Thursday, May 31, 2007

Down With That Sort Of Thing

Along with hailstones and matchmaking festivals, no Irish summer is complete without a good old GAA brawl. Usually the shocking scenes take place amongst the brawny bullies of football, but Cork and Clare's hurlers showed on Sunday that even the graceful swans of the small ball game can get stuck in.

The purist will always prefer a football "schemozzles" (why do we use a Yiddish sounding word to describe GAA fights? Must the Jews get the blame for everything?), the players having both hands free to pulverise, throttle and gouge.

Here's the definitive one, from the 1996 All-Ireland final between Meath and Mayo. Apologies for the "hold a camcorder up in front of the telly" school of youtubing, although in some ways it adds to the chaos...


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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Summer Diary of a Football Fan

5pm: Turn off television after Championship play-off final. Stare at screen, forlornly. Contemplate emptiness. Blink several times and begin to notice surroundings for first time in months: furniture, carpet, wife.

6pm: Resolve to do something positive with close season this year. Decide to bring old, unwanted clothes to charity shop. Realise all clothes are "old, unwanted". Decide against charity shop idea due to conventional attitude to public nudity. ISPCA? Hate dogs. ISPCC? Hate children. Local Tidy Towns committee? Hay fever. Run marathon for charity? Athlete's foot.

7pm: Decide to rearrange CD collection in order of 'Genre'. Spend 30 minutes deciding whether Pink Floyd's Meddle belongs in 'Prog' or 'Psychedelia'. Conduct imaginary heated Late Review-style discussion on subject, which results in agreement with Tony Parsons on formation of new 'Progedelia' genre.

8pm: Having found no worthwhile other 'side' to personality, resort to League of Ireland action to fill football void. Feel pleased with self, rejoicing in old-fashioned values of domestic football, stripped of vacuous overinflated egos of Premiership.

8.15pm: Another misplaced pass clears Dalymount stand; yearn for vacuous overinflated egos of Premiership.

8.30pm: Check Sky Sports for Masters Football.

Meet boss in office lift. Brain reaches instinctively for safe ground of Premiership issues, in effort to intercept conversation about overdue report. Brain discovers only scraps of Joey Barton transfer gossip and stale leftovers of Jose Mourinho dog story. Hesitate. Boss: "About that report..."

11am: Take coffee break with colleagues. Uncomfortable silence broken by half-hearted observation about General Election. Agree that Bertie is "some man". Uncomfortable silence resumes, until a colleague recalls email received containing joke about Liverpool losing Champions League final. Relieved, even Liverpool fans laugh.

1pm: Make up alibi concerning visit to bank in order to avoid uncomfortable lunchtime silence.

6pm: On train home. Read sports pages in newspaper - article on French Open ladies draw. In response to preponderance of Russians, observe to self that "it's like reading bloody Dr.Zhivago". Snigger at own wit. Imaginary Tony Parsons not impressed. Move on to pompous denouncement of GAA brawl on previous Sunday. Soberly nod at "what about the children?" sentiment. Doze off while reading about Formula One controversy concerning team orders. Dream of being sent to gulag by McLaren boss Ron Dennis along with scared primary school children with hurls. Wake up when drunk falls asleep in lap.

9pm: Resume rearrangement of CD collection. Abandon when heated debate with imaginary Tony Parsons about whether The Clash's London Calling is 'Punk' or 'New Wave' becomes too personal.

9.30pm: Catch final seconds of Sky News sports bulletin item about Robbie Keane signing new contract. Find self missing the little scamp. Heart sinks when next item concerns that new English cricketer with the awful haircut.

10pm: Draft email to Sky Sports: "Dear Sir, I wish to ascertain when broadcasting of this year's 'Masters Football' will commence....."

9am-5pm: Take stairs to avoid boss, bring flask of coffee to avoid uncomfortable break silence and invent visit of mother to town for lunchtime diversion.

6pm: Avoid newspaper, instead listen to London Calling very loud to stay awake. Mutter to self "definitely new wave". Imaginary Tony Parsons glowers.

7.30pm: On scanning Sky Sports channels, observe 'International Football' as scheduled. Heady feeling of euphoria gathers, imagine to be similar to news of Lotto win. Click 'ok'. Ascertain that 'International Football' in question Scotland v Austria friendly.

7.32pm: Flick back to Coronation Street.

8pm: Make up with imaginary Tony Parsons. Acknowledge that Man and Boy very good book. Maintain discretion re opinion on Man and Wife.

8.55pm: Randomly flick through channels in hope of catching Terry Christian or similar rehashing spoonfed thoughts on Eric Cantona in the Premiership Years.

9pm: Tune into Channel 4 for start of new Big Brother series. Feel strange sensation of emptiness being filled. Like heroin addict accepting methadone.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

They Might Be Giants

I can't decide whether last night's Reaching for Glory: Inside Irish Rugby (RTE 2) demystified the mighty men of Ireland's first XV, or merely added to their growing legend.

On the one hand we were allowed to see them as they presumably are: larking about and cracking jokes, or suffering inconsolably the pain of defeat. And then there was the fact that phrases like "let's get stuck into them from the start" survive in the highest echelons of international sport, and are not just the preserve of bumbling amateurs.

But on the other hand there was the monstrous physical and emotional expenditure that was a constant theme throughout. For all the hotel room high-jinks and training ground banter, it's hard not to think of these guys as supermen when you get such a close-up view of their exploits. The weights, the muscles, the hits, the blood - made me think twice about another Tesco Finest Triple Choc-Chip Cookie (will you eat EVERY LAST OUNCE of this biscuit?!!).

And while we've all done a bit of pre-match roaring during our own miserable pursuit of sporting glory, if I delivered Paul O'Connell's already-legendary "DID YOU SCARE ANYBODY, DID YOU PUT THE FEAR OF GOD INTO ANYBODY??!!" speech before one of my 6-a-side astro league games, it would be quietly suggested that I might have a bit of a lie down.

O'Connell perfectly encapsulates this dilemma, even down to the cute little spectacles he wears when not crushing Saxon skulls. Seeing him squeezed into the seat of the plane returning from the Cardiff victory with his dainty designer glasses, you could almost imagine him whimpering "I'm not all that I seem to be, Lois". Then next thing he's pummelling a punchbag like it was Lex Luthor himself.

Of course, it's the swearing that brings them closest to us mortals. Oh my goodness Father, the swearing! While not quite at the level of the documentary about Sunderland made during Peter Reid's time at the club (if you think Reid is less than articulate on television, that's because he's not allowed to use 50% of his vocubulary before the watershed) the Irish dressing room was as rich in expletives as any another.

It sounded natural coming from O'Connell, when in full Maximus Decimus Meridias mode, and Eddie O'Sullivan has enough of a scowl about him that you'd expect a bit of effin' and blindin'. But Brian?! Oh Brian darling, what were you thinking? It's not big and it's not clever you know!
Then again, O'Driscoll does his talking so persuasively on the field that he could have a speaking voice like Julian Clary and it would not detract from his aura.

We feel like we know them, these boys. It's hardly surprising, given the success that they have enjoyed in recent years, but there's no doubting the degree to which this team have been taken to the hearts of the Irish people. Apart from seemingly being perfectly decent skins altogether, and demonstrating exceptional prowess on the sporting field, they have also been agents of reconciliation, uniting Ireland's opposing cultures: I refer, of course, to Culchies and Dubs (well, the posh ones anyway).

Time was that if a country fella walked into his local pub and introduced the gathered throng to his new friend 'Girvan', he would have been met with the gravest inquest into what kind of "quareness" he was getting up to above in Dublin. Now we have the likes of Marcus Horan, Banner-man to the core, on the couch beside the not-quare-in-the-slightest Girvan Dempsey, talking over the year that was in it, and no-one bats an eyelid.

The inference is clear: any friend of yours, Marcus, is a friend of mine - I don't care if he talks like Prince Philip himself!

The mixture of awe and affection this Irish rugby team generate in equal measure is one of the finest sporting tales of our time on this isle. There's much to aspire to in the way that they have achieved such excellence, yet seem distinctly human also. As Reaching for Glory demonstrated, these men are giants, but they are walking among us.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Same Old Story Has Happy Ending For Donegal

These alternative endings are the way of the future. What with interactive digital technology and all, soon you'll be able to choose whether you want to see Matt Damon or Tobey Maguire or whoever outwit the evil mastermind and ride off with the expensively upholstered lady into the sunset, or whether you'd prefer him to plummet off a cliff to a gruesome death on some spikes.

Yes, the modern world, sheesh. There I was, watching an old re-run yesterday afternoon - you know, the one where a snarling Armagh grab Donegal by the throat and put them up against a wall, so that their little legs are dangling helplessly and they flail impotently - when, quite unexpectedly (I must have pressed a button on my Super-Digi-BluRay remote control by accident while reaching for another Tesco Finest triple choc-chip cookie) the alternative ending came on.

Suddenly one of Donegal's little thrashing legs connected plum with Armagh's voluminous goolies, and the beast went crashing to the ground, allowing Donegal to ride off with the expensively upholstered lady into the sunset.

Vorsprung durch Technik indeed!

Imagine if we had this technology before now? Gordon Hamilton scores for Ireland in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final, Michael Lynagh has the chance to win it for Australia...oooh knock-on, scrum Ireland, peep-peep-peep, Ireland into semis.

Wim Kieft's header spins toward the bottom corner to send Ireland out of Euro 88....oooh Bonner saves, McGrath clears, peep-peep-peep, Ireland into semis.

Geoff Hurst with the the it in?....oooh Russian linesman waves away English appeals, goal-kick, up the other end, Beckenbauer, on the Kopf, 3-2, peep-peep-peep, they think it's all over, it is now.

Technology can't assuage feelings of guilt of course, as consumers of internet pornography will testify in the moments after download, and yesterday's surprising turn of events might have induced a small amount of embarassment in Donegal folk at the purloining of the win from a deserving Armagh.

I say might, but not likely. The oppressed tend to feel little sympathy for the expelled subjugator. I'm sure as the Germans withdrew from Paris in 1944, the locals weren't wondering if they hadn't, perhaps, been a little hard on them.

The trajectory of yesterday's Ulster Championship match - up until the alternative ending - was so familiar as to seem almost choreographed. The two teams duke it out physically for a bit; Armagh frustrate Donegal's easily frustrated forwards; Armagh snatch a goal, topped off with a few points; Armagh dig in, catenaccio-style, allowing Donegal's response to founder on the thick, reinforced walls of their defence; Donegal are driven demented by the futility of it all and fall on their own sword, usually resulting in a couple of red cards.

So many times over the last decade have these two played out these roles that yesterday was almost reassuring in its inevitability. Some things don't change, eh? In this Super-Digi-BluRay world, some things are enduring.

Hey, even though Brendan Devenney's hopeful balloon slipped through Paul Hearty's grasp, as Kevin Cassidy lurked like a malevolent spirit in the corner of his eye, thereby providing Donegal with the win, does that mean that something new happened yesterday? Have Armagh not proven that they remain forceful competitors and sage match-players? Did Donegal not re-arouse the belief that they can be got at, broken up and scattered away?

Or was yesterday's shock denouement the sign that - as they demonstrated throughout the League - an indefatigable spirit is suddenly alive in Donegal when it counts, in the Championship.
Just because you change the ending, does the story remain the same?

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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Championship Weekend - A Family Story

I wonder if the players of Armagh and Donegal were watching Bobby Baccala give Tony Soprano a beating in last night's new episode of the last series from everyone's favourite psychotic New Jersey folk. Surely the omens wouldn't have passed them by if they were; Tony, the ageing, battle-scarred boss, brought to his knees by a sucker-punch from one of his inferiors, the good-natured but flabby and soft-hearted underling.

Time and tide wait for no man, not even Tony Soprano and Armagh footballers. Go back to the early part of the decade - the peak years for New Jersey's answer to Kieran McGeeney - and there would have been no contest. Just watch the brutal demise of Ralphie Cifaretto back in series 4 for evidence of that.

Similarly, until now, seeing Donegal square up to Armagh in the Ulster Championship, you generally expected the north-westerners to endure the fate of Big Pussy Bonpensiero, or worse, the Bevilaqua kid, whose attempts to throw mobster shapes winded up with him being tied to a chair and filled full of lead by Tony and his own Paul McGrane, Silvio Dante.

But, in the dangerous meanstreets of Ulster football, anyone's grip on power is tenuous. Armagh, with 6 out of the last 8 provincial championships laundered through legitimate businesses and stuffed in bags of duck feed, are the undoubted capos of Ulster football - although they only managed to become Capo di Tutti Capi once, in the bloodbath of 2002. Their domination has been challenged by Tyrone, but like our friends in New York when Johnny Sac got locked up, the O'Neill county have lacked leadership since Peter Canavan's been out of the picture.

As far as many observers are concerned, the old man has lost it. Are Donegal about to make their move? Or will they end up like Richie Aprile, whose designs on power foundered on Tony's sister's kitchen floor? Certainly the job has been okayed by the other captains; any one of the All-Ireland contenders would love to see Armagh buried under snow in the Pine Barrens.

Elsewhere Clare hurlers are looking for a bigger piece of the Munster action. Like Philly Leotardo, they've paid their dues and have suffered a few heartbreaking knocks along the way. Remember that 2005 All-Ireland semi-final when they were six points clear, only once Cork took their cut they were left empty handed? Those sorta debts, they gotta get repaid. Just like Phil, Clare won't stop till they've got their vengeance.

Meanwhile, Mick O'Dwyer will remember the fate of Old Man Baccalieri. Some felt he was too old to do that hit for Gigi Cestone, but like the old pro he was he got the job done. Unfortunately the exertion caused him to crash his car on his getaway. Let's hope Micko doesn't meet the same fate against Louth at Parnell Park tomorrow.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

When We Were Kings

These days it's often hard to get too worked up about the outcomes of major football matches. They generally involve two teams playing a single striker each, with the intention of giving nothing away in the hope that the opposition makes a mistake. Failing that, you play the odds at penalties. It's Russian Roulette football, without the excitement: eventually somebody will blow their heads off, and it might be the other guy.

One afternoon exactly 40 years ago tomorrow, football's biggest match had a more compelling narrative. On one side, even then, were a team successfully playing the football of fear and percentages: Inter Milan. On the other, however, were Celtic, a team that channeled all the game's most glorious characteristics, and for whom attack was not a tactic, but a compulsion. And sometimes the good guys do win.

Where have you gone Jock Stein? Our game turns its lonely eyes to you.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This One Could Go All The Way

A few weeks ago we brought up the fact that Milan's drive to avenge the horror of their Istanbul experience could prove the deciding factor in this evening's Champions League Final rematch against Liverpool (and it is that, a rematch, Steven Gerrard's autobiographical musings have got sufficiently up Rino Gattuso's nose to guarantee that much).

The only thing that could save Liverpool, we felt, would be a pronouncement of sublime arrogance from Silvio Berlusconi. There's a good megalomaniacal media mogul! Didn't he oblige? "Milan will win in Athens, we will succeed because we have a superior class than our opponents," said the man with the thickest weave this side of Magee's of Donegal.

"Since Milan have already beaten Manchester during the season and Manchester having beaten Liverpool, the football rule wants that now Milan beats the same Liverpool," added Berlusconi, adapting the rules of conkers to those of association football.

Moving from the deep tan of Berlusconi to the deep purple of Alex Ferguson, and we find more fuelling words for the Liverpool fire. "I told Carlo [Ancelotti] at the end of our semi-final that there is no way he can now not win this competition," said Ferguson.

"Carlo gave me a magnificent bottle of wine. But I immediately told him there is no point in giving such a wonderful gift if he then fails in the final. In fact, I told him I would only drink his wine once I see him lifting the Champions Cup." Looks like Fergie still enjoys seeing Liverpool being knocked off their f#cking perch.

Of course, these two mild-mannered gents are not the only ones who see no other outcome than a seventh European title for the Rossoneri. Football teams are, it seems, only as good as their last game, and many seem happy to accept that the wonderful Milan performance in their semi-final second leg victory is the definitive proof of their superiority. Few care to remember, it seems, the toiling outfit of most of this season. Most have easily forgotten the side that only eked past Celtic by a solitary Kaka intervention after 210 minutes of football.

Plenty have transformed their workmanlike disposal of Bayern Munich (the fourth best team in the dowdy old Bundesliga, remember) into a masterclass it was not. And far too many have discounted the role of a jaded, strangely lacklustre and tactically inept Manchester United in providing Milan the stage in which to dazzle at the San Siro three weeks ago.

Surprising are the number of those who neglect to consider Rafael Benitez organisational abilities, and his absolute aversion to allowing his teams to be open to the lacerating thrusts of fluid attacking teams. Indeed probably the only time one of Benitez's Liverpool sides have been pierced at will was on that very evening in Istanbul that made him an Anfield legend.

In swooning at the combination of guile and grime that the Milan midfield possess, a substantial amount of observers are unwilling to consider that it is in this very area in which Liverpool's own greatest strength resides; that, in Javier Mascherano, they have the man for the job of plugging that hole from which Kaka springs so dangerously.

What I'm trying to say is that, despite what Berlusconi and Ferguson feel, it is simply not true that Milan are a fundamentally better side. In fact, in reality, there is little to separate these two teams.

And I'll go further: there's much to suggest that they will cancel each other out. And you know what that means. "That’s why we lost, you know," Berlusconi also said recently ahead of this evening's match. "The goalkeeper was trying to disturb our players’ concentration. This time we’ll be practising penalties against moving goalkeepers."

You better had, Silvio, you better had.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TSA Report: SC Freiburg 2-0 TuS Koblenz

Volker Finke doesn't want the flowers. The coach of SC Freiburg has just watched his team miss out on promotion to the Bundesliga 1; but that's not why he doesn't want any flowers. The man who is attempting to present Finke and his trusted assistant Achim Sarstedt with valedictory blooms, club president Achim Stocker, heads a board which has brought to an end Finke's extraordinary 16-year stewardship of this small club in southern Germany.

The expression on Finke's face seems to suggest where Stocker should place his flowers.

As venues for bitter internecine conflict go, Freiburg in picturesque Baden-Wurttemburg (a few stops on the super-smooth ICE train south of Baden-Baden, where the English World Cup squad plotted their masterplan last June) is not the first place that would spring to mind.

Lying like a restful dog at the feet of the Black Forest, this university town ticks all the boxes in the bucolic central European template. Mediaeval cathedral flanked by bustling market square? Check. Winding, pedestrianised cobbled streets? Check. Earnest students scurrying amid dandering tourists, fed and watered by the best of biergartens? Check.
Far, also, from the traditional hotbeds of German football, the industrial sprawl of the Ruhr Valley and the southern automobile-producing cities of Munich and Stuttgart. It is, for example, Vfb Stuttgart (home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche) and Schalke 04 (from the grim coalmining town of Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr) who had contested the previous day's conclusion to the Bundesliga 1 title, Stuttgart's victory being watched in Freiburg by a packed house in O'Kelly's Irish Pub, in a corner of which about a dozen tourists, expats and foreign students joined us in watching the FA Cup final.

Volker Finke's achievement in dragging little Freiburg up amongst the big powers in German football, therefore, was not just to win football matches, but to implant football culture outside of any of its usual habitats. Just two seasons after Finke and Sarstedt taking over in 1991, Freiburg were promoted to the top division for the first time. After surviving their first season in the top flight, they went on to finish in third place in the 1994-95 season, playing a well-admired passing game and bringing UEFA Cup football to the Dreisamstadion.

This was a feat repeated in 2000-01, the club having in the meantime endured the first of three relegations from 1.Bundesliga in Finke's time. The first two of these, in 1997 and 2002, were compensated for by immediate return to the top flight. However, demotion in 2005 was followed by a tantalising fourth place finish the following season, one spot behind the promotion places.

When the 2006-07 season opened poorly, to the extent that relegation to the Regionalliga became a possibility, the club's board adjudged it to be harbinger of the end of Finke's reign, and it was announced following a 4-0 home loss to Karlsruhe that this season would be his last.
Immediately, however, Freiburg embarked on a 13 game unbeaten run, winning 11, to bring about the previously improbable chance of Finke's final season being marked by his fourth promotion.

Despite defeating TuS Koblenz 2-0 on Sunday, Freiburg once again finished fourth, thanks to third place Duisburg's 3-0 victory over Rot-Weiss Essen, and Hansa Rostock's securing of second with a 3-1 win against Unterhaching.

Freiburg tied up the win by early in the second-half against barely interested visitors; the home side's inspiration came from 21-year-old Jonathan Pitroipa from Burkina Faso, a quick and mesmeric attacker, and Alexander Iashvili, a wily, creative Georgian of the type which seems patented in the Caucasus. The latter did manage to miss a late penalty, failing to add to Sascha Riether and Karim Matmour's earlier strikes, a fact that would prove academic as the results from elsewhere came through.

In some ways, not winning promotion allowed the occasion the status of fond farewell, rather than becoming the celebration that might have drowned out the coach's departure. Judging by his reaction to the flowers proffered his way, Finke's exit did not sit easily with the man himself. Indeed, his bearing had something of the indignance of the powerful usurped, like a Nixon, Ceaucescu or Haughey even; as if to say, how dare they?

Although the feeling among the support was understandably positive toward the coach with whom the club had achieved so much, there were, apparently, elements who did not disagree with the coup. And although the vast majority professed their adoration and gratitude - many thousands held banners saying "Danke Volker" and "Wir Sind Finke" (We are Finke) - the mood did not develop into a demonstration in favour of his retention.

The tone was, in fact, reminiscient of Brian Clough's parting at Nottingham Forest. Both enjoyed massively successful eras in which unfashionable, provincial clubs had punched vastly in excess of their weights, to the extent that they themselves had become synonymous and unmistakeably identified with their teams.

Both bowed out on disappointing notes, and while Finke's departure having just missed out on promotion did not carry the bitter taste of Clough's post-relegation farewell, the sense of the inevitability of the parting, and of the passage of time, was similar.

That is one perspective. Another might be that, like Alan Curbishley's time at Charlton Athletic, a team's success under the stewardship of one man had been so prolonged as to convince those within the club that this very success was now their prerogative, rather than the continued gift of their talented manager. The responsibility for ensuring this is not the case rests now with Robin Dutt, erstwhile of Stuttgart Kickers, and Finke's replacement.

"Wir Sind Finke" was indeed a fitting slogan for the occasion. Germany's longest-serving manager was gone, but the achievements of the club in his time meant, as the slogan suggests, that he will always be inextricably linked to the team from the sleepy town in the shadow of the Black Forest.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bundesliga 1 - Freiburg ist Dabei!

TSA will be departing tomorrow morning to report on the most eagerly awaited club game in European football this weekend....that's right, it's the Bundesliga 2 meeting of SC Freiburg and TuS Koblenz this Sunday!

Freiburg are one of four teams battling for promotion from German football's second tier, and Sunday's final round of fixtures promises to provide much transistor radio-based tension.
With Karlsruher SC already guaranteed promotion, Hansa Rostock (59 pts), MSV Duisburg and Freiburg (both 57 pts), and Greuther Furth (54 pts) are the contenders for the remaining two places. Of those three, only Greuther Furth play a team in the top half of the table - the leaders, Karlsruhe - but while Rostock and Duisburg's opponents (Rot-Weiss Essen and SpVgg Unterhaching...excuse me, frog in my throat) are fighting the drop, 12th place Koblenz are safe.

Freiburg, in the south-western Baden-Wurttemberg region, was one of the corners of der Vaterland we didn't make it to during last summer's World Cup odyssey, but I have it on impeccable authority that the best of German hospitality awaits. Indeed, it will be nice to see Germany - and German football - in its normal attire, stripped of the FIFA party clothes of last June.

We did spend a night in Koblenz, and if motivation is needed at all to cheer on the Freiburgers on Sunday, a quick recollection of our hotel in that town should do the trick. A gloomy 1970s affair, decorated in beige formica and plastic, it felt like something from a Len Deighton spy novel. How many unfortunate spooks met their demise at the other end of a silenced Luger in this place, I thought, turning over in the narrow, lumpy bed?

I have high hopes for Freiburg, on the other hand, seeing as how it is the largest city to have a mayor from the Bundnis '90/Die Grunen party, a groovy sounding amalgamation of civil rights groups and Greens. It's also the hometown of German national team coach Joachim Loew, the eager Robin to Jurgen Klinsmann's shirt-sleeved Batman during last season's heady World Cup run by the home side. On the other hand, another native was Nazi eugenicist Hans Guenther, a proponent of an unpleasant sounding idea called "biological nationalism." Hmmm.

Barring any heated debates on the merits of selective sterilisation, a fine time is anticipated, hopefully capped by a beer and bratwurst promotion party at the Badenova-Stadion on Sunday.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Time For A Political Football

For the grey, paunchy men and soberly-attired women gurning down from posters on every lamp-post and bus-stop in the country at the moment, these few weeks are their World Cup. The comparison between these middle-aged, permanently besuited figures and the exotic creatures that compete for football's greatest prize may not be immediately obvious, but don't tell Ireland's aspiring legislators that their goal is a Mickey Mouse trophy.

Of course, before you even get to the World Cup, you must qualify. And just as you might have a tricky away tie in Azerbaijan or a torrid trip to Portugal to negotiate before making it to FIFA's quadrennial jamboree, so our would-be politicos must navigate the perilous waters of the constituency selection process. One slip - perhaps a careless remark by a naive young councillor about raising the basic tax rate - could be the misplaced backpass that leads to cruel elimination.

Amongst those who qualify, only a few have the right stuff to go all the way. You've got your plucky Togos and Saudi Arabias on the ballot paper, be they Socialist Workers or Fathers' Rights campaigners, who will have a go, but are ultimately let down by the gaping holes in their defence. Then you'll have a Spain - maybe a former Labour minister - a well-fancied dark horse, but who goes out on the second count as soon as the going gets tough.

In the end it's best to back those who've been over the course before - the Brazils and Italys - like the crafty Fianna Fáiler looking to be returned a fifth time, and who you'd fancy even if it went to the electoral equivalent of a penalty shoot-out: the recount ("It must be hell for those involved, Bill, but it's great to watch").

Yes, no doubt our politicians are enjoying the attention, their spats and pronouncements as discussed and broadcast as Jose Mourinho's or Alex Ferguson's are in normal times. They will be relishing the exposure, but, at the same time, will wonder why (aside from the opinions of top cabinet or opposition figures) their voices are often ignored throughout the long years between elections.

A sure sign of the people's disengagement from politics, they will mutter gravely. Nonsense.

Clearly if football, or any other sport for that matter, only held competitive fixtures once every four or five years, the people would disengage themselves pretty quickly from concerns about transfers and metatarsals and WAGs and all the other minutiae of the back pages.

While the General Election is like the World Cup, save for the odd by-election or the local elections (which, let's face it, are barely Carling Cup standard), politics gives the punters too little in the way of top-level action to enjoy during the normal season.

For all that Arsene Wenger might chastise Sam Allardyce about his team's style of play similarly to how Enda Kenny would castigate Bertie about some incidence of wasteful public spending or other, at least Big Sam has the opportunity to get his own back on Saturday afternoon. Those onlooking at a political disagreement must wait the months or years until the next election for a result. Ho hum.

The time is clearly ripe for restructuring of the political fixture list. In the same way that the qualifier system introduced more competitive action to the inter-county GAA scene, so must those on the Dáil Eireann terraces get more bang for their buck.

You'd have a weekly by-election, run-off on a Saturday afternoon of course (until such time as Sky dictate that polls must open at 8pm on Monday nights), with a league table keeping tabs on the state of the parties. In really good season you'd have the government changing hands every week, right down to a dramatic last day in which Fianna Fáil's hopes would be dashed by an injury time financial scandal.

Only the best would get to compete in the European elections, vying to get their hands on the big trophy in Brussels. Pretty soon there'd be no sport at all; Sky Sports News would merge with BBC Parliament, Michael O'Muircheartaigh would be Ceann Comhairle and, if the new approach spread to the U.S., Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be squaring up for the M.V.P. award.

Who knows, with Enda Kenny and his assistant manager John O'Mahony in charge, Mayo might even win the All-Ireland.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Farewell Christian

Christian Cullen's retirement from rugby brings to an end a glorious career, but one latterly wracked with injury. Looking at the clip below, you can see why Munster fans were giddy with excitement at his signature in 2003. It never really happened for the 'Paekakariki Express' here however, due to persistent shoulder injuries.

Look back on his early glory as an All Black, and that distinctive, elusive running style. Thanks to Planet Rugby in The Irish Times for this clip, but really, who's going to type out a whole url from the paper? Dear, doddery old media!


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Monday, May 14, 2007

The TSA Premiership Awards

It's another gala night at the Borris-in-Ossory Hilton for the TSA Premiership Awards in association with Johnnie Onion Rings (FIFA's official corn snack partner). See the glittering procession of guests, the great and the's David that Stig Inge Bjornebye? Look, getting out of the limo, it's Nelson Vivas! Fingers crossed for Linvoy Primus too!

Without further ado....

The Oddjob Award for Best Evil Henchman
Once again, none did his master's bidding quite so well as Richard Keys this year. The furry fella imparts the information that the Premiership is the best league in the world with dogmatic certainty, his eyes blazing like an Islamic fundamentalist looking forward to all those virgins.

The highlight? During the prematch studio chuntering a few weeks back, David Platt made reference to his transfer to Italy in 1991. "Back then Italy was the place to be," said the man who looks like an off-camera magician is just about to make egg appear out of his mouth, "although of course now the Premiership is on a par."

"B-b-b-better, don't you mean, surely?" blurted Keys nearly freaking out at the sacrilege of it.

"Good work Richard," came the Aussie growl in his earpiece, perhaps.

The Dog & Duck Award for Best Sunday League Player
Michael Ball of Manchester City, whose stamp on Christiano Ronaldo, while attracting the scorn and condemnation of the cosseted Premiership community, drew breathless admiration from park football hatchet men everywhere. The timing, the audacity...beautiful.

The McGyver Award For Making Something Out of Nothing
Steve Coppell's newly promoted Reading were hotly fancied to return from whence they came, having made few improvements to the squad which had won the Championship last season.

Fools, didn't they know that, in order to be a proper Premiership club, you must engage superagent Pini Zahavi to source for you £20m worth of surly Venezuelan strikers, injury-prone veteran Italian defenders and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink? What did they think they were playing at with these Sidwells and Shoreys and Doyles and such? Oh.

The Niall Quinn Award for Making Robbie Keane Look Good
Dimitar Berbatov was one of the big successes of the season, a magnificient talent whose form is sure to elicit some hefty tests of Tottenham's contention that they are not a 'selling club' come the transfer bazaar.

As well as dazzling in his own right with his control, vision and poise, he formed a profitable partnership with Ireland's own Robbie Keane. Keane is much like a sheepdog (with roughly the same footballing intelligence). Left to his own devices he might drive your flock over a cliff. But under the control of a wise farmer, he can be whistled and yelped at sufficiently to get even the most stubborn ewe into the, er, thing with the fences around it.

Much like Sunderland's magic carpet-riding chairman in his latter days as Ireland's beanpole get-out, Berbatov's expert reading of the game meant that the Bulgarian had brains enough for both of Tottenham's strikers.

The Drunken Uncle at a Wedding Award for Bad Celebrating
Alex Ferguson had plenty to celebrate this year, his team achieving what he regards as his greatest Premiership title victory. However, his reaction to most of his team's goals is familiar to anyone who has ever been embarassed by an aged relative's dancing. Two little fist pumps, then a skip forward, and another one and - oh dear, I think you'd better have a sit down.

Compare that to his dynamic celebration of Steve Bruce's winner against Sheffield Wednesday in that crucial victory on the run-in to 1993 title, and then tell me his powers aren't waning.

Best Gatecrashers
Any viewing of a Watford or Sheffield United game brought to mind those moments at parties when everyone realises that the two tramps playing air guitar to Bohemian Rhapsody are not actually "friends of John's" at all: "How the hell did they get in here?"

The Neville Chamberlain Award for Services to International Relations.
Carlos Tevez arrived at West Ham, along with Javier Mascherano, to a mildly perplexed but generally positive reaction. Then everything went pear-shaped for the Hammers. Why? Because of the two Argie blokes they just signed innit? Everyfing was awwwight before they went and came 'ere, with their foreign ways!

Thankfully Tevez did not understand a word of what the Alf Garnetts were saying, and soon became the driving force behind the Hammers revival (the small matter of the complete illegality of his registration notwithstanding), dragging the club to safety despite 'im being foreign an' all.

The Life of Brian Award for Mistaken Messiah
Aston Villa fans thought they'd probably be looking forward to the Champions League around now. Maybe not the title just yet, that would come. Martin O'Neill you know - he's a messiah isn't he? If he got Leicester into Europe, and Celtic to a UEFA Cup final, then surely Villa could expect the loaves and fishes pretty sharpish.

Then came that point in the season when it was noted that O'Neill had only garnered a single point more than dear old, unlamented David O'Leary. Seems even Martin O'Neill can't turn Villa around just like that. He's not a miracle-worker after all.

The Bobby Ewing Award for Comeback of the Season
Paul Scholes struggles with injury, including a worrisome eye problem, seemed to spell the demise of one of the modern English game's foremost attacking midfielders. The sight, then, of the ginger magician quietly orchestrating Manchester United's sweetest movements as if he'd never been away was pleasing to all but the most rancidly prejudiced anti-Unitedista.

He even contributed an update to The Bradford Volley, with an even more spectacular effort against Aston Villa. And he still can't tackle.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Gettafeckref! It's the TSA Championship Preview Part 3

If Ireland were the Beatles, Leinster would be Ringo. If the four provinces were brothers, Leinster would be the flaky one that never got on with the father and went off to become an actor. If this country were Bonds, Leinster would be Timothy Dalton.

Lords of Leinster
As French Enlightenment egghead Joseph de Maistre put it, each nation gets the government it deserves. That's why Ireland is ruled by greedy, incompetent chancers. Leinster football too has masters suited to its nature. The province that has made a virtue out of underachievement, that has not sent a team to an All-Ireland final since the death rattle of the Meath dynasty in 2001, is headed by Dublin, the Flatterers-to-Deceive-in-chief.

Of course, poor old Dublin are cursed with those gazillions of seasonal supporters, whose weight of numbers pushes the county's sense of momentum down the All-Ireland hill at juggernaut speed, even though the vehicle in question is often merely a Last of the Summer Wine-style bath-on-wheels.

Hopefully those looking at the capital's prospects this year might exercise restraint then. A disappointing league campaign provided few answers to the questions Paul Caffrey was faced with, namely the lack of superstar forwards, over-dependency on the mercurial Ciaran Whelan in midfield, and question marks over the right man for full-back. Not to suggest that the Dubs won't be one of the heavier hitters later on the year, but the actual winning of an All-Ireland still looks just beyond them.

As does it for the Dubs' likeliest provincial challengers, Laois, Kildare and Meath. At least the province will provide early summer intrigue in that Meath and Kildare meet on May 20th, with the winners facing Dublin two weeks later. Both the former two had good leagues, with Kildare a hair's breadth from making the Division 1 final and Meath coming on strong to win division 2 at a canter.

Kildare boast the type of top class forward that Dublin would love in Johnny Doyle, while Meath's combination of Brian Farrell, Joe Sheridan and point-scoring politico Graham Geraghty also packs potency. The Royal County's return to the top table is surely eventually inevitable, and they appear set fair for the Championship under Colm Coyle's steely stewardship. If they overcome Kildare, they could be a value outsider for the provincial crown.

The two counties, prior to Dublin, to last win Leinster, Laois and Westmeath, are both still in the comedown period after flings with charismatic Kerrymen. The post-Micko Laois have not suggested that they might make the step up they failed to do under the great man, though they have enough talent to expect to challenge in Leinster.

Westmeath scrambled their way to an All-Ireland quarter-final last year, and have retreated to a sort of mid-table respectability since the Paidí O'Sé-inspired highs of 2004. Still heavily reliant on Dessie Dolan, they are dogged and organised, but ultimately limited.

Most of Leinster is like that, in fact; perhaps that is the problem. The likes of Longford, Wexford, Offaly and Louth are all much of a muchness, any of them could beat the other on a given day, although Mattie Forde's scoring ability makes Wexford the best of that bunch. Wicklow might get a bit of Micko bounce, but themselves and Carlow will not trouble finding space for club championship fixtures this summer.

We finish with a whimper, then. Not that there won't be thrills in Leinster. Indeed, often in recent years it has been the most enjoyable province to watch, a little dose of escapism before the hard reality of the serious counties hits in. A shame that, and with the vast majority of the nation's population residing in the east, not a good portent for the health of the game.

So, er, come on the Dubs/Lilywhites/Royals/Laois then, I suppose...

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Inthanameajaysus, it's the TSA Championship Preview Part 2

In which we continue our look at the leading protagonists in the annual quest to hold aloft a shiny fellow with jug ears, who goes by the name a' Sam.

Alternative Ulster (champions)?
Probably the most compelling narrative of this GAA decade has been the power and the glory of Armagh and Tyrone's adventures in football hyperspace: the classic matches, the great players, the raging controversies and the fierce hostility; the triumph and the deep tragedy. It follows then that probably one of this year's greatest fascinations will be ascertaining whether Ulster's terrible two's time as football giants is at an end.

Most subject to gloomy prognosis are Armagh. Since their narrow All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tyrone in 2005, opinions on the Orchard County have matched those on the polar ice-caps: most acknowledged experts concur that they are disappearing from view.

In Armagh's case, the empirical evidence consists of the ravages of time and injury. The retirement of the McEntee twins after Crossmaglen's club triumph allied to serious injuries to a host of players, including their lynchpins at full-back and full-forward, Francie Bellew and Ronan Clarke, removes major pillars from Joe Kernan's side.

All the same, although they lost heavily to Kerry in last year's quarter-final, they had been impressive throughout the Championship and until half-time in that match, and were only scuppered by the first manifestation of the Kieran Donaghy phenomenon. No shame in that.
And yes, they stared the ignominy of division 3 football in the face on the last day of the league; but, tellingly, they did the job in the end, with a win over Westmeath. Who'd bet against professionalism like that? Oh, and the still have Steven McDonnell and Oisín McConville, two of the finest forwards of any era.

All looked well in Tyrone's world when they switched on the lights at Croke Park and proceeded to rob Dublin of their prized pearls on the opening weekend of the League. What followed, though, was thoroughly stodgy. Clear-cut losses to Donegal, Cork and Mayo accompanied wins over Fermanagh and Limerick, and a limp draw with Kerry told nobody anything.

Tyrone's injury concerns do not point to revitalisation any time soon; with Brian McGuigan's comeback faring as well as Johnny Logan's, and injuries to Stephen O'Neill, Martin Penrose, and Raymie Mugrew set to hamper their Ulster campaign, Tyrone look as distinctly ordinary as that League form suggests.

Even at their best, Tyrone needed a little inspiration to take them home, whether it was a dash of Canavan sorcery, a Mulligan explosion, O'Neill's expertise or McGuigan's guile. With all of these either retired or subject to injury concerns, the Tyrone machine looks spluttery.

With the old troupers being hauled off, the stage is surely set for Donegal, is it not? A convincing league which ended triumphantly at GAA HQ, a bulging panel balancing experience and youth, a raging hunger (but, one hopes, not a similar thirst...) and gritty determination where once there was flouncy half-assedness. Sounds good, yes?

Well, yes. And no. Nothing is ever that simple in Championship football, or with Donegal for that matter. Can you imagine the determination brewing in Armagh to bring these latest pretenders to the Anglo-Celt Cup (de facto Orchard property for much of the last decade) down?

But, looking as objectively as possible, and ignoring for a moment the strange things that can go on of an Ulster championship afternoon, Donegal boast the strongest credentials in Ulster at the moment. And as recent experience tells us, those who take Ulster are rarely far away later on.

This year sees little chance among the rest of a dark horse force. Derry's loss of Patsy Bradley through suspension is crippling for a county with too few players of such talent; Fermanagh trajectory is clearly on a downward route, while there does not appear to be much stirring in Cavan and Down (who open the Championship on Sunday) or Antrim.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Begob Boys! Tis the TSA Championship Preview Part 1

The smell of freshly cut grass wafts up your nostrils, you rub lotion into your fried, scarlet skin and contemplate the merits of another Mint Cornetto. In the distance, a radio. A voice as familiar and welcome as the sound of a warm breeze ruffling the trees, riding to a crescendo on the wave of a crowd's roar. Micheál ó Muicheartaigh (for it is he) sing-songs an epic story from one of Ireland's green fields. You take a lick of the Cornetto and smile.

Summer, and the Championship.

So throw away your yellowing, drab old media previews and join TSA as we don straw hat and county-colour armband fashioned from wool, and look forward to the Greatest Show in Ireland.


Munster Mash
Unlike its hurling equivalent, which is as competitive as five caged rats fighting over a rasher, the Munster Football Championship is a rather languid affair. Kerry won all those All-Irelands back in the day by winning two or three serious games (compare that with Tyrone's 9 game campaign in 2005), having emerged from a provincial championship as taxing as a spa weekend in Aghadoe Heights.

That's no longer quite so much the case, with Limerick achieving some respectability in recent years (and coming very close to upsetting the Kingdom in the 2004 final), helping out Cork in Kerry-baiting matters. But while the Treaty county's tide has gone out somewhat, Cork are, brick by brick, rebuilding a footballing edifice that has long been a shadow of its former glory.

They won Munster last year off a Kerry side in the midst of soul-searching from which they would re-emerge in Kieran Donaghy-inspired, champion fettle. The real reflection of the province's order came in the All-Ireland semi-final, in which Kerry disposed of Cork by six points.

Paidí o Sé will drag a performance or two out of Clare, while Waterford and Tipperary will politely fail to distract our attentions. So it is to the Kingdom we come again.

What of this Kerry lot, then? Are they the side to break the 17-year-old stretch since an All-Ireland champion last retained their title? New management and the retirements of Seamus Moynihan and Mike McCarthy are all that can be mustered as evidence for the prosecution.

It would not requre Perry Mason to conduct their defence: no-one has yet figured out how to shackle the (albeit injury-prone and indisciplined) force that is Donaghy; they cruised to a top four league spot without largely Donaghy, the 'Gooch' Cooper and Eoin Brosnan; Darragh ó Sé came onto some monstrous form as the league went on.

Finally, you just know they're going to be there or thereabouts, and in the absence of sure-fire alternatives at this stage, they will be hard beat in September.
Western People
Johnno, as he must be called at all times, is a busy man right now. The Mayo manager is running for election for Fine Gael (on the same ticket as the Inda - how can one constituency hold so much charisma?), with the May 24th vote coming just four days after his team's tussle with Galway in the first round of the Connacht Championship.

As if winning The Game That No-one Wanted To Win (a.k.a the National League semi-final between the two western giants, which came just four weeks before their Championship meeting) was not enough of a bad omen for Mayo supporters, seeing their manager out kissing babies when he should be doing complicated things with cones and bibs must be really worrying.

Still, given his past record, O'Mahony can verily be said to possess a Midas touch, so we can expect the next six months to include an All-Ireland title for Mayo and Johnno elected Taoiseach with an overall majority. For all their status as godforsaken loss-junkies, Mayo have been consistently in the reckoning over recent years, and O'Mahony's nous for big match preparation could see them returned on the first count.

But there is a decent chance of a swing to Galway a week on Sunday. They had a good league, without beating much really, and calibrated their improvement as the campaign went on. For all that, they seem to be still in those middling sort of doldrums in which they have resided since the glories of their own O'Mahony years. Despite Padraig Joyce being ably abetted in attack by the dangerous Michael Meehan, it's difficult to see them challenging come the autumn.

If John Maughan and Tommy Carr are as good friends as they are supposed to be, you'd think the latter would have advised the former about his prospects when taking over the Roscommon job (Carr's former beat). Perhaps, as outdoorsy military men, they like the fresh western air or something. Either way, any improvement that Maughan can get out of Roscommon's familiar band of journeymen would be admirable, until such time as last year's shock All-Ireland minor champions come through.

But the Rossies should find themselves in the Connacht final, presuming they have the measure of Sligo in the semi. They would then get a tilt at one of the province's big two (one of whom will have sleptwalked past Leitrim), which they will have a good rattle at, before tailing off in a wheezy last ten minutes, or after Séimí o'Neill gets sent off.

Tomorrow: Ulster and Leinster

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Big Syd: Rugby's Peacemaker

So it seems that Ian Paisley was not the only powerful Ulsterman promoting the spirit of concilation in recent weeks. While the DUP leader was giggling and cracking wise with the likes of Martin McGuinness and New Best Pal Bertie Ahern, at the end of that Road to Dublin down which the good Reverend had long warned his followers against travelling, Syd Millar, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, was also building bridges.

Not to suggest that the warring factions of European rugby were conducting a dispute to compare with that which infected the North of Ireland for so long; but a few short weeks ago the implacability of the various camps in the struggle for the future of the Heineken Cup carried a recognisable whiff of the Northern combatants at their most stubborn.

But back to big Syd. All who hoped for the Heineken rollercoaster to wheeeee! back into action next season hid their heads in hands when Millar, following the decision of the English and French clubs to boycott the tournament, called the move an "absolute disgrace". Following Serge Blanco's (president of the LNR, the French League) proclamation that, for their part, the boycott was "non-reversible," hopes for a Heineken Cup as we have known it taking place next year seemed thin.

Then you read comments like these from Northampton's outspoken chairman, Keith Barwell, which seem to portray rugby's future as containing bloodier battles in the committee room than in any heaving maul: "Syd, listen here....this is for you and all your mates at the IRB and the RFU. You're rowing against the bloody tide. If you want to cling on to power you're doomed.... change is unstoppable. You run off and look after your internationals and rugby dinners and we'll get on with our business'."

It seems, however, that Millar has been at the forefront of the compromise talks which appear to have secured the future of European club rugby's showpiece event. This is dependent on the RFU and Premier Rugby Ltd. (the clubs) agreeing on a new long-form agreement to replace the existing one, which expires in 2009.

Ah! But wasn't the disagreement between these two the reason for the whole shooting match in the first place? Wasn't it the RFU's refusal to allow PRL an equal mouthful of the English slice of the Heineken pie that caused not just the English clubs, but also Serge and his belligerent French mob to storm rugby's Bastille, crying "Liberté"! Wouldn't putting the RFU and PRL in a room together end up like a feature-length Itchy and Scratchy movie?

Seems not. In a perfect illustration of the power of peace, man, and discussions, as opposed to the mortar bombs of belligerent pronouncements, it appears that the two sides responded well to big Syd's Hume-Adams style initiative.

Well enough, anyway, to prompt all sides involved to concur that agreement was in sight, even Serge and the French, whose problem appears not to have been (according to PRL's chief executive Mark McCafferty), as first thought, about how the fixture list will pan out next season alongside the autumn World Cup, but rather about the whole future of the game and their belief that the RFU had dastardly plans afoot to destroy clubs everywhere.

While the RFU and PRL have not yet shook on how their future arrangement will look, they are believed to be closer to a compromise on the issues of the clubs' shareholding in the ERC and the RFU's access to players for internation duty.

All the while the Celtic nations have waited meekly on the sidelines, having the most to lose in the absence of the Heineken Cup, yet having little ostensible power to influence the argument.
Thankfully, what power Irish rugby had was vested in the man capable, through his role as chief steward of international rugby, of chairing the sort of talks required to knock some sense into proceedings.

Of course, the provisional success of Syd Millar's talks wasn't as inspiring as the scenes at Stormont yesterday, with all the talk of history and a time of peace. It was more the case of a bunch of farmers realising that they had backed the tractor over the golden egg-laying goose , and that it was time to call the vet.

Now, as that other peace-making former combatant, Martin McGuinness, said yesterday, they "must overcome the difficulties we face and seize the opportunities that exist."

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Kelly Was Hero in San Remo

After the announcement last week of a new international cycling tour for Ireland to take place in August, here's a further little treat for Irish cycling fans.

Sean Kelly wins the 1992 Milan-San Remo classic, after a hair-raising chase-down of leader Moreno Argentin. Worth watching alone for the moment, about 6 minute in, when Argentin turns round to Kelly and seems to plead for help in keeping the pace from the chasing group. Kelly, implacably, holds his nerve to pounce just short of the finish line.


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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Milan's Vengeance Is Liverpool's Danger

And so it has come to pass. The Champions League final brings us Chelsea and Manchester United, the two great forces currently in Engl....ehhh...Manchester United and Liverpool, the two greatest names in the history of Engl...huh? Oh, right...Liverpool and... AC Milan? Ok then...ah yes! Revenge for Istanbul, the Playback of the Comeback...ah, it'll do.

So plucky little Milan have battled their way amongst the English giants to grab a chance of glory, their up-and-at-'em Crazy Gang spirit carrying them all the way from the backwaters of Serie A to a place among Europe's big boys. See how they battle, the lovable rogue Gattuso, the heart-on-his-sleeve Nesta, the doe-eyed Kaka; what a story!

Okay, stop being a smart-arse. In the hours after Liverpool's victory over Chelsea on Tuesday night, the thought occurred about how little of the pre-semi-final ruminations and hypotheses took much notice of the strong chance of a Liverpool-Milan final, and the reprise of That Night In Istanbul Which Your Liverpool-Supporting Friends Can Work Into Any Conversation, Like, For Example, One About Your Favourite Sandwich, Which Would Go "Oh Yes Ham And Cheese, I Had One Of Those The Night Of The 2005 Champions League Final".

Obviously the nuclear cloud of hype surrounding the fact that three English sides were at the semi-final stage obliterated most reasoned consideration of much else (there's been a General Election called here you know. Yeah really. Bertie supports United doesn't see how it works?).

Now that all other permutations are discounted, however, we can actually look at Liverpool v Milan, the 2007 version, and how it will be affected by That Night In Istanbul Which Your Liverpool-Supporting Friends Can Work Into Any Conversation, Like, For Example, One About Your Favourite Chocolate Bar, Which Would Go "Oh Yes Turkish Delight, That's What Liverpool Experienced After That Incredible Night In Istanbul".

Funniest thing - I heard a Liverpool supporter remark this morning that "he wouldn't mind losing to Milan." Now to say that sentence in the way he meant it, you must put the stress on the mind rather than the losing, and also place it in the context of making a comparison with the now-averted possibility of losing in the final to Manchester United (an occurence which would, of course, have led to a mass fleeing of Kopites in the direction of remote hermitages).

But still, where does the balance of motivation lie here? Milan, humiliated in 2005, can be personified by the rich, powerful man whose beautiful wife absconded with the gardener. Presented with the opportunity of visiting revenge on the randy horticulturalist, they can be forgiven for reaching for the pliers.

Liverpool have no such psychological fuel to burn in Athens on May 23rd. Indeed, subconsciously, if presented with the scenario in the previous paragraph, they might find themselves unzipping graciously.

This is not to suggest that Liverpool pilfered the coveted trophy on That Night In Istanbul Which etc., etc.,. On the contrary, although Milan left the windows open and the door unlocked, it wasn't burglary when Liverpool made off with the family silver, m'lud. Liverpool's comeback belongs to the ages because of the tactical adjustments made by their manager, the seizing of the moment by their captain and the rare presence of sport's magic spirits that evening.

All the same, you wouldn't be properly reared if you didn't feel a little guilty about what Milan endured two years ago, the magnitude of which you can calculate by simply inverting the joy Liverpool and their supporters experienced. Eeeek. So could Istanbul-guilt be Liverpool's downfall come Three Weeks Time In Athens?
Clearly Liverpool need to mine a new seam of motivational inspiration, like the abundant source that Jose Mourinho's disdain provided. What they need is some ill-timed, intemperate words from someone within the Milan camp.

Over to you Silvio...

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

O'Sullivan Searches For X-Factor

He may have slightly better dress sense, and presumably a marginally less humungous ego, but Eddie O'Sullivan puts me in mind of Simon Cowell with this whole Argentina tour squad thing. Looking at the names mustered by O'Sullivan yesterday for the upcoming summer tests in the land of tango and tenderloin, I couldn't help but picture the massed auditionees for the early rounds of X Factor or Pop Idol.

Some of them are bright young hopefuls, bursting with talent; some are more familiar faces, giving it a second or third shot at the big time; and some will disappear back into obscurity as sure as if they were a yodelling granny.

Eddie (did he do a Louis Walsh on Declan Kidney a few years back?) will sit back impassively, arms folded, waiting to be impressed.

"Call that tackling? You're wasting your time, but more importantly, you're wasting my time. I'm sorry, no!"....."I don't know who ever told you that could scrummage, but they were lying"....."But Eddie, give me another chance, I've got what it takes"...."I've seen some bad players in my time, but you are by far the worst yet," and so on.

It'll be a nervous party that fulfils Ireland's tests in the Estadio Brigadier Estanislao López del Barrio Centenario in Santa Fe and the Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires. If you take out Ireland's starting XV (that which played against Italy, save for Paul O'Connell instead of Mick O'Driscoll) and those in the Argentina party who are certain to go to the World Cup (the two Bests, Jerry Flannery, Mick O'Driscoll, Isaac Boss, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace), that leaves 22 players battling for just seven vacant places in a 30-man squad for France.

With so much at stake, maybe, less than X Factor or Pop Idol, the bitchy competitiveness of America's Next Top Model might be a more appropriate comparison. Certainly, there are close calls in many positions before the Argentinian catwalk decider (although hopefully no nude shots will be required).

Malcolm O'Kelly, Ireland's most capped player and once an untouchable squad member, faces the challenge of younger, fitter men in Trevor Hogan and Leo Cullen. Frankie Sheahan may find the dynamic Bernard Jackman of Leinster a tough contender for the third hooker berth.

The competition will be most ferocious in the back row, with no fewer than five viable contenders to join the abovementioned four certainties. And then, in the backs, you have the dark horse, Brian Carney, eyeing up bright young thing Rob Kearney and Ulster's Tommy Bowe, with Kearney's greater versatility giving him the edge currently. Perhaps even Geordan Murphy could be vulnerable, given O'Sullivan's impatience with the Leicester man during the Six Nations.

Of course, in the end, that man O'Sullivan is far more powerful than Simon Cowell; after all, Eddie doesn't have to bother with the inconvenience of a public vote. Fortunately, however, there are no yodelling grannies to get rid of in this contest.

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