Thursday, November 30, 2006

Great Sporting Beards

Pakistan's Muhamad Yousuf distracted the cricket world's gaze from Steve Harmison's remedial work and Glenn McGrath's heel by virtue of his breaking Viv Richards' record for runs batted in a single calendar year yesterday. Yousuf has attributed his success to his conversion to Islam from Christianity two years ago.

And quite right he is. Clearly his faith's requirement to sport a luxurious, bushy beard has inspired him to these record-breaking heights. By providing a natural ballast around his jaw-line, the facial foliage anchors his head, preventing damaging flights of impetuousness at the crease.

We salute some other notable whiskermongers.

W.G. Grace
The most famous beard of them all, Grace lived in a time when chins were rarely bared - making his achievements in bristle-cultivation all the more admirable.

Much like Ali's mastery of the great heavyweights of the 60s and 70s, the scale of Grace's monumental beard easily bested any of the lushest facial thatches of the Victorian era.

A contemporary report described how Australian pace bowler Ernie Jones bowled Grace a bouncer that appeared to "go through his beard" so close was it to his face. Nonsense: it went through his beard alright; but the blighter pitched up no higher than the great man's knees!

Ricky Villa
Spurs' signing of Ossie Ardiles and his hirsute compatriot Villa generated enormous excitement in English football in August 1978.

The World Cup winners brought a rare dash of exoticism to England during the drab days of No Future and binmen's strikes. It is a testament to the swarthy magnificence of Villa's beard that it should have remained intact despite that era's firmly stated opposition to the hippy aesthetic.

Villa did not always fare so well on the field while in England, but the untamed growth was happily in place three years later for his finest hour: that unforgettable dribble through the Manchester City defence in the 1981 FA Cup final replay.

Bjorn Borg
Borg had a custom - subsequently imitated by Brighton's 1983 FA Cup finalist centre-half Steve Foster - that he would disavow shaving until losing. This meant that, for five years in succession, Borg sported a healthy Bjorn-and-Benny growth while winning Wimbledon.

The Swede's icy, inscrutable temperament was credited with helping him dominate tennis in the late 70s and early 80s, but his shock retirement at the age of 26 and his subsequent difficulties with drugs and underwear demonstrate that it was surely the soothing comfort provided by his sandy whiskers which allowed him to maintain such control over his mental faculties.

Giant Haystacks
Largely responsible, along with Charles Manson and Rasputin, for the perception abroad that men with beards are not to be trusted. Unfair, as the man known to his closest chums as Martin Ruane was a deeply religious fellow from honest Mayo stock who was reputedly a friend of Paul McCartney's - he even appeared in the 1984 Macca-written movie Give My Regards to Broad Street.

But Haystacks, for anyone who devotedly followed his epic bouts with Big Daddy in the 70s and 80s heyday of British wrestling, was simply the most fearsome, baddest man on the planet. To be a kid at that time was to suffer nightmares of his gruesome form, crushing you as Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki lay helpless in the first row. The power of the beard, my friends.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

My Top Ten Sport-Watching Pubs Ever In The World Ever

The Guardian had a feature in its travel section yesterday which claimed to classify the Top Ten Bars of the World. Studies of this kind tend to either robustly objective and painstakingly collated, or entirely and brazenly subjective. This one is the latter, being the opinion of the newspaper’s deputy travel editor, Isabel Choat.

I am presuming Ms Choat has never supped stout in the Waxie Dargle just off Parnell Square, and question therefore the breadth of her knowledge on the subject. But I was still surprised not to find any Dublin pub honoured, considering this to be akin to finding a top ten of pizzerias bereft of Italian-based establishments.

Anyway, while thinking of pubs - a most agreeable pastime of an afternoon - I decided to publish my Top Ten Pubs For Watching Sport In, a hopefully useful – but, like the Guardian’s, entirely subjective - reference guide for those caught short two minutes before kick off. Most of these are Dublin hostelries, given that that is where I live, so please feel free to suggest your own favourite Big-Screen Valhalla.

1. Sharkey’s Bar, Annagry, Co.Donegal.
A nostalgic choice. The venue in which I earned my pub football stripes, back in the 1990s as the Sky Sports pub-sub-culture took root. Initially accompanied by Coke and Tayto crisps, Old Firm matches in Sharkey’s were washed down with some of my earliest pints. No obscurantist pillars, clear views from all over the pub, a goodly-sized screen in the corner of the lounge, beside the window through which you would watch the tide coming in. Watched Celtic’s 6-2 win over Rangers there a few days before leaving for a year in Australia. Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

2.McDaid’s, Harry St.
The factors considered in assigning places to pubs on this list include ambience and swill-quality as well as the conduciveness inherent to watching sport therein. McDaid’s houses a single, humbly dimensioned screen above the door, but the atmosphere and the magisterial nature of the pint it offers make it a sure-fire winner - no matter what the score! (as it could be marketed, were it not unrequiring of the input of advertising industry dullards).

3.Gleeson’s, Booterstown
An unlikely gem. Hidden away on Booterstown Avenue, with a warm, middle-aged glow, this was the pleasant venue for a recent Champions League viewing. Sizeable, without being vulgar, a rear-drawing room affair housed an ideally proportioned plasma wonder, which hung above a roaring fire. Fetching lounge-girls buzzed helpfully around to administer to your refuelling needs. Comfort and atmosphere non pareil.

4.Koln Kolsch Brauerei
Kölsch, the local brew found in Köln, Germany, is served in small glasses and best quaffed in many of the brewery establishments around the city. This one I visited during the World Cup is near the Domplatz. Therein the gruffest of waiters bring you Kölsch – and only Kölsch; do not, like a friend of mine did, ask for some preposterous Weissbier or other, lest ye face the most withering of stares, before being given what you actually wanted - which was, of course, Kölsch. Sausage is served by the meter here, and the World Cup group games could be viewed on a huge screen as you washed the schweinfleisch down until stomach acid ran out your nostrils. Vier Kölsch?

5.Doheny & Nesbitt’s, Baggot St.
A Dublin institution, the main bar has a television located conveniently above the barman’s shoulder, so that you may not miss a kick as you shout your order. At most, taking your eyes off the game for the duration of a throw-in stoppage should be time enough to make the all-important eye contact with the stout yeoman of the bar and communicate your poison. I foresee this being a popular spot among southside Croker-boycotters aiming to maintain the spiritual heartland when the rugby internationals head to the odd-numbered postcodes next year.

6.The Lotts, Lotts, Dublin 1
This pub is split into two parts: the café-bar-urban-lounge-jazz-funk-chicken-teriyaki ‘lounge’, and a nice, traditional-feeling bar. Treats its footy with respect, which means Match of the Day on even amidst the madness of a Dublin Saturday night. Gets in also because of those occasions on which you are dragged into town shopping of a Saturday afternoon, and can contrive to walk past The Lotts, into which you can peer and catch the latest scores off Gillette Soccer Saturday.

7.McGrath’s, Drumcondra
A popular option for Croker match day drinking, it does not immediately present itself for its sport-watching qualities. But, of a quiet evening, sitting in the raised area towards the back which houses several comfy sofas feels like being in your own living room, just with a bar and a better telly.

8. O’Neill’s, Suffolk St.
Never mind the quality, feel the girth. Wade your way through bus-loads of American pensioners carrying trays of soup, blathering “What is this, Saccer? Is this Saccer? Is this Irish Saccer?”, and make your way to a stool at the upstairs bar, to enjoy a holy trinity of convenient bar access, a short hop to the toilet and, for a select few stools, excellent sight-lines. Once they turn the sound up, the Literary Pub Crawl crowd will clear. Of a bleary Sunday afternoon, a faceful of steaming carvery will centre you for the game.

9.Chaplin’s, Hawkins St.
This venue gets in because of convenience on two fronts. Located near O’Connell Bridge, it seems always to be the easiest place to meet people when in town. Also, being a charming, cosy affair, and rarely busy, one’s access to the bar is generally lethally swift. Find yourself a stool at the bar; turn to your right to view the game on one of the shimmering, plasmic fellows on the wall, and a mere raising of an eyebrow refills your glass.

10.Fitzsimon’s, Temple Bar.
A horrendous pub. Really, really bad – I would not recommend going for a pint here in a million years. But what it lacks for in charm, affordability, taste, clientele, it makes up for by having a staggeringly big screen – like, the size of the wall, and a sort of raised area at the back which acts as a good viewing platform when busy. I watched France v Spain in the 2000 European Championships here, and, surrounded by partisans from either nation, it felt a little like being there, or somewhere that is not normally a tiresome Temple Bar fleshpot.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Paidi's Way Or The Highway

Paidi O’Se will be back prowling the touchlines of inter-county football fields after a year’s hiatus, having been appointed as the new Clare senior football manager. With O’Se and Ger Loughnane both donning Bainisteoir bibs anew for next year, we will perhaps look back on 2005 in twelve months time as an gentle, prelapsarian era, when kindly souls like Mickey Moran and John Morrison and perfect gentlemen like John Allen and Jack O’Connor dominated the GAA landscape, and the worst vibes going were the odd scowl from Billy Morgan or patrician glare from Brian Cody.

Paidi was on the news last night, intercepted on his way to Clare for his coronation by the intrepid Marty Morrissey. Bottled up in a smart-cut suit, he still bubbled with that spiky charisma that generally spills into offence or upset of some sort before too long.

Seeing his cheeky, feline features, my dear lady-friend recoiled: “Oooh, I hate him! Look at him!” she spat forth. I was surprised at the strength of this opinion, given her well-articulated lack of interest in any pursuits of the field. “He looks like he’s been drinking,” quoth she, pointing at his admittedly reddened visage.

“He’s just…wild!”, she added, and I understood that this was not the quality of wildness which she might once have ascribed to a River Phoenix or an Ethan Hawke in her frisky, bobby-soxing past, but rather a disapproving distaste for one who was, quite clearly, an enemy of decorum.

I don’t have such a strong opinion on O’Sé myself. Positive, I’d say, in the sense that for one who writes about things, the presence in the field of a character like Paidi is a useful one. Positive too, in the sense that for one who watches such things, the presence in the vista of a character like Paidi is an entertaining one. But I understand, too, why he is not universally loved.

Two Paidi stories.

I quote the following from the Newry Democrat of Tuesday March 9, 2004:

The Newry and Mourne Annual Sports Awards were held last Thursday night, but events did not go to plan when the guest speaker, Paidi O Se, chose to talk about political rather than sporting issues.

The awards were hosted by Newry and Mourne District Council and sponsored by the Newry Democrat and the First Trust Bank. The Chief Executive of the Newry Democrat, commenting after the ceremony said: “As part of our contribution to the evening we agreed to engage a guest speaker. We were delighted when we engaged Paidi O'Se, a Kerry ‘great’ and their former football manager, to speak at the awards.

"We looked forward to being regaled with stories of the glory years of Kerry football and perhaps some stories about the rivalry between the Munster and Ulster Counties on the football field.

"This was not to be the case and Mr O’Se started his speech by saying that while in New York a number of weeks ago he was asked if soccer and rugby should be played at Croke Park, he replied: “Fine, under one condition, that it is under a 32 county All Ireland.”

Both nationalist and unionist politicians and local business leaders attended the awards ceremony. Mr O’Se proceeded to say that he was delighted there were no more “foreigner people”, referring to the British army, checking at the border any more. A DUP councillor from the Banbridge area left the ceremony at this point.

“We were disappointed that Mr O'Se strayed from the subject of sport and into the area of politics. We had no advance notice of what was to be said by Mr O'Se and we deeply regret the politicalisation of the sports stars awards,” said Mr Brennan (the Chief Executive of the Newry Democrat".

Speaking from his pub in Ventry, Co Kerry, Mr O’Se said he regretted if his remarks had caused any difficulties for anyone.'

I recall my only close-up experience of Paidi. It was about a year ago, in the upstairs bar of Kehoes on South Anne St. in Dublin. It must have been shortly after the end of his Westmeath reign, a Saturday night, the pub packed. I glanced across the bar and saw Paidi.

Sitting on a stool, facing the bar, arms folded, red face screwed up in that expression that lurks somewhere on the flipside of amusement and pain; Tomas O’Flahartha (his erstwhile Westmeath assistant and successor in the position) standing at his shoulder, leaning down to speak into his ear; Paidi reacting only in nods or tilts of the head; the rest of his party behind him, momentarily cut-off from any contact – save through the intermediary of Factotum O’Flatharta) or even the courtesy of conventional social body language.

Paidi O’Sé sat in the upstairs bar of Kehoes in Dublin and had his pint, the way he wanted it, like he was sitting at his own counter down in Ventry. He was so convincing, that for a moment I thought I was too.
The good folk of the Newry and Mourne District Council know that Paidi does things his way.

The footballers of Clare will, I expect, be aware of that fact too, quite soon.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Chelsea's Point More Equal Than United's

Showdown Sunday was the obligatory soubriquet for what could also, more mundanely, be known as Manchester United Versus Chelsea - Sky coming over all Don King, as it likes to do on these occasions, in order to throw a little Vegas neon onto a gloomy late November evening in the northwest of England. The marketing of games such as these – Showdowns, Judgement Days, Days of Reckoning - is intended to suggest the likelihood of decisions being made, rights being wronged, credentials being established, slights being redressed: that, whatever happens, the world as we know it is about to be seismically upturned, and bold new truths established.

Unless, of course, the game ends in a draw.

So was yesterday just the equivalent of the finger-jabbing, hold-me-back stage of a barroom fight, where a couple of blows are thrown but resolution forestalled until a later reckoning? Or did we learn something pertinent about the destination of the 2006-07 Premiership title?

To my mind, we have established that Chelsea will probably, once again, win the league.

I suspect that yesterday’s match will prove to be something of a microcosm for this season. United struck boldly to the front, fizz and enthusiasm capitalising on a disjointed Chelsea. With Rooney dropping into the left side of midfield the home side outnumbered their opponents in that area, narrowly clustered as they were in a stodgy first-half set-up.

Tactical arrangements aside, United played that first period with a similar hunger to that which bustled Liverpool so convincingly aside when the two sides met last month. The goal was symptomatic: Carrick digging the ball out from Chelsea’s dithering grasp, from whence it was shuttled to Rooney, lurking mischievously - like a schoolboy with a water-balloon on an overpass - in the inside left channel. His pass to Saha was the sort of lacerating intrusion that the 20-year-old’s vision and daring regularly provide, and Saha’s finish was a fine response to any who have questioned the Frenchman following his difficulties in Glasgow, unfairly in light of his so-far excellent contribution this season.

Three points up, and now a goal up, United making the running.

But with the crack of his half time tactical whip, Jose Mourinho changed the game. Arjen Robben was brought on and positioned out left, hugging a touchline hitherto unloved by men in blue shirts and Michael Essien, ostensibly positioned in the bijou billet of right back, instead surveyed the entirety of that flank like it a greedy landlord in custody of an ancient familial estate.

The Ghanaian’s strength and athleticism saw his intrusions into United territory cause mortal wounds to United’s left side. The corner from which Ricardo Carvalho headed the Blues’ equaliser resulted from an Essien incision.

That aside, Chelsea, with their formation more conducive to using the width of the pitch, proceeded to intensify that brand of ‘boa-constrictor football’ - as I like to call it – that they base their success on, the force of their physical dominance (not to be confused with what is referred to as an old fashioned ‘physical’ approach, which is a different, less sophisticated beast) suppressing teams, suffocating them with their superior power.

The draw was therefore a fair reflection of the game. Why, then, does the match suggest Chelsea’s league ambitions to be more credible than those of the team three points ahead of them?

If the last week has shown up one thing, it is the marked thinness of the United squad. Upon seeing their team go a goal down against Celtic in midweek, United fans watched their manager attempt to rescue the situation via the introduction of Patrice Evra and John O’Shea. Similarly on Sunday, injuries to Christiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha facilitated O’Shea's and Darren Fletcher's leaving of the bench.

Chelsea, on the other hand, were able to call on Arjen Robben and Joe Cole in their efforts to reel in United. Neither made decisive contributions, but the principle is clear: in reserve Chelsea can call on players of real potential menace, where United have mere utility men.

Which is of no consequence if United’s first team stay fit and are capable of steering United in the successful manner in which they have propelled their club so far this season. But, facing into the muck and bullets of an English football winter and, with every point being a prized commodity these days, it seems very unlikely that United’s front-liners will dodge the perils of injury, suspension and loss of form indefinitely. Chelsea, on the other hand, would appear better equipped for the trenches.

In consolation, United have the impending return from injury of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and a January transfer window to come, in the likely event of further reinforcements being required.

Still, in much the same way as they turned the tide of yesterday’s match in its second act, the inexorable resolve, strength in depth and grim, champion’s determination that Chelsea possess should, eventually, overwhelm United.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Reliving the Spirit in the Ashes

Unless you're the kind of person who, when reading his chunky English broadsheet of a Sunday, skips impatiently through the cricket pages, or who flicks his remote control unthinkingly at the sight of a white jumper on Sky Sports, you will be well aware that the Ashes got under way last night, our time, in Brisbane.

Delightfully bereft of any sponsor's name, governing body acronymous prefix, or focus-branded ersatz moniker, the aged simplicity of the Ashes concept is clearly resolute in its interest and excitement for cricket followers in the two participating countries.
Of course, as far as the English are concerned, the extraordinary summer of 2005 didn't half help the cause of the ancient rivalry's profile. The explosion of enthusiasm that that series incited almost paralleled the socio-cultural thrill-spikes usually only engendered by World Cups.

The reference to football is both useful and misleading. While the crossover interest in the success of Michael Vaughan's team and the elevation to the superstar class of Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff fitted the model of the modern soccer/celeb interface, a large part of the affection the England team won - aside from the fact that they actually won, unlike the much derided teams that preceded them back to their previous success in 1986/87 - was due to the very fact that they were so clearly not like their counterparts in the Premiership.

The wonderful, twisting narrative of the 2005 Ashes, with its daily epics of heroism, sportsmanship and sheer nail-biting excitement struck a powerful chord with many and provided the nation's media with a blanket editorial line: that these fine examples of men were a welcome relief from the overpaid, preening, morally bankrupt species which usually inhabited the back pages during the rest of the year.

Flintoff was the epitome of this long-lost, Boys Own ideal, his reputation not only burnished by his swashbuckling batting and rip-snorting bowling, but by his sporting consolation of Brett Lee after the Australian's valiant innings had only just failed to prevent England winning the second test. Even Flintoff's astounding display of celebratory inebriation won plaudits, the hero clearly a likeable, amiable drunk rather than a brawling, roasting embarassment.

Of course, there was much more to the Ashes fever of 2005 than its protagonists' good natures. Cricket resides deeply in the English psyche, rarely eliciting the feverish passion of football - despite the terracing-style carry-on of the 'Barmy Army' - but representative of a broad and wholesome sort of Englishness that, suddenly, seemed to strike the zeitgeist like a Flintoff full toss on an Aussie wicket.

At a time when the concept of Englishness is the subject of endless, beard-stroking debate, when Celtic nationalism, immigration problems and post-imperial guilt seemed to leave the English nation struggling for positive representative symbols, the cricket team provided an unquestionable affirmation of the sort of national character that English people could recognise, but also feel good about.

It is the nature of such sporting festivals as that created in England by the last Ashes series that their passing should take with them much of the bunting and brio that they brought with them. The Premiership behemoth had already heaved into view by the time the famous urn had been won, and it was soon followed - and dwarfed - by the World Cup. Twelve months after Flintoff consoled Lee, Ashley Cole was spilling his heart about the ignominy of being offered a wage of £55,000 a week.

So perhaps that summer of 2005 was - like a summer holiday should be - just a glorious and restorative break from reality. Countless cricket fans and those who fondly recall the thrill of England's Ashes win will spend the next weeks in bleary-eyed observation of their attempt to retain them. It won't be the same, of course: injury and form problems and the formidable Australians will make it hard for England and the time difference will do for the party atmosphere. But this series' curious power to fascinate and resonate will, undoubtedly, remain undimmed.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Celtic's Artful Dodging of United

We mentioned the word 'magic' yesterday in looking ahead to the remarkable events at Parkhead last night. There was no great insight there: for European nights at Parkhead, incredible events and the powerful, hypnotic force of the home support are de rigeur. But, after he had watched three Champions League points disappear with the flick of the magic wand that is Shunsuke Nakamura's left foot, Sir Alex Ferguson had about him that irritated and perplexed look of a man who couldn't quite believe his eyes.

Celtic's progression to the knockout stages is no illusion, however. Manchester United were indeed stripped of the win - or at the very least, the satisfactory draw - that they assumed was in their possession. The losing side, though, would, I'm sure, find the metaphor of magician for Gordon Strachan and his team unsatisfactory: United would probably prefer that of 'common thief'.

True United controlled most of the possession, had a couple of incorrect offside calls against them, were unfortunate with the concession of the crucial free-kick (United fans would use stronger terms than 'unfortunate', however after Ryan Giggs' penalty winning plummet during the first game, some parity can be said to have been achieved there) and missed a late penalty.

The English league leaders were markedly superior on the face of things - as they should be given the relative differences in transfer budgets between the two clubs. Not that Gordon Strachan would have exchanged, say, £18.6m Michael Carrick for £2m-odd worth of Nakamura last night. But Celtic - on the old-fashioned European home and away basis - have triumphed over United in this group. If not magic, then what?

The term that was doing the rounds of Celtic message boards last night - even during the fraught first half - was 'rope-a-dope'. The term made famous in the legendary 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle', in which Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman through the absorption of seemingly interminable punishment before unleashing an astonishing knock-out blow late on, is incredibly apt for the events of last night.

Ali adopted the tactics because of Foreman's superior punching power: to have brawled toe-to-toe with the champion would have been suicidal for him. Similarly, Celtic took on a fighter last night with an infinitely superior array of punches, and one that would have left the home side on the floor in a bloody mess had they attempted to take them on in open combat.

Celtic fans, puzzled by Gordon Strachan's stolid midfield selection of Lennon, Gravesen and Sno alongside Nakamura, leaving the fleet-feet of Maloney and McGeady on the bench, watched the first half through gaps in their fingers, as United jabbed and toyed with their quarry. But United didn't have the big shot, the killer blow, or, at least, they could not get a sufficient view of the target to land it.

Like in Zaire in 1974, when Ali roused himself in the eight round to deliver a winning combination almost poetically sweet in its execution, Celtic's winning shot was sheer beauty. No doubt being viewed until worn today by Celtic supporters, the perfection of Nakamura's free-kick's trajectory bears countless repeats.

Strachan did not give himself full marks for his tactical set-up; rather he awarded 'five out of ten', due to the torridness of the first half. But while Celtic, tactics aside, undoubtedly played poorly in the first half, the manager's overall scheme proved a success.

Entering the game, Strachan will have been aware that a draw would be a useful result, sending his team to a probably eliminated Copenhagen still with a good chance of qualification. A defeat, however, would have been unbearable. Celtic would still have a chance of qualifying, but the sense that that prize was slipping inexorably out of their grasp would have been palpable; and given the club's woeful track record on their Champions League travels, the achievement of a win in Copenhagen would have been a considerable challenge.

Strachan therefore gambled on his team's character, their fortitude and their discipline. And it payed off.

For United, the loss - as with almost every English team's loss to Scottish opponents down through European football history - was a failure of will and character and a triumph of complacency and misplaced arrogance. The superior Premiership side failed to translate that fact into a victory, a football fundamental bemoaned by Ferguson after the game, and lacked the character to capitalise on their late reprieve. As has been angrily pointed out by United fans this morning, if captain Gary Neville was aware that Louis Saha's nerve was wrecked in the hostile atmosphere, then why was the Frenchman allowed to take the penalty kick?

The same complacency - not evident in their manager's selection, mind you - that did for them in Copenhagen now leaves them open to elimination after being in what seemed like an unassailable position. A few weeks ago we looked at how United had replaced Roy Keane in footballing terms, quite successfully on the face of it. They quite clearly haven't replaced him in the key sphere in which the spirit and soul of the team resides.

For Celtic, the outwitting of their rivals was a theft of kinds: but, as any professional criminal will tell you, the perfect crime requires planning, skill and no little nerve. Celtic will enjoy this booty for some time.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Night of Magic Ahead in Glasgow

Ordinarily the players of Manchester United wouldn’t be particularly engaged about the prospect of a midwinter Champions League group stage trip to the one of Europe’s footballing backwaters, even less so one that takes place in the days preceding what seems certain to be the first truly material Premiership giant-battle in some seasons.

But such is the singular magic of a European night at Parkhead that concerns about the impending hostilities with Chelsea will be, for ninety minutes at least, edged a little aside.

True, had Alex Ferguson approached the previous group stage match in Copenhagen with a similar focus, and got the positive result that would have ensured United’s qualification from Group F, he would undoubtedly have spared Celtic many more of his front liners than he plans to do this evening.

That said, any professional player would be enthused about playing in what is a now-fabled atmosphere on such nights. Should the match itself follow a similar pattern as the first group stage game, a thrilling encounter which United won 3-2, then the very roof of the East End amphitheatre is likely to lift off such would be the voltage in galleries.

Is it reasonable to expect that tonight’s contest will be as well-contested as its predecessor at Old Trafford (although United missed many chances that evening, they were gifted their three goals through Celtic errors)?

Since that game United have been on an upward trajectory which seems, at this admittedly early point, to be presenting England with its first genuine Championship race in four seasons. Not only that, but after much soul-searching about how to compete in the post-Abramovich environment, United have achieved their current state of rejuvenation in a manner that seems uncomplicatedly synonymous with the buccaneering style which brought them to their late 90s apotheosis.

With Nemanja Vidic helping to stiffen a defensive vulnerability which allowed Celtic to give them such a fright in the earlier game, the main thrust of United’s good form as been, well, their thrust. Their most potent artillery has been firing with blistering force: Saha, Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney and Scholes - the muse for their recent creativity - have all been in rare synergy of late.
Celtic themselves took flight after the last meeting of the sides, particularly in fine, flowing victories over Rangers in the league, and Copenhagen and Benfica at home in the Champions League.

But the force of the defeat Gordon Strachan’s side suffered in Portugal, 3-0 at the hands of Benfica, seemed to knock a fair puff out of Celtic, knocking back their confidence and scuppering the élan they had been hitherto displaying in their play.

They have battled their way to consecutive victories in the league, however, and although this season’s challenge from the rest in Scotland had been typically non-vintage, deserve credit for the redoubt ability they have demonstrated since that harrowing experience in Lisbon: particularly in the late, come-from-behind victory over Hearts.

Importantly, and a fact that was often ignored in the critical reaction to the Benfica defeat, Celtic now have Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Thomas Gravesen - two players who missed the loss and the two of Celtic’s summer signings whose recruitment was most with evenings like that in mind - back from injury. The experience and character of the Dutchman and the Dane were markedly missed in Lisbon and, if ever two players’ returns from injury were well timed, it is now for Celtic with these two. Indeed, the fact that both have had a couple of league games to run themselves into fitness is also ideal.

In talking about timing, one scrap of encouragement for Celtic is that the least impressive of United’s recent run of victories was the last one: Saturday’s defeat of Sheffield United. But before excessive hope is derived from that fact, the sight of Wayne Rooney’s continuing escalation to his full powers should be considered.

Certainly, both teams have improved in the month’s since they first met this season. On the face of it, however, it would take the strongest incarnation of the Parkhead crowd’s preternatural assistance to elevate the home team past their high-flying opponents.

That such an occurence is a possibility is why the fixture carries such interest for protagonists and supporters alike.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Same Old, Same Old - But Better

Another Monday - another glad, confident morning for Irish rugby. It is almost becoming tiresome, the routine: putting down a few words about yet more happy tidings for the oval-ball proponents of this isle. Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Ireland; fantastic performance, impressive victory, total dominance, comfortable win. Yesterday was even better than what went before: few caveats, a near-full strength opposition; rotten oul' day, okay, but it was such for both teams, and they get rain in Sydney too you know.

Let's go further again. We can now add a slice of depth - if that is not a paradox - to our list of attributes. The Munster/Leinster subclassification of this Ireland team is no longer valid: Ulster are, like the gawky kid sister who grew up just as pretty as her older siblings, just as much a part of this Ireland squad now. Of all the Ulstermen who have contributed over the last fortnight - Trimble (who we admittedly knew all about), Best the flanker, Best the hooker, Young, Boss - none are tokenistic in their presence, and all have made robust claims for places on Ireland's best XV.

Yesterday was Neil Best's day; the number 6 did enough in his hour on the park to win several man of the match awards. In that first half in which Ireland effectively won the game, as possession after possession was recycled and the green waves crashed on the shores of Australia fair, Best was omnipresent in his ferocious mining of ball. When carrying, he was the proverbial irresistible force.

Back to depth though. Marcus Horan's injury reinforced the wisdom of breaking in Bryan Young. Imagine the worry that injury would have generated a year ago. "What's Reggie Corrigan up to these days?" In Jerry Flannery's absence Frankie Sheahan is not the only realistic alternative. Choice, natural selection: Rory Best, Frankie, who wants it more, boys?

Is there a new Boss at scrum half? Not yet probably. Stringer is a Beloved National Institution, after all. But the god of rugby won't have this Isaac sacrificed any time soon. The passes kept being slung, whipping out of the breakdown in that dominant first half spell and the Kiwi in green looks a fine international to have in reserve.

Of course that's all just another angle on the thing, the new boys, the whack of the Red Hand. Needless to say the monotonously excellent O'Connell, O'Gara, O'Driscoll, Horgan, Wallace, Leamy were as predictable as ever. But we're just getting fed up having to go on about it.

Mustn't be in our nature. Any chance of an embarassing implosion next week lads? Some sloppy defending? Powder-puff tackling? Uninventive, predictable attacking?

No? Tsk.


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Friday, November 17, 2006

Ferenc Puskas 1927-2006

His death must have come as some relief to his family, given that Ferenc Puskas had spent six years in hospital in Budapest suffering from Alzheimer's disease. As with anyone taken by this cruel illness, their slow and irreversible decline will have robbed his family of many memories of the man in full health. For those of us who knew him from afar - and in my case, distance and years separate me from his full pomp - his legacy should remain brighter than ever.

He has long been reeled off in that golden list of names in which those venerable commentators who have decades of perspective on the game of football categorise the greats. Puskas, Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff, Best, Maradona. Those of us many years too young to have seen him often have to take it as read when told about the qualities of Puskas. We piece together what we hear, splice with clips such as this one, of his four goals in Real Madrid's famous 1960 7-3 European Cup Final win over Eintracht Frankfurt (apologies for the music, presumably an example of black Hungarian humour) and formulate our own, similar reverence anyway.

My father tells of going to watch Hungary beat Scotland 4-2 at Hampden Park in 1954, at a time when the 'Magnificient Magyars' were, despite losing the World Cup final to West Germany a few months previously, regarded as the best team in the world. Predictably, they were astonishing, but one observation my Dad mentions illustrates - where expressions of dog-eared, barely remembered awe might fail - the true progressiveness of that team: he had never seen any football team bend the ball before, until Puskas and his team came to Glasgow that day.

No-one in the eighty or so years of the codified game of football had considered the physics that might be involved to do such a daring thing; to football people of the era, it must have been an extrordinarily exciting idea: the ball does not have to go straight!

Of course Hungary's most famous victory of the time came a year earlier in the 6-3 defeat of England at Wembley, the astonishing effrontery of the Magyars in destroying the inventors of the game on their own patch was a breathtaking demonstration of that team's powers, and a new, great leap forward for the game. Puskas would continue to make those leaps throughout his subsequent career with that great Real team.

That groundbreaking brilliance will live on as long as the game is played.


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Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Top Half is Woman For Me

While Lansdowne Road's big send-off from its soccer playing residents was lulling most of us fortunate enough not to be there into a snoozy torpor, potentially as important as Ireland's lumbering 5-0 victory over San Marino for the hopes of our gallant boys in green was the result in Nicosia, where Germany and Cyprus drew, 1-1.

There are - like in the old 'half-woman/half-fish, but which half?' question - two ways of looking at this one. Me, being the rampant, hollering optimist that I am, and not yet emotionally ready to forego all hope of heading for the lands of Toblerone and Nazis, despite the universally-accepted hopelessness of our current international football situation, I yelped with a small parcel of glee at this result.

On the crackpot premise that one of this group's big two are still within our reach - nurse! This one's completely lost it - Mental Health Ed. - then we can look at this as two points that the strutting ubergruppenmeistern would have expected to have safely stowed away for the harsh central European winter, and that have now dissolved into the ether or disappeared into whatever black hole hypothetical points go in these situations.

Let's just say - stay with me now - that our bould and courageous stormtroopers in green attack the spring of 2007 like that bunch of savage lions did that poor bewildered elephant on Planet Earth last Sunday, and we take full points off the straight-from-the-early-shift-in-the-vineyard San Marinans, then, with 80,000 voices raised in support at Croke Park, skelp the Welsh and the Slovakians for daring to enter the fortress of Gaeldom with their strange, consonant-heavy languages.

Suddenly, oh despairing reader, we are on 13 points. Fine, you say; but what have the Czechs and the Germans been up to while we have been harvesting the scalps of cowering minnows, basket-weaving? Learning Mandarin? Perhaps, but despite the economic advantages of those two options, more likely they will be focusing on the meeting of their two nations, which transpires on 24th March in Prague. Let's say the Czech's win that one - therefore casting the Germans, to continue the wildlife metaphor, as the lame gazelle drifting from the herd, whose vulnerability is easy meat for the voracious lions of Staunton's Ireland.

We then lead the Germans by three points, having played two games more. In June they will ritually disembowel San Marino, then host Slovakia. Maybe, with their players' minds on the many untowelled sun-loungers around the resorts of Europe and beyond, they slip to a draw. Or maybe they win. Either way, they lead us by only three, or even only one. Not catastrophic, by any means.

Which sets up our September 2007 jaunt to Slovakia and the Czech Republic. A couple of wins there and...ok, enough I know. Hollering optimist, like I said.

Anyway, the other way of looking at last night's results - the grumbling, misanthropic, grouchy pessimist's way - is that, in our quest to regain our status after the debacle in Cyprus and, prior to that, our slippage to fourth seeds for this qualifying group, is to view the point gained by the Cypriots as a point more for them in the torrid struggle to finish fourth in Group D.

Yes, to finish fourth in Group D.

Look, I don't care. I'm not facing into the winter break with thoughts of the 'the battle for fourth in Group D' alone to keep warm the little corner of my mind wherein resides fond thoughts of the Irish football team. Good God!

Great result for us in Nicosia that, eh?

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Last Tenants Move Out

It is probably in keeping with Lansdowne Road's nature as the rented home of Irish soccer that the last game in the old stadium sees the proverbial plumbers and waiters of San Marino providing the opposition this evening; them not being real footballers, and Lansdowne not being a real football ground, and all. But it has been mi casa for the eleven-man game as it is practiced on the southern portion of this isle for probably the most extraordinary period in the game's history here, or at least in terms of the fortunes of the international team.
The barnacle-encrusted old geezers of Irish soccer have always grumbled the case for Dalymount Park as the true spiritual home of Irish soccer, and Lansdowne, located as it is in the leafy lanes of Dublin 4, the rugger hotbed far from the rare oul' dirty old town the soccer people lived in, was destined to be unloved because of that. The irony of Irish soccer's one period of true success, or at least respectability coming when the heaving terraces of Dalyer had been deemed unsuitable and the only marginally more salubrious environs of Lansdowne were being frequented does little to help the foul humour of grizzled old schoolers at the mention of this sacrilegious relocation.

To those of us of a younger vintage, who don't remember the days of Giles, Givens, Tuohy etc., Lansdowne, for its considerable sins, has been inextricable when talk of the national team arose. The ground seemed to suit the team. Or did the ground help make the team? The team was never smooth and assured, silky or composed; the ground wasn't sweeping and dramatic, architecturally stunning or pristine of sod. The imperfections in one: goal-shy strikers, journeyman midfielders, ploughman's football - were matched in the other: draughty stands, exposed terraces, a pitch like as lush as the surface of Mars.

Did the ground limit the team, their expectations? Did the unprepossessing environment help propagate the knockabout, rough-and-tumble aura the Irish carried? Will the shiny new temple that will - hopefully - emerge onto the south Dublin skyline within three years play host to a new type of Irish football team, confident and bold, sleek and stylish?
Quite obviously not. Still, that I could waste several minutes considering such thoughts hints at how the dear old wreck of a ground has associated itself with the way in which we see our national football team.

Even if you never liked the ground - and it had its merits: a handy stroll from a vast selection of hostelries, on the Dart line, the opportunity during friendlies to watch top-class football from a terrace, enabling you for a moment to get lost in a reverie of imagined nostalgia, such that you might reach to throw your cloth cap in the air on the scoring of a goal - its passing, like that of a smelly, cantankerous, skinflint of a grand-aunt, deserves to be marked.

Here then are some personal favourite moments from the Irish teams tenancy:

Ireland 1-0 Brazil - May 1987

I have a friend who was at this game as a fresh-faced ten-year old. This fact has been used by him to establish all sorts of credentials and kudos in various situations:
Meeting the Taoiseach: "Yeah Taoiseach I was there meself that day, Chippy's goal wha'?

Job Interviews: "Well, for strengths, I would say...presence at Ireland v Brazil in

Prevention of mugging: "Lads, I wouldn't if I were you... I was at the Ireland v Brazil match in 19...ouch!Owww!

I say this, obviously, because I am jealous. Liam Brady scored a delightful goal with a disguised near post shot. Only about 20,000 were there though. Right, because there was so much else to do in Dublin on Saturday afternoon in 1987. Tch.

Ireland 3-0 Northern Ireland, October 1989
This game was played on a Wednesday afternoon, being as it was in the days before Lansdowne road deigned to add these new-fangled floodlights to the facilities available - well it was only in 1956 that the first ever Football League match under floodlgihts had been played - and it remains a fond memory for me not only for the vital three points secured on what would soon be incessantly known as the Road to Italy, but also for the fact that my primary school rigged up a TV in one of the classrooms so that everyone could watch the game. Imagine: football, on the telly, in school! Wow!

Ireland 2-1 Yugoslavia, Sept 1999
A loss and a draw in away games in Croatia and Macedonia - both to late goals - cost us a trip to the 2000 European Championships, after this performance had suggested great things. Goals from Robbie Keane and Mark Kennedy and a splendid performance from back in the days when we used to actually beat big teams at home.

Ireland 1-0 Holland, Sept 2001
I watched this in the Irish club in Perth, WA, having paid twenty-five hard-earned Australian dollars to squeeze into the sweat-sodden venue. Put several hundred drunk, emotional exiles in a room with a big screen, then broadcast one of Ireland's greatest ever victories and you can imagine what might ensue. Sweaty hugs from strangers anyone?

Perhaps my favourite memory, and I was ten thousand miles from Lansdowne at the time. Go figure....

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mama Good Luck Movin' Up, Cos I'm....Movin' Out!

TSA is currently moving premises, taking up residence in a swanky new northside (northside is the new southside, did you know that? Oh yes...hey, stop pissing on my front window!!) facility. In the interim period, access to internet facilities is reduced to rushed minutes in internet cafes whose Congolese owners charge too uncompetitively for me to spend lazy hours therein, lost in sporting reverie; therefore proper postings will be less regular.

In the meantime, stuck as you must be for post-prandial reading, here's Simon Barnes (yes, I know, I quoted him last week too...but he's a horsey type and it'll all make sense) on the passing of the late, great - and of course "beloved" - Desert Orchid.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Front Men in Tune, Time to Hear Backing Group

We have previously commented in these quarters about how the victory of the Irish rugby team over England, once the stirring, perhaps twice-a-decade prelude to long evenings of beery celebration, has, in recent, upwardly-mobile times, become somewhat routine. The same thought occurred as the Irish team strode, all businesslike, off the turf of Lansdowne Road on Saturday, the defeat of the Springboks being completed in the manner of reasonably strenuous training drill.

There was a pair of deterrents to any hoopla and ruaille buaille upon the final peeping of Paul Honiss’s whistle: the fact that this South African side was a heftily depleted one from what would be considered a full-strength Springbok XV, and indeed that which will presumably line up with the rest of rugby’s planetary elite come next September; and the reality that the defeat of a southern hemisphere giant - aside from the Fearsome Gentlemen in Black, of course - is, like the vanquishing of England, really not that big news anymore.

Still, even if we compute the Springbok team changes and new caps in our heads, multiply by a blustery November afternoon in Lansdowne, divide by the pretty much unmatched stability in the Irish squad, we still should come away relatively happy from Saturday. A major rugby nation such as South Africa can be expected to cope to a reasonable degree with challenges to their squad depth, so the crushing nature of the Irish victory remains, despite the qualifying factors, a fine day’s work.

The two Springbok tries came in the last fifteen minutes of the game (granted, as did one of Ireland’s) which suggests that Ireland eased off coming toward the line. Now, that tapering off could have been a result of fatigue from the very physical effort required to subdue the hefty Springboks so totally in the first place; those extra four stones or so in the pack had to go somewhere.

But the fact that the Irish had the fizz in their boots and brains to conjure up a valedictory try conjured from familiar Leinster loveliness - Brian O’Driscoll providing his mandatory heartbreaking moment of staggering genius with that blind, one-handed pass out to Horgan to finish down the line - suggests that it was, indeed, thrift rather than tiredness that caused Ireland to relax in the second half.

The big talking point across all the main squads during these Autumn internationals, as the calendar flicks down inexorably to the World Cup, is about depth. The All Blacks long view agenda, first set during last season’s Autumn tour, was the nurture and development of at least two fifteens that would compete for the Webb Ellis Trophy, acknowledging the high casualty rate of modern rugby as well as slyly bragging about their strength in depth.

Ireland, of course, can in no way match such depth, and the great fear is about the worrying lack of it in certain positions. One of Eddie O’Sullivan’s jobs for this series, then, is to balance the needs of winning matches, fomenting confidence and understanding within his first team and providing value for the 40,000 odd paying customers, and the need to augment his replacement ranks by trying out alternatives in a test match environment,

It stuck me while watching Ireland on Saturday, for example with O’Driscoll and Horgan’s combination for the final try or as Peter Stringer steadied the ball for an O‘Gara penalty, that this Ireland team are gelled and bound by a huge number of what must be almost telepathic relationships between players. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, O’Driscoll and Horgan, Horgan and Dempsey, O’Gara and Stringer, O’Connell and O’Callaghan, Leamy and Wallace. Provincial team-mates all, international colleagues too.

I am reminded, when two of these players combine on the pitch, of a Rolling Stones concert when Keith Richards and Ron Wood face each other, trading riffs while smirking over some lascivious joke or other. An understanding borne of years of shared experience and professional fusion, their arts and minds entwined.

Still, when Eddie O’Sullivan talks about now having ‘elbow room’ to experiment over the remaining autumn matches, you feel he would be well-advised to use that space. And next Saturday too. There would be a lot more learned about the capabilities of Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace or Bryan Young against the Wallabies than the Pacific Islanders.

The whole of the Six Nations lies ahead to tinker with the probables of the first fifteen, who appear to be playing in delightful harmony right now.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Under Pressure

For some reason, and I could be mistaken in this belief, it feels like more Premiership managers than usual are 'under pressure', that is to say, in danger of being sacked, or certainly have been at some stage since the start of the season. This season already Iain Dowie, Glenn Roeder, Gareth Southgate, Alan Pardew and Stuart Pearce have all had real question marks over the longevity of their respective tenures, Mark Hughes and Paul Jewell have underachieved in comparison to previous seasons and even Rafa Benitez endured calumnous doubts about his methods, and from within his own club at that.

Of those whose posteriors are least comfortably ensconced on their various hotseats, Roeder, Dowie and Southgate would appear to be the most at risk. This is by simple virtue of the classic football success hypothesis: namely, that the value of success in football is proportional to the expectations of the club and supporters involved.

For Roeder, there is a baffling variable: that of Newcastle United's curiously inflated expectations. Despite last bringing a domestic trophy to St. James' Park in 1955 and that year's FA Cup victory, the size and passion of the club's support means that what is now so long a historical trend is, nonetheless, unacceptable. Roeder's side are mired in second last place in the league, a position by no means untypical of much of their late 20th century history, but one which is a mirror image of where Newcastle's supporters believe a club of their size should be.

The memories of those runner-up finishes in 1996 and 1997 linger on Tyneside, and for all the sympathy Roeder deserves for having to work with the odious Shepherd regime at the club, the former club captain is probably wisely priced by most bookmakers at evens to be the next Premiership manager to lose his job.

Like Roeder, Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate was appointed to his job without having gained the prerequisite UEFA Pro Licence which all Premiership managers are required to have. Southgate is currently operating under a three month dispensation from the Premier League, but the former England centre-half has not even begun the process of getting his A Licence and therefore would not be able to start the Pro Licence course until next summer. Middlesbrough hope the Premier League will look kindly on their willingness to allow the FA to allow Steve McLaren to break his Boro contract in order to take over the England job in Southgate's case.

Southgate's elevation to management is believed to have been helped by his contribution to the success of the latter season's of McClaren's Middlesbrough career, especially during the run to last season's UEFA Cup final, in which his leadership qualities were praised in the unlikely identikit comebacks achieved in the quarter-final and semi-final against Basel and Steau Bucharest. However, the marked deterioration in their performances since Southgate took over is thrown into harsher relief precisely because of the relative success enjoyed by the club under McClaren.

I say relative, because despite their exploits in the cups and in Europe, Boro were generally placed around mid-table under McClaren, and the famously loyal chairman, Steve Gibson, will undoubtedly provide Southgate with the time to bring the club at least back to that level, unless the Premier League board intervene first.

Iain Dowie probably had the most difficult job of any new manager this season. Taking over a club which had been as stable and as steadily run as Charlton Athletic had been for two decades under Alan Curbishley may have seemed like a straightforward task, but the influence of the departing man must have seeped into ever corner and back room of the impressively refurbished Valley. In many ways Dowie faces the toughest test of many of the struggling managers now: attempting to imprint his own vision on a club that is mourning the loss of what must almost constitute a family member, as well as now attempting to back them out of a desperate looking relegation battle.

The only consolation for all the embattled managers is that they are far from being alone in their plight.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fighting a Losing Battle?

The Point Theatre is sold out on Saturday night for the return of Big Fight Night to Ireland. Well, not quite Big Fight Night on the scale of the halcyon days of the Eubank-Collins fights. Still, 7,000 punters will pack into the dockland barn for Bernard Dunne's latest fight, a contest for the vacant European Super-Bantamweight title against Esham 'Brown Sugar' (one presumes because his punches are of the 'sweet' variety) Pickering.

Dunne is probably Ireland's foremost professional boxer at the moment, aside from John Duddy, a Derryman who has fought out of New York for his entire professional career and is currently holder of the IBA World Middleweight Title. Dunne's bout may be for one of boxing's less prestigious belts, and the Dubliner ranks only 9th in the world in the WBA rankings (10th in the WBO, 12th in the IBF and 25th in the WBC, to complete the confusing picture) but the size of the crowd that will, regardless, huddle down the quays on Saturday night is testament to the enduring hardcore of popularity the sport retains, despite it currently having the lowest profile it has, perhaps, ever had.

Boxing's status as a major sport has been in retreat, probably, since the emergence of Sky TV, and their plucking of major fight nights from the accessible environs of terrestrial TV and placing them, not only on subscription channels, but primarily in the outer reaches of Pay-per-view. Still, even in the Sky era, fighters such as Lennox Lewis, Prince Naseem Hamed and, latterly, by virtue of prodigious achievements in the Olympic Games, Amir Khan have all become household names through practice of the 'sweet science'.

All of these fighters, however, are British. Like with Dunne, it appears that the only way that boxing commands attention in this corner of the world is through the parochial power of local interest. In the 1980s, the decade in which TSA came of age (not in the French arthouse film sense of the 14-year old boy being inculcated in the ways of love by his 35-year old poetry teacher; I mean I just, you know, grew up) anyone with a passing interest in sport was familiar with names such as Thomas 'Hitman' Hearns, 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran - and that was just one four-way rivalry. There was also the heavyweights: Spinks, Holmes, Berbick, Witherspoon and co., all blown away by the rise of Tyson.

Of course, the local media interest was there. Barry McGuigan's thrilling ride as world Featherweight champion, Frank Bruno's sad attempts at Heavyweight glory, Lloyd Honeyghan and Herol Graham. But there was a knowledge of the sport that went beyond these islands.

Today few people are aware of, or, of those that are, few have seen the likes of Roy Jones Jr, Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Sugar Shane Mosley and Ronald 'Winky' Wright. All are top fighters of recent years - not to say they are at the same hallowed status as the four trans-divisional rivals from the 80s I mentioned earlier. All have had great, exciting fights, yet none occupy the same space in our consciousness as Leonard and Hearns.

Perhaps the relentless disintegration of the heavyweight division has damaged boxing as a whole - that the sport needs its marquee division to carry the rest of the show.

It is more likely, however, that society has evolved away from boxing: the gentrification, or feminisation (and I don't mean that pejoratively) of society refusing, anymore, to accept the position in a central area of popular culture of men brutally hitting each other.

I have always struggled with boxing for that reason. I am appalled by what it amounts to, and, needless to say, would run - screaming girlishly - from a ring were I asked to step into one. Simon Barnes, the chief sportswriter of The Times, and a noted anti-pugilist, in his book The Meaning of Sport describes all sports as being a metaphor for something. "Football and rugby are cod battles; tennis is a cod duel. Running races are about predator and prey. Cricket is a complex metaphor about life and death......That is the point of sport: it is pretend....Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel."

For all the endless literature and cinema, the great works of writing and the great performances that have used the sport as a centrepiece, the awfulness at its core cannot be hidden. Indeed, the tragedy, courage, foolishness, honesty and savagery inherent in it are the reasons why it generates such passion from artists as a subject.

The 7,000 souls who yearn for occasions like Saturday night feel the same. And I understand them too. Watching a boxing match, particularly an exciting, dramatic one, it is very easy to let one's humanist tendencies ebb away, and to distance oneself from the reality of the shuddering impact of glove on skull. To wonder at those five themes from the previous paragraph made flesh in the ring.

However, that the contest involves consenting adults cannot seem to quite assuage the vague guilt at what is within oneself, unavoidably, bloodthirst.

That sense is probably why boxing is drifting from the sporting mainstream. Perhaps there will be other Big Fight Nights, involving a world champion in Dunne even; but it seems as if the death duel could soon be attended by seconds only.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

BOD Blesses Leinster

In the lexicon of sportswriting the phrase "major boost" is rivalled only its overusage by the likes of "much-maligned", "early doors" and such kinetic verbs as "poised", "issued" (as in the issuance of a "come and get me plea") and "set" (as in being set to"launch a major transfer bid.").

Goal-shy strikers who recover from slight ankle knocks are said to provide their managers with a "major boost"; likewise chairmen who "issue" said managers with votes of confidence.

The point of all this is to put into context just how much of a "major boost" to Leinster rugby the announcement of Brian O'Driscoll's new contract extension - which will keep him with the province until 2011 - is. That is to say, an extremely major one.

No-one reading these pages needs to be told about the attributes the world's greatest centre possesses. And if they do, can I just say a big welcome to our readers in Krygzystan.

O'Driscoll seems to have inhabited the Irish rugby firmament for so long now that it is surprising to note that he will not celebrate his 28th birthday until next January. Like many sportsmen who emerge seemingly fully-formed onto the international stage, as O'Driscoll did as a 21-year old in the 1999 Australian tour, and more memorably in the following season's victory over France in Paris in which he scored a hat-trick of tries, he seems ageless.

Of course he has improved immeasurably in that time, particularly his physical strength and in his formidable rucking ability, but because he was so good when he arrived on the scene, he seems to have been around forever.

Which is precisely why it would have been such a huge blow to Leinster had he decided, after the expiration of his current contract next year, to pursue his oft-stated desire to play and live in France.

Shortly before the start of last season, O'Driscoll was photographed enjoying the hospitality of the Biarritz club at a French league match in the Parc des Sports Aguilera. Relaxed and sunny of disposition, the photo opportunity was construed as a statement of the Irish captain's intentions come the end of his existing IRFU contract. O'Driscoll himself dismissed the visit as merely a close season holiday (he was recovering from the shoulder injury received in the infamous 'spear'-tackle incident during that summer's Lions tour) and the acceptance of the French club's invitation to attend as a guest.

Anyone with O'Driscoll's PR nous - being possibly Ireland's most recognisable and high-profile sportsperson - would, of course, have understood, however, the power of what his presence in Biarritz suggested. Furthermore the player frequently commented on his approbation for the French 'lifestyle' and allowed the impression of his itchy feet to build.

The announcement then that the Leinster and Ireland centre has agreed a new contract with the IRFU and Leinster is indeed a major fillip, or indeed relief, for Leinster. Not only will the province have his skills on the field to call on as they attempt to emulate Munster's achievements, but the player also represents a major weapon in the promotion of the Leinster brand, both in terms of simply putting bums on seats and also in the province's contined attempt to create a powerful identity to rival that of that of the cult to their south.

O'Driscoll's decision to stay on is a vindication as well of the progress made by the province under Michael Cheika and David Knox's stewardship, and of the potential in the camp for future success.

For the ordinary Irish rugby fan, the retention of one of the world's greatest players to continue to play his domestic rugby here is also great news. We are not so well-served for performers of O'Driscoll's international class that his leaving would not have been a huge loss.

Of course, perhaps most boosted by this news will be the bank balance of the man in question, given how craftily he played the negotiations, in particular in allowing the mystery over his future plans to leverage his case. One assumes that he will prove, over the next five years, worth every penny.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How to Save The International Rules Series

Anyone who read my recent post on the international rules series will undoubtedly be expecting a several hundred word, carefully structured and thoughtfully composed I TOLD YOU SO!!! Complete with "Na Na Na Naaa Na" and everything. However, not being so childish and puerile, I refuse to use the events of Sunday and the resultant storm of controversy, which has led to the series' future prospects being roughly commensurate with Saddam Hussein's, as an opportunity to sanctimoniously blow my own trumpet.

Firstly, the hoo-ha over the violenct scenes in the first quarter has been both overstated and erroneously directed solely against the Aussies (particularly by both Sean Boylan and GAA president Nickey Brennan, the shrillness of both of whose remarks were quite surprising and unnecessary). Sure, the first quarter was an embarassing spectacle, in which the hallowed turf of Croke Park resembled more a particularly unruly playground in boys' junior school, bodies wrestling here, headlocks being imposed there.

The rest of the match, however, was played in considerably cleaner fashion - possibly because the Irish seemed unable to get anywhere near their opponents - which allowed the Australians to display some genuinely impressive skills and play. The tackle on Graham Geraghty which led to the Meathman being hospitalised was indeed totally fair, although one imagines it was delivered with a little more aggression than necessary given Geraghty's low popularity ratings amongst his Australian opponents.

Boylan and Brennan's outrage, however, was clumsier by far than the tackle on Geraghty. Portraying the Irish players as unsuspecting lambs to the slaughter was simply incorrect; the scuffling which preceded the throw-in and occurred throughout the first quarter was the caused by both sides: off the ball jostling, followed by grappling, followed by wrestling on the ground and the occasional punch. Neither side wished to be seen to be backing down and so neither did. Notice the emphasis on dual culpability.

Anyone who is familiar with GAA culture knows that violence, mass brawls, off-the-ball jostling and needle have long been a part of the games, from underage up to, but less commonly nowadays, senior level. The wide-eyed innocents characterisation cannot wash, m'lud.

One imagines the pride of the Irish management and the GAA brass was stung by the ineptitude of the Irish performance and the cry of foul play was issued to spin away criticisms about what took place on the occasions when football broke out.

So is the series doomed? Perhaps. But if those who support it wish to argue for its future, they should not allow the problem of violence to scupper their cause. Had Sunday's game been a closer affair on the scoreboard, it is likely that the unsavoury scenes of the early game would have been forgotten, or at least rationalised. One could speculate that Brennan's comments were also a way of killing the series to spare future Irish humiliations rather than bruises.

Whether there is enough support for the game to steer it through the current choppy waters is unclear; even those who flocked in their tens of thousands did so out of curiosity and for a day out rather than through passion for the sport, and one senses that die-hard fans of either code will not lose too much sleep over its demise.

However, magnanimously, here is my prescription to save the International Rules Series:

1. Discipline, boys, that's the key!
Everyone who turns up for these series wants biff and bang, aggression and commitment. But the game needs to eradicate, for its image and respectability, the too-familiar scenes of brawling. If only so we don't have to listen to Marty Morrissey tut-tutting like a nun at a stripclub. Referees must be instructed to firmly apply disciplinary measures, not simply act like boxing referees, breaking them up, then shouting "box". In fairness the referees on Sunday did sin-bin several players, a contributory factor in the game cooling down after the first quarter.

Importantly, however, the players are operating in a sanction free environment, outside of the series. Therefore, there is no deterrent to players who decide to inflict deliberate violence on an opponent, other than suspension from the next test. They might possibly never play in another one, nor might they ever even meet their opponents again. Suspensions carrying over into regular season AFL/GAA games might prove some deterrent.

2.Come on over to my place..
They may have sounded a little glib, but the comments from Kevin Sheedy that the players and management should sit down and have dinner together aren't totally silly. The week preceding the match had been rife with childish goading and sinister threats. Perhaps if the players saw it as more of an end of season lark than the psychotic, macho bloodfest they evidently perceive it as now then the whole thing could go off a little more pleasantly.

One of the series' high points came a few years ago when Graham Canty and Barry Hall had an almightly, but clean, tussle for the duration of the match. At the end, both embraced and complimented each other's performance, Hall stating that he was looking forward to next time.

A few beers and a bucket of chicken wings might help defuse the tension and retrieve some of that cameraderie.

3.Full-Time Job
Physicality. Athleticism. Preparation time. Recovery time. All of these issues are advantages for the Australian professionals, and skew the series in their favour. Several Irish players played club games between the two matches of the international rules series and most would have worked in their jobs in the intervening days.

I have documented my problems with the integrity of this game as a sport, but fundamentally, if there are to be only two teams competing, they at least should be doing so from an equal standing point. It's clear that the Australians are getting the hang of the round ball and goalscoring, once seen as the fundamental advantages the amateur Irish enjoyed.

So if the series has a future, the Irish players must become professional.

Well I never said it was going to be easy....

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Fergie's 20 Year Old Vintage Maturing Nicely

In recent seasons, it has seemed that Alex Ferguson’s long reign as manager of Manchester United had begun to show worrisome signs of its age, as if its sell-by date had long passed. Now, however, after a fine start to the current Premiership season, and after a weekend which, as well as marking the 20th anniversary of his appointment at Old Trafford, saw his team take a three point lead over Chelsea at the top , Ferguson’s stewardship looks in as healthy nick as ever.

The effect of Chelsea’s rise under Abramovich and Mourinho was not only to squeeze the margin of error allowed in challenging for the league, but also seemed to create a new, harsh English football environment in which the likes of Ferguson, who had bestrode the country almightily for a decade, could not survive. A dinosaur rendered extinct by an unexpected meteor.

His efforts in creating yet another successful United team looked futile, as if his innate skill for moulding a side had deserted him. The loss of Roy Keane, or at least the seeming inability to replace the at first waning, then banished, former captain, troubled him most. Like a magician without his trusty wand, he seemed unable to conjure the spell of success without the influence of Keane’s drive and spirit, and his teams now looked vulnerable and flimsy.

While his side’s current resurgence cannot be said to have been brought about by finally successfully replacing Keane, the plan to do so looks closer to fruition than ever. During the close season Ferguson pursued the signatures of Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves, the former successful, if at a staggering price, the latter bid failing due to Bayern Munich’s resolve, and despite the player’s wishes. Ferguson and the player are both believed to be committed resurrecting the transfer at the next available opportunity.

The idea seemed to be to replace Keane and regenerate United’s midfield with a two-pronged approach: Carrick’s vision and passing game allied to Hargreaves’ frenetic energy and running. That, with only half of the solution in place, United appear to be operating at something approaching their former sweeping capacity can be put primarily down to the rejuvenation of another of the brightest lights of Ferguson two decades in charge: Paul Scholes.

Scholes’ form so far this season has been an unexpected joy not just for United fans, but also for anyone who watched the unassuming red-head weave his singular offensive midfield magic for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Scholes’ sense of the timing of runs into the box was so perfect as to render him almost unmarkable. It was almost as if his retiring personality and demeanour helped him become invisible to defenders, until he would seemingly materialise in the penalty box and in a goalscoring position.

He accompanied his masterful ability to move into dangerous positions with a lethal finishing touch, as natural a goalscorer’s penalty-box sensibility as any of the greatest centre-forwards.
Aside from his abilities as a surrogate striker, his passing from advanced positions in midfield was flawless and his shooting from distance excellent, as anyone who recalls the volley from a corner taken directly to him at the edge of the box against Bradford some years ago will agree.

But struggles with injury, in particular a serious eye problem, had threatened to undermine Scholes’ career terminally as he moved into his thirties, leaving Ferguson’s already chasmic central midfield void seem doubly vast. Suddenly, as this season began to unfold, the sight of Scholes playing better than ever - for the fact of his seniority now seems to have added a hitherto unsuspected leadership quality to his play - became one of the major stories.

When United played Liverpool a few weeks back, it would have been in the knowledge that their old rivals had mastered them completely in that central area in recent contests between the two. Liverpool play lining up with five in the middle to United’s two suggested that the Merseysiders’ dominance in midfield would continue.

That United subdued Liverpool so categorically in the middle that day was testament to the aggression and zip that the home side’s midfield, inspired by Scholes, played with that day.

Since then United have been improving with every performance, and every game seems to bring a further rekindling of the energy and style with which they swept all before them in the 1990s. The manner of recent victories over Bolton and Portsmouth made those two early-season high achievers appear like the honest toilers they most probably are, but the flash of United’s football was a joy to watch nonetheless. The return to form of Wayne Rooney, the concessions to maturity of Cristiano Ronaldo and the old-fashioned solidity of Nemanja Vidic have all helped, but the importance of Scholes’ role as conductor of these virtuoso players is key.

Alex Ferguson’s latest team face many tests before they can be classified as worthy successors to their glorious predecessors, most importantly when they face Chelsea head-to-head. But were they to provide their manager’s twentieth season in charge with a league title-winning conclusion, after it had seemed that the old man’s touch was long gone, it would surely rank with the greatest achievements of any of the nineteen that preceded it.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Perils of Playing Away From Home

The plane lands. You gather your iPod, your copy of FHM and pull your baseball cap onto your head. You leave the plane and wink farewell to the stewardess. Familiar, globalised processes, you are still insulated. Then, outside the pressurised container of the aircraft, the air hits you. More humid, denser, the vague whiff of you-don't-know-what hangs in the air. The cleaning staff in the airport are swarthy little people with sagging cheeks who glance at you dolefully. A baggage handler realises who you and your travelling companions are and, grinning gleefully, offers you a grisly throat-slitting gesture. You smile and nod ironically, dismissively.

You are playing away from home in Europe.

The club's travel co-ordinator ushers you to the waiting bus. Air-conditioned and hermetically sealed, the attention is to cut you off from the pervading strangeness of the foreign city. But the bus has windows. The well-practised role-play of dressing room banter cranks up, the age-old parade of jesters and stooges, the quicker minds making play of the less cerebral characters. But the voices sound differently pitched, out of place in this strange city; they do not belong.

There are no chip-shops and curry houses; no dingy corner bars like the one where you used to go when you first signed pro, where you might have a few quiet pints and not be bothered before hitting the town. No Asdas or Tescos. Nobody spotting who you are as you pass and giving a big thumbs up, or if they're from the other mob, giving you a "gerrit-right-up-ye" gesture.

Old men stand talking on street corners. They exacerbate the strangeness, for not only does their foreignness detach them from you, but their age does further. At least with people your own age, they might listen to some of the same music, maybe on an iPod like the one in your lap. They'd probably eat a McDonalds now and again, smoke a joint at a party. But the old guys, they could as well be from Pluto. They have old wars and revolutions and the names of long dead leaders, singers, movie stars in their eyes, staring distractedly at you. Old brains full of stuff you will never know.

The hotel, and again the seal. The layer of cultural polystyrene that the club puts between you and the foreign city is most robustly manifest in the hotel; the five-star force-field of plinking piano music; the vastness of the lobby making it difficult to even see out into the street and newspaper stands full of stories unconnected to you.

The sports pages of course, you'll be there. But you'll see your name referred to in a sentence which may be marking you out as a man to watch for the home team, or suggesting you as a potential weakness to be exploited. You can't begin to know, but there is a picture of your centre-forward punching the air that you focus on, or more accurately, grab onto.

The barely perceptible, stomach-knotting feeling of displacement continues throughout the evening and during the next day's workout at the stadium. The huge stands and lush surface are little different from your own ground, the colours and specifics of architecture notwithstanding. But there's that air again.

You boot a ball against an advertising hoarding and a member of the groundstaff chastises you with guttural curses and transparent hand gestures. The bravado returns, you grant him the dismissive smile and an accompanying sneer.

The dressing room. Players' changing superstitions are designed to override the mental stresses of changing environments and playing circumstances - to create a reliable, unchanging psychological landscape in even the most irregular settings. So the socks-first men put their socks on; the everything-but-the-boots men are all ready save for the final addition of footwear; the meditators have their eyes closed; the fist-pumpers are pacing the tiles with their knuckles whitened.

The manager is reiterating core values, reminders of the work done on the opposition, attempting to construct the mental fortress his players must man this evening. The captain is inflating egos, slapping backs, braggadocio personified.

Above it all, chanting deep and loud, the home crowd are gathered. They shake the concrete above your head. Their chants are impenetrable, yet their message is clear: we aim to destroy you. You are to be crushed. Your puniness is blatant. You are small and flimsy. You are Christians in the arena.

The conflict which began in your head as you left the plane yesterday - between the normalising forces of your professional sportsman's mentality and the hostile otherness in which you must now undertake your job of work - now rages to its conclusion. You take the field. Hands are shaken and you steady yourself.

You try to ignore the crowd, but it is impossible. It's not the noise. No, noise is manageable. It is, once again, the strangeness: the unrecognisable chants, the unfamilar call-and-response numbers, the musical jokes of which you are the unknowing butt.

The game starts and you attempt to suppress the warring factions in your head by being bold and blasé. You clear the ball decisively but the home team flow towards you, as you were told they would. Your step feels clumsy, though, and your positioning is wrong. The pitch feels wrong too, its dimensions unmanageable, its surface treacly.

Then, their winger crosses deep towards your back post. It all happens slowly. Your head explodes in rebellion. Clear it. Left foot. Right foot. Leave it. You are going to f--k this up. You are going to f--k this up because you are small and you don't belong here and you are here to be destroyed so you are going to f--k this up. And the ball flies into your own goal off your boot. That roar again, and this time the noise does get you.

Just some of the perils of playing away from home.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Perils of Communal Living

Sharing an apartment as I do with a Liverpool fan, one invoking unyieldingly the Ancient Law of Telly Primacy (that being that "in the event of a clash of fixtures of interest, the fixture involving the team supported by one of the apartment dwellers MUST take primacy. In the event of two clashing fixtures involving teams supported by apartment dwellers, a complex procedure of bartering and brinksmanship must ensue, after 30 seconds of which, one of the them goes down the pub), I watched the Reds' comfortable defeat of Bordeaux live last night.

But you don't want to read about that, do you?

So, of the extent of the Barcelona v Chelsea match that I saw via highlights - which I admittedly saw three times, courtesy of ITV, Setanta and Sky Sports, and could have watched twice an hour through the night on Sky Sports News were I rendered insomniac by tormented souls roaming the night of All Hallow's Eve...but that's enough about Frank Rijkaard - it seems the sixth instalment of this three-season old conflict continued in the vein of its predecessors: a foul, pestilentially spirited affair, interspersed with episodes of the sublime football both sides are capable of, overhung with the sad knowledge of what a bravura show these two could put on were they to play each other with purest, Corinthian intentions.

As I thought about these words, I resolved to try and approach from a different angle than how writing about Chelsea generally ends up: namely, in a vituperative character assassination of their manager and his methods. Look, I thought, his team have taken four points off Barcelona, showed themselves to be the match of the European champions - if not in the capacity for breathtaking episodes of sensual football, at least in their ability to compete with the Catalans and occasionally dominate them - and demonstrated once again their sheer indefatigability in pressure situations.

Which is why the sour, frustrating spectacle of puerile behaviour these teams served up last night comes back to the preening Portuguese. His team have so many positive attributes - leaving aside, if you can for a moment, the questionable morality of their expensive assembly - and have achieved so much, that the genuine detestation their behaviour generates is simply a crying shame.

Unfamiliar with the referee prior to last night, I am unsure whether he is normally such a scattered, confused figure or whether the air of cynicism surrounding the match caused him to take leave of his senses by virtue of some witch's spell or worse, a Mourinho press conference.

Jose Mourinho's interviews are precisely calibrated to generate the atmosphere of bile and negativity in which, he obviously he feels, his team will excel. Barcelona and Frank Rijkaard deserve almost as much scorn for allowing themselves to be drawn into these on- and off-pitch slanging matches and the sight of the enraged Dutchman chasing after a bewildered referee after last night's match would have given Mourinho the ultimate satisfaction in the vindication of his methods. Put simply, Barcelona had been brought down to his level, a place where Mourinho knows the terrain too well to be defeated.

We will probably never know if this Chelsea team could be as successful as they are in the hands of a more gracious character. Perhaps the nature of the club as it is at the moment precludes the survival of morally more upright steward. But, if ever the point needed reiterating, last night was further proof that the shadow of their manager's methods will always dull his team's achievements.

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