Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday Night at the Eircom League

IrishBar of My Irish Football Blog holds forth on this evening's fare in the league that is often called Eircom.

PREMIER DIVISION

Drogheda United v Derry City
Two title contenders go head to head in this game which is live on Setanta Sports. Defeats to Drogheda cost Derry dear last season and this probably will again be a close encounter. Drogheda will be without a host of players through injury and suspension while Derry have a full squad more or less to choose from. Stadium problems mean that capacity for this game will be limited to 1500.

Drogheda have won their last four games after a slow start to the season while Derry have been blowing hot and cold since Pat Fenlon took over. With St Pats off to a flyer both these teams will be eager to not lose any more ground. I give Derry a slight edge in this game - at times versus Linfield things really clicked for them, Drogheda have a few big players missing and Derry will be motivated for revenge after last seasons defeats.

Cork City v Longford Town
Cork are the favourites for this one and rightly so. They will welcome back Kearney, Kelly, and O'Brien and may have Farrelly and Healy cleared by Fifa in time for kick off. John O'Flynn and Roy O'Donovan are starting to hit things off up front and goal scoring has not been a problem.

Longford have played three and lost three and although they have a lot of fight in the team they have really struggled so far.

They will be missing Deegan and Baker and may have to rely on a makeshift defence again.

St.Pat's v Bray Wanderers
Both these teams have surprised me with their respective starts to the season. St Pat's have got a 100% record and top the table whereas Bray have two wins from three after beating Bohs and snatching a win in Waterford. Pats may start with new signing Stephen Paisley and both O'Neill and Fahey may also return.

Bray are also at full strength and welcome back big defender Clive Delaney.

Shamrock Rovers v Galway United
Rovers didn't play last week as their game with Bohs was moved to this Tuesday and Galway lost out deep in injury time to a late Drogheda winner at Terryland. With four points from their first two games Rovers manager Pat Scully will be happy with their start and will be looking to keep another clean sheet against the division's other new boys.

Cassidy and Ferguson are suspended but Ger O'Brien, Eric and Dave McGill, Tadhg Purcell, Ger Rowe, Aiden Price and Danny O'Connor should all be fit for selection after recent injuries.

Galway have a full squad to choose from and it will be interesting to see if manager Cousins has settled on his first choice eleven and formation. I will be looking for another Rovers win in this one and will be taking them at even money to continue their good start to the season.

Waterford United v Bohemians
Waterford started their season with a shock win over Munster rivals Cork City but then went and lost their next two games to St Pats and Bray. Bohemians haven't started as well as many would have expected and have just 1 point from their first two games - more worryingly they have yet to get on the score sheet.

Bohs will be without Heary and Singh but should welcome back Neale Fenn to the starting line up to partner Glen Crowe up front. As I have said before with Crowe and Fenn upfront and Hunt and Kelly in midfield this team has goals in it and I expect them to become free scoring once they get their act together.

Ray Scully has been cleared by Fifa for Waterford but McCarthy, Keely and Brown will miss out through injury and suspension.Waterford will need their home form to be in good shape this season if they hope to finish above the bottom few places whereas Bohs will need to be winning these type of games if they are serious about finishing in the top three or four.

FIRST DIVISION

Finn Harps v Monaghan United
Harps (and their fans) would have been expecting to have more than just one win from their opening three games but having said that a trip to Cobh is always difficult considering the distance and there is no shame in losing to Dundalk.

Their manager will be missing from the touchline as he starts a two game ban but Holmes should have his first game of the season after being cleared by Fifa to play. Monaghan are probably a little lucky to have the two points that they do - they threw away a two goal lead on the opening day of the season and somehow managed to get a draw in Kildare in their second game.

They would have been hoping to get something from their game last weekend at home to Kilkenny but ended up losing that one also. Striker William Doyle is available for the first time this season but Barry Burke is still serving out his suspensionIf Harps are serious about finishing near the top of the division they must be winning home games like this one.

Monaghan will be looking for a point but unless they raise their game substantially they will be going home pointless.

Kilkenny City v Shelbourne
Premier League Champions to the bottom team in Division 1 hasn't taken Shels long. However they are starting to look a bit fitter and will be very close to full strength tonight after Leech and Brophy were cleared to play. Crawford and Collins may also return from injury.

Kilkenny got their first win in 26 attempts last week away up north in Monaghan but I will be very surprised if they make it two wins out of two. Shels will be looking at this game as a real chance to get their first win of the season and if they can get rid of the basic defending errors that cost them last week they should come away with three points. Shels to get their first win.

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Now Will I Get Some Respect Around Here?!

By some improbable confluence of blind chance and fate, I won the Six Nations Tipping Contest over at In Fact, Ah, beating off what I can only presume were a motley collection of dementia sufferers, primates and amoebas.

Quite what my prize will be (being accustomed to nice plaques and all) I'm not sure, but I have been reliably informed that this achievement cements the integrity of my droolish spoutings.

Which is a crap prize.

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Some Bits and Bobs About Llanelli

Two of the more enduring rugby traditions meet this evening when Munster travel to Llanelli to take on the Scarlets in the first of this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

While we're all well versed in the tradition and warm-fuzziness of Munsterdom, the famous Carmarthenshire club does the heartland thing just as well as team with thegreatestfansintheworldboy.

Alone It Doesn't Stand
Did you know that Munster once beat the All Blacks? Yes really, apparently so. They don't go in for plays and books and suchlike in Llanelli, but they could, because the Scarlets beat the mighty New Zealanders six years previously, in 1972. The 9-3 defeat was the second game of the All Black tour which would culminate in that famous meeting with the Barbarians, in which Gareth Edwards touched down what is regarded as the greatest try of all time.

Llanelli's win did make it onto the stage however, in the repertoire of Welsh comedy songster Max Boyce, who penned the ditty '9-3' amongst other rugby-centric material.

Of course, the Scarlets (only their nickname then, the current regional entity of that name not being formed until 2003) were well used to humbling southern hemisphere giants: they beat Australia in 1967, and repeated the feat against the then world champions in 1992.

Old Red
Llanelli were playing ball long before Munster as well, being formed by one Mr. John D Rogers, an industrialist and old boy of Rugby School in 1872. Okay, it's not entirely accurate to say they were actually playing ball; in the absence of any opposition within travelling distance, they didn't play their first game until February 1876, against the Cambrian Club in Swansea, and it wasn't until 1879 (the year of Munster's formation) that they first lined out at Stradey cricket ground, their home to this day.

Farewell to Stradey?
This evening's fixture could turn out to be one of the last to be played at Stradey Park, if the club's plans to move to a new stadium in nearby Trostre come to fruition. Llanelli hope to build the 13,500 venue in conjunction with Carmarthenshire council, however the funding of their portion of the project requires the demolishment of Stradey Park and its sale for housing development. The plan received a boost in January when the Environment Agency withdrew an objection to the development due to the risk of flooding.

According to Scarlets chief executive Stuart Gallacher, the very future of the club depends on the sale of the Stradey site: "The implications of refusal will not only lead to the folding of the club and a major embarrassment for Wales across the sporting world, but will also signal a major lost opportunity for the economy of Wales." Yikes!

Llanelli Blues??
Llanelli RFC started life playing in blue, and went through several other colour schemes before settling on their now famous scarlet. In 1882/83 they sported, ahem, rose and primrose stripes, and for the 1883/84 season went for red and chocolate quarter, before deploying the all-red look for the visit of an Irish XV on Easter Monday 1884.

Famous sons
Llanelli can lay claim to producing some of the greatest names in Welsh and, indeed, world rugby. Feast your eyes on this bunch: Ivor Jones, Lewis Jones, Barry John, Derek and Scott Quinnell, Phil Bennett, Ray Gravell, Carwyn James, Delme Thomas, JJ Williams, Nigel Davies, Jonathan Davies, Phil Davies, Ieuan Evans, Rupert Moon, as well as current luminaries Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and Heineken Cup record try-scorer Dafydd James.

Little Saucepan
Sosban Fach I should say, the name of a Welsh folk song about, er, a little saucepan and the travails of its housewife owner. The song is synonymous with Llanelli, to the extent that atop the Stradey Park goalposts are perched, yup, little scarlet saucepans!

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ireland Give Us a Smile

Stephen Staunton is probably still smiling this morning. Certainly, appearing in front of the cameras after last night's game, the grin that sat resplendently on his hitherto haunted chops seemed like one that would take some time to shift.

It was the smile of someone who'd just been defrocked from some religious order for whom the vow of non-smiling was sacrosanct. It was the smile of the reprieved man being unstrapped from the electric chair just moments after the call from the governor. It was the smile of the teenage boy with the newly-popped cherry.
It was also a different smile to the hollow sneer that had been deployed in the previous days during Staunton's futile game of cat-and-mouse with the media. This smile was pure in its expression and honest in intent.
Which, while we're at it, is pretty much a fair summation of his team's performance. Much like in the draw with the Czech Republic, Ireland played with that commitment and fierce drive which we once took for granted. Again, the fuel of criticism probably fired the display, but, leaving the reservations and problems aside for just a moment, the template for this team's future success seems just a little more apparent this morning.
Last night was also a redemptive experience for Irish soccer more generally, with specific reference to how the crowd and team did belated justice to their new home, providing a timely rejoinder to recalcitrant Gaels and nouveau rugger-lovers who'd expressed acidic glee at Saturday's damp squib.
I don't know if it was the lights, or just the fact that we'd had a few drinks, but my, you looked a lot prettier last night than in the cold light of Saturday. The awesome roar which accompanied the commencement of battle belied any notion that the supporters might have grown cynical and distant from their team. That said, even the loudest backing would soon have dissolved to nothing had Saturday's wan aimlessness continued on the park.
Instead, Ireland set about their task with aggression and conviction. Every player did their work with an appetite that suggests (although we made this same point after the Czech game) that Staunton's motivational abilities might yet be his making. Of course, picking the right team is more important than motivating the wrong team, and, largely, this time, Staunton's selection was correct.
Most remain confused as to the point of swapping John O'Shea and Steve Finnan. But that aside, Stephen Ireland revelled in his advanced role, Damien Duff was at his classic, tormenting best on the left wing, Kevin Doyle led the line brilliantly and dear old Kevin Kilbane put in one of those fulsome efforts that explains his attractiveness to embattled managers in search of honest toil.
Aiden McGeady was disappointing in comparison, yielding possession too often, and contrary to my thoughts yesterday, appeared not quite ready for the international arena. However, his presence gave balance to the side and, by holding a disciplined position on the right wing, helped allow Ireland to stretch the Slovaks sufficiently to provide Damien Duff with the space in which to conjure.
Stephen Hunt might seem worthy of his place right now, but, being purely a left-sided player, his deployment would require Duff's relocation, and the sleepy fella remains our best outlet on the sinister side of the field.
That's all fine and dandy, but what of that hair-raising spell in the second half in which the Slovaks laid siege to Irish territory? A pause here, before proceeding, to recognise the magnificient resistance of the Irish back six - Given, O'Shea, McShane, Dunne, Finnan, Carsley.

Resolute and pugnacious to a man (yes, even O'Shea), they set the tone.
But the fingernail-munching part? We come back to the charge against Ireland that remains unanswered: the lack of a ball-playing midfielder. Repeatedly last night, as the Irish defence repelled Slovak advances, the ball simply squirmed back into enemy possession and the onslaught resumed. With no-one in the Irish midfield able to take charge of the tiller and dictate the pace of the game, we listed badly before regaining buoyancy.
The vessel reached home port to the cheering welcomes of the multitudes, and the spoils of the journey see Ireland's group D campaign restored to reasonable health. And finally, Stan has something to smile about.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

McGeady's Time Comes

As a player who has made his fledgling reputation through trickery and guile, you'd think timing would have been one of Aiden McGeady's strong points. Possibly, when he chose to represent Ireland schoolboys as a 15-year-old at Celtic youths, with the Irish senior team on their way to a World Cup and the country of his birth at its lowest ever footballing ebb, he might have reckoned he was hitching a ride on a gravy train of international success.

Instead, just as the young Glaswegian came to footballing maturity, he found his boxcar chugging to a halt down a rusty siding.

Of course, McGeady didn't quite - as is generally perceived in Scotland - 'snub' the country of his birth for the promise of glory in that of his grandparents. The winger had intended to play for Scotland schoolboys; however, because Celtic did not allow their youth players to play for their schools, and Scotland in turn did not select schoolboys who did not actually turn out for their school teams, the call of Erin beckoned McGeady.

Well, more accurately, the dulcet tones of Packie Bonner, he of Burtonport in Co.Donegal, just a matter of miles away from the McGeadys' ancestral home. Bonner, then goalkeeping coach to the Irish team, persuaded McGeady to try out for the Irish U-15 squad, and he remained largely anonymously involved with Ireland's underage teams until his sudden success at Celtic brought upon him the ire of Scotland's more self-righteous football observers.

Although McGeady's decision to pledge his allegiance to the FAI rather than the SFA could be excused on the technicality of the dilemma presented to him as a 15-year-old, it is probably inaccurate to rule out the role of personal ambition in his decision. Certainly, had Ireland and Scotland's relative positions at that stage been reversed, one wonders whether the ember of Irish patriotism would have burst so completely aflame.

Still, have no doubt that Scotland's loss will become ever more apparent over time, regardless of the general performance of the two nations. Stephen Staunton has turned to McGeady as part of the panacea to the malady that has laid Ireland's national side so low in recent times. Along with Kevin Doyle, the Celtic winger is one of two changes to the team that lulled 72,000 people toward an afternoon siesta last Saturday. The aim is clear: an improved performance, yes, but a little bit of excitement wouldn't go amiss either.

Already Staunton's friends in the media are nursing a Stephen Hunt shaped stick with which to beat the manager should McGeady not impress, and Ireland underperform again. Certainly, the Reading man's continued exclusion is harsh in the extreme, given not only his positive contributions in his two brief international cameos, but also the fact that he has been one of the Premiership's most consistently eye-catching performers (too eye-catching as far as Petr Cech was concerned). Hunt's innate enthusiasm would seem ideally suited to lifting the often mopish mood that afflicts the current Irish team.

However McGeady will not be lacking in enthusiasm either. His dribbling wizardry and attacking nature will provide a well-deserved entertainment factor for the long suffering Ireland faithful. Just as importantly, his control, ball-retention and passing ability will be invaluable in a team for whom such basics often looked alien on Saturday.

Three years on from his Celtic debut, 20-year-old McGeady remains a player of gigantic promise, rather than a finished product, for all that his ongoing improvement as been consistent and tangible in that time. Celtic supporters - aware of the fact that manager Gordon Strachan continues to spare the winger the more attritional of SPL conflicts - while delighted at the call-up, will worry that the carefully tended prize of their garden has been requisitioned to feed the malnourished Irish team, and that its ongoing turmoil might afflict him also.

Still, McGeady's manful display against AC Milan in the San Siro a few weeks ago suggests that he could be reaching the sort of maturity which relishes such challenges as this evening's. Perhaps his country's timing in picking the man could prove better than the man's in picking his country.


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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Careful With That Valaska, Marek!

Slovakia darken our door tomorrow night, and might hesitate at the threshold, muttering, "Oh, have we come at a bad time?" when confronted with the scene of domestic strife presented by the Irish football family.

But what do we know of our visitors, aside from the accepted wisdom about them being "technically very good" and armed with "dangerous movement" (these are recognised truths because, compared to us, pretty much everyone is technically good and dangerous. Apart from Wales. Thank God for Wales!)?

Velvet Divorce
If Czechoslovakia was Ike & Tina Turner (without the punching), it's the Czechs that went on to international chart success and scary hair upon their separation, and Slovakia that ended up doing stir on a drugs rap.

While the Czech Republic have been a serious power in European football since independence in 1992 (reaching the final of Euro 1996 and the semi-finals of Euro 2004, and producing noted players like Pavel Nedved, Karel Pobrosky, Jan Koller, Marek Jankulovski and Tomas Rosicky), their old flames in Slovakia have never so much as made the final stages of a tournament.

Notable Slovaks are restricted to Celtic hero Lubomir Moravcik, journeyman centre-half Stanislav Varga and non-scoring former Middlesbrough striker Szilard Nemeth.

River Deep, Mountain High
But unlike Ike, the Slovaks could yet achieve solo success. They went agonisingly close to making the short trip to Germany for last year's World Cup. As runner-up to Portugal in group 3 (beating out Russia into third) they advanced to a play-off against Spain, where alas, the wheels came spectacularly off. A Luis Garcia hat-trick in the first leg helped the Spaniards to a 6-2 aggregate victory.

I would Bratislava it if we beat them...
This time around it's been mixed, to be honest. The Slovaks seem eminently capable of disposing of the group's lesser lights, hammering Cyprus 6-1 and 3-1 home and away, and demolishing the Welsh 5-1.

However, when faced with the group's stronger sides, estranged spouse the Czech Republic and Germany, the Slovaks go to pieces. They lost 3-0 at home to the Czechs and 4-1, also in Bratislava, against the Germans.

Therefore, whether they will view Ireland as spankable minnows or frightening group overlords could determine much tomorrow night...

Are you Mintal?
Marek Mintal of FC Nurnberg is Slovakia's top scorer in the tournament so far, but, hallelujah, misses out tomorrow night due to a foot injury. The Slovaks' hopes rest on Mintal's teammate at Nurnberg, Robert Vittek, Brescia midfielder Marek Hamsik and Porto's Marek (the Slovak equivalent of Pat, obviously) Cech.

Mountains and Castles and Stuff
If Slovakia can leapfrog Ireland and begin to snap at the heels of the Czechs, it will be well overdue. As on the football field, so in other areas has the Czech Republic been more prominent than their neighbours.

Much of this is due to Prague, the Czech capital, being one of the must-visit destinations of post-communist eastern Europe, its magnificent architecture, historical fascination, delicious beer and fit women making it attractive to the coach-tour circuit, romantic city-breakers and lairy stag parties alike.

But much like its footballers in group D, Slovakia's attractiveness to tourists is coming up hard on its neighbour's shoulder. With the spectacular Carpathian Mountains home to countless mediaeval castles and untouched villages retaining much of their bucolic authenticity - and that's before one considers Bratislava itself - Slovakia's charms are obvious.

Presumably Irish fans visiting in September will take time out to enjoy Devin Castle, an 8th century fortress perched on a clifftop around 9km from Bratislava. Of course they will.

Valaska stupid question...
Slovakia even has a national weapon. The Valaska is a long, thin and light axe, which is mainly used nowadays in traditional dances (Dancing with axes? Someone could have their eye out with that carry-on!). It was also used by Slovak folk hero Juraj Janosik, a forest robber who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Hang on a minute...

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Hear Ye! Eircome League Tidings!

Not all of Irish soccer was nodding off at Croke Park this weekend - IrishBar from My Irish Football Blog brings us up to date with the latest action from the Eircom League.

Derry City 0-1 St. Patrick's Athletic
Derry lost their second game in succession as St Pats continued their great start to the season. Derry had the better of things until Pats took the lead from a corner kick. After that the home side lacked a creative edge and despite manager Pat Fenlon tinkering with formation and tactics they couldn't find a way back into the game.

This was a big win for St Pats as Derry have been extremely strong at home in recent years. Slightly surprising that Derry started the game with such a defensive formation but Fenlon seems to be taking a little time in finding out what his strongest eleven and formation is. Click here for goals and match highlights via the official St. Pat's website.

Galway United 2-3 Drogheda United
Drogheda started this game as you would expect - going 2-0 up after just 27 minutes and creating chances a-plenty. Galway manager Tony Cousins altered his formation a few minutes later and that helped matters for the home team. Then, deep in first half injury time, confusion in the Drogheda defence from a John Lester free kick led to the ball falling to Stephen O'Flynn who had no difficulty finishing from close range.

Galway were arguably the better team in the second half and levelled things on 78 minutes through Alan Murphy. Once again in injury time Terryland saw another late goal when Eamon Zayed managed to steer the ball into the net despite the presence of numerous defenders.

Waterford United 1-2 Bray Wanderers
Bray got three points here for the second game in a row - something that hasn't happened that often recently. The first half was goalless with Waterford having a slight edge in terms of possession and chances created. Bray took the lead from a set piece when veteran Colm Tresson rose unmarked to head home.

Straight away after the restart they doubled the lead when Stephen Fox coolly slipped the ball under the advancing keeper after dispossessing Waterford defender Hedderman. Waterford got one back late on but Bray held out for an important away win

Longford Town 0-1 Sligo Rovers
Longford slumped to their third straight defeat of the season as Sligo turned things on in the second half and deserved the three points.

UCD 0-1 Cork City
The Leesiders grabbed their first league win of the season thanks to a Roy O'Donovan strike at Belfield.

FIRST DIVISION
Shelbourne 0-2 Dundalk
Dundalk continued their 100% start to the season with two goals and a clean sheet at Tolka Park. Dundalk look on course for automatic promotion this time around but had to wait till the second half before they made their dominance count. Last year's top scorer Philip Hughes opened the scoring after a neat turn in the box.

Dundalk went down to ten men shortly afterwards but that didn't stop them wrapping things up 8 minutes from time when Shaun Williams got himself another crucial goal.

Monaghan United 0-2 Kilkenny City
Kilkenny managed to win a game for the first time in 26 attempts after two pieces of terrible defending on Monaghan's part cost them dearly. Padraig Fogarty and Martin Tynan got the goals for Kilkenny. Monaghan did have the better of the first half but wasteful finishing cost them dearly.

Limerick 37 2-0 Kildare County
One of the rare home wins this weekend. Limerick 37 continued their good start to the season and still remain unbeaten. David Goldbey and Padraig Moran got the goals for Limerick. Click here for the goals (with some Cranberries music in the background) .

Cobh Ramblers 1-0 Finn Harps
Cobh finally got some points after a narrow win over Finn Harps. Cobh took the lead after just ten minutes through Gareth Cambridge and held out without too much hassle for the remaining eighty as Harps struggled to create anything worthwhile.

Athlone Town 3-0 Wexford Youths
Wexford were brought back down to earth after their first league win last week by a confident Athlone side that are looking better and better by the week.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

TSA Report: Ireland v Wales

At some point during Saturday's mind-numbing afternoon at Croke Park, a mild commotion broke out up in the chilly top-left corner of Hill 16. Two spectators were refusing to sit and a steward was attempting to address the breach of stadium procedure. Howeer, the fans in question were not erect through uncontrollable excitement at the events on the pitch, nor were they engaging in an act of civil disobedience.

In fact, the two gentlemen were unable to sit because the seat corresponding to the number on their expensively purchased ticket did not, well, actually exist. Forced to take in the remainder of the Group D Euro 2008 qualifier with their rear ends perched on the icy concrete of the famous terrace, their good humour at the indignity was admirable.

For the rest of us, luxuriating on plastic, the incident seemed plum in keeping with the spirit of ineptitude abroad on the field.

Having missed out on the gluttonous feasts of history and resonance that the recent rugby internationals at Jones' Road were portrayed as, yesterday's first soccer international felt very much like nibbling stale scraps from posterity's table. Not entirely the fault of the team, of course; the sense of the bandwagon having blown town was inevitable given how the public imagination had steeped itself in the oval-ball hullaballoo of recent months.

But, much as I believed the case might be, where Ireland's rugby team had the force of personality to eventually inhabit the vast arena comfortably, their soccer equivalents looked like small boys wearing their Daddy's trousers.

But again, that's not entirely their fault. Where Six Nations rugby represents, if not the pinnacle of the sport, at least one of its higher echelons, the general quality of international football has long been negligible, especially when practiced by the two extremely limited teams who lined up under the Hogan Stand on Saturday.

But enough of the extenuating circumstances. There was far more to the limpness of Saturday's occasion that is not excusable. Ireland's inability to deal convincingly with such poor opponents was not surprising to anyone who has watched them recently, but that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Most maddening of all was that classic warning sign of a manager bereft of tactical understanding: personnel being played out of position. For some reason, bad football managers often think putting a right-footed player on the left will outfox the opposition in some way, when in fact it is generally the player himself who ends up looking bamboozled.

Steve Finnan is a highly capable right-back for one of the Premiership's top sides, a Champions League winner who provides a useful threat when getting forward. Selected at left-back by Stephen Staunton on Saturday, he looked like a new-born foal who'd been asked to run the Grand National.

John O'Shea took Finnan's position, despite the fact that the Manchester United player has played left-back on many occasions for club and country. Stephen Ireland occupied unfamiliar turf on the right-side of midfield; Damien Duff was nominally a forward player, although he did drop off into wide positions to more useful effect.

More critical, however, than the eccentricity of the team selection, was Ireland's inability to dominate Wales from central midfield. Where you'd expect this part of the field to be a fiery battleground for supremacy in an international football match, on Saturday the struggle in the middle third resembled two punch-drunk heavyweights plodding through a bottom-of-the-bill prize-fight.

While both Lee Carsley and Jonathan Douglas are combative enough, and lack nothing in commitment, neither has the ability to control the game and provide forward impetus for their team. When Ireland's defenders had the ball at their feet, rarely did they find one of their central midfield colleagues demanding it be played to them, so that they may advance possession into the opposing half in a meaningful way.

Consequently, Irish defenders repeatedly 'knocked' balls vaguely in the direction of the strikers, and the sense of cluelessness quickly set-in. In fairness, Ireland are not over-endowed with options in this area, but the appointment of a ball-playing central-midfielder is urgent.

During the second half the crowd performed an extended Mexican Wave. Where normally I would grumble at the appearance of this tiresome phenomenon, it was hard to argue with the spectators providing themselves some alternative entertainment. Indeed, Stephen Ireland's tidy finish aside, the impeccably well-executed wave was one of the few accomplished sights of the day.

I'm pretty sure the two guys without seats joined in as well.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Can Ireland Rise To The Occasion?

Back to Croker we go, and another historic first. Not soccer at GAA HQ (the 1901 Irish Cup Final got there before St.Patrick banished the size 5 ball from Jones' Road), but rather seats on the Hill. Wittily, the bucket seats installed on the famous terrace are sky blue and navy, the favoured hue of the metropolitan hordes that normally occupy that storied facility.

Will we hear the sound of those seats appreciatively flipping upright tomorrow as their occupants stand in praise of Stephen Staunton's team? Or will that be more of a disgusted clatter as punters exit another rum Irish performance?

Certainly, the sense of foreboding is all-pervasive. If even Ireland's gifted rugby team were somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion in the opening period of their first match in Croke Park, one must fear for our hapless footballers under the gaze of 70,000-odd pairs of eyes.

Jock Stein once said that "the Celtic jersey does not shrink to fit inferior players" (the great man was speaking many years prior to the signature of Regi Blinker). Equally, an arena like Croke Park will not shed any of its grandeur to accomodate an inferior team. Which begs the question: will this Irish team swell to perform at a level appropriate to the surroundings? Or will the mediocrity which has long been associated with the Irish soccer team see them lost in the vastness of the occasion?

There would seem to be little to suggest that this team have the capacity to deliver a performance befitting a venue of Croker's scale. The draw with the Czech Republic at Lansdowne Road last October stands as the only acceptable display of Stephen Staunton's stewardship, the debut victory over Sweden and the facile home win over San Marino aside.

Either side of that game we endured perhaps the two most embarassing evenings in the history of Irish soccer. In many ways, the win over San Marino was even more abominable than the humiliation in Cyprus. Cyprus could have been written off: wrong selection, bad formation, calamitous individual errors and a sense of freakishness in the way that every time a Cypriot entered our penalty box, he was wheeling away in celebration only moments later.

We hoped our young manager would learn quickly, that the return of Lee Carsley would stiffen the midfield, that Paul McShane might instill solidity at the back and, anyway, there was always Shay.

San Marino was so depressing because it felt like nothing had been learned, and the rudderlessness of the display represented a team bereft of leadership on and off the field. While we've grown to accept that Staunton - how sad it is to see a great servant mortified so - will be unable to positively influence matters, all hope seems lost when the players lack the footballing intelligence to put to bed a nonentity like San Marino.

All this doom is giving me a headache though. At least Ireland arrive without the weight of expectation that caused their rugby counterparts to initially buckle. But even though anything less than a win against Wales would be greeted with outrage, there is also a sense that any grim outcome is possible. This Irish team should, in normal circumstances, feel confident of overcoming the Welsh, but confidence cannot be an ample commodity in the camp these days.

Wales are fundamentally ordinary, however, with Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy backed by a supporting cast of journeymen and kids. Everything else aside, Ireland should win tomorrow, based purely on the quality available to both teams. Undoubtedly, big performances are required from the senior players, and one must hope those on the park have the wherewithal to engineer a victory suitable to the occasion. Recourse to the Croke Park sideline may be futile.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

New! IrishBar's Eircom League Preview

You spoiled blighters! At no extra cost, IrishBar from My Irish Football Blog will kindly be previewing for us the action in the brand spanking new Eircom League of Ireland....check out MIFB if you want more on the Eircom League, or if you're just fed up of reading TSA's slurred untruths.

Eircom League of Ireland Premier Division
Galway United v Drogheda United, Fri 7.45
Galway will be hoping to build on last week's point gained away to Cork City. This will be their second home game of the season and they will be looking to pick up their first home points. Manager Tony Cousins has already used more players than any other team in the division as he tries to figure out his strongest eleven.

Drogheda, with four points from a possible six, are visiting Terryland on the back of a deserved 1-0 win in the Setanta Cup away to Glentoran. They found their scoring touch last week against UCD, scoring three goals in a five-goal thriller at United Park.

Drogheda are real title contenders this season and if they wish to have a serious go at it they will need to be able to go and win away at places like Galway. Drogs are a very difficult team to break down and with Galway yet to find the net this season one would have to favour the Louth team to come away with three points.

Derry City v St. Patrick's Athletic, Fri 7.55 - Live on Rte 2
This is an early season table-topping clash and Derry will be looking to recover from their midweek defeat in the Setanta Cup at the hands of Linfield. They went down 2-1 and conceded their first goals of the season. Pat Fenlon's team are worthy favourites to finish top this season after the disappointment of finishing runners up in the last two campaigns. Defender Dave Rodgers is suspended after his red card against Sligo last week.

St Pats have started the season on fire, with a 100% record in the league and some impressive Setanta Cup results also. They have scored some cracking goals and kept things reasonably tight at the back.

Prior to the start of the season many were tipping Pats as dark horses for the league. They have been going well so far, however, with no disrespect to the teams they have beaten in the league, they were both games that Pats would be expected to win. They have yet to come up against a top class side.

Derry, with their strong home form at the Brandywell should have enough to scrap a narrow win.

UCD v Cork City, Fri 7.45
The students have lost two of their big players from last season to Championship side Birmingham City, however they gave a good account of themselves in their two games so far. Their season opener was a well earned no score draw with Shamrock Rovers and last week they twice breached Drogheda's usually watertight defence, only to come away on the losing side of a 3-2 scoreline.

Cork City have suffered from a lack of a proper preseason and until they beat Portadown during the week had been struggling. They will still be without new signings and former internationals Colin Healy and Gareth Farrelly and are really missing the departed Neale Fenn and George O'Callaghan. With just one point so far they will be eager to get their season up and running.

UCD have been strong at home over the last few seasons - especially against the top sides - they are very well organised, young, fit and hungry. Generally they dont score or concede many. I see this as a tight game with a draw the most likely of outcomes.

Waterford Utd v Bray Wanderers, Fri 7.45
These two sides propped up the table last season. Waterford were planning for life in Division One until Shelbourne were demoted so their opening day victory over Cork was all the more impressive. They followed that up with a 3-0 defeat in Dublin to St Pat's last weekend.

In their opening game Bray put in a spirited performance at the Brandywell but lost narrowly to Derry. Last weekend they surprised a few people and beat Bohemians 1-0 at the Carlisle grounds - so with three points already on the board they will be quite happy with their start to the season.

Hard to pick a winner here but Bray have had the best of the encounters between these two teams in recent years and although the bookies make Waterford favourites I fancy Bray to come away with something.

Longford Town v Sligo Rovers, Fri 8.00
It's been a bit of a disaster so far this season for Longford. They have lost a lot of experienced players and have no points from their first two games. Rumours of alleged money owed to creditors is also a potential problem.

Sligo have their own problems with manager Rob MacDonald leaving just before the season was set to start - apparently the Sligo board were not willing to give him a contract of employment that had previously been agreed. But with three points from a possible six they will be happy enough with their start to the season.

Longford have injuries to a few crucial players - Gary Deegan and Davy Byrne - and will also be without two more regulars (John Martin and Damien Brennan) who received red cards in last weekend's game against Shamrock Rovers.

Sligo will be confident of getting something out of this game and its a good time for them to be playing Longford. They may even sneak a win!

Eircom League of Ireland First Division
Limerick 37 v Kildare County, Fri 7.45
Limerick 37 will be hoping to build on their four points won so far at home to Kildare County and will be confident of a win. Kildare have drawn their first two games and don't look to have improved since last season.

Monaghan United v Kilkenny City, Fri 8.00
These two teams occupied the two bottom places in the division last season. Monaghan managed to steal an undeserved point last week in Kildare and also drew their first game of the season with Wexford - despite being 2-0 up at half time. Kilkenny are pointless at the moment and have not won a game in 26 attempts.

Shelbourne v Dundalk, Fri 8.00
Shels have just one point so far while Dundalk have a 100% record with two wins out of two. I can't see Shels challenging this season but they will be hopeful of a top half finish. Dundalk will be going all out for automatic promotion and should collect another three points.

Athlone Town v Wexford Youths, Sun 3.00
Athlone are quietly confident that they will challenge for promotion this season and with one win and one draw so far they have started well. Wexford also have a win and a draw to their name but the bookmakers have them as long-shots to get anything out of this game.

Cobh v Finn Harps, Sun 3.00
Cobh finished a very respectable fourth last season but have lost both games so far this time out. This game will be in Turners Cross as St. Colemans is not quite ready yet. Finn Harps, who have lost to Dundalk and beaten Shelbourne, will be hoping to get something from this game to make the long trip home more bearable.

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Ireland's Olympiad: The Tailteann Games

While flicking around in search of repeats of Frasier last night, I caught most of 'Aonach Tailteann' on TG4, a documentary about the Tailteann Games, a sort of mini-Olympics held in Ireland in 1924, 1928 and 1932.

I was aware of the Tailteann Games from hazy childhood memories of prescribed GAA historical literature, which featured yellowing evidence of hammer-throwing and archery and all sorts.
Last night's documentary put the Games in fascinating historical perspective, however. The decision of the Irish Free State to organise a revival of the ancient Tailteann sporting festival (which is believed to have been held from about 1829BC until around the time of the Norman invasion in the late 12th century AD, making them older and of greater longevity than the ancient Olympics) was one of the first undertaken by the new government after independence.

The purpose of the Games was to announce Ireland as an independent nation to the world, affording any athletes of Irish ancestry the opportunity to compete. The notion of such an event was not entirely new however, as an early meeting of the GAA in Cork in December 1884, just a month after the historic inaugural meeting in Hayes Hotel in Thurles, had mooted a similar idea.

Indeed, hurling and football were not even mentioned that evening in the Victoria hotel. Instead, those attending focussed on athletics in general. Michael Cusack himself supported the idea of having traditional Irish events like the high jump, long jump, the hammer-throw and shot-put included in the new association's remit. Much of the discussion focused on the organisation of a Tailteann Games, similar in vein to the Caledonian Games which had been held in Ballsbridge that year and had turned a tidy profit.

The new association's aims drew a predictable response from the British press. The Daily Telegraph in November 1884 (quoted on the GAA website) reported:

"Olympic Games for Ireland hardly seems a serious proposition, yet this is the objective of a new society just started by the Archbishop Croke, Mr. Parnell, Mr. Healy and others of the National Party in the sister Isle. We may be sure that an agrarian offence is no disqualification for a competitor!"

Still, great to see the British media have evolved so much in 123 years...

When the games did eventually go ahead in 1924, under the stewardship of the Minister for Posts & Telegraphs in the Cumann na nGaedhal government, J.J. Walsh, they proved to be an enormous success, drawing thousands of spectators and athletes from all corners of the diaspora to events as varied as cycling, archery, chess and rowing as well as the staples of athletics, hurling and football, which were held in Croke Park.

The Games also featured exponentially more female athletes than competed in the corresponding Olympics of 1924 and 1928.

However, the 1932 Games would be the last. With that year's Olympics being held in Los Angeles, the paucity of quality competitors diminished the Irish sporting festival.

According to the documentary however, the demise of the Tailteann Games was aided by the accession to power of Eamon De Valera and Fianna Fail in 1932. The Games carried overtones of Ireland's pre-Christian past, and indeed the opening ceremonies featured re-enactments of Celtic warrior stories. These references to paganism were out of step with the dogmatic Catholicism with which Irish cultural life would soon be synonymous.

Most damaging of all, the 1932 International Eucharistic Congress was held in Ireland, just days before the Tailteann Games were scheduled to open. As well as enjoying the full favour of the Catholic hierarchy, Ireland also attracted the sort of international attention which the Tailteann Games had originally been established to garner. Over a million people were believed to have attended mass in Phoenix Park to celebrate the Congress, casting into unfavourable relief the 30,000 or so that convened in Croke Park several days later.

Over the following years the Games were effectively 'committeed' into obsolescence by an unenthusiastic De Valera, the documentary suggesting that he wished to undo anything associated with the Cumann na nGaedhael government, despite the protests of J.J. Walsh, their original champion. Walsh's support for Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany possibly detracted somewhat from his moral authority.

The Tailteann Games live on, however, as an annual inter-provincial schools athletics competition, sponsored by Celtic Ireland's presumably favoured confection, Kit-Kat.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Stanworld: The General

The great general surveyed the battlefield. It was quiet now, but for the laughs and shouts of his loyal troops, running drills in anticipation of Saturday's skirmish. By then the noise would be deafening. Full of fans waving flags and going mad, as he perceptively informed the ranks of the press corps.

What fine men they were, he thought, looking on as his players gambolled on the Croke Park turf, and how they loved him! Robbie, his lion-hearted captain whom he had watched grow from precocious boy to leader of men. Dunney, barrel-chested and brave; Shay, the inscrutable lieutenant in goal; little Duffer, so eager, so keen. He knew these men would march with him unto the gravest peril, should he give the order; even unto Macedonia.

And how he would need them now. San Marino had been a pyrrhic victory, a bloody struggle for inches of no-man's land. According to some observers, the great generals of the past would have routed the guerilla forces on that Italian hillside, crushing the rebel bands without mercy. He cared not for the mythology of the past, however, for how his predecessors had been deified. Like Big Jack, who did great work for Bord Failte with the fishing and all.

But he sensed the forces ranged against him from inside to be as threatening as those crossing the Irish Sea to confront him in open combat. "How dare they?! How dare they?!" he thundered again and again when contemplating the insiduous plotting he suspected all around him. Et tu, Mick Byrne?

Don’t be ridiculous. No, he was safe in here, with his men and the backroom staff. Honest, happy faces, loyal to the last. Here he felt strong. Let the public chatter in their taverns and places of business, let them foment discord. Too rich, idle and fat for their own good, he sniffed, as John O'Shea stretched nearby.

They'd been spoiled in the past, that was the problem. They'd grown used to the plunder of victory. But there were no easy battles in international warfare anymore. Cyprus, who once capitulated at the merest grimace from Keano, now attacked with impudence.

His mind wandered to Saturday. He thought of Sun Tzu and The Art of War. "So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you win one and lose the next. If you do not know yourself or your enemy, you will always lose." For Sun Tzu there was no such thing as a potential banana skin.

If it was true that knowing both yourself and your enemies would lead to victory, what of the Welsh, that dragon-worshipping tribe his beloved men would face on Saturday? "They know us," he thought, "we know them, we know us, and they know them, so...." His head began to hurt.

He remembered another line from Sun Tzu, as the lads began to filter back towards the dressing rooms: "A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective." He laughed to himself. This was the central tenet of his generalship, and he fulfilled its instruction to the utmost.

On Saturday they would see exactly how competent he was.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

An Enchanting Team, But Not World Champions

And so the Six Nations plunged the bucket even deeper into the emotional well and came up brimming once again. Of course, it was fitting that the conclusion to this year's tournament (the charming epilogue in Cardiff aside) should be ridiculously overwrought, given the excess of drama of the previous weeks.

Saturday's torment was only mild, to my mind, Vincent Clerc's intervention in Dublin being the mortal wound, Elvis Vermuelen's merely the coup de grace. Incidentally, regarding the great kerfuffle over the legitimacy of that late French try on Saturday, the referee, Craig Joubert, had stated to the TMO, Simon McDowell, that he had seen the touchdown, and that he would award the try unless McDowell could see any reason not to.

Viewers on RTE would not have been aware of this above George Hamilton's excited tones, but the BBC commentators were able to point this out quite calmly. Quite why Joubert needed to put everyone through the additional agony just to verify the evidence of his own eyes is uncertain. Perhaps he has a history of hallucinations.<"span class="fullpost">

Over the course of the tournament Ireland would have been perfectly worthy champions of the Six Nations. Their best was as good as, if not better than France's peak moments, and as for their worst? Well, even in Ireland's most puzzlingly diffident moods, they never would have lost to England in the manner that France did.

But it is the way of the world that the French will consider themselves perfectly acceptable contenders for 'le coupe du monde' while we will scorn ourselves for ever having dared to dream. It could just be, however, that our failure in the Six Nations (failure? I know, I know, those damned expectations) might be more valuable than any success.

We can at least thank the Six Nations - not a vintage one, it has been accepted - for providing two things. Firstly, a robust examination of all elements of Ireland's game and secondly, a timetable of fixtures very similar as that required to navigate to the latter stages of the World Cup.

Over the course of the tournament Ireland's scrum did surprisingly well, especially against England's. Surprisingly in the sense that most expected it to be obliterated. However, it is still a wobbly affair and the achievement of parity is often a victory in itself.

Ireland's lineout, once the keystone around which all our ambitions were built, was often disastrous and the restoration of it to its former glory is key to any great ambitions in the autumn. Losing one set-piece may be considered unfortunate, losing two is just carelessness.

Around the breakdown Ireland's possession of two openside flankers masquerading as centres (O'Driscoll and D'Arcy can play a bit on their feet too) often covers their lack of one in the pack. Dear old Scotland gave probably the best examination of this area, spoiling incessantly and rucking mightily, the nuisance-factor here being key to Ireland's ineffectual display at Murrayfield.

Central to Ireland's schizophrenic performances in the tournament was Ronan O'Gara. When O'Gara played well - like against England where is tactical kicking was flawless, or in the try-hunt against Italy where his passing was the bugle call for most of Ireland's infantry charges - Ireland too played well.

When O'Gara struggled - as against Wales where for long periods his boot could barely find the ground never mind touch, ditto with Scotland - Ireland struggled. The form of the number 10, or more accurately, his consistency, will be a prerequisite for success in the autumn.

But at the end of it all you have the backs (and David Wallace)! If rugby were played on Mount Olympus, Zeus and Apollo would be out in the back yard trying to imitate the play of D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Hickie, Horgan, Dempsey (and David Wallace). We may not have the strength in depth, the beef or the consistency to win the World Cup, but there will be few teams who'll dazzle like Ireland will, that is for sure.

The Six Nations might have delivered a timely survey of where Ireland actually stand, and dampened our expectations to nicely realistic levels, but for sheer enjoyment of the finer aspects of the game, I know who I'll be following come September.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Real Life Sad Ending To a Happy Story

As you've probably figured by now, this sport business has a slight tendency toward the dramatic. In fact, I've long thought of sport as soap opera for men. Improbable storylines, pantomime villains, joy, heartache and then Gary Lineker presents the omnibus so you can catch up on what you've missed.

Of course, the problem with soap operas is that sometimes people mistake them for real life, accosting Dirty Den at the petrol station or sending love letters to that Maria off Corrie. This phenomenon is also replicated in sport, especially on a weekend like the one just passed, where the potboiling plotlines whisk us off to a land of makebelieve, and perspective and reality disappear from view.

Saturday's incredible events put sport onto the front pages, which only exacerbates the confusion, placing games alongside real life so that they blend in seamlessly. Then something happens to make everyone snap out of it. Like the grey-haired figure who had just watched the team he coached fall on the wrong side of one of the biggest shocks in sporting history dies only hours later.

A guy who had just been an unfortunate stooge in a particularly outlandish sporting cock and bull story, the poor sap on the wrong end of a ripping yarn, had just, well, actually died.

Oh. Shit.

I knew little of Bob Woolmer before Saturday. Like many others who don't follow cricket closely his earlier career as a test batsman who had joined up with the Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket and later taken part in the rebel tour to South Africa was unknown to me, as was his later standing as one of the most respected and innovative coaches in the game.

He was a close personal friend of Dickie Bird, the former test umpire, however. Bird had been unearthed by Sky News to provide some good old-fashioned bluster on the news that 'Freddie' Flintoff, English cricket's erstwhile Boy's Own hero, had been stripped of the vice-captaincy of the World Cup squad. Flintoff's boozy carousing in the aftermath of England's loss to New Zealand on Friday had necessitated his being rescued from an imperilled pedalo in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The news of Woolmer's death broke while the interview was in progress. Just when the wrathful brows of the British public were gathered most fiercely in the direction of the naughty Flintoff, real life impinged, like a school bell harshly bringing play-time to an end.

But the transition from the ersatz emotion of pompous indignation to genuine human grief was uneasy. The news anchor blasted out at Bird the details of Woolmer's death in that usual Sky News red-top tone. Bird's shock was immediately obvious, his lip trembling after the anchor asked him to provide his thoughts on his close friend's death just seconds after he had heard the shocking news.

Those of us who'd cheered the Irish team home to their improbable victory the previous night even felt the chill wind of reality cool our own jovial glow. The giddy glee of such a win is for the most part derived from patriotic pride, but also from the natural element of schadenfreude in the humbling of a giant. So when the man whose team have been humbled dies at the height of our joy, the intrusion of reality can't help but dampen the jubilation.

Ireland's cricketers' win, and the thrilling failure of the rugby team were great, rip-roaring stories that remind us why we devote so much of our spare time to watching people play games. Just like the latest tidings from the Rovers Return, however, it's not for real, and thank God for that. There's enough real around already.

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If I Hear That Kaizer Chiefs Song One More Time.....

...but seriously, fair play to ya Ruby ya boy ya!

When the bean counters in Paddy Power Plc come to tot up their annual harvest of broken dreams and misused childrens allowance cheques, they'll find themselves EUR 80 short this year.

"What's the problem Jenkins?"

"Sir, it-it-it's the vast annual profits...."

"Well? Spit it out you blithering idiot!"

"They're....you see....well, they're 80 euro short."

"Good God man! Have you gone stark raving bonkers - it's not possible?!"

"It appears that one of the customers did us good and proper at Cheltenham...took us for 80 big ones. Sir, are you okay? You've gone a funny colour......"

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Rubaaaay!

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Six Nations Signs Off, Carney Signs On

It's been exhausting just watching it - can you imagine how the players feel?

For Ireland the normally intense Six Nations has had lashings and lashings of extra significance poured over it this year, whether it be the Croke Park melodrama, the Grand Slam chatter or the looming World Cup. The tournament has been utterly captivating, more so than ever perhaps, but after every game I feel like I've just come out of a ruck with Nathan Hines. A sleepy Magners League evening at the Sportsgrounds will be just the ticket after all this stress.

But once more unto the breach we go, and Ireland in with chance of the title on the last day. The sporting integrity of the tournament's climax is seriously wonky however, with France being able to quantify exactly what they need to do to retain the championship before they take the field against Scotland. Television dictates that all matches will be broadcast, so the simultaneous playing of thefinal games cannot happen, but at the risk of souring the grapes before they're even plucked from the vine, it's just not fair.

Of course Ireland first have to actually beat Italy, thoughts of hefty points totals being unwise against a team who, the opening weekend apart, have had a great tournament so far. Ireland will always toil against the Italians, whose powerful pack love to rough up their green-shirted equivalents.

Both packs will be missing talismanic figures, in Ireland's case the inspiration of Paul O'Connell and in Italy's their multi-functional flanker, Mauro Bergamasco. O'Connell's loss to Ireland is unquantifiable, given that Ireland's only convincing performance of the tournament was also the only one in which O'Connell played to his own celestial standards.

But Bergamasco's absence will hit Italy just as hard. He is one of their few genuinely top class talents, and is absolutely key to getting his team moving with the generous portion of ball their pack generally win. Without him they will still be strong up front, but their actual threat to Ireland's line is severely diminished.

Ireland's try-scoring threat is usually one of their best features, but was strangely blunt at Murrayfield. A back-line which is usually breathlessly fluid was notable for more clumsy fumbling than the back wall of a teenage disco.

The Scotland game also highlighted question marks over Ireland's lack of a genuine finisher. Denis Hickie's tackle on Chris Paterson in the first half, after which he sprang to his feet and turned the ball over, was one of the few moments of excellence displayed last Saturday. But the Leinster winger isn't a world-class finisher anymore, injuries and age having robbed him of the necessary explosiveness, as was demonstrated in the second half at Murrayfield.

Enter Brian Carney. Is it utterly fanciful to speculate that Munster new signing is not just intended to boost the province's Heineken Cup bid, but also as another prospective big gun for the Irish back line?

Although Munster supporters have been on tenterhooks all week since the rumours of the former Great Britain rugby league star's imminent signature started, there's been plenty of caution in the red ranks too. After being burned before with Christian Cullen, whose injuries have prevented him from ever displaying the awesome talent of his youth in a Munster jersey, scepticism is understandable. After all, Carney is 30 years old and has only one day of pre-season training in six months behind him.

But there is no doubt that Carney is the real deal, a top class league player who scored 16 tries in 26 NRL games in Australia (the sport's strongest competition) on top of his earlier successes with Wigan. Also, as a winger, he plays in the position most suited to an easy transition to union, Jason Robinson and Wendell Sailor being the proof of that.

It seems a monumental ask to expect Carney to descend fully-formed into Munster and Ireland's massive battles of the next months, but his pedigree suggests he has a chance.

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Be Like Jeremy Bray - Let's Hit The Bookies For Six

What a day! Ireland snatch a thrilling draw in their opening Cricket World Cup match and TSA busts hard cash out of Paddy Power's high security vaults!

At a time of the year when to be Irish is to be drunk, the pasty-fleshed conga-liners in Kingston Town joined forces with the ne'er-do-well hordes at Cheltenham to get Paddy's weekend off to suitably oiled start. Now let's extract some more beer money from the reeling Mr.Power.

Inglis Drever did the business yesterday (many thanks to the good Reverend) but in general the policy of backing horses with nice names proved surprisingly flawed. Vic Venturi sleeps with the fishes, Thisthatandtother is easier on the space bar than the wallet, Madison du Berlais was too busy thinking about gentleman callers and Glen Campbell didn't even turn up, Rhinestone Cowboy instead being ridden by a small Irishman who wasn't even wearing a stetson.

But there's no need for any kooky system today. There is only one, two word question: Kauto Star? My answer is Yes! The horse who has won all before him this winter and is being touted as the heir to Best Mate's National Hunt superstar status is causing palpitations amongst the heavy-hitters trackside due to having clobbered fences to win at Kempton and Newbury.

Rather like Paul Gascoigne in the 1991 F.A. Cup final, his talent is so immense that he can only beat himself.

But you won't find me cowering in fear. I believe that, rather than go diving into Gary Charles' knee like Gascoigne, Kauto Star will imitate that other flawed genius, Diego Maradona, and glide past his rivals like they were so many toiling English defenders. The whole stake, thirty lids, on Ruby to bring home the bacon.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Cheltenham Episode 3: The Punter Strikes Back

Shortly after I decided to place a whopping EUR 30 per day on the order in which some quadripeds (about whom I possessed only half-baked, hearsaid information) passed a fence-post in a field somewhere in the English countryside, I started to feel nervous.

A possible loss of EUR 120? Calamity upon possible calamities! What would that crazy money buy me? Seven copies of My Defence by Ashley Cole! Three tickets to Jason Donovan's eagerly awaited upcoming concert in Vicar St! Two of those nifty panini makers that I've been eyeing up for some time! Approximately 3.5 goats for an African village to do with what they saw fit!

And so on. All better causes than putting foie gras on Paddy Power's table.

Thankfully though, after two thrilling days of gambling, I've kept my stake and have the price of my bus fare home to boot. Bread and water for you Mr.Power!

Day three is when I make my big play. Today I try a different tack, however. Hearing the voice of my old Jedi master, Obi Wan McCririck, in my ear, instructing me to "use the force, Tom", I have decided to forego the pretense that I have any understanding of the form. Instead, I will stare at the cards until winners suggest themselves to me, simply by the pleasing quality of their names.

In the 2.00 Jewson Novices Handicap I notice an old pal of mine from running the numbers game outta Philly, Vic Venturi. He had his finger in a lot of pies - racketeering, girls, protection - helluva nice guy though. EUR 3 e/w on the paisan at 12/1.

Monet's Garden (the name of the favourite in the 2.35 Ryanair Chase) doesn't sound like a my kind of place. An old French bloke sitting around staring at waterlilies - non merci! Instead I smile on the old racing convention of horse names taking a phrase and running the words into each other: Thisthatandtother gets EUR 3 e/w at 12/1, benefitting as well from the use of a Yorkshireism.

In today's feature race at 3.15, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, I'm drawn to another old friend, Inglis Drever, a Church of Scotland minister from Inverarie who once offered me spiritual counsel, in the form of a 30-year-old bottle of Balvenie he kept sequestered in the sacristy. Tenner on his purple nose at 4/1.

The 4.00 Racing Post Plate Handicap is a veritable menagerie of exotic sounding creatures, featuring the likes of Reveillez, Opera Mundi, Le Volfoni and, er, Big Rob. Madison Du Berlais gets our EUR 3 e/w for sounding like the tragic heroine in a Tennessee Williams play.

Our final EUR 2 e/w goes on Rhinestone Cowboy in the last (5.20), the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Final, because of the picture in my head of Glen Campbell, resplendent in stetson and deep mahogany tan, riding his horse through the winners enclosure like it was a star-spangled rodeo.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In Your Face Mr.Bookmaker Man!

It makes the world go round folks, so they say. And after yesterday TSA is rolling in the green stuff: EUR 7.50 to be exact, pure profit extracted from the grim death-grip of the bookies. Despite being party to the gazillions flushed away on Detroit City in yesterday's Champion Hurdle, we side-stepped Paddy Power's greedy embrace with a place for Granit Jack and a winner in My Way de Solzen.

However, before going off to the local Bentley dealership, let's see how our tiny acorn of EUR 30 will be turned into the mighty oak of copious lucre this afternoon...

The Ballymore Properties Novices Hurdle gets things underway at 2.00. I'll be avoiding the favourite Aran Concerto in this one, mainly because of regular jockey Paul Carberry's withdrawal through injury.

Of course, the fact that Champion Jockey Tony McCoy takes the mount is some consolation, but I'm going with the attitude that a horse and rider should be like Torvill and Dean: telepathically in tune with each other, but with absolutely no romantic involvement.

So EUR 5 on the nose for Silverburn at around 5/1 here, another from Paul Nicholls stable. I'm also going to drizzle a little EUR 2.50 e/w on My Turn Now at 9/1 who has had a good season so far.

This year's banker, Denman (in the 2.35 Royal & Sun Alliance Chase) owes me one. That's because he was last year's banker too, you see. And TSA went in HEAVY. I believe 'waded in' is the term. The blighter came second. With bankers like that, I'm off to Permanent TSB.

But far be it from me to hold a grudge against a dumb animal (takes one to know one, they say). So my marquee EUR 10 bet is on Denman at the miserly 5/4. But I'm chucking on top of this a EUR 5 double with Newmill (3/1) in the Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.15).

Well Chief is the hot favourite for the Queen Mammy, but has just come off a two year injury lay-off. His price is based on a brilliant comeback at Newbury last time out, but people who know about these things say that it's not unusual for a horse to overperform in his first race back.

Going against yesterday's warning to avoid the final race of the day, we're plumping our last farthings on Den of Iniquity (10/1) EUR 2.50 e/w in the Champion Bumper at 5.20.

He's won very well on his outings so far and doesn't mind softish ground. I know, I've asked him. I said, "do you mind softish ground?" He replied "Naaaaay."

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Abandon Hope All Punters Who Enter Here

Shall I just leave the shirt on my back here, Mr.Bookmaker? I also have the kids' college fund, will you be needing that also? Yes? No problem, really, I insist. And my dignity? Well....right you are, it's a fair price....

Christmas for grown-ups? Or an almighty scam cooked-up by the gambling industry to fleece the completely ignorant but eminently excitable out of their hard-earned?

Being completely ignorant but eminently excitable myself I am all for the Cheltenham Festival, which for four days every year manages to trick me into believing my knowledges of horses stretches further than Mr.Ed's christian name.

This week I will be starting with 30 shiny euros, and, after carefully studying the form, will probably place them on whoever Ruby Walsh is riding. By the end of the week, all going well, I will only have one or two men with baseball bats outside my door.

Today is Champion Hurdle day, arguably the race of the week given the withdrawals from the Gold Cup field. In the 2.00 Supreme Novices Hurdle I will be ignoring the mean odds on Amaretto Rose and plumping for Granit Jack at around tens. The French horse is from Paul Nicholls' stable, Ruby has elected to ride him instead of Kicks for Free, and he likes the softish ground. EUR 5 e/w, it's a lock!

Another one who supposedly fancies the softer stuff is My Way de Solzen in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at 2.35, whose connections apparently plumped for this race rather than the other, longer contests he is entered for. With the ground drying, that might yet prove unwise, but we'll stick a fiver on the nose at around 3-1.

And now for the big one, the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle (3.15) to give it the full hoo-ha. Brave Inca (defending champion), Hardy Eustace (2004 & 2005) winner, and Detroit City (highly fancied young buck). Two Irish heroes of yore versus an English upstart.

But don't bet with your Gaelic heart folks! Detroit City's record is phenomenal and includes three wins at Cheltenham, including beating out Hardy into second in December. Tenner on the nose at around 2-1.

We're ignoring the last two races of the day. The Cross country at 4.40 is a daft novelty race and the last race of the day at Cheltenham is always to be avoided, a novices affair designed to separate any foolish winners from their earlier gains in an unpredictable field.

So the rest of our stake is for some long odds fun in the William Hill Trophy Handicap at 4.00. EUR 2.50 e/w on D'Argent at 20/1 - he won here on soft ground in December, although he's absolutely ancient. Another horse in this field might be more appropriate though, Heez a Dreamer at 18/1....

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tales of the Six Nations Unexpected

The Six Nations - you gotta love her.

What an unpredictable, idiosyncratic, wilful little maiden she is! Just when you think you've got her measure, she surprises you. When you think she's settled into some discernible pattern of behaviour, she kicks off her shoes and dances on the tables. You think it's going to be a quiet weekend, next thing she has you throwing craps in Vegas.

The girl can't help it.

Sometimes you forget when February comes around exactly why the Six Nations has such a hold on the sporting and cultural imaginations in these islands. You pull on your sneering hat and wax satirical about corporate knees-ups and city break piss-ups. You scoff at men in wax jackets and their befurred wives, after-dinner speeches peppered with decades-old gags about testicles and anyway, how the Tri-Nations is a vastly superior tournament.

Then Spring kicks in and you say "ah, yes, I remember now" as you're captivated by it all over again. The triumphs, the disasters, the passions, the shocks.

As a tournament it seems to abhor predictability. Not in the greater sense of its ultimate outcome: of the seven championships played since Five became Six in 2000, France and England - the powerhouses in terms of playing numbers - have won three times each. Moreso in that, just when it seems that a level of reason can be applied to an upcoming fixture, and all logic points to a certain outcome, it's at this point that events take a turn for the confounded.

Of course, with Ireland confounding expectations is nothing new. Heading to Murrayfield after the bravura dismissal of England at Croke Park, armed with a vastly superior team, as well as an increasingly one-sided recent historical record over the Scots, we talked of pulling away at a canter. We expected the home side, nostrils ablaze having just sang proud Edward's army home tae think again, to charge into the fray fiercely.

But class would tell, and Ireland would respond with steel and skill, being as how we've moved onto 'another level' and all.

At some point, maybe after the first twenty minutes when 70% of the possession had yielded a scoreline of 3-3, or perhaps after Nathan Hines came back from the bin to find his team three points better off than when he had gone off (in contrast to the match-breaking 14 points that Ireland had tacked on in Danny Grewcock's absence two weeks previously) it became apparent that this tournament's persistent awkwardness was striking again.

Scotland slowed the ball down at every turn and ranged their defensive lines right in Ireland's faces. At the same time, however, they drifted sufficiently well so as that, on the handful of occasions when Ireland's line-breaks were shifted wide, they had men over for the saving tackle.

In many ways, Scotland's tactics were identikit to those which beat Wales, their aggressive and mobile pack dampening down the attacking ambitions of a more gifted side and the accuracy of Chris Paterson's boot rewarding the forwards for their exertions.

Thankfully the capricious Six Nations only decided to give us a fright, rather than the shocking loss we could very easily have left Edinburgh with.

France, on the other hand, got the full whammy from the fickle tournament. England's victory was improbable for two reasons. Firstly because the last time we saw them they looked as at home at Croke Park as Kilkenny footballers; secondly because they had made so many changes (enforced and tactical) from that side that it seemed very unlikely that they could conjure a defeat of the best side in the tournament from what was largely a team of strangers.

The ensuing events, happily for Irish title hopes, kept with the Six Nations' tendency toward the unexpected. England's youthful promise, in the shape of Messrs Rees, Flood, Geraghty and the already established Ellis, bloomed gloriously. There hasn't been such brio in a white shirt since the days when Guscott and Underwood roamed the land. Who'd have expected that?

But that's just the way she likes it.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Irish to Crush Rebellious Scots

So where were we? Ah yes, Scotland! Murrayfield, formerly graveyard of Irish hopes, now a biennial source of Six Nations Championship victories. Where once the Scots were as miserly with championship points as reputedly in fiscal matters, now they ply their Irish guests with away victories like an Edinburgh barman dispensing Glenlivet.

On the face of it only negligence of the highest order on the part of the Irish team and a flawless display from the home side would seem to be able to prevent another victory for the visitors tomorrow. Given that Scotland's defeat to Italy last time out contained more flaws in the first seven minutes than the Irish team have exhibited in three full games so far, Ireland's seventh straight win over the Scots seems likely.

One consolation for the Scots is that, had they handed Ireland the three early opportunities they did to Italy, they might not have been punished so severely given how slowly Ireland have started matches this term. They began the matches against Wales and France with all the urgency of surly teenagers who'd been told to tidy their bedrooms. In the latter case this lethargy proved terminal to a golden opportunity to win a first Grand Slam since 1948.

In fairness, although they went 3-0 down to England early on at Croke Park a fortnight ago, they responded quickly enough - and with sufficient gusto - to suggest that they had overcome the slow start problem.

One thing that might work against Ireland is the complete inability of any game to match the intensely emotional proceedings of two weekends ago, let alone a trip to down-on-their-luck Scotland. The Scots succumbed to a rugby version of Ally McLeod syndrome against Italy a fortnight ago.

McLeod, for those who don't remember one of the many less edifying episodes in Scottish football history, was Scotland's manager for the 1978 World Cup. He managed to whip the nation into frenzy of expectation when he optimistically claimed that he expected his squad to return from that tournament with "at least a medal". Of course his spectacular hubris proved calamitously misplaced when the Scots went out after the first round following a loss to Peru, a draw with Iran and, in the true tradition of glorious Scottish failure, a win over tournament favourites the Netherlands.

Anyway, back to Murrayfield two weeks ago. Scotland, following an impressive win over Wales (impressive at least in terms of their forward play; their backs proved as penetrative as guerkin cutting through granite) were feeling pretty good about themselves, and the visit of Italy seemed to provide an perfect opportunity to further burnish their form.

Not content to redeploy the hard rucking and solid set-piece policy that did for the Welsh (against an admittedly stronger pack), they reached for the weapon in their armoury called "expansive back play" and set it to "attack from deep". In a repeat of McLeod's misplaced confidence, it blew up in their faces.

Of course the other thing that this story underlines is that the Scots are infinitely better underdogs than they are favourites. Much like Ireland used to, Scotland look dismissively and uninterestedly on favouritism; it bores them. Tell a Scot he has nae chance and he's painting his face blue quicker than you can say "freedom!".

So they'll have a good go tomorrow, and will pester Ireland incessantly at the breakdown, but a couple of line-breaks from Ireland's centre pairing should see them quickly hung, drawn and quartered.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Young Man, There's No Need To Feel Down

Darren O'Dea is actually 20 years old. He turned 20 four weeks ago. And to think they gave me an award for this!

Anyway, the boy (or man I suppose now) is a bit special, that I do know for sure. After the final whistle of the 90 minutes last night, as the players gathered their breaths and the coaches talked pep, O'Dea lay on the San Siro turf getting his legs rubbed. For all the stress visible on his face he could have been a kid lying in a city park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, missing just a can of lager by his side.

He was probably just about the best of a very fine bunch of Celtic players last night. Over the course of the two legs, Milan were clearly the stronger team, but as PSV Eindhoven demonstrated last night, winning through two-legged European ties is not necessarily about being the better team.

Right up until the 120th minute of last night's tie, Celtic were just a goal away from preventing AC Milan reaching the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years. Had the Austrian referee awarded either of Celtic's strong penalty claims, who would have bet against them preventing Milan from acquiring the two goals they would then have needed, especially with Artur Boruc in such majestic form?

Boruc, Lee Naylor, Aiden McGeady, Paul Telfer, Stephen McManus and Evander Sno were all magnificient for a Celtic, but O'Dea was awesome. Not simply in a 'for one so young' way, but his reading of the game, decisiveness and timing were perfection. Over to you , Mr.Staunton.

In the end though this performance garnered nothing but platitudes about bravery and heroism. However, it promised much for Gordon Strachan's team. The club's recent thrift has left them in a position to invest in quality come the summer, and while they will still be paupers in comparison to even the strugglers in next season's cash-gorged Premiership, the experience of last night bodes well.

Who knows, perhaps an away win in Europe's premier competition mightn't be out of the question.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Don't be scared, It's only the San Siro

Imagine being Darren O'Dea.

You're 19 years old and tonight you play for Celtic. Against AC Milan. In the San bloody Siro. You've come up through the ranks, made the international underage teams, been groomed for the top for some time. In the youth academy at Celtic you'd have been given talks about handling pressure, about dealing with testing situations.

You've played at Parkhead, even against Milan, and done fine - more than fine. But tonight you play in the San Siro. 19 years old!

I went to Milan two-odd years ago to watch Celtic play AC in the group stages of the 2004-05 Champions League. It was my first time in the stadium, and I clearly remember being awestruck. I clearly remember being drunk also, but yes, awestruck too.

It's a little shaggy round the edges now, but the famous cylindrical towers and the stacked tiers are utterly distinctive and the place has an aura that few other stadiums can match. I remember feeling intimidated - as well as awestruck and drunk - even by sitting in the stand behind the goal. Not intimidated in the sense that my safety was in danger, rather by proxy for the Celtic players who had to play there.

Then there was the noise made when Milan scored. Not a smiling "yeeeeessssssss" sound at all, but a primal roar from the curva sud, belligerent and aggressive.

Darren O'Dea and his colleagues face a herculean task to get a result in this place. It's not the greatest ever Milan team (but still a very strong one), and the stadium will not be full, but the imposing character of the arena would test the most experienced professional.

The mental preparation of the players will probably be Gordon Strachan's biggest challenge this evening, requiring the manager to cajole his players into a winning combination of full-blooded commitment and ice cool temperament.

The result of the first leg leaves both teams with a conundrum of sorts in planning their approach, with both requiring a goal to progress, yet neither needing one to survive. However Milan will almost certainly attempt to kill the tie early on, preventing confidence from growing within the Celtic ranks.

The first half hour of the match will be crucial for Celtic: survive it and they will feel intimidated neither by opposition nor venue.

But still - 19 years old!

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Great Sporting Fatties

While Ireland were giving South Africa a fright in yesterday's warm-up match for the Cricket World Cup, England were also being troubled by Bermuda, before eventually overcoming the island of the mysterious triangles and modest shorts. Key to the Bermudans bowling attack was 20-stone spinner Dwayne Leverock, who proved that success in international sport need not be the preserve of the emaciated or the musclebound.

Today in TSA, we salute those who forego weightlifting for pie-munching, prefer flapjacks to jumping jacks, and would rather reach for the peppermill than sweat on the treadmill.*


William 'Fatty' Foulkes
The spiritual father-figure to every fat goalkeeper (later devotees include Neville Southall, Andy Goram and John 'Budgie' Burridge), Foulkes played for Sheffield United and Chelsea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In between playing football and eating enough to satisfy his 6'7", 24 stone frame, he also managed to turn out in county cricket for Derbyshire. A tempestuous character, he is reputed to have ran naked from the Sheffield United dressing room in pursuit of the referee after the 1902 Cup Final in protest at the awarding of Southampton's equalising goal, and had to be restrained from yanking the door of the referee's room from its hinges as the official cowered inside.

Died of cirrhosis in 1916, at the age of 42.

Jimmy Keaveney
Those of us who were but lascivious twinkles in our Daddy's eyes in 1970s are well used to being regaled with tales of the Dublin v Kerry rivalry of the era, accepted as the greatest in Gaelic football history. When modern teams employ complex blanket defensive tactics and crowd the midfield area the disdain is audible: "yerra, tis not real football at all, at all. The great days of catch and kick are dead and gone."

Then we see footage of those old games and there's this fat bloke playing full-forward for Dublin! What are they on? That guy would keel over after 2 minutes of modern football!

But hang on a minute; the fat bloke is lovingly stroking over the most delicate points, like an elephant at a piano playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik note perfect, and knocking frees over from every conceiveable angle.

Jimmy Keaveney - proof that old football wasn't rubbish after all. Just out of shape.

'Big' Bill Werbeniuk
The 1980s Canadian snooker player's very name conjures up a paragon of ill-health. Big Bill smoked, drank (a lot) and toward the end of his career began taking beta-blockers, ostensibly for a heart tremor, probably also for the effects on his heart of his drinking.

And my could he drink! He claimed to quaff six pints of lager before a match and one for every frame thereafter. After his last professional match in 1990 he said "I've had 24 pints of extra strong lager and eight double vodkas and I'm still not drunk."

Unlike most of us, whose cueing abilities deteriorate as the booze takes hold, Big Bill had a pretty respectable career during the game's golden age. He reached the quarter-finals of the World Championships four times and was in the top 16 of the world rankings for seven out of eight years.

Beloved of the Crucible crowd, his finest moment at Sheffield came in a match against Dennis Taylor. Stretching his ample frame across the quivering baize, biology and lager combined as he broke wind, to titters from the audience. He dismounted the table, turned around and said "Who did that?"

'Fat' Frank Lampard
By normal standards of fatness, Frank Lampard is nothing of the sort. In fact, pretty much every last one of the opposing fans who sing "Big fat, big fat Frank/ Big fat, big fat Frank/Big fat, big fat Frank/Big fat Franky Lampard" at the Chelsea and England midfielder probably dwarf him on the Body Mass Index front.

But the taunt from his days as a youngster at West Ham carrying a little puppy-fat has survived as a result of the determined cruelty of football fans and also, the sense that Lampard takes himself just a little bit too seriously.

The story that emerged from Joey Barton's recent elevation to the England squad, even if apocryphal, illusatrates this perception. Barton had earlier criticised those England players who had released autobiographies following last summer's dismal World Cup showing (in the publishing industry disaster of the year Lampard, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney all published their stories to staggering levels of public apathy).

Gerrard had laughed off Barton's jibe, but po-faced Lampard remained peeved at the Manchester City midfielder's call-up. Supposedly, Barton sat at Lampard's table at breakfast, causing the Chelsea player to up tray and move elsewhere."Don't worry, I'm not going to eat your breakfast, you fat prick!", Barton is reported to have said.

*Darts players not included due to weight being key to providing proper ballast at the oche, not a side-effect of spending all day in the pub drinking pints and eating bacon fries.

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