Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Obligatory 2006 Review Feature

- "But you have to do a review of the year!"

- "Why? Every gosh-darned publication, from the Donegal Democrat to the New York Times, pads out pages of festive space with 'a look back at 2006'...why must we in the new media, thrusting and groundbreaking as we undoubtedly are, conform to this tired old formula?"

- "Aw come on....It's traditional!"

So what makes it into the standard Review of the Year? Major events, of course. Your World Cups, your Champions Leagues, your Six Nations, your All-Irelands, your ploughing championships; a league title here, a sweaty victory lap there. Snip 'em out, paste 'em in, divide into 'Triumphs' and 'Disasters', furrow brow and issue nodding pronouncements like "this was a truly great year for bobsleigh" or "Irish bobsleigh went downhill in 2006" and you're done.

Then there's your retirements and deaths. They're pretty much same thing, of course, in sport. Those who hang up their boots, or bats, or steering wheels are mourned just like those who go to the Great Golf Course in the Sky. "We may never see his like again"; "One of the greats"; "He changed the face of bobsleigh as we know it." When the actual deaths come, only the most loved can glean more attention than that earned on their distant 'sporting' demises.

Of course, not everything that passes is mourned.

As well as those checking out, you have to look at the new faces, or indeed those returning to the scene, whether welcome, or, well, otherwise.

You've got your off-field controversies - drug shame, officiating controversy, corruption, scandal and vice.

Special bumper sections are reserved for regurgitating the year's most monstrously hyped and minutely observed occasions, for were we not to revisit them at the end of the year, we might feel a little silly for getting so excited about them in the first place.

Then just drizzle with some amusing incidents, like dogs (cute ones only) or poultry invading fields of play, or rugby players with no shorts on (as if!) and there you have it! A year annotated and presented like one of those gourmet cheese selections you may have consumed over the last week.

So adieu 2006, how's she cuttin' 2007?...and the last word on the man who didn't need the year reviewed for us to remember his contribution.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas And Stuff

All the best and compliments of the season to you and yours, oh idle office-internet abusing TSA reader. May your bird be well stuffed and your family arguments bitter and rancourous.

Look out next week for some lazy 'Review of the Year' type blogs to read between watching the darts and the World's Strongest Man Competition and hanging like a bad smell around your parents house even though you're 38 and twice divorced, eating and drinking away the poor old dears' pension fund, desperately denying the impending new year and the confrontation it will require of the mess your life has become.

Yes, some Reviews of the Year will be just the ticket.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Santa's Sporting Almanac

Ho Ho Ho! Or whatever. Being Santa, I have to constantly pretend to be jolly, in order to fulfil the fat man stereotype that has been created for me. Like no skinny man could be good natured enough to go around the world on one night every December, clambering down chimneys to deliver increasingly more opulent presents to increasingly less deserving children, and all for the reward of several billion nips of brandy and a thousand tons of Christmas cake.

Actually I'm quite a trim gent, physically more similar to a Sigmund Freud or a later years John Gielgud than the morbidly obese pie-fiend you'd expect. You have to be to get the sleigh-speeds up, especially on the long Pacific crossing. The Honolulu to Yokohama run is the acid test of your aerodynamism, and on these modern fibre-glass sleighs, every ounce counts. I humbly request that people leave out some hummus and Ryvita for my refreshment, rather than the traditional coronary inducing fare.

Anyway, let's have a look at these letters. Ok, my favourite part: naughty people.

Straight to the bin with Ashley Cole's letter. Wants another £5,000 a week - greedy, greedy boy; Craig Bellamy's not getting that Scalextrix either (I know he was acquitted of that assault charge, but I haven't been to his house since, at the age of four, he called his kindergarten teacher a f**king c***; hence I have no idea of the way); Sven Goran Eriksson - the English FA may have voluntary paid him £4 million a year, but it still amounts to robbery in my book. Nothing in the stocking for Kieran Fallon either - that child is simply wilful.

My elves have been telling me that Graeme Dott has, tick-like, sucked the last vestiges of colour and excitement from the game of snooker, leaving nothing but Ronnie O'Sullivan's madness in his wake. No quirky new waistcoat for you, young Dott.

I can tell you right away who'll be crying come Christmas morning - those Australian international rules players! Big bullies all of them, and Santa doesn't come to bullies, you know. I don't mind the Irish ones. They can batter away all they want - they're only amateur you see. Boxing somebody in the head on a football field is only wrong if you get paid for it. Santa says so.
There's some bold boys in the FAI I've been hearing about too. Denying Dundalk their rightful place in the Premier Division; appointing a world class manager who'd never managed, well, anywhere in the world whatsoever; making that "this place was built on bigotry" crack about Croke Park....well ok, that last one was so delightfully controversial, and quite lyrically put, that we can't stay mad at them for long.

Do you know whose letter I just fished out of the shredder bin? Little Jose Mourinho's. Well he's just gone and proved us all wrong. All that moaning, the ungracious celebrations, the unctious behaviour, the referee-baiting - I didn't need my elves to tell me about his naughtiness quotient.

Then, just today, he sidles up, tail between his legs, and says sorry for accusing Andrew Johnson of cheating! Well there's a heartwarming seasonal tail of redemption and forgiveness if I ever heard it! This season's black Armani overcoat is on its way to you, my lad.

Marco Materazzi can forget about those new goatee trimmers he is begging pathetically for. What a rotter! Yes he may have been ostensibly the wronged party, receiving as he did a rather forceful butt on the chest from a deranged Frenchman. But when that deranged Frenchman is charismatic football legend and star of arthouse cinema, Zinedine Zidane, and you've suggested that his mother is a foreign national who plies her trade in the wee small hours around Marseilles's less salubrious quarters...well, take that sir!

Now, I have a package here for Sammy Allardyce....hang on a mo! What's this about a bungs report? Elves!!

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

United Lack Ruthlessness of Chelsea

A pivotal day, and no mistake. The gap at the top of the Premiership, hitherto contemptuously dismissed by Jose Mourinho, is now down to two points. In a tight title race - if this Premiership rivalry does continue in a nip and tuck fashion until its conclusion - it'll be the tiny details that matter.

Like, had Eggert Magnusson kept his powder dry for another couple of weeks and left Alan Pardew in his job, would Manchester United have met a West Ham side stumbling haplessly in the relegation zone, rather than the team which defeated them yesterday via a clear case of New Manager Bounce?

The Hammers were changed, but not unrecognisable. No - they bore such a striking resemblance to the effervescent side that skipped up the Premiership and into the FA Cup final last season that the recently sacked Pardew would be excused for suing Alan Curbishley for copyright breach.

Pardew's demise would have been unthinkable only a few short months ago, as his team's attitude to their return to the Premiership seemed to create a new model for newly promoted teams - one characterised by a fearlessness and wholehearted commitment to attacking football rather than craven protectionism.

Pardew lost the ability to draw such performances from his team, but they had plenty of that bite on show yesterday, and it was enough to expose the soft edges of Manchester United.

A few hours earlier Chelsea had responded to the slipping away of three points with a violent, retaliatory bludgeoning of the impertinent Toffeemen. Ballack, Lampard and Drogba's goals were all shows of strength, stunning strikes that denied Everton a well-deserved point.

United's response to West Ham's new-found fight seemed flimsy in comparison. They peppered West Ham's goal and ran at the back four incessantly; but there was something lacking from their advances - they seemed blunt, unthreatening.

Yesterday saw Cristiano Ronaldo at his worst for United. The graver the situation, the more inclined he seems to pointless dribbles and wasteful long range shooting. Just like in their defeat to Celtic, United were presented with a free-kick in an advanced area late on. And just as on that occasion, Ronaldo chose to shoot from distance, driving the ball into the wall, rather than clipping it into the box. The problem is not necessarily the decision itself, rather simply that the boy's temperament suggests that there is no way he would have the collectedness required to score at such a juncture.

That's not to pick on Ronaldo alone. Wayne Rooney hasn't played in the manner of the future great he is supposedly destined to become for some time. Scholes' influence was blunted by the rejuvenated Nigel Reo-Coker (how Pardew must fume at his erstwhile skipper's sudden reawakening), whose goal saw United's defence carved open alarmingly easily.

After United and Chelsea drew a few weeks back, we were by no means alone in suggesting that their squad would not have the depth for a successful campaign. A couple of days later, United thumbed their noses at this idea by comfortably defeating Everton 3-0, with squad players such as John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson all starting.

Yesterday demonstrated where their lack of options gets found out: not at Old Trafford or when they get a goal in front against opposition who lack the belief required for a comeback, rather in situations like yesterday, where a spirited side gets ahead of them. They never seemed to have the requisite ruthlessness within them that helped Chelsea to dismiss Everton.

All is not lost however. United's inability to break through West Ham yesterday looked like a situation tailor-made for the gentleman sitting behind Alex Ferguson in the stand. Henrik Larsson took in the match yesterday; the Swede's arrival looks as well-timed as any of the forward runs with which he made his name.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Champions League Sweet Sixteen

Podgy Swiss fingers were put to their best use other than the consumption of stacks of luxury handmade chocolates today as the Champions League second round (or last 16, if you wish to make it sound more exclusive) draw was made.

As is the norm when plastic balls are plucked from erstwhile goldfish bowls, some protagonists fare better than others. For every club exec chuckling with confidence during the post-draw canapés, there is another suit bawling in the corner, crying "Why??!"

On the face of it, Liverpool secretary Bryce Morrison, representing the 2005 champions in Nyon today, would be the inconsolable wretch, seeing as his club was paired with Barcelona. With admirable optimism, however, he refused to be cowed by the prospect of playing last season's free-flowing champions.

"We hope we can go all the way once again, starting with this big one!" quoth he, presumably too woozy from the complimentary wine to conjure the image of Ronaldinho slithering past a statuesque Sami Hyypia.

Whereas the Pool were ill-rewarded for their group-topping feats, the other English teams got the spawny draws one might expect from being seeded. As if to continue the theme of retribution for last year, Manchester United, having exacted revenge on Benfica in the group stage, will now get an opportunity to pay back Lille for defeating them at the Stade de France in the 2006-06 competition.

As with their superiority over Benfica, United have come on more than enough since losing to the French to go through comfortably.

Arsenal will undoubtedly make heavy work of PSV Eindhoven, but should also progress. The return of Jose Mourinho to Porto will provide what is generally dubbed "spice" to their tie, but the bold Jose is well used to whistles and boos - and his team will have little trouble there.

While all over Milan, impeccably shod and coiffed folks may have been rattling their improbably tiny coffee cups in pleasure at their team's draw against Celtic (arguably the weakest of the second seeds on paper); the corresponding celebratory clank of Tennents Special Export cans in the East End of Glasgow might also have been heard.

Milan are in what is known as a 'period of transition', which is a euphemism for being rubbish. Even without their 8 point deduction for match-fixing naughtiness, the Rossoneri would only have been in fifth in Serie A, rather than the 15th place in which they now languish. The loss of Shevchenko's goals has not been properly addressed, their three main strikers - Alberto Gilardino, Filippo Inzaghi and Ricardo Oliveira - only managing four league goals between them. Meanwhile Paolo Maldini and Cafu continue to wearily police the defence, and the team is generally over reliant on Kaka's creativity.

The other ties are rather tasty; perennial powerhouses Real Madrid and Bayern Munich meet, Valencia take on Inter and Roma face Lyon. Lyon are the team to tip these days when trying to show how shrewd a football judge you are, and it will be intriguing to see if they can finally reproduce in the latter stages their scintillating group stages form.

Its hard to see past old money, however: Barca, Real and Inter are still the front runners, with Chelsea the only new name that might get on the trophy.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hook and Pope On Tour

RTE lost the live rights to broadcast Heineken Cup matches at the end of last season, catching the conclusion of Munster's epic quest for the trophy just in time. With Sky now providing the context to televisual consumption of the tournament, and Dewi Morris, Stuart Barnes and Paul Wallace now the large-men-squeezed-into-swivel-chairs, RTE's old analytical war-horses, George Hook and Brent Pope, are left outside to press their bulbous noses up against the studio glass (metaphorically speaking, of course).

RTE Sport, wishing to retain a slice of the zeitgeist-y appeal the tournament now holds, and to bask in some of Munster's continuing reflected glory, has sent the two oval-ball opinionators out rattling the doors of the nation's rugby clubs in The Heineken Cup Roadshow with Hook and Pope. I caught this last night for the first time, finding the chaps in the Clanwilliam Rugby Club in Co.Tipperary, home of Munster and Ireland back-rower Alan Quinlan.

It's only right that these guys should be actively deployed when the Heineken Cup is on; they have become synonymous with rugby television in this country during its most successful era and have almost reached the same level of mental association with their sport as Dunphy and Giles have done with soccer.

Still, the idea of bringing them around drafty old clubhouses and - crucially - leaving them to host the show, live, without the strong hand of Tom McGurk on the tiller, seemed risky. Would this be a rugby Nighthawks?

That the show works quite well says much for the George Hook's unheralded presenting skills. Presumably honed on his radio show (Newstalk's The Right Hook), George's presenting style has an effortlessness about it which suggests that he is either a natural, or vastly more self-aware than we hitherto suspected.

Unlike RTE's other Superpundits, Eamon Dunphy and Pat Spillane, for whom the presenter's chair was as Kryptonite to their analytical powers, Hook retains the use of his x-ray opinions and a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet instinct for a one-liner. Thankfully the nuts and bolts of presenting have not robbed him of the opportunity to lean back in his seat and pour forth, giant sausage-like hands adding gracenotes to his condemnation of the Munster front row and such.

That well-decorated three occupied much of last night's discussion time in Clanwilliam, in light of Hook's criticism of their scrummaging in last week's show. This being Munster, and them being chippy, defensive types where the honour of any of their "liginds" is concerned, dear old George was subject to the whole repertoire of Munster self-righteousness.

Brent Pope was, of course, no help to his pal. Popey, as he must be known, is a fascinating character. A resplendently healthy looking man of indeterminate age (in Irish years, about 25, in Antipodean, possibly 50), he is by all accounts the archetypal rugby hale-fellow-well-met, the sort of sociable man-boy that the sport looks after and cherishes through decades of after-dinner speaking after his direct involvement with the game ends.

He is honorary Irish now, having spent the last 15 years here in one capacity or another since he arrived to coach Clontarf in 1991, and as the straight-man to Hook's flights of metaphor and allegory, he seems more Irish at times than the lyrical George.

Anyway, when Hook was getting a good pummeling from the Munster folk - including John Kenny of D'Unbelieveables ("D'you know, I don't know as much about de technical side as ye lads, but how ye can say dat Munster front row can't scrum I don't know") and John Hayes' wife and Ireland ladies team player Fiona Steed - Popey remained neutral, eye instinctively on not offending his meal-ticket.

Still, Hook doesn't take positions for the sake of controversy and battled back doggedly, pointing out that while the Munster front row brought many good things to the game, scrummaging was not one of them, whether their other advantages compensated or not.

For a big man, he's light on his feet though. Another lady prefaced her scolding with the line "You're paid big money to have those views..."; Hook prefaced his response by admonishing the woman for pointing out his large salary "when there's a revenue commissioner in the audience."

Nice touch - deflect stick onto that collective hate-figure, the taxman, and everyone reconsiders what a nice chap you are again.

As I said, either effortless, or enormously self-aware.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

There's Something Vaguely Familiar About This Glittering Award Ceremony

After using its dead-eyed analytical skills and shrewd judgement to tell you why Darren Clarke would win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award last week (an annus mirabilis for Zara Phillips and no mistake), it's only fair that TSA brings the same sagacity to bear on the field for our own national broadcaster's humble award.

Otherwise we would be subject to accusations of Anglophilia, be put on a register of some sort and be run out of town for whistling Land of Hope and Glory near playgrounds.
The RTE Sports Person of the Year (Oh! How that subtle change in nomenclature distracts us from the shamelessly ripped off origins of the award! Well done, RTE brains trust people!) shortlist does seem to glow with the light of achievement a little more than its British counterpart did.
Probably, however, that is because our status as a small nation whose flag generally flies fairly limply at international sporting events means that anything we do accomplish gets properly Olé-Olé'd until just short of the declaration of a national holiday.
Also the international isolation of the GAA means that, as someone has to win the All-Ireland in the major codes, then it can generally be said to have been a good year for at least two people within the GAA, which pads out the list a little.
Soccer gets nary a nod, having to compare itself as it does with other countries. That, however, doesn't excuse an ignominious twelve months for the game on this island. It comes to a close with the Eircom League (now, post-merger, run by those crack logistical experts, the FAI) promoting the third place team in its second tier over the second placed, due to them having more nice astro-turf pitches and such, rather than the usual, antiquated criteria of a superior points total.
Yes indeed, domestic soccer is taking administrative sporting farce to exciting new places, bookending a year that started with Walsall's assistant manager becoming the 'world-class' captain of the good ship Republic of Ireland, and was defined by that listing vessel being wrecked on the hitherto unprecarious shore of Cyprus.
Enough of absent friends, then. To the people in the tuxedos and ballgowns (on that note, pray to your God, whomsoever he may be, that we may be spared Tracy Piggott in another plunging neckline. My eyes! IT BURNS!)!
Once again the Darren Clarke issue arises. Thing is, rather than the mob-emotion of the general public being considered, the RTE award is voted for by a panel of "esteemed" experts. Chaired by Tom McGurk, the panel includes Eamon Dunphy, George Hook, Pat Spillane, Cyril Farrell, Ted Walsh and Jerry Kiernan. Therefore we can expect the casting of cold eyes of analysis on the affair, which may preclude Clarke.
Anyway, would Darren have won a public vote since the whole new girlfriend business?
- "But he's been through so much! Isn't it nice for him?"
- Is it not a bit soon though? I mean, it's not for me to say, but...."
Darren's great mate Padraig Harrington is also nominated, as befits the man who heads the European Order of Merit. One feels, however, that, until Padraig brings home the Major-flavoured bacon, the whiff of underachievement will, probably unfairly, deny him an award like this.
In GAA, Kieran Donaghy might be a contender, for the meteoric, fairytale nature of his rise, were he not lacking mantelpiece space from all the GAA and GPA awards he has squeezed into his hourse over the last few weeks. Henry Shefflin was only his usual perfection, and thus may be passed over in the manner that consistent brilliance is often taken for granted.
Non-horsey people like myself would tend to regard Aidan O'Brien as a token contender, there to represent one of the few sports in which we are a world power. But then you look at what his horses achieved this year - a fairly normal one - and you think that perhaps the esteemed RTE panel should get together only to thrash out who should finish second.
The Irish Champion Stakes and Irish Derby (Dylan Thomas), the Irish and their British equivalent (Alexandrova), the Phoenix Stakes (Holy Roman Emperor), the Critérium International (Mount Nelson), the 2000 Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Goerge Washington), the Ascot Gold Cup (Yeats), the Queen Anne Stakes (Ad Valorem) and the Shadwell Turf Mile at the Breeders Cup meeting in Kentucky. All were scooped by Ballydoyle this year. Phew!
Still, one imagines this award will go to someone who performed under the glare of the cameras and the pressure of the occasion, and as such a trainer like O'Brien is likely to be passed over.
In boxing there is a World (Katie Taylor) and European Champion (Bernard Dunne). As many are still a little 'iffy' about female boxing, Ms Taylor will probably be congratulated politely and sent on her way, the lads on the panel trying desperately, and failing, not to patronise her.
Dunne may get a podium place, the hoopla and excitement of his big night in the Point still fresh in the memory.
After Zara Phillips, Jessica Kurten might have a chance, but I feel the jodhpur madness must end here.
That leaves Derval O'Rourke and Paul O'Connell. Personally, I hope that O'Rourke gets it.
We're very cosy with our major sports in this country, probably because we don't have as many
successful competitors in other sports as we did in, say, the 1980s. O'Rourke deserves our attention and the recognition of this award for genuine achievement (World Indoor 60m Hurdles Champion and European (outdoor) 100m hurdles silver) in a sport we (Sonia O'Sullivan apart) have not excelled in for a long time, and in a discipline that we have generally found to technical and 'foothery' to be bothered with.
And I have a sneaking feeling Paul O'Connell will be getting to lift the team award anyway....

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This House Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Them

Sometimes a landlord just doesn't like the cut of a tenant.

"That fella, I don't trust him. Shifty lookin'. Comes in late at night, sleeps all day. Has strange folk around at all hours. Not like that nice professional I have in the other place. Well-mannered, accountant I think, or something in the legal profession. Keeps the place tidy, everything just so in there...."

The GAA and the FAI never did get along. Maybe landlord and tenant is the wrong analogy. Two diametrically differing brothers, maybe that's better.

You know those sworn sibling rivalries: one is into sports, drinks pints down the local with his mates (they talk work and football, make mildly racist jokes, no harm), solid job, steady girl, makes the old man proud.

The other: wears only black, and that extends to eye make-up. Spends all day in his room on his computer; reads endlessly - William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, bit of Romantic poetry - his Mammy's favourite, though it breaks her heart.

Their differences are irreconcilable, though they are as stubborn as each other.

The FAI wanted to use Croke Park for a training session before heading for San Marino in February. Were they asking just to rise the GAA? We may be short on adequate sporting facilities in this country, but surely there are other fields somewhere on this island on which some cones could be arrayed for an afternoon?

You can see why the GAA were peeved at the request. But then you get Munster Council Chairman Sean Fogarty harrumphing:

"Ever since permission (to play soccer in Croke Park) was given to the FAI, there has been a lot of talk, a lot of photo opportunities at Croke Park.

"There's an air of triumphalism about the whole thing. Let them not forget than they are on our patch."

Triumphalism. There you have it. This man feels that the GAA's decision to allow the garrison games into Croker was a defeat - not a mature, considered response to a peculiar situation- and any expression of pleasure from "the soccer people" at the undeniably exciting prospect of playing in the magnificient arena is akin to dancing on Michael Cusack's grave.

The "soccer people" ("them") should come in, heads bowed in reverence, play their insiduous womanly sport, then get the hell out, leaving as little damage as possible in their wake.

Honestly, I don't know what we're going to do with the two of them.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Bad Workman Blames His Tools

Apologies to any readers who found the below post on yesterday's match illegible; Blogger is currently transmogrifying itself into Beta, whatever that means, and has been rather temperamental of late.

Pretty soon new posts will be transmitted direct to a microchip implanted in your brain, so these minor teething problems will be worth it in long run.

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Courageous Arsenal Worthy of Point

In the end, the Thin Red Line held out. Nine brave young privates - as well as Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva - against the four star generals of Chelsea. The Few scuppered the Many.

Arsenal supporters may baulk initially at the characterisation of their team in such lowly terms, being as we are the only two short calendar years since their team was dubbed "the Invincibles". Paul Merson, in the Sky studio, was certainly displeased at the caution of his team's first half approach, for example.

But the respective forces that ranged up against each other yesterday were so unevenly matched that the pride which Arsene Wenger will have felt in his young team's performance was fully justified.

More justified, though, than any sense of injustice which, knowing the one-eyed Frenchman's usual attitude to objectivity, he will probably be harbouring over Chelsea's equaliser. It certainly did appear that Ashley Cole, the disowned former son, fouled Aleksandr Hleb in the lead-up to Michael Essien's astonishing strike. But Chelsea rattled the woodwork so often that the Stamford Bridge groundsman will probably be touching up the paintwork on the goalposts this morning.

Having said that, for the second time in a couple of weeks, Chelsea pulled themselves around by dispensing with what is becoming a mystifying initial tactical set-up. Although Arsenal only went ahead in the 78th minute, eleven or so minutes after Chelsea brought on Arjen Robben and Shaun Wright-Phillips, that opener was much less in keeping with the run of play than had it been scored before Chelsea went to 4-3-3.

Even with only twelve minutes remaining, the likelihood of Chelsea's scoring at least one in response seemed quite high, and as it turned out, they could have had several.

The strange thing about the fact that Chelsea have had to change to the 4-3-3 formation to save matches is that it was exactly the system that had brought Jose Mourinho's side success in the first two seasons of his management. Clearly, the signing of Michael Ballack and Andrij Shevchenko - and the need for their deployment - has forced Mourinho into an unnatural reshuffle of his tactics.

Also, the good form of Didier Drogba this season has meant that the man whom many felt would make way for Shevchenko has been himself, as Mourinho called it, "untouchable".
But the introduction of the wingers Robben and Wright-Phillips brought a dynamism to Chelsea's attack that is generally non-existent as they seek to bludgeon teams with the heavyweight midfield four of Ballack, Lampard, Essien and Makalele.

Prior to the changes, Arsenal's heroic young defenders, with tremendous assistance from the heroic Gilberto Silva - a man who appears to be becoming more naturally suited to the captain's armband than Therry Henry is - were able to hold out the powerful champions. At times it was quite desperate stuff: Fabregas' clearance off the line from Essien, Gilberto Silva's lunging distraction as the Ghanaian shot on another occasion.

But the guerilla tactics kept Arsenal hanging in there, breaking with purpose and threat. The goal was typical of this approach, the Gunners moving up the pitch, committing numbers enough to stretch Chelsea and leave the space for Flamini.

On another day Chelsea would have overran them, but the character and courage the young Arsenal team showed made them worthy of a point.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Heineken Stakes High For Irish Sides

Is it any wonder that the profile of rugby in Ireland seems to be inflating nearly as exponentially as my stomach is likely to over the coming weeks of mince pie and savoury party snack heaven.

Not only does the everyone-loves-a-winner factor mean that our strutting, gunslinging national team are the nation's darlings du jour, but also the scheduling of two crucial rounds of Heineken Cup group matches for just after the November internationals means that the sport's box office stars will continue to occupy our thoughts for another few weeks.

There will be more Heineken Cup in January, before the boozy city-break bonhomie of the Six Nations kicks in for six weeks, and then the concluding stages of the Europe's premier competition bring you up to May.

This means that rugby will be at the forefront of the minds of those fickle, low-attention- spanned scoundrels, the General Public, for a good eight months - not including the much dreaded summer tour to Argentina. Not bad going in the bustling marketplace that hawkers of top class sport inhabit.

What did rugby folk do before the Heineken Cup? Traipse around mucky club fields of a winter Saturday, shuffle along to an interpro or two, offering it up as penance for the indulgence of the springtime international debauchery to come. We live in no-guilt times now, of course, and can debase ourselves almost every weekend if we wish.

Anyhow, Munster are unlikely to debase themselves in these group stages at least, starting them as they have in the firm, businesslike manner of champions. They were inches away from losing against Leicester - the distance by which Ronan O'Gara's monstrous last gasp hoof cleared the bar - but seemed, even as they went behind in the game, to retain control of their destiny, rather like in the manner England manouevred their winning drop goal situation in the 2003 World Cup final.

That might be understating how close they came to losing, as, had Shane Jennings not offered dissent on the awarding of the crucial penalty, then the kick would have been out of even O'Gara's reach. Still, you'd kind of had fancied them to stick it in the corner and rumble over for a winner anyway.

Where Munster are now is confirmed in the stats: if they defeat Cardiff on Sunday they will match Leicester's record of 11 tournament wins in a row and go past the Tigers' record of 5 consecutive Heineken away wins. And then there are the 30 home wins on the trot.

Cardiff should be a tough one, although the Blues will have to deal with a whole different Munster proposition from that which they defeated in the Magners League in September. They will attack Munster with ball in hand from the breakdown through Martyn Williams and burly scrum half Mike Philips. Munster have more than enough class for this one however.

Leinster and Ulster are not bobbing along anywhere near as gracefully as Munster; both of them face must win games this weekend.

London Irish are already the makeweights in Ulster's tough group, and victory at the Madejski on Saturday will be seen as a prerequisite if hopes of a quarter final place are not unfounded. Not only that, but in this group every bonus point is a prisoner, and Ulster have to pick one up somewhere to make up for that spurned in the opening day win over Toulouse.

A big performance is needed and, with the ego-boost of international honours many of their players now have, they should have the confidence to it against an exiles side out of the running already.

Leinster too have no margin for error, against Agen. That frustrating defeat in Edinburgh felt like an unexpected stumble, but one that Leinster are all too capable of. They lack that drive and unity of purpose which Munster have, a deficit of practical know-how.

You can pretty much guarantee that Saturday's game at Lansdowne (the latest "last game" in the old ground, this time being the final Heineken Cup match - Christ, would someone knock the place down already) will be open and high scoring, given the presence on Agen's team of the exuberant Fijian winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca and on Leinster's of Ireland's dashing blades of the backline.

The good thing is, the more open the game, the better for Leinster, capable as they are of out-running most teams. The absence of out-half Felipe Contepomi, however, is bound to diminish them, and you worry for them a bit if they fall behind or find themselves misfiring creatively.

Will they be able to battle out a win? They'll have to.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Gotta Have Personality

It is rather ironic that, in the year the BBC moved their Sports Personality of the Year shindig from the cosy confines of Broadcasting House to the cavernous, 3000-capacity NEC in Birmingham, it should be presented with the limpest shortlist of contenders in recent memory, following one of the Brits' poorest sporting years in some time.

"Poppycock!", cry the champions of minority pursuits, fond as they are of quaint admonishments. "Did not Nicole Cooke win the women's Tour de France and top the road race world rankings this year?", they say, indignantly.

"That's not all! Beth Tweddle overcame the disability of having a silly name to win a world gymnastics gold medal in the uneven bars! And what about Zara Phillips, herself bravely surmounting the handicap of several generations of inbred British royal blood to win the world three day eventing gold, Gawd bless you Ma'am?"

"Wot about Ricky 'atton and Joe Calzaghe?" piped up a flat nosed fellow in the back; "Ricky won the WBA world welterweight title, and Calzaghe took the WBO and IBF super-middleweight belts after what was described as one of the best performances by a British boxer ever."

"Then you've got Phil 'The Power' Taylor," belches a portly fellow in a silk shirt holding a pint glass. "Isn't it time the 13-times World Darts Champion got some proper recognition outwith the bounds of the Circus Tavern, Purfleet?"

"Surely that high-achieving bunch make up for the runts of the litter: one-Grand-Prix-win-in-113 attempts Jenson Button," they declare in unison, "world no.17 tennis player Andrew Murray and the cricketer who can't get a game ahead of Drop the Ashes-ley Giles."

No, my poorly-catered-for-by-the-media friends. For, you see, this is a sports personality contest. Which is why Darren Clarke, who won several important golf matches in September, will win the award for crying over the recent death of his wife in front of millions. Well, winning some important golf matches, then crying over the recent death of his wife in front of millions.

The BBC is a mass appeal television station (although the Ryder Cup was broadcast on Sky, but that's neither here nor there), in case you didn't know, and therefore deals heavily in broad, affecting images. Del Boy falling through a bar flap; Dirty Den being shot by a bouquet of flowers; the Queen on a horse. Snapshots of the nation in cultural congress.

The Sports Personality of the Year contest cares not for the minutiae of the tennis player's serving technique; it craves the climb into the centre court crowd toward aged relative. It has no interest in the laborious process of perfecting a gymnastic manouevre; it rejoices in the tearful waif with seven weighty gold medals around her neck. It yawns at consistency and doggedness; yelps in appreciation at emotion and spectacle.

Winners of previous years illustrate this. In 2001 David Beckham won the award for scoring one free kick in about forty-two attempts against Greece in that year's final World Cup qualifier. Second placed Ellen MacArthur only sailed around the world on her own - quite clearly an inferior achievement.
In general - or rather, in good years - the winner has achieved something worthwhile. But, more importantly, they will also have contributed a defining and timeless moment to a wide spread of the population. They will have made a lodgement in the collective bank of celebratory shared experience.
In a sparse year of sporting accomplishment across the water, Darren Clarke's public catharsis at the K Club was this year's most intensely affecting sporting image, which is why he will take the BBC's award and, while he's at it, any that are going on this island as well.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Aussie Victorious is A Matter of Pride

If you've found recent media coverage of the Ashes excessive, both in that which has spilled over from the cross channel outlets, and also the fact that it gets any attention at all in this country, then you'll be delighted to have seen the English wickets tumble this morning, in that familiar way they had of doing so in the not-so-distant past.

The loss of the second test and the destruction of an English nerve that snapped under the irresistible weight of Shane Warne's genius should see English cricket's giddy garlands of the summer of 2005 folded up and put away, to be looked back on only in quiet moments of repose.

The shellshocked English cricketers will be feeling bad enough today, as that prized urn and those happy memories slip further away. The full force of Australia Victorious, however, will only worsen their demeanour.

There is, probably, no worse place to be a loser, and no worse loser to be, than an Englishman in Australia. England as a nation does not have its enemies to seek, and there would appear to be far more rancourous historical foes around than the Aussies, whose original flowering was, after all, from relatively recently planted British seed.

But it is precisely that closeness that infuses the bile into the nations' sporting conflicts. The shared language only allows the insults to be more easily understood.

Any young nation - and there are few younger than Australia, for whom the tragedy of Gallipoli as recently as 1915 is regarded as the source wellspring of their national identity - must establish itself and its independence as distinctly as possible from that of its 'mother' country, or that which had previously dominated it.

In Ireland, Eamon De Valera's controversial policy of economic self-sufficiency and total diplomatic independence from Britain was conceived to bolster and iron-cast the new nation's separate status. By remaining neutral in the Second World War and, in the process, enraging Winston Churchill through his refusal to allow the use in that conflict of the so-called 'Treaty Ports', De Valera intended to underline to the world the distinctiveness of the Irish nation.

Australia's disengagement from Britain, on the other hand, was gradual, bloodless and incomplete, the country coming into existence in 1901 as the Commonwealth of Australia, retaining to this day, of course, the Union Jack on its flag and the Queen as its Head of State.

But the Australians have a special enmity for the English, and it is clearly that of the younger sibling towards his elder, or the troubled teenager toward his overbearing parent.

None of this stops them sending their youthful population to work in English pubs, or from engaging enthusiastically with English culture - The Bill is phenomenally and mystifyingly popular in Australia, as, more understandably, are the traditional British sitcom and the meat pie (which they have perfected into a artery-solidifying wonder).

But the gory glee taken in their sporting defeats of the English speaks of their own Treaty Ports: the unbending and bitter pride they take in their excellence on the sports field, and the values they celebrate therein.

The scorn heaped on the invariably whinging Poms is intended to 'barrack' - a quintessentially Aussie term for vocal support - for what the Aussies see as positive in themselves: manly athleticism; a steely, hardbitten character; the uncompromising pursuit of victory.

Social anthropologists might speculate on how the taming of that harsh continent imbued these virtues, but however they came about, the sight of a bunch of Englishmen whimpering and folding to defeat this morning will have enthused any Aussie worth his salt.

Ian Bell's dithering dismissal - run out when seemingly caught in a funk as Paul Collingwood called to him for a single - and Ashley Giles' greasy palmed drop earlier in the test would have been seen as encapsulating everything the lack of which made Australia great.

There might not be much more attention paid to these Ashes around these parts now that the series is effectively over, but those unfortunate Englishmen will hear plenty about it for the next few weeks.

Its a matter of national pride.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Lonesome Death of the Centre Forward

The death occurred sometime in the early hours of the 21st century of the Old Fashioned Centre Forward. Despite having been in failing health until shortly before the end, his passing came as a shock to those who knew him. It is believed that he never fully recovered from complications developed after a routine cosmetic tactical procedure.

Having had his partner removed and reconstructed as The Makalele Role, the Centre Forward was unable to sustain life in isolation. He is survived by his brothers, Crafty Midfield Schemer and No-Nonsense Centre-Half.

A venerable and much loved figure, OFCF came to prominence in the early days of the game. A robust, ruddy-cheeked youth, he was usually to be found levitating in mid-air around the six yard box, from which location he was ideally situated to propel himself towards either a crossed ball, or the fleshy midriff of a trembling goalkeeper.

In his own phrase, he was "bloody useless" outside the penalty box. Indeed, his interventions when roaming far from his natural habitat earned nomenclature of their own: the Centre Forward's Tackle, for instance, being a variety of that art peculiar for its lack of the slightest resemblance to a tackle at all.

Ditto his contributions when drafted into his own box on defensive detail: a Centre Forward's Clearance typically undertaking a vertical, ballooning trajectory, before settling at the grateful feet of an attacking player.

But he was readily forgiven these shortcomings - indeed, they were merely source material for gentle, ribbing banter - due to the compensatory nature of what were reverentially termed his "predatory instincts".

Predatory Instincts were OFCF's broadsword, his stock-in-trade, the medium by which he delivered his message. He used Predatory Instincts like a singer uses song, like a poet uses verse, like a fireman uses a hose. He was them; they defined him. Without them, he was nothing. A Utility Player maybe; a Pacy Winger if he was lucky.

With them, he conquered the world. He advertised hair cream, after shave, Shredded Wheat. He slept with pop stars, models, barmaids. He appeared on Parkinson, This is Your Life, Quiz Ball. He won World Cups, European Championships, Leyland DAF Trophies.

He wore his Predatory Instincts like the medallion on his chest and the sideburns on his face: with atavistic pride, happily allowing any priapic symbolism to suggest itself.

And then one day, he turned up with his Predatory Instincts, his medallion and his sideburns, and found to his horror that everyone else was wearing skinny ties, tight buzz-cuts and talking about something called an "All Round Game."

"But what about Predatory Instincts?" he protested, gesturing over his shoulder in the direction of his penalty box domain.

"Not enough these days, mate," sighed his manager in response. "We're only playing one man up front now, since we brought The Makalele Role in. We can't be having you ambling about up there like a bloody elephant on the African plains. We need someone with an All Round Game."

"It might look like I'm aimlessly loitering like a disenfranchised youth in a shopping mall, but when the ball comes near I spring dangerously to life!"

"That's the problem OFCF. Because we have The Makalele Role here now, most of our players are dedicated to important things," said the boss, avoiding eye contact, "like covering, marking, tackling, holding, and suchlike. Scoring goals, is it? Hah! That's an anachronism, boy."

And then, lowering his voice, and staring at the distraught OFCF: "You're finished lad."

"You need to make your own goals now, OFCF," whispered one of his oldest colleagues, Tidy Full Back.

He tried to adjust, to get on board with this All Round Game notion. Dropping wide, or into the hole. But he looked confused and sad; his heart wasn't in it. Every now and then he would head for the comfort of the box, and make the little runs he used to love - waiting to spring dangerously to life. People turned away; old friends shook their heads.

And so OFCF began to disappear from the game, tumbling from the top of the tree and bumping painfully off every lower league branch on the way down, until he resurfaced every now and again in third round cup ties, played in cramped little grounds where time, happily, stood still.

The end was peaceful when it came, thankfully. May God rest him and heaven abound in sweet crosses on his 'ead.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Larsson Gets Chance For Happy Ending

It seemed such a shame at the time that Henrik Larsson’s last contribution on a major footballing stage would be that missed penalty in Sweden’s World Cup finals second round match against Germany. He was never much of a penalty taker even in his Celtic pomp, one of the few aspects of the striker’s art that he did not master; but it was a poor kick, a limp conclusion to a career at the top level that deserved rather to have as its final flourish his match-turning contribution from the bench for Barcelona in the Champions League final a few weeks earlier.

With due respect to Helsingborgs, the club in his homeland with whom he has spent the last few months, and to whom he will return in March for the beginning of the new Swedish season, it seems that Larsson will now add another unlikely chapter to the glorious twilight of his career when he signs, on loan, for Manchester United in January.

One can only presume that many clubs – including his last, Barcelona – wished to secure Larsson’s services at the end of last season. The sapping of pace from his legs through the advancement of years seemed to be progressing in an inversely proportionate manner to the cultivation of a footballing intelligence that no top manager can have missed. Whether Alex Ferguson was among those managers inquiring as to whether he could obtain the Swede’s services last summer we do not know, but the snapping up of Larsson could prove to be a crucial piece of business for the club.

Even so gilded a team as Barcelona were visibly boosted by his introductions last season. In the Champions League tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the Catalans, despite being a man up, had begun to toil against the formidable Blues rearguard. Repeated probings by Ronaldinho and co. had failed to pierce the Chelsea rearguard, until Larsson entered the fray. His exploitation of space in the inside-left channel, particularly in the run-up to Eto’o’s winner, helped Barca come from behind to win 2-1.

In the Champions League final, in an almost identical situation, Larsson’s impact was unmistakeable. Firstly guiding a Deco ball through to Eto’o for the equaliser, then turning at the goal-line and rolling an immaculate pass to Belletti to score the winner. Little wonder that despite only being at the club for two seasons, and having spent much of the first injured, Larsson left Barca as something of a cult hero.

Those who have followed Larsson throughout his career, or at least since his arrival at Celtic in 1997, will have become familiar with the man’s admirable character, exemplified once again in his refusal to abandon his commitment to Helsingborgs, both at the end of last season and in the stated intention to return to the Swedish club for the beginning of their season in March. Whether in his recovery from a horrific leg-break at Celtic, or in his decision to spurn offers to leave the Glasgow club at the peak of his career because of his emotional attachment to them and his family’s happiness in Scotland, he has consistently come across as being a footballer of rare emotional intelligence and perspective.

United’s surprise manouevre has little to do with emotional intelligence however; Alex Ferguson will be looking to bolster his youthful forward line with Larsson’s experience and nous at a time of the season when he hopes his team will be reaching full gallop in the title race. Will Larsson do for this United side what Eric Cantona did in the 1992-93 season?

Now that would be a fitting end to his career.

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