of the Irish clubs in the Celtic (now Magners) League, they can play in the Heineken Cup. They still didn't qualify though.

Farul's rush in
In the first year of the tournament, a Romanian club took part. Farul Constanta lost 54-10 to Toulouse and 86-8 to Benetton Treviso and thought better of ever entering again.

Home win?
Twickenham will host this year's final, on Sunday 20 May 2007. It will be the third time the stadium has hosted the final; on both occasions English teams have won: Northampton in 2000 and Wasps in 2004. Fix.

The Smart Money
Ronan O'Gara claimed this week that Premiership rugby and many of the English players are overhyped. It's the French you have to watch out for, Rog. The French, who have won the Cup four times and provided finalists on twelve occasions, dominate this year's betting. The bookies have Biarritz as favourites at 3-1, followed by Toulouse at 5-1 and Stade Francais at 13-2. Munster are next at 7-1 with Sale the best-backed English side at 10-1.

....Read more!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Champions League - The Story So Far

The group stages of the Champions League have reached their half-way stage and, like so many fat boys in a school dinner queue, the contenders are jostling for qualifying positions and the creamy, calorific goodness of the knockout rounds.

In all but two of the groups the seeded teams occupy the top two spots, justifying the convoluted calculations of UEFA's co-efficient system. Inter Milan and Porto are the two seeded sides letting down the Swiss-based calculator bashers thus far, limping along as both are in third place in their groups.

Following a horrendous opening to their campaign, consisting of defeats at Sporting Lisbon and at home against Bayern Munich, the expensively-assembled Milanese looked to be heading towards the sort of ignominious failure all too familiar to the club. However, last night's win over Spartak Moscow and the fact that their usurpers in the box seat alongside Bayern, Sporting, have only amassed a measly four points themselves, mean that Inter are still very much in contention to overturn their rotten start and drag their Armani-clad behinds into the second round. They may have to get a result in Munich to do so, but they will likely be one of the second-place teams to avoid for the group winners come the draw for the last 16.

Porto's status as seeds was more an afterglow from the giddy heights of their success under Jose Mourinho a few seasons ago than a reflection on the genuine form of a team who last season failed to qualify out of last season's 'group of dross' in which they were pipped to second spot by Rangers. They have improved on that form this season, but look like they will struggle to overhaul Arsenal or the shadily bankrolled CSKA Moscow.

As evidence of the changing backdrop of European football and the increasing financial muscle of Russian clubs, CSKA fielded as many Brazilians as did Porto (three), despite Portugal's top clubs being the traditional stopping off point for Brazil's footballing exports' journeys into Europe. One presumes the likes of Daniel Carvalho and Vagner Love were not attracted to Moscow for the borscht.

Elsewhere all appears to be calm, with the favourites cantering along upfront in the other groups. After their now-customary tanking by Lyon, Real Madrid unleashed multi-goal vengeance on the surprisingly feeble Dynamo Kiev and Steau Bucharest. Incidentally, how heartwarming to see the Madrilenos, many of whose fans were culpable for the racist chants endured by England's black players in their friendly against Spain two years ago, flattered by the imitation of the Romanians and their treatment of Madrid's coloured players?

Lyon and Real, Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven and Valencia and Roma all seem cut and dried as qualifiers even as this stage. Barcelona's position looks strangely precarious at this juncture. While one would be ill-advised to bet against the holders at this juncture, the lurking presence of the doughty Germans, Werder Bremen (who were seconds away from eliminating Juventus in last season's competition), is a danger to the Spanish champions.

While many scoffed at the importance of the group stage double header between Chelsea and Barcelona in the greater scheme of things, Chelsea's victory last night means that Barca are under real pressure to get a result in the return fixture in a fortnight's time. Should Chelsea defeat the Catalans again - and there is no reason to suspect that Mourinho and co. would not do all within their power to help eliminate their great rivals of the last two seasons - and Werder defeat Levksi Sofia away and take at least a point off Chelsea at home - again, one can envisage the by-then already-qualified Blues mischieviously relaxing a little if that scenario arose - then Werder would come to the Camp Nou needing only a draw to qualify.

Finally, at the outset of Group F, some would have applied the same analysis to Celtic's position as second seeds as to that of Porto: that it was the statistical remnant of the success achieved by Martin O'Neill a few seasons ago, and that Benfica, one of last season's quarter finalists, should be considered the likeliest to ride on Manchester United coat-tails into the knockout phase.

However Celtic appear to be in a very strong position to qualify at this juncture. While their easiest fixtures are arguably behind them, and Benfica's yet to come, the presence of points on the board and the clubs' respective fixtures on the last matchday favour Celtic. Should things be tight on December 6th, Benfica will need a result at Old Trafford, while Celtic must go to the less fearsome surroundings of the Parkstadion in Copenhagen.

....Read more!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Strachan the Teacher of Celtic's History Boys

A club like Celtic, with its glorious history and voracious hunger for future success, always looks to omens from its past as harbingers of a return to its once-pre-eminent status. Last night's victory over Benfica will have rang several bells within those familar with the club's late '60s heyday. Billy McNeill and Eusebio looked on from the stands as Celtic recorded a win by the exact same margin as that achieved at the very ground in which the two clubs, and their aforementioned respective legends, last met, 37 years ago.

The scoreline and the opposition were not be the only reminders of the great days of the Jock Stein era. Just as the Lisbon Lions won admirers and a lasting place in football's pantheon through their thrilling, high-speed attacking play, so Gordon Strachan's Celtic team are demonstrating a fluid, passing style which, when unleashed in the atmospheric cauldron of Celtic Park, is just as effective as it is attractive.

Strachan, while undoubtedly now having won over the vast majority of the Celtic support, still does not have his name venerated in song to the degree that his predecessor, Martin O'Neill, did. True, O'Neill led Celtic out of a depressing wilderness and was the first manager to bring such primal European evenings as last night's back to the Parkhead faithful. And those who continue to reserve judgement on the current incumbent may point to the feat of reaching a European final as the trump card of the current Aston Villa manager.

But, while Strachan's team have merely put their best foot forward in this group so far, with much work remaining to be done, much about the way they go about their business suggests the potential to eclipse the success of the O'Neill era.

For one thing, and to return to the style in which Strachan wishes his team to play, the one-touch, flowing game favoured by the manager is, for even the most ill-informed Celtic historian, a fuller representation of the club's traditions than the more yeomanlike style favoured by O'Neill.

Celtic supporters generally excused O'Neill's teams their less pretty performances because of their effectiveness in winning matches. Similarly, generations of Celtic teams played attractive football with little success, so Strachan's team would not be excused for failure because of their aesthetic value.

But as well as wearing the velvet glove, Strachan is equally cognisant of the need for the iron fist. The indian summer of Neil Lennon's career and the bountiful repayment of the manager's faith in centre-half Stephen McManus speak of the stout spine of this team. McManus has been an astonishing success under Strachan, his reading of the game as well as his communicative and leadership qualities making him now the first name on the team-sheet, an inconceivable fact only a year or so ago.

That sort of personal improvement and high performance is found throughout the team. Shaun Maloney was famously almost loaned out to Aberdeen at the beginning of Strachan's tenure, such were the doubts over his ability to succeed. Now, as last night's perfectly weighted ball for Kenny Miller's second goal testifies, Maloney, Scotland's Player of the Year, is one of Celtic's prize assets.

The injured Aiden McGeady too, for all his natural talent, was often the subject of scepticism over his true effectiveness. This season especially, however, he has added a killer final ball and a energetic physical presence to his game to leave Strachan in the wonderful position of not having missed the erstwhile injured Maloney.

For many pessimists in the Celtic support, the signing on Bosman deals of Gary Caldwell and Kenny Miller and for £700,000 of Lee Naylor from Wolves represented a lack of ambition on the part of the club, considered as they were an SPL level plodder, a Rangers reject and a Championship nobody respectively.

The bare facts of the recent weeks alone refute such descriptions. Aside from scoring the winners in their country's Euro 2008 qualifier wins over Lithuania and France, the pair have been crucial presences in their club's good form and Miller is now accompanied by Messrs Drogba, Morientes, Raul and Van Nistelrooy at the top of the Champions League goalscoring charts. Naylor meanwhile has looked to all intents and purposes a top class full back, both through his defending and his attacking contributions, as evidenced by the clever cutback for Celtic's first goal last night. The fact that last night's success was achieved without the two men seen as the centrepieces of Celtic's summer transfer business, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Thomas Gravesen, only further underlines the wisdom of Strachan's faith in his less heralded recruits.

The exemplification of Strachan's wishes for Celtic's playing style has been evident in the attacking interplay of Shunsuke Nakamura, Maloney, McGeady, Miller and Zurawski with the support of the fullbacks as well as Lennon and co in midfield. However the manager's tactical savvy has also had a fine showing in Europe's premier competition. Aware of the potenial for Celtic to be caught on the break if overcommitted in attack under the impassioned encouragement of the home crowd, the victories over Copenhagen and Benfica have been achieved with generous helpings of patience.

Strachan remarked in his recent autobiography about how he noticed that previous Celtic teams, overstretched in attack, could be caught short at the back by two or three quick passes. For all Benfica's comfort in possession, Celtic's disciplined attacking and the speed at which their offensive players were able to cover ground when the ball was lost, meant that the visitors rarely caught the home side with the sort of hair-raising counter-attacks many pundits feared they may fall victim to. Indeed it was Celtic themselves who stung Benfica with a sweeping break for the second goal, boding well for the crucial away 'leg' of this double header with the Portuguese team.

Any sort of result in that fixture will probably guarantee Celtic's progression to the second round, but they should not panic in the event of a defeat. After all, that 3-0 victory 37 years ago was followed by a identical reverse scoreline in the away leg, Celtic progressing via the toss of a coin called by Billy McNeill. That season culminated in Celtic reaching their second European Cup final - were the same events to come to pass this season, its safe to assume that Strachan's name would be sung from the Parkhead stands for some time to come.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Right Time To Jack It In?

In the run-up to the most recent All-Ireland final, the, as of yesterday, former Kerry manager, Jack O'Connor pointed out something which I personally had never paused to consider. In talking about the difficulties this season posed for him and his team, in the aftermath of the Munster final defeat to Cork and prior to their rejuvenation at the business end of the season, he mentioned that he was the first Kerry manager since before Mick O'Dwyer to have been neither Micko himself, nor one of the great man's former players.

The jist was that O'Connor had to overcome some prejudices within the county and a certain sense that, because he hadn't been anointed within that exclusive coven of legends, he was somehow lesser in their eyes.

Sometimes those of us outwith Kerry's borders can lapse into the lazy belief that everyone within the Kingdom has that innate sense of superiority, that it comes easy to them because of their culture. That a normally undemonstrative man such as O'Connor should mention the troubling nature of this vulnerability and his subsequent satisfaction in proving his credentials is a rare insight into the mechanics of how that Kerry mindset is constructed, proof of the robustness of their standards.

O'Connor can take his place now with the best of them, probably since O'Dwyer himself. Three All-Ireland finals, two Sam Maguires and two league titles in three years will see to that. Also, in going out on top, weeks after his team's ferocious demolition of Mayo, O'Connor ensures his reputation is burnished by the lustre of success and his legacy is a strong and winning Kerry squad.

His three seasons provided separate storylines, each spotlighting O'Connor in some way.

O'Connor's first season was a masterpiece of timing. He wound Kerry up slowly all that championship summer - toiling with Limerick in Munster, burning off Dublin with a short, sharp early second half burst, similarly keeping Derry at comfortable arms length all the way through the semi-final. Then, in the final, he unleashed his team's powers on an epic scale, blowing away Mayo with powder that they had been keeping dry all summer. That Mayo had played their best football two months or so previously only highlighted the perfect curve of Kerry's form graph that summer.

2005 was the year of Tyrone, but there was no shame in Kerry's loss in that final. The Kingdom had carried on their formidable form of the previous year and coasted to the big day in September. They met a Tyrone team who had scrapped their way through, with three frenetic encounters with Armagh under their belts and an epic double-header with Dublin to boot. Also, Tyrone were riding a wave of emotional purpose, the Cormac McAnallen factor and while O'Connor's Kerry went toe-to-toe with them in a close final, there was a sense of destiny about Tyrone that year.

Not that that would have been any consolation in Kerry. As 2006 unfolded with the shock of losing a Munster final to Cork coupled with the mediocrity of their performances, Kerry appeared to have lost their way. Difficult summer months, with rumours of internal strife over selections provided O'Connor with his toughest test as Kerry manager.

The deployment of Kieran Donaghy in the full-forward position from the qualifier against Longford onwards was the single boldest, and most productive, decision of the campaign, especially as the new hero had been sent-off in the drawn Munster final against Cork. The trajectory of the ascent of Donaghy's star has been astonishing, but it was O'Connor who provided the platform for his orbit.

O'Connor's Kerry also put to bed one of modern Kerry football's hoodoos in defeating Armagh in the quarter-finals. Perhaps it was only the desire to do the same to a possibly resurgent Tyrone that stopped O'Connor from stepping down earlier.

That small blemish aside, over the three years of his tenure, O'Connor's team have been clearly Ireland's best side. Both results and the nature of their general performances show that.

He hands over the crown with peace and prosperity in his Kingdom. And he can look any of its former monarchs straight in the eye.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Portrait of an Artist

Football and cinema generally go together like tar and pastry. Escape to Victory(its ironic glory aside), When Saturday Comes, Goal!, among many others, are characteristic examples of the cinematic professional fouls committed in the name of the beautiful game. Perhaps only The Arsenal Stadium Mystery and, at a stretch, Gregory's Girl have involved football successfully as as a plot device in film; yet, in both of those, the game was periperal to the central themes.

In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, on the other hand, there is little else: the recently released arthouse film focuses 17 cameras on the now-retired titular Frenchman for the duration of Real Madrid's Primera Liga match against Villareal at the Bernabeu on 23rd April 2005.

Soundtracked moodily by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, the action follows the great man from every conceivable angle: extreme close-ups of beads of sweat dripping from his ear; fuzzy, defocused shots from a sideline camera as he ambles along with the play; studies of the ball at his feet and those familar balletic stepovers; then cameras positioned high up in the roof of the stadium detach the viewer suddenly from the action and the noise.

The sound of the crowd, sometimes boomed out deafeningly, at other times reduced to single shouts and the parp of supporters' horns, is interspersed with the Mogwai soundtrack and, at one particularly effective juncture, the sounds of children playing football in a schoolyard are overdubbed, stripping the high octane La Liga visuals to their essence: the humble kickaround.

Zidane, obviously and unavoidably, is the central character, however. The screen is at times subtitled with various statements and thoughts on the game from the player, which add some profundity to the proceedings - for example his comment on how, when a game is going badly, you can hear everything, the insults, people whispering to each other - but the central thrust of the film is the study in inscrutability of the man himself.

He has always been a somewhat enigmatic figure, seemingly detached but capable of outbursts of great rage - this game and this year's World Cup Final providing examples of that - as many moments of great beauty. His facial expression for most of the match rarely changes from an stony-faced, slightly pensive grumpiness, even when providing, with a moment of trademark dazzling invention, the assist for Madrid's equaliser.

Only in a shared joke with Roberto Carlos does he break out in a smile, a wide and open grin, and the camera lingers on it for every millisecond until he rejoins the game and the unknowable mask returns.

His sending-off after a violent intervention following a brutal Villareal tackle on one of his team-mates is rendered all the more shocking for that previous statuesque demeanour, the context of the moment benefitting from the subsequent similar sudden explosion of temper in the direction of Marco Materazzi over a year later.

Zidane's charisma means he holds the attention for much of the duration of what, at the outset, might seem like a daunting viewing exercise. True, there are spells when shots of the player ambling around, kicking his heels, adjusting his shorts or wiping sweat from his brow lead one to speculate that film might be better viewed in a Match of the Day highlights package. There is also the suspicion that putting a moody soundtrack and numerous unusual camera angles on footage of lawn bowls would add similar, beard-stroking profundity where none actually exists.

However, the 92 minutes of this film are hynotic and thought-provoking all the same: on the nature of the sporting figure's life within the modern gladiatorial arena in which he performs and on the character of the man himself - which remains, despite documentation to the minutest detail, mysterious and enigmatic.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

TSA Report: Bray Wanderers 2-1 Cork City

The latest in an occasional series in which TSA descends from its ivory tower to walk among the plain people of the sports world. This week, the eircom League champions travel to North Wicklow attempting to revive the pulse of their expiring title challenge...

Logistically, the Carlisle Grounds must be one of Ireland's best located venues. A leisurely trundle out the southside Dart line (which would be all the more pleasant of a Sunday afternoon, when domestic soccer fixtures were formerly scheduled, rather than Friday evening last, with its blanket of darkness over the splendid vistas of Killiney and Bray Head) and the floodlights of Bray Wanderers' home ground greet you as the train pulls in.

The trickle of fans into the ground announces the presence of eircom League soccer... right, I've had it with the small 'e' in the name of league's sponsor. No more. It's confusing. I don't know whether the 'league' bit should be similarly lower case too, but I ended up putting it in the upper case because I felt the country's national soccer league should have a capital letter somewhere; I mean, for the sake of its self-esteem, you know...

Anyway, the trickle of fans announces the presence of domestic soccer. Enough souls that give a damn to make you notice; nowhere near enough to constitute an event. The Eircom League scavenges for scraps from the table of this nation's voracious sporting appetite, the unloved mongrel that never receives the juicy bones thrown the way of the pedigree hounds of the GAA and provincial rugby, and the coiffured poodles of the Premiership. Tonight, its belly rumbles.

The fact that the faded seaside town of Bray welcomes the nation's soccer champions, Cork City, this evening, is marked to some degree: TG4's broadcast is the first time that a match at the Carlisle Grounds has been beamed live to the nation. But the miserable attendance - which admittedly seems to gradually grow as the evening wears on, the town popping its collective head around the corner at what would transpire to be a good evening for its team - says little for the local estimation of the visitors' status or, more pertinently, the home team's bottom-of-the-league form.

Cork, understandably, put a better foot forward. They bring a couple of hundred noisy supporters with them, and the braggadocio of their songs is built not just on the clubs' respective league positions, but also on the fact that this season's reverse fixture between the two ended in a 6-0 victory for the Leesiders. "We want seven", indeed.

The home support constitutes a doughty, orchestrated hardcore, housed down the way in the same stand as the Cork support, an arrangement which somewhat dilutes the potential for true adversarial combat: I'd gesture threateningly to you if I could get a good look at you. Then there are the disparate, scattered sympathisers populating the rest of the ground who amble from the tea and hot dog stand, chattering in that incredulous sounding, up-and-down Wicklow accent and expecting little from the evening.

Cork City also have Squad Numbers! and Their Names On The Back Of Their Shirts!, which makes them more like proper stars than the poor old Bray fellows, who have - snigger! - the humble 1 to 11 on their backs, as if the shirts were tossed out from a black bin liner in the dressing room by the manager whose wife had just taken them off the washing line that very afternoon.

But, then, it wouldn't be football if it wasn't these humbly attired, relegation-fodder toilers who would scupper Cork City and, most probably, their title ambitions.

Two goals from Wanderers’ Romanian winger Andrei Georgescu did the job, in a contest in which the home team belied their lowly status with a gritty, courageous performance.

Georgescu scored in the 51st and 54th minutes – the first a composed, if deflected left foot shot following a Wanderers counterattack, the second a close range finish after Cork goalkeeper Michael Devine had spilled a David Tyrrell cross.

Bray’s goals followed a first half in which Cork’s superiority in class was evident – as, however, was their continuing inability to turn domination into goals. Aside from a 10 minute spell early in the match which yielded Bray a pair of corners and a couple of efforts from outside the box by John Broderick and Tyrell, Cork were firmly in control.

For all that, the champions’ chances were hard wrought. On 25 minutes Admir Softic had a snapshot saved by Chris O’Connor, with Billy Woods curling a shot just wide from the resulting corner.

City came closest to a goal on 31 mins when Roy O’Donovan, returning from suspension, gathered a long ball, allowed it to bounce, then volleyed on the turn from 25 yards, only for O’Connor to save acrobatically.

Georgescu’s intervention early in the second half seemed to drain the spirit from Cork for a time. Their efforts at salvaging their title challenge were feeble, with Paul Caffrey subduing the hitherto dominant Joe Gamble in midfield.

What response they did muster came through Woods on the left wing, and it was his cross in the 80th minute which provided City with a lifeline, captain Dan Murray sidefooting home.

Cork were roused anew and for the final ten minutes laid siege to the Bray goal, coming closest to equalising when Woods crossed once again for O’Donovan to head just wide with three minutes remaining.

So, after soaking up all their opponents' nice, silky, Champions League-inflected shapes, stabbing them twice just after half time and just about holding off their flailing reprisals, Bray took the points that the visitors had possibly already made room on their bus for, uniting those scattered, pessimistic bystanders with their ultra colleagues, in approval of their determined team and a big, happy evening by the seaside.

Bray Wanderers - Georgescu 52, 54

Cork City - Murray 80.

Bray Wanderers:
O'Connor; Ivory, Tresson, M.Roche, O'Reilly; Georgescu, Fox, Caffrey, D.Tyrell; Broderick (O'Brien 75), O'Shea (Cousins 88).

Cork City: Devine; Lordan, Bennett, Murray, Murphy; O'Brien, Softic (O'Callaghan 71), Gamble, Woods; Fenn (Behan 63), O'Donovan.

Referee: Mr. P. Tuite (Dublin)

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Thursday, October 12, 2006


Yes, it couldn't have been any worse; but how was it so, so much better? At times, in the second half in particular, the performance and attitude of the Irish football team not only redeemed its protagonists from their most recent abominations, but also seemed to raise the ghost of those far off afternoons and evenings at Lansdowne Road when team and crowd fused into an overwhelming, irresistible force.

Remember those days? The terraces swaying on a sunny, breezy afternoon as corner after corner was swung wickedly onto the coiled forehead of Moran, McGrath, Cascarino. Opposing teams left the field like bold children after having their arses skelped; their socks in ribbons from the piranhas around their ankles.

Last night, in spells - but significant enough spells to make it the overall impression - some of that spirit seemed restored. And it made you realise how very long it had been since it was there.

After Saturday's unpleasantness, we asked how it could have happened. Let's do the same for last night's restoration.

1. Shape
Aside from the flowery talk of passion, commitment, pride and other intangibles, the way a team is set up is the source-spring from which everything good, or bad, flows. Leaving the individual contributions of the players aside for a moment, the manager, finally - whether by accident or design - sent his team out in a cohesive, solid shape last night.

The presence of Carsley justified the hoo-hah surrounding is prior absence, and his flawless combination of bite, composure and simple ball retention addressed that flimsy, flakiness which scuppered Ireland on Saturday. Jonathan Douglas beside him was similarly steady and the two of them provided a platform for the whole team. Ahead of them, Reid, Duff and Kilbane populated the wide areas, filled in the so-called 'hole' and supported Robbie Keane effectively, adding a potency to the steadiness provided by Carsley.

It deserves to be said: tactically, the manager got it right.

2."Who's your man with the red hair?"
But that would all have been so much wasted marker on flipchart, were it not for the fire of the individual performances by the players. In this regard, take a bow, Paul McShane. The West Brom defender was less familiar to most of us than most of the Czech players, yet, on his international debut produced a performance of such intelligence, controlled aggression and leadership that his place appears assured for Ireland's next match.

Rather than looking for his more experienced colleagues to hold his hand on his induction, McShane took up the challenge of grappling with Jan Koller manfully, and was unlucky that the gigantic striker's elongated leg was able to sweep the ball away from his close attentions and into the net for the Czechs' equaliser. At times McShane was like a ginger McGrath, such was his reading of the game, the timing of his interventions and the doggedness of his spirit.

He was not alone. Every player, from the equally unheralded Douglas to the heavily maligned captain, Robbie Keane, played with an intensity that the Czechs found consistently uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly the bile of the previous few days was part of the fuel for the inferno of these performances. Let's hope that the embers can be kept lit for future matches.

3. Diff'rent Folk, Diff'rent Strokes
As well as shape, tactics and attitude, what also differed vastly from Saturday was personnel. The calamitous sequence of injuries which continued to beset the squad up to Aiden McGeady's withdrawal after Tuesday's training session forced six changes to that side. Therefore, talk of rejuvenation is a little misplaced, given that over half the team were not actually involved in - nor, given the essentially selfish nature of most footballers, scarred by - Saturday.

So, while charged with the not inconsiderable task of rescuing a nation's footballing pride, the players were, for the most part, unsullied with the shame of its darkest footballing hour. Those that were - O'Shea, Finnan, Kilbane, Duff and Keane - were of sufficient experience and standing not to be terminally wounded by the nightmare of Nicosia.

4. All You Need is Love
The great intangible, the one factor no-one within the Irish camp could prepare for, or control, was how the crowd would react to the homecoming of their very prodigal sons.

Verily, they slaughtered the fattened calf.

The encouragement and affection which poured down from the stands at Lansdowne Road must have left lumps in several throats within the Irish camp, and can only have provided wind for the team's sails. There was an evident and deep well of affection for Steve Staunton, an ample font built up over his many years soldiering for the cause on the field. Rather than seizing the tabloid-created blade and plunging it between the manager's shoulder blades, the Irish football public circled the wagons and protected someone who was, definitively, one of their own.

As much as the result - albeit the manager was right to be disappointed with a 1-1 draw - the performances, the attitude and the character shown were the key factors as to why he remains in the hotseat as our national team manager this morning, the warmth that the crowd evidently felt for the hangdog Louthman is the reason why he sits more easily in that chair than we could ever have imagined on Saturday evening last.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Republic of Ireland v Czech Republic; Euro 2008 Group D Qualifying Match, Lansdowne Road, 11 October 2006.

Republic of Ireland: Henderson, Kelly, McShane, O'Shea, Finnan, Duff, Kilbane, Carsley, Reid, Keane, Morrison.

Czech Republic: Cech, Grygera, Jankulovski, Rozehnal, Ujfalusi, Jarolim, Polak, Rosicky, Baros, Koller, Kulic.

Oh dear God.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lessons for Ireland in the Flowering of Scotland

As if it wasn't a bad enough time to be a follower of the Republic of Ireland football team. Around the same time as Paddy Kenny was conceding his ninth goal in two international matches, Scotland were celebrating possibly the finest result in their long, and varied, international history.

Only a few years ago, as Ireland were qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and Scotland were mired deep in tormented soul-searching about the state of their national game, the good fortune of one was often used as a stick to beat the other. Now, it seems, in the shape of Walter Smith's stewardship, that the Scots have firmly taken that cudgel from our grasp and are whipping our already raw posteriors with glee.

The form of the international teams of the two nations became an instrument of comparitive study for football academics because of their respective similarities. In any field the contrasting of the development of two ostensibly similar environments is a basic scientific discipline: give one twin sweets for a month, give the other lettuce, see what happens - hey presto, a Phd.!

As Ireland enjoyed what now appears to be the twilight days of our approximately 15 year period as a serious football nation, the Scots - the nation of the Lisbon Lions, Bremner, Law, Baxter, Dalglish, Souness; that back in the early days of the game had invented the idea of passing and running, known as 'the combination game', which was soon picked up to replace the brutish style that had been prevalent in England - appeared to have stopped rearing footballers at all, rather becoming a conveyor belt producer of managers and coaches.

While the likes of Ferguson, Moyes, Strachan and Souness were managing Premiership clubs, accompanied by scores of compatriot assistant managers, coaches and lower league bosses, the playing crop was barren. The diminishing in status and quality of the domestic league was one thing, but the Scots were not even producing young players to be cherry-picked by England's top clubs anymore.

Where once every club in the English top flight had a contingent of Scots - busted-nosed centre-halves, jinking wingers, rip-roaring centre-forwards, whatever - now they were outnumbered in Premiership dressing rooms by Scandinavians.

How on earth is it, the Scots cried, that the Irish, a nation of a roughly similar population, with an even weaker domestic league and in which football was not even the national sport, how is it that they are making World Cups, bringing through young players at the top level, achieving success in underage tournaments, and we, the nation of the Lisbon Lions, Bremner, Law etc., etc., are an international embarassment?

For Stephen Staunton, read Berti Vogts. Not an obvious parallel, given that the German had won a World Cup as a player and a European Championship as a manager, and the Louthman had a moderately successful playing career and, erm, a spell coaching at Walsall behind him. But Vogts presided, like Staunton is now, over a period in which both the playing stocks, and the reserves of confidence and experience within those players, were at an all-time low. Vogts had it worse, in fact, given that Ireland's squad still boasts many Premiership regulars, where the German capped largely from the English second tier and the non-Old Firm domestic clubs.

The other parallel is that, despite an apparent advantage in terms of their relative grasps of the English language, Staunton's public statements are often as confusing and ill-advised as Vogts' infamously were. Where Staunton, for example, stated in a press conference last week that the Germany and Cyprus matches were similar in that Ireland were expected to win in both, Vogts declared, as his team lurched through their opening qualifying matches for the last World Cup, "I will be with my team in Germany in 2006 on the pitch - not in the stands with a hot dog and Coca-Cola."

However, while the Vogts reign was characterised by what Craig Burley, after his only cap under the German, described as a "a clear misunderstanding of the way we are going.....the players simply don’t understand what’s being asked of them," (an analysis which would resonate with anyone watching Ireland on Saturday) the players that have taken Scotland to the pinnacle of their group almost all served their international apprenticeship under Vogts.

While the German was accused of "handing out caps like sweeties" by his erstwhile assistant, and now Walter Smith's, Tommy Burns, the players that were unearthed during his management and that were not subsequently discarded now, by virtue of the harsh lessons and humiliating moments of their early international careers, have proved experienced and capable enough at this level to grind out results like that on Saturday and the similarly chiselled out victory against Lithuania in the previous qualifier match.

The circumstances of Vogts' acceptance of the Scotland job, characterised by the retirement of a number of old pros and the passing of the end of a cycle of players who had taken Scotland to several tournaments in the 1990s, appear very similar to those of Staunton's. And while Vogts was a figure of jest and derision like Staunton is quickly becoming, any shortcomings in their decisions and actions as managers were, and are, matched by the transitional and wholly deficient quality of the squads they worked with.

So it remains a useful comparison, that between the fortunes of Ireland and Scotland. And although the Scots now have the upper hand in that comparison, the lessons for Ireland in it are pleasing. If, in a few years time, the humilated players from last Saturday in Nicosia are rebuilding our footballing reputation like their once cowed Scottish counterparts are now doing, then Stephen Staunton, although very unlikely to be still managing them, will have achieved something.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

This Is a Low

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Stephen Staunton was forcibly billeted in the main stand of the Neo GSP Stadium in Nicosia as Saturday's calamitous Euro 2008 qualifier unfolded. By virtue of being hidden from view, at least the manager was spared the visual humiliation of having his image associated with the worst Irish performance in an international football match in living memory.

That is probably fair, because the 5-2 defeat was such a staggering mess that no one man could possibly have created it on his own.

Firstly, brass tacks. How did it happen?

A robust Cypriot team lined up against an Irish midfield containing three players of wispy build. Crucially, in the centre, Stephen Ireland and Kevin Kilbane never established the sort of firm grasp of the pattern of the game that any team needs to dominate an opponent, even one as lowly as Cyprus. Ireland, the player, lacks any sort of physicality and was easily bustled off the ball. Kilbane, whatever he may be, is not a central midfielder and also was unable to provide the solidity to give Ireland the iniative. Thus the midfield was utterly lost.

Meanwhile, the Irish defence was riddled by indecision, confusion and error. The goalkeeper and his defenders were continually incommunicado, all were infused from the start with hesitancy and, from Andy O'Brien, we witnessed possibly the worst performance from a defender since the Germans invaded France in 1940. With no shield from midfield, this flimsy defence was exposed time and again, with obvious consequences.

Who was responsible. While we were somewhat sceptical in these parts over the volume of the clamour for Lee Carsley - and to suggest that the Everton man's inclusion would have prevented the debacle from unfolding altogether is surely overestimating his abilities, given the scale of the disaster - there is no doubt that Ireland did not possess any player capable of operating as a defensive midfielder, a component no team can function without.

To venture for a moment inside the mind of Stephen Staunton. Carsley's omission was based on the following: the player had requested that he play if called up, thereby presumably pricking Staunton's sense of managerial authority; Staunton, looking to build a team for the future, felt that he needed to rely on the younger players already in his squad, rather than drafting in a 32-year old veteran.

To act for a moment as Staunton's absent sense of better judgement. Quite clearly had Carsley been called up for this fixture and Wednesday's now-chilling encounter with the Czechs he would certainly have played, in the aforementioned absence of any other player in his crucial position, thus satisfying the player's wish. He could then have gone back to his club upon the return of Stephen Reid or Graham Kavanagh, if Staunton felt that those players were ahead of him.

On the matter of the future and Staunton's part in it, put simply, any more results like Saturday's and Staunton will be witnessing the development of this team from much further away than the main stand. Rarely do managers keep their jobs on the basis of results that have yet to happen.

The Carsley issue aside, the magnitude of the collapse is the most troubling matter. The absence of any plan, structure, on-field leadership, composure, the textbook case of a non-functioning football team that Ireland represented on Saturday was a shocking indictment of everyone involved. The inability of the management to impart organisation. The failure of the players, almost wholesale, to perform the basic tasks of their profession. Fundamental stuff.

The injuries which left Ireland so depleted were indeed a serious burden to an already shallow squad. But, like any of the single factors we have already mentioned, they do not sufficiently explain the horror of the performance.

Looming over all of it is the FAI. Upon Brian Kerr's removal at the end of the last qualifying campaign, the association's attempts to lure a "world-class" name to take the managers job were scuppered on the refusal of any serious contender to work with such unpromising raw materials. The appointment of Staunton, with Bobby Robson as back-up, was a last resort dressed up in the clothes of a visionary gamble.

With Robson's health problems meaning his involvement with the team didn't extend beyond the first pair of friendlies, Staunton has been left to navigate the early troubled waters of his managerial career alone. The rumoured approach to Kenny Dalglish to take up Robson's mantle is evidence that Staunton hasn't taken to those waters like the proverbial duck.

While the early months, culminating in Saturday's defeat, have been unpromising - the impression of Staunton through his words and deeds being one of a sense of dire confusion and illogicality that evidently imparted itself totally onto his players in Nicosia - one must allow the manager to be judged when the terms of his appointment are in place. The current situation, for all Staunton's mistakes, is hanging the rookie manager out to dry.

If the FAI do replace Robson with another senior figure, Staunton must then be allowed to work within this curious arrangement as his initial appointment intended. While very few, at this stage, will have faith in a resulting upturn in fortunes, the manager is owed at least that.

And anyway, it really can't get any worse, can it?

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Friday, October 06, 2006

President Carsley Looks Back

President Lee Carsley, still fit and virile in his 78th year, settles himself into his favourite, fireside chair in the old drawing room of Aras an Uachtaráin. Fittingly, it is an elegant, yet sturdy piece; antique, yet vibrantly alive. The president, nursing a medicinal measure of Midleton Very Rare, is gazing wistfully out of the vast bay window, across Phoenix Park, in contemplation of the weekend in October 2006 that changed his life, and his country....

TSA: Uachtaráin, can you cast your mind back to that Saturday, the infamous game against Cyprus, and tell us what ran through your head as the Cypriots sixth goal flew beyond Paddy Kenny?

L.C.: Well, I had been aware of the clamour for my involvement in that game from the Irish press and, more pertinently, the Irish people. I had heard that the newspapers - of course this was in the days when people still went out and actually bought their 'news' on 'paper', lovely elegant things they were - and the radio stations had been campaigning and whatnot all week. I kept a dignified silence at that stage. But yes, indeed, when it became apparent that the national team was in desparate trouble, I was, you might say, steeled with the furnace heat of patriotic resolve.

TSA: Ah, yes, of course, how could we forget the famous words of your speech to the nation following victory in the war with Denmark. But that Saturday evening, at your home in the North of England, were you surprised by the mass demonstrations demanding your return that broke out all over Ireland?

L.C.: Not just Ireland, TSA, no, in South Boston, London, Glasgow, Birmingham, anywhere the Gael had fled, the people came out as one. Now, I was, of course deeply cognisant of the tremendous love for me which the Irish people had always retained since my highly successful earlier spell playing for the country. I fondly remember my name being chanted from the old terraces of Lansdowne Road: "Lee Carsley is rucking might", was one I believe - a paean to my determined style of play I believe and strange sounding chant to the modern ear, but those were different times. So yes, when the mass demonstrations occurred, I was, of course, flattered, but they were not, you might say, unexpected.

TSA: And for those few who do not recall what happened next, you were, of course, rushed to Dublin during the night, and appointed captain and manager of the national team in an emergency meeting of the FAI board. Now, one of the fondest tales told about you regards your treatment of your fallen predecessor, Stephen Staunton.

L.C.: Well, yes, of course there was a tremendous outcry amongst the people - my people; they wanted blood, Staunton's head on a plate. But my way, even then as the foremost defensive midfielder of my generation, was the policy of 'tough but fair'. I granted Stan a pardon, and allowed him to leave the country. He went to Denmark, from whence we presumed he would never return; but of course, sadly, that was not the last we would hear of the man.

TSA: Ok, to the match against the Czechs. Your finest game?

L.C.: I'm often asked that, you know. But I often feel that the World Cup Final in 2010 was my greatest game, even though I only scored three in that one. But yes, as I said, I was possessed by great forces that evening, and was, if I may be so immodest, utterly inspired.

TSA: Five goals, for a no-nonsense defensive midfielder - quite extraordinary. The story of that game has become something of a legend.

L.C.: Well I can assure you it was all true! No, I am aware that that evening in Lansdowne Road has become the folk tale that old men tell their grandchildren with a tear in their eye, like previous generations spoke of Pearse and Wolfe Tone. The difference being that, unlike those fellows, I won! (laughs heartily)

TSA: And then events rather picked up a momentum of their own when the government fell that very evening.

L.C.: Yes indeed. We were all obviously elated and, as I was carried shoulder high from the field by my grateful team-mates, the chants of "Carsley, Carsley" suddenly morphed into "Carsley for Taoiseach." Well I laughed this off as the fanciful jauntiness of the mob, until Mick Byrne beckoned me over to the dressing room with the message that there was a phone call for me.

TSA: President McAleese.

L.C.: Indeed. Now at this time I was not the statesmanlike figure I was to become, so I was quite nervous and no little taken aback when the late President introduced herself on the phone. "Mr. Carsley, first let me congratulate you on your courageous performance this evening," she said. "As a fellow Irish person born outwith the boundaries of this state I applaud you." Now, I was speechless and humbly offered my thanks; little did I know what was to follow. "As you may not yet be aware, the government of this state collapsed this evening", this being the time of the unfortunate business with the previous Taoiseach which had been developing over the previous weeks. "Mr. Carsley, in this time when Irish public life is beset by corruption on one side and opportunism on the other, in this age bereft of heroes, it behoves me as President of theis great nation, to ask you to form a government."

TSA: Incredible. She really talked like that.

L.C.: Oh yes, she was a real lady. So I was barely togged in and I was off to this very house in which we now sit and by morning a very tired Lee Carsley - remember I had just produced one of the great football performances of all time prior to saving the country from political and social collapse - sat down at his first cabinet meeting.

TSA: Amazing. Of course you dealt swiftly with your predecessor once again.

L.C.: Yes, I exiled Mr. Ahern. He ended up in Denmark also, from whence we presumed he would never return; but of course, sadly, that was not the last we would hear of the man.

TSA: How did you manage to balance leading the country on the football pitch, managing the team, running the country and turning out for Everton every Saturday afternoon?

L.C.: Hahaha! I was a much younger man then I suppose. I had so much energy. That's what made my no-nonsense defensive midfielder performances so popular, I suppose. Full of energy. The same vim and vigour I devoted to hounding the likes of Xabi Alonso and Paul Scholes, I brought to complex matters of social policy and economic theory. My cabinet colleagues - they nicknamed me 'Carsy' just like my footballing teammates, which meant a lot - were especially pleased when I took by dogged approach to football to the realm of crime prevention: like I pursued and tackled the creative players of the football world, so too did I the malevolent forces of the underworld.

TSA: You are a truly inspiring man, President Carsley. Do agree with popularly held theory that that Saturday in Nicosia was the pivotal moment in the history of this state?

L.C.: Well, it is very difficult to say and, really, not for me to talk about that sort of thing. But yes, I suppose it was rather, wasn't it?

TSA: President, thank you very much for your time.

L.C.: Not at all, my boy.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Farrell Transfer Has England Out of Position

In the rather calamitous three years that English rugby union has endured since winning the World Cup in Australia, the messy nature of Andy Farrell's recruitment from rugby league by the RFU is both the latest trough and a pertinent encapsulation of many of English rugby's problems. It also provides another twist in the long-running saga of moves between rugby's two codes.

Farrell's capture was firstly problematic due to the Wigan and Great Britain player's age: he had his 31st birthday last May. No callow, impressionable youth, Farrell was being asked to make the transition - and familiarise himself with the differing skills and disciplines of union - in double-quick time, were value to be accrued to the RFU and his new club, Saracens, following his costly recruitment.

More importantly, and the issue which has caused the latest club versus country antagonism in England, is that his natural position in union did not appear obvious. Farrell played as a loose forward in league, but the absence of a meaningful scrum or anything similar to union's 'breakdown' in that code meant that he could in no way seamlessly transfer to union's equivalent.

Alternatively, it was suggested that he be used as an inside centre; indeed, this was the position in which England coach Andy Robinson - starved as he is of much back-line explosiveness - hoped to use him. Physically, a case could be made for him in either position: brawny enough to play in the forwards, mobile enough to play in the back line position which most requires a bit of beef.

However, while Robinson saw him breaking from midfield, Alan Gaffney, the former Munster coach now Saracens' director of rugby, believes his best position to be as blind-side flanker. Farrell, who has been sidelined with injury problems since his switch to union, was sent back to his club from England's elite training camp yesterday in order to gain much-needed game-time in their Anglo-Welsh Cup game against Cardiff Blues on Sunday.

Meanwhile Robinson is due to meet Gaffney today to reach some sort of agreement on Farrell's position - although it might be more apt to suggest that Robinson hopes to force Saracens to toe the RFU line on the matter.

This part of the Farrell situation is hugely indicative of one of English rugby's problems. With the RFU putting up £700,000 of the approximately £1m deal, the union is clearly irritated at the latest example of a club - which, in English rugby, are independent entities from the union, unlike Ireland's IRFU-affiliated provincial structure - exercising its individuality.

The strength of the clubs has been seen as hindering the progress of the national team, with the union possessing much less power to prevent players lining out for their clubs in the run-up to international fixtures than is the case in Ireland. Robinson is bearing witness to the clubs' primacy right now, with scores of players on treatment tables as England begin preparations for the November internationals and the visit of the All Blacks.

The Farrell issue has also brought generated some audible harrumphs from the RFU and, no doubt, some schadenfreude from their league brethren. Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU, obviously peeved at the thus-far monumentally botched Farrell transfer, stated that the RFU would never again fund such a move unless there is an unaswerable case to do so.

"We've got to be clear how the player is going to fit into the England set-up before he makes the move. What we could have done better is to align the clubs' and England's view as to how he can best be integrated," said Baron two days ago. The inference that the Farrell transfer was a 'panic-buy' - an inference voiced outright by former England prop Jeff Probyn - is clear, as is a swipe at the lack of cooperation which Saracens have provided on the matter.

Whether this transfer will have burned union officials to the extent of stemming the flow of players moving from league to union is unclear. For every Farrell, Iestyn Harris and Henry Paul whose transitions were either difficult or failed, there are success stories like Jason Robinson, Mat Rogers and Lote Tuquiri, never mind Jonathan Davies, who went from union to league and back again.

However, with two young league players (Chev Walker, Leeds Rhinos to Bath; Karl Pryce, Bradford to Gloucester) having made the switch over the recent close season and possibly more to follow, it seems that, despite the problems with Andy Farrells's move, rugby union apparently remains keen to do business with its friends in the north.

....Read more!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Revealed: GAA Managers On The Take

Primetime, RTE 1's flagship current affairs programme, will this week blow the lid off the GAA world by revealing that top inter-county managers are receiving 'money' for training their teams. The revelations are set to rock the Gaelic games scene, as RTE insiders have revealed that the show features secretly filmed footage of several well-known names accepting this 'money' (which is usually used as a method of reward in exchange for goods and services) from shady county board members at various top-secret rendezvous.

These 'payments' have long been regarded as a cancer on the games, and the GAA moved quickly to voice its concern yesterday. "Managers are already sufficiently rewarded by way of petrol money, luncheon vouchers and the glory of managing your own county in our great national games," scolded GAA president Nickey Brennan yesterday. "And for those not managing in their own county, well, there is the glory of managing someone else's county in our great national games. And they get more petrol money."

The Primetime special claims that one inter-county manager took receipt of several payments of 'money' merely in exchange for driving several hundred miles and spending 10-15 hours at training sessions per week, conducting video analysis and preparing dossiers on future opponents while at home, attending press conferences and conducting media interviews and partaking in meetings with selectors and county board officials.

"If this is true," confided a Croke Park source yesterday, "then this has huge ramifications for society at large. The payment of 'money' in exchange for work done could bring the whole country to its knees!"

....Read more!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Could Ireland Be In For A Cyprus Hell?

Ireland go into a Euro 2008 qualification double-header, against Cyprus away on Saturday and the Czech Republic at home next Wednesday, without their troubles to seek. The game against Cyprus alone engenders trepidation given how difficult our last visit to Nicosia was. Could Stan's regime be about to have its Macedonia?

The night after West Ham played Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Staunton may have suddenly awoken, bolt upright, from a tormented slumber, the sweat cascading from his brow like it hadn't done since that day in Orlando. Hyperventilating, but coming to, he would have calmed down a little. "Jesus, what a nightmare. Marlon Harewood reefing his studs into Shay's midriff, tearing his bowel and causing him to miss the next six .........AAAAAAAARRRRGHHHHH!!!!!

And so Ireland finally go into a major competitive match without the man whose extraordinary performances for his country over the last few years have not only kept us in the running for qualification places we could well have had no chance of coming near to, but very possibly also prevented our descent toward the Burundi and Vanuatu neighbourhood of the world rankings.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the Donegalman, and a perfect illustration of that came in the same fixture around this time last year in the World Cup 2006 qualifiers. Ireland smuggled three points out of Nicosia in the most larcenous fashion imaginable, with a penalty save and numerous other stops by Given sparing his country's blushes.

Big shoes, Paddy Kenny, big shoes.

By common consent, aside from Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane are our only other truly top-class players and for Ireland to achieve great things, our two attacking shining lights have to burn at their brightest. That, at the moment, is quite patently not the case.

Take this from a Spurs supporter, quoted in last Sunday's Observer: "At Anfield last week I expended more energy than [Robbie Keane] simply by walking to my seat.....this season in the league he has only had 30 good minutes, against Sheffield United - that's criminal." On the bench against Portsmouth on Sunday and yet to score this season. Not exactly on fire, then, is young Robbie.

Duff, like Keane, is at a crucial stage of his career: the transition from precocious ingenue to consistent, senior pro. Deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, Duff's move to Newcastle may not prove to be the right one to facilitate his path to maturity The Magpies show no clear signs of emerging from their almost perennial state of directionless confusion, and the feeling of poor leadership permeates from boardroom through manager's office, onto the field.

If there are question marks over his environment, Duff may also need to look at his own game. He has been around long enough for opposition defences to figure him out, a problem evident in international as well as club football. Often in recent times, his jinking, close control style as seen him shepherded into blind alleys rather than darting menacingly into the box. His undoubted talent is one of Ireland's few potent weapons, and, like Keane, if he is subdued on Saturday, our capacity to score is severely diminished.

The loss through injury of Graham Kavanagh and Stephen Reid has denied Ireland of much needed beef in the middle of the park. In the event of a torrid evening in Nicosia, Kavanagh's ball retention and Reid's athleticism could have been invaluable in stiffening the Irish centre.

Following their withdrawal, it was speculated that Lee Carsley would be called up to the squad, on the back of consistent donkey-work in the engine room of the Everton midfield during their decent start to the current season. Instead, Staunton chose to bring in Alan Quinn of Sheffield United, although the latter's family bereavement yesterday may affect his involvement.

While Carsley never troubled Messrs Giles, Brady and Keane for a nomination to the Irish Midfield Hall of Fame, his experience and industry alone would seem to have made him at least a timely stop-gap for a threadbare central midfield. Staunton was perhaps looking to the future in ignoring Carsley, or was conscious of the latter's requirement of first team involvement as a condition of his recall.

Whatever, the manager will now very likely go with Kevin Kilbane and John O'Shea in midfield, pausing to perhaps consider the claims of Liam Miller. The most important part of the team may have to feature two players for whom the position is not their natural habitat, or one currently attempting once again to kickstart a career which never really seemed to get going.

As ever, our naturally sunny disposition cannot foresee only thunderstorms over the Eastern Mediterranean. You think Ireland are struggling? Cyprus were hammered 6-1 by Slovakia in their opening qualifier, prior to the Slovaks 3-0 defeat against the Czechs. While the Cypriots have always performed exponentially better at home than away, it is a fixture Ireland should nonetheless expect to win.

Also, not all of Ireland's players are out of form. Richard Dunne has been suitably stout for Manchester City, their poor start to the season being more the fault of goalscoring deficiency than defensive weakness. Steve Finnan - although caught in the air against Bolton on Saturday - has being doing well, particularly in offensive play, for Liverpool.

Kevin Doyle has made a barnstorming start to his Premiership career, dragging more wonder out of the tale of his progression from the Eircom League to the upper echelons of English soccer. And Aiden McGeady has been taken up as a cause celebre by the local soccer press, following his recent good form for Celtic. The back pages of some of the Irish papers in recent days have been strongly prodding the young Glaswegian towards the front of first team queue.

Tactical question marks there may be, but there is nothing to suggest - the difficulties of his banishment to the stand notwithstanding - that Staunton isn't able to motivate his players. If he gets a repeat of the level of spirit shown in Stuttgart last month, it could be enough to help Ireland navigate the current choppy waters.

....Read more!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Villa Following Familiar O'Neill Blueprint

Even by the full-blooded standards of the Premiership, Saturday's truncated programme provided several matches of rollicking entertainment: Robin van Persie's comic-book flying volley, Phil Jagielka's 90th minute 30-yarder to give Sheffield United their first Premiership victory and Manchester City's even later equaliser at Everton all thrilling the senses. No less riveting, if not as sensational, was Aston Villa's wrestling of a point from Stamford Bridge.

Martin O'Neill has begun his stewardship of Villa in unsurprising fashion: injecting confidence into hitherto cowed players, deploying a settled team and demonstrating the benefit of showing loyalty and belief in players to perform at the limit of their potential. Anyone who has followed O'Neill's managerial career thus far, in particular his successful spells at Leicester City and Celtic, will recognise the imprint of the charismatic Derryman's already on Villa this season.

Undefeated and in good form coming in to Saturday's meeting with Chelsea, O'Neill was nonetheless realistic. "The players have done very well indeed but we are going to hit a period where we can't get a result and that's going to happen and perhaps then that will be the real test for us; but at the moment I'm very pleased," he said following the previous weekend's victory over Charlton. Many would have expected that first blip of Villa's season to have come at Stamford Bridge.

Indeed, after Chelsea took a 3rd minute lead following a characteristically physical storming of the Villa barricades, it seemed the home side somewhat complacently regarded the first defeat of O'Neill's Villa to be a fait accompli. The underestimation of their opponents' new spirit was to cost Chelsea two valuable points and their position at the top of the league.

While there is no doubt that Chelsea had the better of the chances, probably more of the play and, were it not for wobbly finishing from substitutes Kalou and Wright-Philips, would have had the points, this was never a Villa rearguard action. Aside from the opening ten minutes and periods in the second-half, Villa carried the game to Chelsea, firstly in search of an equaliser, then subsequently in the end-to-end spirit of a pulsating match.

Villa themselves could have taken all three points had Angel taken the back-post opportunity presented him in the closing minutes, or had the Colombian had the pace to get away from Claude Makalele a few minutes earlier when seemingly clean through on goal.

Chelsea's familiar style - a sort of boa-constrictor football, where they seem to slowly crush teams to a combination of physical strength and mental fortitude - was never able to subdue Villa. Instead the Birmingham side intelligently used the ball, with Stilian Petrov and Steven Davis orchestrating a calm but confident response, which utilised Gabriel Agbonlahor on the right as its prime attacking thrust.

The Villa youngster has been one of the revelations of the season so far, and his terrifying pace and tricky footwork gave Ashley Cole well, something of a roasting frankly. Celtic fans will recognise in Agbonlahor a similiar player to Didier Agathe, the flyer recruited for £50,000 in O'Neill's first season at Parkhead who became one of the key players of the Ulsterman's tenure.

It seems, even at this early stage, that Operation O'Neill is going exactly to plan.

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