Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Losers - Part Two

Take your mind off the excitement of transfer deadline day (will Stoke's Michael Duberry go to Reading? The thrills!) with more of sport's greatest losers....

Greg Norman
Back in the days when you could be the number one golfer in the world AND be a mere mortal, there were none more mortal than Greg Norman. Despite finishing top of the world rankings on no less than seven occasions (1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996 and 1997) and twice winning the British Open, Norman will unfortunately be better remembered for his many and various last day misfortunes in the majors.

Nicknamed 'the Great White Shark', Norman more often possessed the predatory nature of drifting plankton when it came to major Sunday. In 1986 he created the 'Norman Slam', leading all four majors on the Saturday and only winning the Open. He's also only one of two players, along with Craig Wood, to have lost play-offs in all four majors.

He was twice denied by miraculous shots from rivals: in the 1986 PGA when Bob Tway holed from the bunker and in the 1987 Masters when Larry Mize famously chipped in on the second play-off hole.

However, the moment when the Great White really got the Roy Schneider treatment was at the 1996 Masters. Leading the tournament by six shots going into the final day, Norman shot a miserable 78 to allow Nick Faldo to romp to a five shot win. Still, Norman has assuaged the pain of his final day fumbles by running a multi-million dollar business empire, the ownership of several monstrous yachts and a Gulfstream V jet, and the courtship of one Chris Evert.

Dublin Gaelic Football 1984-94, 1996-Present
The twelve year spell that spanned the period between the last of Dublin's All-Ireland triumphs of the Kevin Heffernan era and their sole Sam Maguire win of the last 23 years can be broken into two spells.
Following 1983, much like Kerry after Mick O'Dwyer's departure, the Dubs endured something of a natural lull, which coincided with the great success of Sean Boylan's Meath team of the late 1980s. From 1991 onwards, however, Dublin's attempt to regain Sam became a national soap-opera.

In 1991 they lost the epic four-game Leinster Championship first round tie against Meath. Almost 240,000 spectators turned up over the course of that famous summer series, when it was felt that Dublin would at last recapture their rightful place as Leinster's top side.

Towards the end of the fourth match it appeared that they had at last shaken Meath off, leading as they were by three points. But a Kevin Foley goal and a David Beggy point gave the Royal county victory in one of the GAA's great encounters.

No matter, 1992 saw the Dubs in an All-Ireland final for the first time since 1985. And playing Donegal, themselves in their first ever final, and, being the home of Daniel O'Donnell, generally the subject of patronising remarks on their fondness for their Mammies. The Dubs therefore prepared for the final by modelling outfits for Arnotts.

However, the likes of Martin 'Rambo' Gavigan, Tony Boyle, Anthony Molloy and Brian Murray demonstrated none of the characteristics of overt maternal sentimentality in defeating Dublin 0-18 to 0-14, leaving the Metropolitans Sam-free for another year.

Incredibly, having outlived the expiration of the Meath and Cork domination of the late 80s, Dublin had been broadsided by the sudden explosion of Ulster football. In 1994 they were the victims of Joltin' Joe Brolly and Derry, losing 0-15 to 0-14 in the semi, before losing to Down in the 1994 decider.

Eventually, with a young Jason Sherlock educating the Hill about multi-culturalism, they managed to break the Ulster hoodoo by overcoming Tyrone in 1995, despite Peter Canavan's incredible haul of 11 points in the final.

The current, ongoing, drought went along similar lines: a quiet spell as a resurgent Meath took centre stage in Leinster, then a deluge of heartbreak. 2001 and Maurice Fitzgerald's long point for Kerry in the quarter final in Thurles, Ray Cosgrove hitting the post with a free in the defeat against Armagh in the 2002 semi-final, then last year's astonishing loss against Mayo.

Still, they've been made to suffer before. With question marks over Armagh and Tyrone, Kerry coping with new management and the loss of Seamus Moynihan, could the pain be ended this year?

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sport's Greatest Losers - Part 1

You have to admire their persistence. With each new day England's intrepid band of cricketing tourists send back ever more humiliating tales of calamitous defeat. In the spirit of ill-fated English expeditions, it is surely only a matter of time before Andrew Flintoff announces to the the dressing room: "I am just going outside, and may be some time". Though given the brevity of their stints at the crease, that wouldn't be such a bad idea.

To put it all in perspective, let's bellow 'shame' at some of sport's other most pitiful losers.
Chicago Cubs 1908 - Present
Starting with the organisation that has explored the concept of losing with such painstaking detail for nearly a century now, such that, if there were a competition for the biggest losers, they would win, except that would be a paradox, thus denying them even that honour.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series was 1908, the year in which Henry Ford produced his first Model T automobile, Robert Baden Powell began the Boy Scout movement and the women's suffrage movement was in the midst of a strategy of civil disobedience. Oh, and Australia regained the Ashes with a 308 run victory over England (England did manage to win one test however).
World Series would be a fine thing - this crowd can't even get their hands on a National League title, last winning a 'pennant' in 1945, when Frank Sinatra was getting chased by bobbysoxers and it was still ok to nuke a city.
This empire of failure appointed a new high-priest of haplessness in 2003, when, a mere two outs from getting to the World Series in the NL championship game against the Florida Marlins, fan Steve Bartman attempted to catch a foul ball instead of allowing outfielder Moises Alou take the catch to get another out. The Cubs subsequently collapsed, the Marlins won the World Series, and the world returned to its axis.
Manchester United 1968-1993
Although currently being slavishly imitated by Liverpool with their take on the Crumbling Empire/Subsequent Famine trick, the Reds of Merseyside have some way to go before matching the years in the wilderness endured by United between the glorious seasons of 1966/67 and 1967/68 in which they won the league and European Cup, and their return to the pinnacle of English football in 1993/93.

United were an object lesson in the problems of succession: Matt Busby's retirement in 1969 saw a succession of manager's fail to match the achievements of the Scot's 24 years in charge. Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell were too meek, Tommy Docherty too mad, Dave Sexton too defensive and Big Ron too tanned. Famously, it took Alex Ferguson almost seven years to drag the club to a title.

The nadir was a relegation in 1974, which Liverpool have, as yet, failed to match. Perhaps as heartbreaking was the failure to win the 1992 title, the last First Division championship they would compete for, which Leeds won after United lost 2-0 against, ahem, Liverpool. Still, they've rather made up for it since.

2005 British & Irish Lions
New Zealand could hardly have been a less hospitable place for the 2005 Lions to visit had the host country arranged a tour match against some Orcs left over from the filming of Lord of the Rings. The test results were by no means the worst ever either, the tourists having gotten smacked up four times in 1966 and 1983, rather than the mere three whippings they took in 2005.

But the way the tour was conducted, when added to the whitewash on the field, sets this tour up for particular derision. This was Clive Woodward's Heaven's Gate, the folly to end all follies. From the whole 'Power of Four' nonsense (which included a specially commissioned and immediately forgotten anthem) to the vast massed ranks of backroom staff that shuffled along in their wake, verily this was a carnival of cluelessness.

Being exactly the kind of Englishman whose superciliousness plays poorly in the Antipodes, Woodward was always up against it. But when his tactics consisted of the dusting down of a manual entitled "England 2003 - Biff, Bash and Wilko" observers were entitled to wonder whether more time had been spent on assembling the 26-strong backroom staff than in devising a remotely cogent gameplan.
If Willie John McBride had issued his famous '99' call in 2005, this lot would looked around for the ice-cream van.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

All-Ireland League? But That Would Be Logical!

The old aphorism about sport and politics not mixing is slightly inaccurate, or at least poorly phrased. In actual fact, they do mix: frequently, and with terrible results. The statement should, therefore, read: "sport and politics do not mix well."

The truth of this was demonstrated in a discussion on BBC Northern Ireland's Season Ticket programme on Thursday last, following Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahern's quite reasonable remark that Ireland's two governing bodies in soccer, the FAI and the IFA, should merge.

Of course, when I say 'quite reasonable' I realise that the concept of reasonableness as applied to any matter relating to the partition of this island is utterly pointless. Logic is banished from discussions on cross-border relations quicker than Seán Bán Breathnach from a meeting of the Ulster-Scots society.

Lay the usual tribal neuroses of embattled minor football federations on top of that and you have a malodourous concoction that does, indeed, not mix well.

When the Season Ticket show came to address the matter, they dispensed with the prickly discussion of an All-Ireland national team. Fair enough - what mere chummy-natured sports magazine show would bring upon themselves a debate one step removed from the very elephant that sits in every room in the province.

They did, however, chew over the idea of an All-Ireland league. Well, they didn't quite chew it over, taking more of a small bite which they then proceeded to spit out like children being force-fed liver.

Reporter Gavin Andrews conducted a vox pop of local football fans who seemed more or less split on the question - I know, a divisive issue in Northern Ireland, whatever next?! - although those in support of the idea seemed suspiciously clad in the colours of Cliftonville, a team with a traditionally nationalist support.

The studio discussion, however, considered the matter with all the thoughtful consideration of George Bush contemplating the bombing of a Basra munitions factory.

First off, Roy Coyle, veteran former manager of Linfield, Derry City, Ards and Glentoran did the old switcheroo. "We shouldn't be talking about this, we should be talking about training facilities in the province, they are a disgrace," he harrumphed. Well Roy, we are talking about this.

Jim Gracey, chief sportswriter with the Sunday Life newspaper, at least allowed the subject the honour of precedence over mucky training fields. The jist of his dismissal of the idea was that it would prove too expensive for the clubs - in attempting to compete with their full-time rivals in the south and in travel costs - and for fans - travel costs again.

Gracey illustrated his case with the example of clubs like Loughgall, or Ards, having to travel somewhere like Cork, and the attendant costs involved.

At no point in the discussion were the possible benefits of an All-Ireland league considered. For example, the fact that an amalgamated league would create a larger marketplace for the product, which could lead improved television and sponsorship revenues.

Aside from financial rewards (which would presumably offset travelling costs), the improvement in standards that increased competition would bring would seem a logical (that word again) by-product of amalgamation, by simple dint of combination of the two leagues' stronger sides.

It would indeed be a chore for Loughgall to travel to Cork, but little more than it would be for Cork folk to have them. Obviously proponents of a unified league see more attraction in pitting clubs such as Linfield, Glentoran or Portadown against the likes of Shelbourne, Derry City and Cork City, than in dragging Loughgall and Ards far from home.

Fundamentally, surely the simple principal of maximising the meagre footballing resources of the island makes sense? The panellists on Season Ticket mentioned on several occasions how much of a success the Setanta Cup had been, then performed somersaults of reason to avoid acknowledging that the same benefits would accrue in an All-Ireland league.

Perhaps the politics that taint this argument are merely those of the sporting bodies involved; or perhaps the merging of the Irish footballing entities carries too much of the whiff of republicanism for some. Whatever, the logic of the argument for an amalgamated league seems to be another victim of the invariably foul brew of sport and politics.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Federer: A Study

As Roger Federer heads towards another Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, playing what is regarded as some of the best tennis ever seen, Sir Geoffrey Montague, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Sallynoggin Community College and lawn tennis enthusiast, provides our contribution to the high-falutin, quasi-intellectual orgy of prose the Swingin' Swiss inspires.

Time, space; light, shade; truth, beauty; Federer, Roger.
I have had the great fortune of seeing - experiencing - most of the great masters' works: Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Tony Hart. It is therefore rare, in my advancing years, that I am truly amazed, dumbstruck by an artist (or indeed by anything, save the many kindnesses I receive from my young Ecuadorean manservant, Juan).
But of late, this tired old heart has leapt uncontrollably at the sight of the foremost artist of our time: I speak of one Roger Federer. His canvas, the court. The racquet is his graphite brush. His easel comprises the unlimited colours and shades of his sublime vision and imagination.
His muse? Is it Athena herself, the Greek goddess whose portfolio included the arts, skill and war? Or sweet Aphrodite, representative of beauty and love, virtues which resound with every stroke of Federer's sublime wand?
If the long-gone tennis of Laver and McEnroe was the classical style, followed by the brutal futurism of the power hitters, how must we characterise Federer? Impressionist, in the utilisation of light and space in the representation of his object; post-impressionist, in the subjective self-expression he brings to his art; or even dadaist, in the absurdity and nonsensicality of many of his most improbable shots.
I'm sure you have your own thoughts, dear reader. Or perhaps not.

Of course Roger Federer poses many other questions of the aesthete. Is he poet, or warrior? Or warrior-poet? Philosopher-king, or idiot savant? Animal, vegetable or mineral?
The sinews of his bronzed legs (might we venture Donatello's David, at this point?), the lush velure of his hair, bouncing elegantly atop that proud but kindly face; the taut muscularity of his chest, pointing the way inevitably downwards to - ok, that's enough of that, thank you - Impropriety Ed.

Sincerest apologies, my dears - thank you Juan, I feel much better now.

In summation, we can see in Roger Federer the final stop on evolution's journey, the ubermensche, yet the benevolent tyrant. He savages, then he emolliates. But most importantly, if, as Emerson said, the creation of beauty is Art, then we must conclude: Art, thy name is Federer.

Coming soon: Sir Geoffrey on Phil 'The Power' Taylor

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Heineken Cup Review: Hard Road Ahead

The announcement of the Irish squad today for the first Six Nations match against Wales on Sunday week draws a natural line under Heineken Cup matters and focuses attention on the springtime soirée about to ensue. Albeit the provinces plod on with Magners League fixtures in the midst of the international hoopla, the top players are, of course, spirited away to be rubbed nightly in papaya and honey balm, wrapped in silk sheets then rocked to sleep by the sound of lute lullabies.

Before all that a timely moment, then, to survey their exploits thus far in the Grand Papa of club competitions. And my, what a confused and conflicting scene we are presented with, full of giddy backslapping one moment then fear and loathing the next.
This season's pool stages seemed bipolar in nature, all three of the Irish provinces vascillating from Marlon Brando to Marlon from Emmerdale within six matches.

There was obviously enough good stuff in there to help (on top of the Autumn international successes) put a jaunty spring in our World Cup year step.

Ulster's demolition of Toulouse in the first round seemed to point to great things, suggesting that a Third Way was about to present itself between the red and blue of Ireland's hitherto dominant ideologies.

With Ulster's 1999 success in the tournament generally accompanied with an asterisk - "note: no English teams participated in this season's competition" - was this, with a tough pack steered by General Humphreys at outhalf and youthful promise in the backs, the province staking a rightful claim to contender status?

Leinster's drop dead gorgeous attacking potential was demonstrated against Gloucester at home, then fulfilled against Edinburgh at Donnybrook, a fantastic display of a 15-man game, admittedly against a team whose interest in the fixture was mild, and certainly not prolonged.

But it was the gutsy win in Agen that augured best for Leinster, a courageous and hard-fought victory which seemed to suggest that the flibbertigibbets were all grown up, thanks to the introduction by Keogh and Hogan of foul-humoured Munsterness into the pack.

Munster, we said, were 'savvy'. 'Experienced'. 'Nous' was mentioned. So too 'smarts'. The smuggling of a win from Welford Road was the best moment, a triumph of nerve in the face of alarming reversals in the scrum which would only be properly punished at the end of the pool stages.

The word 'Ulster' now accompanies in many dictionaries of modern usage, the phrase 'flattering to deceive'. The trip to Llanelli was seen as the reckoning, the revelation of whether Ulster were anything but home-town heroes.

Defeat at Stradey Park, in a game in which the province never got a foothold, was deflating, and the rest of the group offered only ignominy: a loss to the Welsh side at Fortress Ravenhill, and the fact that the fight between an Ulster supporter and Trevor Brennan was the only meaningful contest in which the province were involved on the last day.

For Leinster, a silly, maddening loss to Edinburgh suggested a lack of focus, but the loss to Gloucester was more depressing. A foul night in January did not help, but the sense of lack of control was all-pervasive, the conditions preventing Leinster from maximising, as they usually do, their inferior percentage of possession. The questions will not go away.

Still, we can live with Leinster's foibles, due to familiarity. The decimation of the Munster set-piece in defeat by Leicester at Thomond Park (the shock of it! Losing at Thomond, and on a good, dirty oul night too!) was the most worrying sight of all, even if it had been coming. Leicester tossed the Munster pack around like a plastic bag in a gale, the scrum especially being ransacked.

Away quarter-finals, the old question marks arising, Biarritz determined, Leicester rejuvenated, Llanelli flying....will the trophy so bumped and boozed around the south-west this last eight months or so be leaving our shores?

With the Six Nations to come first, clairvoyancy for the Heineken Cup is ill-advised until the body count is in. The absence of an O'Gara or a Contepomi (admittedly not playing in the Six Nations) would be almost terminal for either side.

Still I expect at least one of them to win their way to a semi-final, and will state that it is not beyond both. Munster do not have a great record in Wales, that day in May notwithstanding, but will not fear Llanelli. And Wasps is not the worst draw for Leinster either, whatever about the obstacle posed by their blitz defence.

But they're both strong opponents, and at home. With potential semi-finals away also, an Irish win this year would be even more hard-wrought than the momentous one of 2006.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

National League reforms: Football Euthanasia For Weaker Counties?

As we know, pretty much every reform that the GAA comes up with - be it the rejigging of competition formats, the stiffening of disciplinary procedures, or the sanitising of pitch-side chaos - is attacked like piranhas on a Bond villain's leg by contemptuous inter-county managers. Being voraciously devoured today are the proposed changes to the football league and, in turn, its knock-on to the championship fortunes of the 'so-called weaker counties'.

That phrase alone is surely endangered, ponging as it is of political incorrectness; we must soon undoubtedly call them 'the developing counties', or even 'counties of alternative footballing cultures'. Bob Geldof and Chris Martin could plead for the donation of spare footballs, while wearing a wristband in the Carlow colours (Chris likes the fact that they're a bit Rasta).

Basically the ragged poor that finish bottom ranked in this season's National League, i.e., the bottom four in each of Divisions 2A and 2B, will be cast out into a colony called Division 4 from next season. But it is the ignominy of their championship fate that has most appalled the human rights campaigners in the managers' ranks.

Upon losing in the provincial championship at any stage before the final, any team with 'Division 4' branded on their scrawny posteriors will not be allowed to enter the qualifier system, transported instead to the icy wasteland of the Tommy Murphy Cup (How Tommy Murphy's family must rue the day the late Laois great was 'honoured' with the naming of this trophy, its mention invariably preceded by the words "the lads have no interest in...").

No less than Mick O'Dwyer himself struck forth with his mightiest ire against the changes, describing them as "pure crazy".
"It's pure elitism. The eight so-called weakest counties are discarded while everybody else gets a second chance in the real championship. That's unfair. It's also daft that there's a connection between League and Championship for Division 4 teams. They're separate competitions and should be kept that way," said O'Dwyer.
Longford manager Luke Dempsey echoed O'Dwyer's comments, adding "I also believe that the winners of the Tommy Murphy Cup should be re-admitted to the All-Ireland race. That would really spice it up."
Yikes! A little too spicy old boy! The likes of Wicklow or Tipperary parachuting into the glamour stages of the All-Ireland - we couldn't have that!
The changes are an effort to eliminate many of the seemingly meaningless first round qualifier games, wherein, say, an Armagh or Tyrone bundled sensationally out of Ulster in the first round must tiresomely thump a London or a Waterford before properly rejoining the race.
Also, by discarding a round of inter-county fare, an extra weekend is freed up for the poor, neglected club championships.
So is this a case of killing the weaker counties with kindness, saving them the pain of a hopeless All-Ireland campaign and instead giving them eternal rest in a competition which offers a meaningful chance of silverware?
Or is it, as O'Dwyer says, elitism, the sporting equivalent of a government rounding up all the homeless people off the street and shooting them?
Certainly the wee guys would seem to get little from the All-Ireland championship, save for one big summer day, which they will still get to enjoy. And the charge of elitism can be addressed by the fact that no county is doomed forever to toil in the basement, with league promotion bringing them back into polite society come championship time.
It does seem a unfair, though, that, should they win through even to a provincial semi-final, they would not get the reward of a second chance in the qualifiers.
But the creation of more meaningful games, and championship competion in which teams have realistic ambitions of victory, can only be good for the weaker counties.
It may seem that the GAA are putting these counties out of their misery, but, in the long run, it could be the best thing for their long-term health.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Chelsea Send Out Distress Message

The beginning of the end for Jose? United lose their nerve 'ten minutes from title'? Liverpool as realistic title contenders? Arsenal too, maybe?

Trying to interpret the messages from Grand Slam weekend is almost like being in a NASA laboratory attempting to decipher what appears to be a communication from another planet: behind all the white noise and static, what does it say?
With just seven minutes to go in yesterday's match at the Emirates Stadium (which will have felt more like home for Arsenal fans than at any time since the move from Highbury, thanks to the memorable manner of their victory) the interpretation seemed clear: Manchester United were surely champions.
In a match of few clear-cut chances, they looked to have edged out one of their biggest rivals with the type of gritty performance usually seen as the hallmark of title-winners. Arsenal had rarely seriously threatened Edwin Van der Saar's goal, and with the clock ticking down, United looked to be effectively closing out a priceless win.

Three rare things - two whipped-in Arsenal crosses from wide and one Thierry Henry header - later and the champions-elect handed back their de facto crown.
Review and revise: United fumbled their big chance? Bottled it by shrinking back into defence of their lead?
Of course not. A draw would have been an appropriate result, the win flattering an Arsenal team who never imposed their game on the opposition. Certainly United attempted to close the game down from too far out, leaving themselves vulnerable to a team whose bite comes from many potential sources. But United were generally more impressive yesterday than in defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford last September and remain the most convincing candidates for the title at this point.
It could be argued that they are flat-track bullies, having taken only four points from twelve in meetings with their main rivals this season. But in a league where the vast majority of the clubs resemble bespectacled playground weeds, the bully is king.
No, pretty much the only clear message coming out of the weekend whose hype was, for once, almost matched by the excitement on the pitch, was that the conflict between Chelsea's manager and their owner has reached a grave point, such that the team is unrecognisable from that which won the last two league titles.

The sources of the disagreement are well known: Jose Mourinho's frustration at the club's lack of transfer activity at a time when their defensive resources have been stripped bare; and the resentment caused by the failed signature of Andrij Shevchenko: from Roman Abramovich's viewpoint in the manager's inability to integrate him, and from Mourinho's due to the striker's favoured relationship with the owner.

The nature of this feud is cancerous, so malign are the attitudes of both sides. Mourinho's team were so obviously infected by their manager's defeatism before the game at Anfield on Saturday, that one almost suspected their feebleness to be planned. It's testament to our belief in anything being possible when it comes to Mourinho that we could consider him sending out his team to lose, so as to illustrate his point to Abramovich.

But in effect, even if not purposely, that is what his negative attitude succeeded in doing. Rather than attemting to inspire his team to an heroic triumph against the odds, Mourinho's side had all the fight of lemmings approaching a cliff-top.

This becomes the most significant point to emerge from the weekend because - unlike the other three top sides, who demonstrated at least aspects of their best qualities - Chelsea appeared utterly stripped of what made them the best team in England. The loss of such strength of spirit and unity of purpose is vastly more difficult to redress than mere bad form.

Perhaps the return of John Terry from injury could re-instill these lost virtues. But the salving of the wounds of an entire club would seem beyond any one player, no matter how influential.

The fragile but powerful balance of egos between Mourinho and Abramovich which made Chelsea so strong, so quickly, has been wildly disrupted, and the mess that has resulted on the field does not remotely resemble a championship winning team.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

The Sky Sports Creative Process

"Maureen? Let's get some coffee in here, it's gonna be a long night!" barked Ed Stokes, fearsome head of Sky Sports' crack marketing department, at his long-suffering, but devoted secretary.

"Certainly Mr Stokes. You must be busy, what with the top four teams in the Premiership playing each other this weekend and you boys having to come up with a catchy yet sufficiently portentous tag-name for it all."

"That's all, Maureen. Make it snappy with that coffee!.....Right fellas," Stokes sneered, surveying Tristan, Clive and Dean, his trusted triumvirate of 'ideas-men'; the three-pronged imagineers with whom he had conceived Showdown Sunday, Judgment Day, Day of Vengeance, Clash of the Titans and many more of the triumphs which had earned him a place on the Big Man's Christmas card list.

To Ed,

Seasons Greetings

Keep creating the dreams of a nation,

From Rupert and Wendy.

Mid-January and the card still sat on his desk, obscuring the photo of his unsmiling son, Ben, who was obscured from his father in real life by the terms of a harsh custody settlement with his former wife.

"Fellas, we need something big...really big. Liverpool and Chelsea, Arsenal and United. It's the weekend we were born to market. Dazzle me, or clear out your desk!"

Clive coughed and leaned forward on the leather-upholstered sofa, nervously opening a folder which had been hitherto clutched to his chest. "Well, with the whole Rocky thing being very now, I thought we might go with a classic play on boxing. Something like "Battle of the Heavyweights", or "Big Four Knockout Weekend."

It was poor, and Clive knew it. But he'd had rubbish like Showdown Sunday accepted before and knew, when all else failed, that a boxing theme was a failsafe to impress Stokes.

"Clive, do I look like a field of potatoes?"

"Er, no boss," trembled the underling.

"THEN WHY ARE YOU SHOVELLING MANURE ON TOP OF ME!!" Stokes screamed, blowing over the Big Man's Christmas card with his spittle. He quickly re-erected it before fixing Clive with a furious glare.

"Tristan - make it good, or make it your death warrant!"

"Clearly, boss, we need to ratchet up the intensity for this weekend. We need to charge into the second half of the season with all guns blazing - and we've got to steal back the thunder from CBB and that racism angle they're working. It's bloody genius." Tristan spoke confidently, knowing that talking the talk washed big time with Stokes.

"Deathmatch Doubleheader," he whispered menacingly, after an unbearable, pregnant pause.

Stokes' features softened. "It's good, Tristan, it's good." By this point he'd wandered around to their side of the desk, and he accompanied his judgement by grabbing Tristan's face paternally and staring at him intently.

"Deathmatch Doubleheader." He turned and aggressively scrawled the words on the flip chart in the corner of the room. Stokes stared at the words as if transfixed by their power. But after a few moments he began to slowly shake his head, then ever more quickly.

"No, no, no, no...." he said, first in a whisper, progressing to a growl. "No! It's been done!" He wheeled around and fixed his footsoldiers with a thousand-yard stare, looking beyond them and back into his own ragged soul.

"Norwich City v Ipswich/Middlesbrough v Sunderland, Sunday 4th February 1998." He spew out the words as if possessed, or in a trance. Then he turned his head towards Tristan and snarled: "I don't mind you stealing my average stuff. But don't ever, ever touch my best work!"

Dean was hot right now. He'd been seconded to the darts recently and had gotten serious kudos for the Taylor/Barney final.

"Boss, seems to me we're looking for the right woodlouse under the wrong stone." He smirked at the cleverness of his metaphor.

"How so?" replied Stokes.

"We're looking for explosions when the powder's damp." The others looked at each other, and then at Dean, confusion reigning.

"Spit it out or get out, Dean," said Stokes impatiently.

"Four-play!" exclaimed Dean, his hands thrust in the air and his eyes wide as if in evangelical ecstasy.

"Jesus Christ Dean, do you think we're gonna get Richard Keys to say 'Four-play' every five minutes on the telly. Don't get me wrong, I like your moxy. But Keys is a stiff - he'll never go for it," Stokes said sadly.

Just then Maureen knocked on the door. "Now boys. Coffee and some of my home-made fairy-cakes for the hard-working lads. Have you come up with anything yet?"

"Coffee over here. Just leave the rest over there Maureen, that'll be all," Stokes said dismissively, grabbing a cup.

"Oh it must be so hard, such a big important weekend," Maureen continued. "The top four teams playing each other on the one weekend - amazing! It's like, what do you call it, a Grand Slam weekend for the football isn't it?"

The four men looked at each other. Stokes' grip on his cup loosened involuntarily, and it tumbled onto the desk, knocking over the Christmas card from the Big Man and drenching it in hot, brown liquid.

Grand Slam weekend.

Stokes gathered himself.
"Clean that up, will you Maureen."

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cut-and-Shut Rugby Begins to Crack

Just as Irish rugby was enjoying the happy glow of having its two pre-eminent teams safely tucked up in the Heineken Cup quarter finals with a round of pool fixtures to spare, yesterday's announcement by the French clubs of their intention not to participate in next season's competition was a timely reminder of the tensions and inconsistencies which threaten the tournament.

For while the good ship Ireland plots its course on unified, consensus-calmed waters (save for the desperate cries from steerage of the clubs), in France and England the conflict between the powerful, privately owned clubs and the sport's governing bodies is becoming ever more fractious.

In Ireland, we view the Heineken Cup as the pinnacle of club rugby, and it, in turn, has been good to the game here. The explosion of interest in the sport has had as its spark and fuse the annual adventures of the provinces in the tournament. The flood of exposure it has generated for the game has spilled over to wash the once-forlorn Celtic League with its best attendances ever and the dignity, at last, of a sponsor.

But where our domestic competition politely fits around the demands of the Heineken Cup and the international game, in England and France (in particular) the sanctity of the well-established domestic leagues have long interfered with their countries' participation in the European competition and also, lately, with their national sides.

The differences in the organisation of the sport across the unions involved has meant that, despite its undoubted success, the Heineken Cup has resembled a cut-and-shut car: a vehicle comprising two completely differing parts, welded together, but vulnerable to falling apart in the event of any serious impact.

In the case of the current dispute, the blow has come from a combination of the RFU's refusal to share with the clubs control of England's say in the running of the tournament and the dilemma facing the French clubs in accomodating their heavy programme of league fixtures whilst hosting this autumn's World Cup.

In explaining the withdrawal, Serge Blanco, the former French great, now president of the LNR (the French national league body) said "unfortunately, the European Cup is the only leverage we have for our protest against an international calendar which doesn't take into account the issues and the complexities of club rugby....We deplore the blockade put on the Paris Accord negotiations by the disagreement between the English union and their clubs."

Although disapproval of the RFU's position provides the cloak of the greater good to their actions, the French clubs are undoubtedly using it to boost the position of their domestic league in the crowded rugby calendar.

That the Heineken Cup would be used as such a political football would, of course, be unthinkable here, the tournament's eminence being long enshrined in the Celtic nations. Brian O'Driscoll articulated this view yesterday: "I know they take massive pride in their domestic league, but they have to realise pitting themselves against the best teams in Europe is where it's at," said the Irish captain.

That may be true for O'Driscoll and his colleagues, but clearly the imperfect weld-job that has kept the tournament going so far will no longer hold their views and the contrasting ones held in France and England together.

One wonders if the Heineken Cup's organisational fusion of the Celtic, union-led model and the club-dominated one in France and, probably eventually, England, can ever be properly fastened.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

We Love You Limerick 37, We Do!

One of the groups mooted as contenders for the available spot in the brave new FAI eircom League of Ireland (league in trouble? This situation calls for a rebrand! But League of Ireland? Surely that's an old name! No it's not; it's a classic heritage refocus!) has called itself Limerick 37. This name is not, in fact, a statement of the embryonic club's ambition to overhaul Arbroath's record score in a club football match (36-0 against Bon Accord in September 1885) in every single match they play, but a reference to the first year in which senior football was played in Limerick.

It's about time, though, that we had some kooky, screwball club names around these parts. For too long have the Cities, Uniteds and Rovers' exercised their stern hegemony over team monikers.

Do they even mean anything? United - against what? The opposition? You don't say.
Rovers? Where, and to what purpose, do you rove? "The length and breadth of the country in search of vital points, of course!" A brave quest indeed. I expect you bump into those Wanderers from time to time.

Athletic? Oh you are, are you? Isn't that self-evident? You're a football team. I should hope you wouldn't be calling yourselves Charlton Couch-Potatoes.

The standard club names are, of course, historical artefacts from the Victorian genesis of the game in organised form. Back then, to be United, and to Rove, and certainly to be Athletic were considered important virtues in the perennial struggle against juvenile masturbation, which was not as fondly regarded then as it is now.

But the pre-eminence of these handful of tags demonstrates a shocking lack of imagination which the existence of the odd Wednesday and Argyle does little to redress. Some have excused Scotland this criticism, due to the exoticism of some of their club names. Not true.
Stenhousemuir, Cowdenbeath and Alloa are merely the actual names of real places, not planets visited by the Starship Enterprise. The Academicals of Hamilton and Queen of the South are excused, of course. Well done there.

No, like health ministers attempting to curb the binge drinking culture, it is to the continent we must look for inspiration.

The Dutch, like in so many areas, lead the way when it comes to institutionalised craziness. Go Ahead Eagles, now there's a team I'd drag myself out of a coffee shop to support. "Go Ahead Eagles, Make My Day!" the banners would read.

Stormvogels Telstar. Wow, man! I only wanted a mellow high!

Heracles Almelo. "By the power of Heracles, son of Zeus, I command thee to SCORE!" they presumably chant.

FC Omniworld. Now there's a club Captain Kirk would be happy to land the Enterprise on.

Switzerland, despite Orson Welles' claim that in 500 years of peaceful democracy they have only produced the cuckoo clock, nonetheless gave us the Confucianist tactics of the Grasshoppers of Zurich and, of course, the Young Boys of Berne (whom we pray never meet Queen of the South in a UEFA Cup tie).

But enough of tired Old Europe. The far east is the land of promise when it comes to club names. The little heralded Hong Kong league is dominated by Happy Valley F.C., rivals of whom include Double Flower. Imagine it: "The supporters of Happy Valley and Double Flower were involved in vicious running battles after last nights meeting of the two sides....." Not likely.

The Korean league is now sadly dominated by company-named entities such as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, but for a brief spell in the 1980s, Hallelujah FC ruled the domestic scene. Japan is home to Shimuzu S-Pulse, not, it seems, a model of Range Rover, and the mysterious Kyoto Purple Sanga.

But the finest, most evocative, place for club names is the one that gave the world Kaizer Chiefs. No, not Yorkshire (and its Kaizer with a 'z' too), South Africa. Battling it out with the Chiefs are the fearful sounding AmaZulu; the equally warlike Golden Arrows; the more honeymoon-focussed Mamelodi Sundowns; Oscar Wilde's favourite team, the Bidvest Wits; and those advocates of summer football, the Moroka Swallows. Indeed it is also South Africa which utilises the only acceptable use of United: Pretoria based Supersport United gloss over the dullness of the latter word with the craziness of the former.

After all that, Limerick 37 seems positively tame. Nothing less than Super Limerick Fandango Adventurers will do, I'm afraid.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Football's Wild Geese Continue to Fly

One of the few sectors of modern Irish society to still endure the forlorn exile of emigration would seem to be our poor, ragged professional footballers. Of course, for generations young striplings have been banished from their crumbling thatched hovels, their shawl-wrapped mothers keening at the half-door, to scrounge a living in the football hotbeds of Albion. Now, however, it seems that even the menfolk of the Eircom league are being forced to follow in the footsteps of the tattie-hokers and tunnel tigers of yore, and head off for work in England and Scotland.

The contributory factors to this latter-day scattering of Wild Geese are varied. The financial implosion of Shelbourne F.C., the reigning champions of the Eircom League, has aided the departure of defender Sean Dillon to Dundee United, winger Bobby Ryan to Dunfermline Athletic and, only yesterday, the league's top scorer, Jason Byrne, to Cardiff City.

But the pattern of the exodus is too broad to be purely the manifestation of fiscal woes. George O'Callaghan of Cork City, like Byrne one of the league's top players, joined the Shels man in jumping the emigrant boat, heading for the gold-paved streets of Ipswich Town. And these two are just the latest in a procession of players departing since the end of the domestic season in November.

Since the opening of the January transfer window Motherwell signed Trevor Molloy and Paul Keegan of St.Pat's and Danny Murphy of Cork City, Wolves have recruited Bohemians striker Stephen Ward and another Corkman, Roy O'Donovan, has been the subject of speculation about a possible trial at Celtic.

The volume of talent being picked off by cross-channel clubs has led to two popular conclusions. Firstly, that the resounding success of Reading's measly speculation on Kevin Doyle (signed from Cork City for £78,000 in 2005 and now a big, shiny Premiership star) has led to British clubs, ever sharp to the whiff of a bargain, sniffing out the league from whence Doyle came for similar value.

Secondly, that Ireland is the new Scandinavia. Just as the 1990s saw managers send their scouts to scour the fjords and litter-free streets of Norway, Denmark and Sweden for gems like Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Peter Schmeichel and Freddie Ljungberg, now the Eircom league is plundered for the loot of keenly-priced pros, who, like their Scandinavian predecessors, speak English, don't mind the rain and understand the prevailing football culture.

This trend, is, of course, disappointing for Eircom league supporters. Not only have Shelbourne's woes (in addition to the loss of players, manager Pat Fenlon has defected to Derry City) denuded Ireland's representatives in next season's Champions League of the clout to continue our recent European progress, but also the loss of quality players, by definition, diminishes the league.

The efforts made in developing full-time soccer in order to strengthen the domestic game (apart from leading to Shelbourne's near bankruptcy) have, ironically, boosted standards to the extent that the league's best players are now seen as useful targets for British clubs - thereby damaging the league in the end anyway.

In some ways, the league is therefore becoming a victim of its own success.

It seems that, rather than resembling the huddled masses of the famine emigrants, the current footballing exiles are in parallel with the brain drain of the 1980s - the best and brightest, with their fortunes to seek.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

You Too Can Love Leinster

Two things which illustrate why more people don't just absolutely adore Leinster's rugby team (who are playing possibly the aesthetically finest rugby seen this side of a Fijian Sevens blitz). The Dubliner magazine (they of last year's hilarious 'satirical' feature on how Tiger Woods missus was some sort of filthy porn star, a joke which Woods failed to get) ran with a front page feature on "how Brian O'Driscoll made Leinster the hippest rugby team in Europe."

Now, rugby has undoubtedly come on a bit in recent years, but for the love of God, hip? The word is against the very nature of the sport. And it will take a lot more than O'Driscoll fluttering around some trendy Dublin bars and Hooky and Popey wearing jeans on the telly to make it so. Hip is a performance art 'happening' in a Manhattan loft featuring two Brazilian transexuals reciting Ginsberg's Howl backwards. Not fifteen men climbing over each other in mud. Although when you put it like that....

Secondly, this Allez les Bleus business. Yes, very funny. You went over to France, and demonstrating that you were educated, multilingual types fond of a little deligtful irony, appropriated the chant that amounts to the French Olé Olé. Sure, and when your team's back is against the wall and they're defending for their lives, they'll want to hear you snorting out a delicate play on cross-cultural sporting mores.

So that's why, despite the poetry of their rugby - Saturday's hammering of Edinburgh being their magnum opus so far - many people would still rather invest their good wishes and support in the cause of the stout yeomen of Munster, with their set-piece squeezes and monstrous mauls.

Which is a damn shame.

Surely, for rugby as a sport, the success of Leinster in this season's Heineken Cup would be an Astonishingly Good Thing. I cannot fathom any worthwhile argument to counter the rationale that any neutral should hope that Leinster's 'total' rugby (as a giddy Tony Ward repeatedly called it in commenatary on Saturday) brings them past the many sterner challenges of the coming months and to glory in Twickenham on May 20th.

The use of the phrase 'total rugby' is apposite, in this case. In the event that - as most sage observers fear - Leinster will meet some mean, nasty bruisers who slow down the ball, stick it up their jumpers and get into the faces of their brilliant runners, would not their defeat be the sport's equivalent of the heart-rending failure of the Dutch 'total football' team to fulfil their potential in the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978?

Would it not be the harsh, chilling wind of reality blowing in the confirmation that, in sport, the butterfly will always be crushed on the wheel?

There is, of course, the argument of the sport's purists: that a well-executed maul is as pleasing to behold as any improvisational passing movement; that the real soul of the game exists in the tight, sinewy confrontations invisible to the eye, not the gallivanting in the loose that comes as a result of the hard work.

To me, this is like an accountant eulogising the beauty of an immaculate balance sheet. To other accountants, impressive; but I've just gone to put the kettle on.

In any event, the only right way to play any sport is the winning way. No team is obliged to entertain, no coach expected to put razzmatazz before results. But Leinster's stated aim is to do their job in the most pleasing way to the eye as possible. To use their skill as a means to the end of victory. When any team does that, they must be cherished and supported, and their brave quest championed by all neutrals.

As the cameras panned around Donnybrook in the latter stages of Saturday's win, I experienced a thaw in any iciness I may have felt for the province due to the nonsense of the Dubliner and the infernal Allez les Bleus. Looking at the well-fed, happy faces, several generations of the most affluent sector of Ireland's demographic, I thought: why not? Why shouldn't they be happy and content? It's not their fault they were born with opportunity. Haven't they worked hard, got their qualifications, made the best of things? Don't they have worries, fears, hang-ups?

And the killer: don't they deserve this team? And just because they have this team, why can't the rest of us love it too?

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Becks: The Vegas Years

"Laydeez and from the LA Galaxy stadium, it's Daaaaavid Beckham!!"

The screaming of the fans hadn't decreased any over the years, but it annoyed him now. Pulling the string tight on shorts so as compress a little the gut that had developed on his once lithe torso, he snorted his derision.

"We love you David!"

"Who do ya love, baby; this ole heap of washed up star, or that picture on your wall from ten years ago?" he murmured to himself, as an assistant yanked a corset secure and another pretty young thing dappled some make-up over his sagging features.

He looked over at his half-soused wife, already on her third martini and dragging on a cigarette. She'd lost her little runt of a chihuahua in the chaos of the dressing room: "Mr. Cuddles, Mr.Cuddles, where are you?....Mr.Cuddles you little bastard! Come here or I'll tear your balls off!"

Becks shook his head. Afternoon games were the worst; at least with evening games she'd drink all day and soon pass out in the corner.

Five years he'd been doing this, city to city, trotting out the old standards.

Curling free kick just over the bar, grimace of frustration, run hands through suggestively through hair.


Sweeping crossfield pass, peer with furrowed brow, smoulder when ball lands at feet of teammate.


Another free-kick, this time arcing over the wall and into the net - still got it - run to corner flag, pump fists and smile; brace for teammates jumping exaltantly on back.


L.A.; Chicago to New York then D.C.: the big shows. He'd always get up for them. Maximise the charisma, ham it up with the Soccer Superstar persona. He watched the Zidane documentary over and again, trying to add gravitas as the looks faded.

The stadiums were packed, in general, but it was delivering the money shot for ESPN Sportscenter's highlights that paid his wages.

Free kick + goal + smouldering look in direction of camera = Play of the Day folks! Leverage the image rights another notch please!

But the provincial backwaters, God!: Columbus in Ohio, Colorado, Kansas bloody City, frickin' Salt Lake! Every time he went through the motions in Kansas bloody City, selling some "sophisticated European glamour" to midwest rubes, he thought of Fergie. Retired now, and out of sight but for the occasional quote snatched at a horse race meeting.

He thought of that pinched mouth, the purple face; the cold, cutting remarks he would undoubtedly have been privately making on his former charge's late career. The aspersions cast on his sexuality, the snorting insults about his wife. He once cared though. He owed it all to him.
Like fuck he did. He did it all for himself. He wasn't going to be controlled and caged by that monster. Look at Scholesy and Nevs, though. Legends now, just retired from playing. Nevs in the England coaching set-up.

He remembered the early days. The goal from half way at Wimbledon; in the dressing room in awe of Cantona; Barcelona in 1999; how Keane would snarl and, where once he would look to Fergie for reassurance, how over time the boss would avoid his glance, in tacit agreement with Roy. Nevs and Scholesy (and Phil and Butty and the rest) though; it made him smile to think of those first few years.

But he wasn't like them, he wasn't happy to settle. Home comforts, hah!

He believed it at the time, all the rubbish about growing the game in the U.S. He always believed what he said, that was the problem. People said it was all marketing, spin, PR, image with him. But he thought he meant it all: how he was going to get back in the England team after the 2006 World Cup, when he told Victoria that the stuff with the women wasn't his fault (look at the state of her now). That the Cruises (him and whoever the 'other half' happened to be that week) were really good friends.

And yes, that he, David Beckham, the biggest superstar in the world, would make the Americans love soccer. How could they not? As far as they were concerned, he was soccer. And now he would be among them; and it wouldn't be like Europe where it was so damn intense and full of hate and pressure and lunatics with empty lives and nothing better to do than talk about every little detail of some bloody football team and what prats footballers were.

No. It would be fun. New. Shiny and glitzy. Living in Los Angeles, at the heart of the entertainment industry, broadcasting to the nation every week: must-see TV.

Five years later and the show was rumbling on. He was still a draw alright; but like Riverdance, Les Mis, or going to Disneyworld. "Yeah, honey, L.A.'s great, took in a Beckham game last night." Just bog-standard family entertainment

Who was it this week? Houston Dynamo? On we go then.

Receives ball 25 yards out, bouncing, cracks a right foot volley, inches wide, ooooh! Run both hands through hair, give thumbs up to passer, and, nice touch this, a little wink.



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Irish Blog Awards - Nominations Please!

The nominations process for the 2007 Irish Blog Awards is underway. Basically you can click on this link to nominate any blog you like (cough, ahem) for a number of awards. After that there is a further voting process to determine onto whose mantelpieces the various perspex paperweights will end up.

Among the categories which might interest you in which to nominate your favourite blog (ahem!) are

Best Sport & Recreation Blog
Best Blog
Best Blog Post
Most Humourous Post (ok, that might be stretching it....)

Just have a bit of a think about it, eh?

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

McGwire Locked Out; Balco Journos Locked up?

There are two threads developing currently in the long-running story of performance enhancing drugs in the U.S.A., or more precisely in relation to the efforts to combat them since the BALCO revelations of recent years.

Firstly, last Tuesday, the Baseball Writers of America turned down former single season home run record holder Mark McGwire's nomination to the sport's Hall of Fame.

McGwire, of the St Louis Cardinals, broke Roger Maris' long-standing record of 61 homers in a season in 1998, recording 70 by the end of a season in which his battle for the record with Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa had captured the imagination of the American public. This record was subsequently overtaken by Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' slugger who hit 73 homers in 2001, and who is one of the central figures over whom suspicion hangs in the BALCO case.

However, rather than proceeding to what would appear to be a well-deserved berth in the sport's Valhalla, McGwire himself has seen his achievements discredited due to the sudden exposure of the issue of steroid use in the sport since the BALCO revelations.

Ironically, it has been suggested that Bonds alleged use of steroids was prompted by the very attention that McGwire received in 1998. It was revealed that season that McGwire had indeed taken a dietary supplement called Androstenedione, however, while banned by the NFL and the IOC, there was no prohibition in existence in Major League Baseball.

This fact - that only since 2003 have steroid-prohibition and testing for banned substances been taken seriously by MLB - demonstrates the legal and ethical grey area that exists with regard to the subject. McGwire has steadfastly refused to "discuss the past", even in a Congressional committee hearing on illegal performance-enhancing substances.

While the substances discovered in BALCO are classified as illegal, because of MLB's hitherto almost non-existent doping policy, some have suggested that McGwire should not be persecuted for possible misdemeanours during his career which were then not necessarily against the sport's laws.

However in refusing to admit him to the Hall of Fame, it is clear that the baseball writers have made their own, damning judgement on his right to immortality.

Elsewhere, the two journalists who brought the BALCO scandal to light and revealed the involvement of a number of top athletes in the laboratory's activities are facing possible jail sentences. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, whose book Game of Shadows, brought much attention to the scandal and the alleged use of banned substances by the likes of Bonds (others implicated were British athlete Dwain Chambers, former Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Marion Jones and 100m runner Tim Montgomery), could go to jail for refusing to name the source that leaked to them the court testimony linking a number of athletes with BALCO.

The US Department of Justice has demanded that the two journalists provide details of the leak, information which Fainaru-Wada and Williams are unwilling to provide. The two are appealing a local court sentence of up to 18 months in prison.

A poor reward indeed for helping to expose the cheats whose activities have demeaned their sports, and led to the moral morass in which the likes of McGwire's legacy now resides.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hazy Shame of Winter

Watching Wicklow v Carlow on Saturday (brought live to the nation by Setanta Sports by virtue of it being Mick O'Dwyer's first game as Wicklow manager) brought it all back to me. Not being managed by Mick O'Dwyer (he never did take up that offer to coach in the Donegal South West U12 B division), or being featured live on Setanta (unfortunately they were not in existence at the time of aforementioned team's glory days); rather, my boyhood experiences of playing Gaelic football in winter.

Strangely, for all the Championship football that spills with colour and pageantry from our screens during the summer, I'm never reminded when watching it of long, balmy summer days when the livin' was easy and the football too. Nope, seems I consigned all that to the memory trash folder, along with the names of the battles in the Nine Years War and the the words of approximately forty-seven prayers.

But tune in to TG4 or Setanta of a Baltic winter's afternoon and it all comes flooding back. The spine chills, and it's school lunchtim and I'm there, shivering and bedraggled.....

A fusillade of hailstones, especially during training laps. More terrible because that way they got you from all sides. On the back of the ears going down one side of the pitch. Turn the corner, along the goal line and they bombarded the side of your head; left again for 140 metres of coruscating pain right into your face that surely paid off a millenium of purgatory in advance; then along the other goal-line to take care of the part of your head that isn't swollen and vermilion. Ten laps of it.

The thwack of ball on bare leg. O'Neills size 4s pick up little bits of grit in the stitching, which aid the stinging process so efficiently that the Spanish Inquisition were said to rattle them off the fleshy thighs of recalcitrant heretics, as a last resort. Blocking a point blank shot with exposed flesh was a deed nobler than any man could ever wish to perform for his team.

The sogginess of Mikasa gloves. With movement already severely restricted by the quagmire that existed where once a pitch was said to, and the body slowed by the corporeal numbness caused by the hail and the gritty balls, the standard issue Mikasa gloves would become sodden and heavy, weighing the hands down as limply as the rest of the body.

The magical rubbery spots which made the Mikasas so splendid for catching were rendered pointless due to the absorbtion of several litres of moisture. This caused the gloves to sag uselessly, as if made of used tea-bags.

Truly it was a whole different ball game. Players who cavorted down the wings in summer like sprites from the world of J.M. Barrie were despised and ostracised come the foul months of winter.

Weaving solo runs and impish corner forward play? Forget it. Wheel out the the monstrous early developers. The boys with voices like Paul Robeson and chest hair at the age of twelve. Station one of each at full back, centre-half back, two in midfield, and another pair at centre forward and full forward.

Tactics thus: Full back blocks stinging shot with fleshy thigh. Grimaces. Picks up ball and punts down central channel to next available manchild/primate. Centre back or midfielder collects ball in soggy Mikasas. Delivers thundering long hoof into opposition goalmouth. Goalkeeper waves hands in vague direction of ball. Simultaneously closes eyes and emits high-pitched, barely audible whimper. Full forward stands on his head while fisting earthbound ball into net.

Manager - dry and toasty in woolly hat and waterproofs and snugly tucked up in the dug out - hollers approbation. Opposing manager searches Dictionary of Hiberno-English Insults for suitable description of his team. Finds arcane term of Anglo-Norman origin which translates roughly as "homosexual goats". Bystanders nod in agreement at term's appropriateness.

Game proceeds in this manner to its conclusion - the Homosexual Goats possessing no sad-eyed, oversized lumberers with which to copy the opposition's supreme tactics - ending in a score of 8-14 to 0-1. Noone remembers the losing team's point; many suspect the sympathy of a humane referee.

Result gets recorded in local paper, accompanied by the phrase "in atrocious conditions at Pairc na nGael, the under-12 Bs had a disappointing result...."

Happy days.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Humanity! Top 5 Irish Sporting Heartbreak

For those unaware of the majesty of the Observer Sport Monthly magazine (free with the Observer newspaper on the first Sunday of every month), firstly accept my pity, then check out the link above for the online version of last Sunday's issue, which featured sport's 50 most 'heartbreaking' moments.

Of course being a dirty English publication, there's none of our own home-grown heartbreak - which leaves a rich seam of gut-wrenching calamity sadly unmined.

For the sake of record, here are a mere five occasions when the cruel hand of fortune slapped Irishmen in the face, leaving them prostrate on the floor, crying "Why?!"

1.Wim Kieft and His Magically Spinning Header
Proof positive that the extraordinarily unlikely turn of events that had gotten Ireland to Euro 88 (specifically Scotland's purloining of a victory from darkest Sofia) had seen us drain dry the well of serendipity, was the bizarre trajectory of the ball which beat Packie Bonner to send us home from the finals.

You might add that we rode our luck till that particular steed was only fit for making glue in the opening, mythical victory over England in Stuttgart. Thing was, in the second match against the USSR in Hanover, not only did Ronnie Whelan score The Greatest Shinned Goal Ever, but the team performed magnificiently against the eventual losing finalists, earning us fairly our shot at the semis against the Dutch.

The fatal goal was not the only mysterious, supernatural phenomenon that day - Paul McGrath's bulleted first half header was a goal in every way but the formality of it having actually crossed the line. It should have been awarded posthumous goalhood. Somehow neither it nor the playground-style scramble which ensued thereafter led to a score.

No matter, a draw would be sufficient to see the archetypal green army progress to the semi-finals, a spectacular achievement for a team were presupposed to have ticked the 'For the Beer' box in the 'Purpose of Visit' section of the immigration form.

With eight minutes remaining, a scuffed Ronald Koeman volley bounces off the ground, brushes Kieft's crown at an angle sufficient to imbue the ball with the spin of Shane Warne's Ball of the Century and past a bamboozled Packie.


2.Barry McGuigan in Leaving Las Vegas
In hindsight this defeat served the purpose of getting McGuigan's boxing career out of the way so that he could proceed with his phenomenally successful motor racing and singing incarnations. But at the time, the sight of poor Barry wilting in the searing heat of the Nevada desert as Steve Cruz took his world title from him was pretty harrowing.

Having been used to seeing McGuigan in those fleeting glory nights in packed British and Irish venues (McGuigan's time at the top spanned only three fights: the title win over Eusebio Pedrosa at Loftus Road, and defences against Bernard Taylor in Belfast and Daniel Cabrera in Dublin) the fierce heat of the Caesar's Palace car park was always going to work in favour of Cruz, rather than the man from the more temperate climes of Clones.

Despite starting well, he suffered dehydration, went down in the 10th and 15th rounds and was rushed to hospital for rehydration. It was all a terribly sad sight.

3.Lynagh's Try makes Hamilton's Academic.
The 1991 Rugby World Cup final between Australia and England almost never happened. In the semi-final against Scotland, the scores were tied 6-6 with around ten minutes remaining. Gavin Hastings had a straightforward penalty to put the Scots ahead, one normally a formality for a metronomic kicker such as the Watsonians man. He missed, Rob Andrew dropped a goal and England were through.

Even more of a twist in history would have occured had not Michael Lynagh's late try at Lansdowne Road in the quarter final denied Ireland what would have been the greatest result of their test history, the current golden era included.

It's testament to the lean stock of happy memories that Irish rugby has that Gordon Hamilton's sinew-wrenching run to the corner with five minutes of that match remaining is one of our bona fide Golden Moments. The fact that Australia responded with a score of their own to eliminate us is generally left as an aside, spoiling as it does the perfection of Hamilton's try. Jack Clarke beating Campese to the set-up, then Hamilton pumping his thighs defiantly. The crowd mentally dragging him over the line, then engulfing him.

Yes, let's leave it at that, shall we?

4.The Five Minute Final
There is a warm, lively metaphorical house in Irish sport, wherein reside the counties and characters who made the 1990s a storied decade in the history of hurling, Ger Loughnane banters with Liam Griffin; Brian Whelehan and Anthony Daly share a drop; Clare, Wexford and Offaly laugh now over old enmities.

Looking in the window, forlornly and bitterly, are the 1994 Limerick team. Four minutes remained on the clock in that year's All-Ireland hurling final, and Limerick led Offaly by five points. Johnny Dooley lined up a close range free. Under instruction from the sideline to point it, he defied, and struck it incredibly into the net. Limerick collapsed, Offaly scoring a further goal and four points in the remaining moments.

Hold on and it would have been Limerick who would have kick-started that egalitarian period in which the Liam McCarthy Cup was a prize for more than the few. Instead, it will be 34 years since their last success come this September.

5.Sonia's Problems 'Down There'...
Sonia O'Sullivan, Ireland's greatest modern athlete, ended her peak athletics years with one solitary Olympic medal - a silver in the Sydney 2000 5000m behind Romanian Gabriele Szabo. She also missed out on a medal in 1993 World Championships 3000m when beaten by three Chinese (boo hiss!) competitors. Both Szabo and the Chinese later had serious accusations of drug taking made against them.

But it was O'Sullivan's retirement from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics 5000m final - for which she was favourite for gold - which provided the most memorable major championship heartache for the Cork woman, and this time, it was apparently her own body which conspired against her.

When something goes wrong in a middle distance race, it generally doesn't happen in that shocking, sudden way it might in a sprint race: a hamstring tear or a false start disqualification. The best laid plans in distance running gang aglae slowly; the runner falls inches, then feet, then yards behind, until the gap cannot be reasoned away through the explanation of a sudden burst from a leader.

For O'Sullivan, it went wrong nastily. She dropped back through the field and kept on going, until her tearful withdrawal and the subsequent revelations that she'd been suffering from a 'stomach upset'. Unquestionably her time to win Olympic gold, and was denied her in the most undignified way.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Cup Cheer Refreshes Bitter Taste of Premiership

It is fitting that the FA Cup third round sees the BBC get itself all dolled up and take centre stage with the broadcast of live matches. The combination of cockle-warming nostalgia, a cast of hokey provincials and the reverent adoration of a national institution fit the BBC's brief much better than the cut-throat free marketeers of Sky.

In many ways football as it is experienced through the FA Cup is almost a different game altogether than the harsh world of the Premiership. Not just in the fact that the BBC get their pick of the games to show live, but in the entire atmosphere that surrounds it.

The commentator introduced the Tamworth v Norwich tie on Saturday with the declaration that this was "the best weekend of the football calendar." The selling of the FA Cup, and its third round in particular, in this way is part of the Beeb's job in buttressing their flimsy live portfolio. And this sort of veneration is much more likely to be heard from those who curate the game's image and history, and supporters of lower division teams, than the vast majority of Premiership worshipping hordes.

To them, particularly supporters of the top clubs, the Cup is often a distraction, a scratch in the normal groove of league matters. Their opinion of the Cup has declined in a fashion almost commensurate with that of the managers and chairmen of their clubs, many of whom rest players for cup ties in order to preserve resources for crucial relegation or European place battles.

Most in the media castigate this attitude and bemoan the 'blatant disrespect shown to the FA Cup', claiming that the supporters would love to win the trophy, the only chance - along with the even more degraded League Cup - for many of them to win silverware at all.

But the fact that no club outside the 'big four' (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea) has won the Cup since 1995 has almost totally obscured visions of glorious Saturday afternoons in May from the view of the rest of the clubs, only exacerbating their managers' prioritisation of league safety.

Still, what this denuding means is that on weekends like the one just gone, football seems to exist in a much nicer, warmer place. Indeed after a weekend of early round Cup action, the snarl of controversy and overseriousness that the Premiership returns with seem inappropriate, or even ludicrous. It's a little like when one of your friends comes home from travelling in Nepal, or studying yoga in India, and goes on about how ridiculous the rat race of the developed world is.

It really puts things in perspective, man.

Undoubtedly, this quality helps keep the tournament alive and in relatively rude health. Of course, the fact that it provides novelty - in the spotlight that it throws on hitherto unheralded corners of the football map - and excitement - for those who enjoy those rare moments in the limelight - is part of it too.

But just as the attention the Premiership receives adds to its perceived 'value', the excessive importance it is imbued with is frequently tiresome and undoubtedly unhealthy. The microscopic analysis of refereeing decisions; the paranoiac vitriol of managers who, to a man, swear to being the victims of all-encompassing plots against them; the 'simulation'; the tapping; the hangdog, sleepless countenances of struggling managers whose very public humiliation seems like some unbearably cruel torture; the fear football that paralyses teams for whom relegation is now 'unthinkable' rather than merely unwelcome.

It is, of course, condescension of the first order that characterises the coverage of the cup exploits of such clubs as Tamworth. The interviews with the milkman-cum-centre forward, the chairman who spent the week painting the grandstand, the tea lady who remembers the last big Cup run in 1975.

But for all that, the restorative quality of a bit of a wander around the unfashionable outposts of the game is clear: as well as providing football with a much needed link to the past in a time of rapid change, it also reminds the game's many 'consumers', like the goat-herders of the Himalayan foothills do our bead-wearing, incense-burning friends, that there is, indeed, a whole other world out there.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The Ten Big Questions of 2007 - Part Four

10.Seriously though, will this be Irish rugby's annus mirabilis?
Ok, in question no.3 we had a little giggle at the cock-eyed optimism around Irish rugby at the moment, hoping to get the satirical high ground occupied in good time for any collapse that might ensue.

No doubt about it, however, even the most cynical, sagacious and cautious of observers must agree that this current incarnation represents Irish rugby's finest vintage, with only token reference being given to the Triple Crowns of the 1980s and the Grand Slam of 1948.

The latter achievement, of course, remains outstanding for the current side, and represents the first of this year's three-pronged assault on posterity. While any observer of Irish sport will treat expectation and confidence with the coldest of skeptical shoulders - fearing the inevitable Saipan or case of Olympic diarrhoea that lurks around every brightly hopeful corner - based on current form, there is no reason not to consider a best case scenario.

First the Six Nations: Ireland are currently the best national team in Europe and play their two traditionally strongest rivals at home. Both of these, however, are reaping the bitter crop sown by their domestic structural problems. French clubs play too many games, English clubs too, neither international set-up is allowed the luxurious weeks of fine-tweaking the Irish system is built around, and in the case of England, the emotional comedown from their World Cup triumph in 2003 is only now bottoming out.

Presuming that the alien atmosphere of Dublin's northside won't spook the home team too much, the biggest foreseeable challenge will be the Welsh game in Cardiff, on the first Sunday of the tournament. Ireland's last trip there was as patsies to Wales' Grand Slam-clinching game in 2005; the two nations' stocks have gone in opposite directions since then, although the Welsh showed in the second half of their recent test against Australia that off the cuff running remains their most dangerous weapon.

Cardiff holds a fragment of Irish rugby's soul now, being as it was the venue for Munster's Heineken Cup win last May (or "the publishing event of the year" as it has also been described) and Europe's no.1 rugby franchise are set fair to make the "Two in a Row" box set this Christmas' must have item for the discerning bandwagon-jumper.

Despite the success in 2006 being seen as the end of a long and trying quest, Munster have not faded away happily with their memories this season. On the contrary, garbed in the cloak of champions, they have strolled through their qualifying pool with masterly ease. There have been no other outstanding sides in the tournament so far, with Biarritz and Stade Francais performing solidly and Llanelli exceeding expectations. While the remaining group games look vaguely troublesome (Bourgoin away Leicester in Thomond), negotiating them successfully will provide a clear view of another triumph.Don't back against another meeting with Leinster along the way though...

After all that, if you have energy left, is the hulking behemoth of the World Cup. Spread over six weeks and asking of the finalists to play a test in every one of them (albeit there is a nine day rest between Ireland's crucial games against France and Argentina) it was little wonder that the 2003 final seemed to be won by the team that fell over the line first.

It is accepted that Ireland need to top their group to make the latter stages, given that the runner up in their pool faces the winners of the All Blacks' one, and that such a meeting is generally considered to mark a full stop for any other nation's tournament.

Achieving this will require the defeat of the home nation, France, as well as those troublesome Argentines. Given that it was the loss to the latter in Lens in the 1999 World Cup that marked the nadir since which Irish rugby has been on an upward trajectory, it would be cathartic to revisit vengeance on the Pumas on French soil.

Defeating the hosts, however, is a tremendous challenge in any tournament, and were it to be achieved, would present only Scotland or Italy in the way of an unprecedented semi-final place.
At this juncture - with many precarious months to go - the game with France in Stade de France looks set up to be the definitive moment in this era of Irish rugby, a day when true greatness might be won.

When you put it all down like that, it seems fantastically straightforward; indeed, shouldn't we be arranging that open-top bus ride now?! It would, of course, take an incredible amount of good fortune, or at least the avoidance of the bad variety, to make it all come true. But none of the optimistic foretelling above is utterly outlandish or downright silly; it could really be a year to remember.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Ten Big Questions of 2007 - Part Three

9. Will Celtic be the 'peepul'?
While schadenfreude is probably one of the politer emotions Celtic supporters will be experiencing as their eternal rivals' bloody civil war continues, the feud between Paul Le Guen and Barry Ferguson is only the latest chapter in the seemingly unstoppable downward spiral in the fortunes of Rangers Football Club.

Triumph and disaster are often fleeting impostors in football, as Leeds United's descent from the Champions League demonstrates, but over the course of a number of seasons, genuine statements on a club's standing can be made. Taking the last seven years into account, it can clearly be said that Celtic have replaced Rangers as the pre-eminent force in Scottish football.

In that time Celtic have won four championships and have almost certainly secured a fifth. Rangers won two titles in that time. But both Rangers successes were achieved in the final minutes of the season's final days, in contrast to the monstrous points advantages Celtic enjoyed in all of their championship victories.
Rangers 2003 success came while Celtic were preoccupied with a run to that season's UEFA Cup final, and their 2005 title was won on the back of an incredible collapse by the Parkhead club in the dying minutes of their final match against Motherwell.

This gradually emerging picture of superiority stretches to another area in which Rangers were traditionally dominant: the clubs' relative financial states. Enfeebled by Scottish football's limited market, neither are stupendously wealthy; but Celtic have been returning consistently more solid balance sheets, a fact that has had its logical conclusion on the park, where the Hoops have been able to recruit to a markedly higher standard of late.

What is significant about this switch is what it represents about deeper cultural roles in that divided city. Rangers supporters' familiar chant, "We are the People!" (pronounced "weearrapeepul!"), describes a deeply ingrained sense of superiority, borne of their membership of the Protestant establishment, in particular in how it related to the lowly, Catholic, immigrant stock who supported their rivals.

The fortunes of their respective football teams - in general - supported that view, with Rangers winning 51 league titles to Celtic's 40, but the feeling overrode mere football results. It survived Celtic's European eminence and nine league titles in a row in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Rangers' prolonged mediocrity until the arrival of Graeme Souness as manager in 1986.

But while the attitudes of the Rangers support were unchanging, Celtic supporters' refusal to accept their cowed status spoke of a more upwardly mobile nature than the 'tattie-munchers' their rivals liked to characterise them as.

Better educated, more successful and having thoroughly penetrated the professional classes in a way their predecessors were unable, or not allowed to do, Celtic supporters, led by businessmen like Fergus McCann (an expat Scots-Canadian millionaire) seized control of their dying club in 1994.

The revolution that overthrew the club's century old cabal of families and effectively drives it to this day, was as ruthlessly ambitious as anything Castro and Guevara could have dreamed of. Indeed, coupled with the market-savvy shrewdness which wrested control of the crucial shares in '94, was a populist, car-park picketing, Bolshie element - a hangover from Glasgow's very recent industrial might - that provided much of the initial momentum.

But the forces that have steered the club today are, ironically, of the blue chip variety. Careful stewardship of the club's financial affairs in the precarious marketplace of Scottish football has allowed the club to reflect the sense of fiscal strength that their cross-town foes once embodied.

The messianic presence of Martin O'Neill helped no end, of course, and Gordon Strachan's careful reconstruction of the club's footballing affairs has already borne fruit with a Champions League last 16 tie with AC Milan to look forward to. But undoubtedly at the heart of Celtic's rise has been an utterly reconstituted ethos from within the club.

Meanwhile, Rangers are stumbling through the sort of financial penury and on-field embarrassment that Celtic once patented as their own.

The ferocious grief expressed by many of the Rangers supporters gathered outside Fir Park on Tuesday was as much the shock and anger at the continuing loss of that which they had presumed a birthright, as the registration of their opinions on Le Guen's banishment of Ferguson.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Ten Big Questions of 2007 - Part Two

6. Will Brian Cody hit Ger Loughnane a good skelp?
One of the few highlights of the GAA All Stars presentation night (uncomfortable men in tuxedos drinking pints - not a good look) came when Brian Cody was asked by one of the RTE chaps (possibly Marty Morrissey, for he's a cheeky one) about the impending return of Ger Loughnane to active hurling duty.

Cody came over all Jack Palance, faintly registering a sneer, and muttered "I'm not worried."

On the face of it, the two men could not be more different: Loughnane all bulging eyeballs, finger-jabbing verbals and the proponence of the 'perceived external grievance' school of motivation.

Cody keeps his counsel, in general; he observes in patrician fashion from beneath the peak of an omnipresent baseball cap, then acts, swiftly and brutally, when necessary. He's been manager of Kilkenny since 1998, an astonishing term in modern GAA, a longevity derived from that ruthlessness in regenerating and reimagining each year's team.

If he meets Loughnane on the sideline this year - and lets hope he does - it should be like a monkey attacking a giraffe. Which sounds entertaining.

7. Will Euro 2008 be a foreign affair?
Talking about monkeys, you know that old maxim about putting a bunch of chimps in a room with a lot of typewriters (it has to be typewriters, mind, they can't abide computers, can chimps) for a while and them coming up with the complete works of Shakespeare?

Well if you put five nations into European qualifying groups for a long enough, someday, will none of them qualify for a major tournament? For all the Macedonias and turnips and Del Amitri songs and other uselessnesses, the final stages of a major international tournament have not been without one of the 'home' countries (including Ireland in that peculiar, warm ale and crumpet-sounding term) since the European Championship finals in France in 1984, back when that tournament was an eight-team affair.

In minimum sixteen-team tournaments you have to go back to the days when militaristic, expansionist regimes bestrode the world (strange times indeed...), 1938 and that year's World Cup, to find a major competition without England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or ourselves participating.

In 2007, however, this record is in jeopardy for the first time since Alan McLoughlin's late equaliser on that hateful night in Windsor Park sent us to USA 1994.

Steve McLaren is making old 'Quarter Final' Eriksson look the very paragon of effortless achievement in taking his team to third in what was regarded an uncomplicated group. With the potential for slapstick embarassment inherent in road trips to Israel, Andorra and Estonia, a home and away double with Russia and the return game with Croatia, Fleet St. might be photoshopping suitable vegetables as we speak.

The North and Scotland are coming off almost unimaginable highs and both look well placed right now. Both, however, have wounded big beasts at their hindmosts, and cannot realistically be expected to qualify. Wales and Ireland, like two scrawny mongrels eyeing up one dusty old bone, should scrap out fourth place in Group D.

Unless those chimps come up with something else in the meantime....

8. Will everyone have heard of Derval O'Rourke this time next year?
There's been a bit of revisionism lately about O'Rourke's achievements in the last year, largely due to the philosophical discussions provoked by the RTE Sports Person of the Year panel's decision to award the top gong to Henry Shefflin.
Should international success (as enjoyed by Paul O'Connell and O'Rourke) always trump domestic achievement, even in the event of someone like Shefflin having his perfect year?

Not for me to do decide - I don't get invited to these things. Anyway, it was still rough on the World Indoor Hurdles Champion for Ted Walsh to say he hadn't heard of her until the previous week, and for that Humphries fella to reveal in the Irish Times on Saturday that the fields she competed against in winning her two big medals of last year were not of the first class, lacking as they were some of the better Americans and Jamaican world no.3 Brigitte Foster-Hylton.

That's slightly unfair, when one operates the "you can only beat what's put in front of you" policy. And she was only beaten in those two events by world no.2, Susanna Kallur of Sweden.

But her world ranking of 8 is fair, looking at her results in Grand Prix, and she needs to consistently run towards 12.6 (her PB is 12.72) to be a realistic contender for a medal at the World Championships in Tokyo in August.

Hopefully, by then, everyone will know her name.

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