Friday, August 24, 2007

Spillane The Beans on Kerry's Success

Pat Spillane, talking to Uncle Des on RTE Radio 1's Drivetime Sport on Wednesday evening, spoke about the simplicity of Mick O'Dwyer's approach to managing his great Kerry team.

Never, said Spillane, in all of the hundreds of team-talks before matches and after training sessions, did 'Dwyer' ever as much as mention the opposition. Neither their tactics, nor their star players were given the slightest consideration by the Waterville wizard.

The belief - reinforced without possibility of question by the record books - was that if Kerry went out and played their game, the fact that they were better players in every position would assure victory. That superiority complex - the sense that the identity of the opposition is irrelevant, that they were oblivious to the quivering fifteen they had to play - was the key to that team's success, as it is to any dynasty.

The interview with Spillane was similarly brilliant in its simplicity, by the way. Give the guy a microphone and get him to talk about his part in the greatest team of them all. Spillane's ubiquity in the GAA media might blur for some the clarity and articulacy of his commentary. Many have bemoaned the fact that his role as anchor for The Sunday Game has effectively neutered much of his potency as pundit.

He was, after all, in the vanguard of the 'new wave' of RTE sporting punditry that came along in the 1990s (himself, Brolly, O'Rourke and Loughnane in GAA and Hook and Pope in rugby being the Sex Pistols and the Clash to Dunphy and Giles' groundbreaking New York Dolls), the author of the still-stinging 'puke football' rebuke.

One of the many transfixing moments in the interview concerns, unsurprisingly, the Kerry and Dublin rivalry of the era, which has its latest revival this Sunday. Dublin had won the All-Ireland in 1976 and 1977, enjoying famous victories over the Kingdom each time, the latter season featuring the classic All-Ireland semi-final which has been revisited so often in recent weeks.

Spillane detailed how the tide was turned: "We learned from the defeats of '77 and '76...we sat down and looked at our performance and we felt we weren't putting in as much training as Dublin; they were fitter than us, they were stronger than us. They were more determined than us. We noticed that when Dublin fouled, or when Dublin hit, they hit hard. When Kerry fouled it was a pull on the jersey. We felt they were knocking us around. The only way we could succeed against Dublin was to go toe-to-toe with them; to take them head on.

"The first chance we got to do that was in a game to raise money for Sister Consilio's home for alcoholism in early '78....the game became a bloodbath. But it was the day that Kerry stood up to Dublin. After the game there was broken noses and a lot of rancour. It was a filthy game. I think we won. But it was the turning point; it was our watershed moment, that no longer were we going to be pushed around. Then we got the missing piece in the jigsaw in the 'Bomber' (Eoin Liston, who first appeared for Kerry in that season) and that was it.

Great stuff. Will Sunday be Dublin's turning point?

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vick Looking at a Spell in the Kennels

Regular readers of TSA, that devastatingly attractive and impossibly sophisticated strata of society, will remember the foul case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's indictment for alleged involvment in a dogfighting ring. Rather like the way Dr. Gillian McKeith returns 6 weeks later to see how her You Are What You Eat victims are progressing, only to find them knee-deep in pies, let's check up on how the Don King of the canine world is getting on.

Well, as Frank Drebin would have said if this were a Police Squad episode, it looks like Vick will be doing his quarterbacking up in the state pen. for next season. Vick has agreed to "take full responsiblity" for his part in the dogfighting ring, and will plead guilty to the federal conspiracy charges.

Vick could face anywhere from 1 to 3 years imprisonment for the charges, although the maximum sentence possible is five years. However, a government official speaking anonymously to The Associated Press said that federal prosecutors will seek a sentence of a year to 18 months.

Why Vick's u-turn from the traditional 'looking forward to clearing my name' guff? Well, there's no honour among thieves it seems, after Vick's three co-defendants Quanis Phillips, Purnell Peace, Tony Taylor cut a deal with the authorities, pleading guilty to their parts in the dogfighting operation, but also agreeing to testify against Vick.

With the witnesses stacking up against him, including now those most closely involved in the alleged ring, ones who would be able to testify that Vick executed dogs as recently as this year, the quarterback's options were limited. The touchdown pass was thrown by the feds, who were preparing a racketeering indictment for Vick, bringing him into the high end criminality area of hefty possible sentences inhabited by Mafia bosses.

Even if Vick emerges from Sing Sing in 18 months or so, whether he returns to the NFL depends then on what suspension the league impose on him: whether they follow the term of his imprisonment, or decide on a harsher ban befitting the public outcry at the horrid nature of the crimes.

Still, it could have been worse, as The Onion reports....

(**Cap doffing to for reporting.)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Child's Play

I love this time of year.

Is it the almost audible sigh of the trees as they begin to lose the first of their summer coat of leaves?

No, trees don't sigh, you ponce.

Is it the first chill in the air, that crisp holler of the impending autumn?

No, it's been Baltic and chucking it down all summer - put a sweater on.

Is it the way the children's play seems more precious and to be treasured, as the holidays' end beckons?

Stop looking at my kids, you bloody nonce!

No, it's none of those things. It's the league tables I love. Look at them, they're ridiculous! Aren't they wonderful?

They're like a painting entitled "My House" that a kid in junior infants might do (Oi! Get away from those school gates!). It looks vaguely like a league table, but just as the young fella's version has a tree growing out of where the chimney should be, there's Manchester City on top! Ah bless.

And look, much like the way the door on the kid's picture is smaller than the dog the daft little blighter has drawn next to the house, there's a Wigan Athletic, right there in third where the Liverpool should be! Arf, arf, arf! Silly little sausage!

Yes, plainly the league tables at this time of year are a work of surreal naive art. Silly little men with goatee beards and large teutonic boyfriends might stare at them for hours on end, were they hung on display in some Arts Council-funded 'space'. "Spellbinding...I've...never quite seen anything like it. Hold my hand Gunther."

In some ways looking at a league table that has Manchester City on top of it, Wigan in its upper echelons and Manchester United in its nether regions does make one feel child-like.

Oi, you again! Oh, sorry, thought you said "feel a child, like".

Maybe it's because the table itself is young, charting a season alive with juvenile possibility, prior to its descent into decrepit, crotchety, latter-season predictability.

Possibly it reminds those of us over the age of 25 of a time when a Norwich City, an Aston Villa or a West Ham might reasonably inhabit the table's prime positions until the season's end, albeit they would fail to win the title in, invariably, heartbreaking circumstances.

Whatever, it's pure escapism, looking at a league table like the current Barclays Premier League one. Like those long summer days of childhood, scampering through the fields, staring at the shapes in the clouds, pretending the holidays would never end.

Right! You, that's it............!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

It Was Acceptable in the Eighties

As Eighties revivals go it was more Kajagoogoo's greatest hits than The Smiths reunion tour.

Less Gordon Gekko, more Roland Rat.

Not exactly The Breakfast Club, more TV-AM.

More Sinclair C5 than time-travelling DeLorean.

Yesterday's first All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Meath demonstrated that, despite what the fashion press might tell us, vintage clothing doesn't look good on everyone. The fact that the lead-up to the game concentrated almost exclusively on dredging up frighteningly aged-looking members of those famous Cork and Meath teams of late 1980s and early 1990s meant that the modern version looked like a sanitised Disney remake in comparison.

Perhaps it was the deficiencies in the public profiles of the two teams that led to such a focus on the era of O'Rourke, Tompkins and co. For a team playing in its third All-Ireland semi-final in a row, this Cork side remain possibly the most strangely anonymous bunch to make a Sam Maguire decider in recent memory.
Perhaps this is due to the tameness of their departures back down the N7 after their recent visits to the capital; the fact that they haven't contributed to a single memorable game in HQ in an era full of them.

It doesn't help them that they (the county's footballers) have, for the last decade, laboured in the shadow cast by their infinitely more successful and charismatic hurling counterparts. Following on from that, the paltry attendance, and resulting flat atmosphere, at Croke Park yesterday cannot have been helped by wallet-fatigue in the county, being the fourth game the hurlers and footballers have played in Dublin over the past three weeks.

Meath, while receiving the garlands of back-slappers like myself for their impressive displays up until yesterday, have also been relative strangers to the front rows of the public consciousness of late, although they did boast, in Graham Geraghty, Darren Fay and Anthony Moyles, some refugees from their last excursions in the big time.

But hey, all that aside, you couldn't blame the meeja for dusting down the archives for the historical perspective on this game, certainly when you got a few glimpses of the action from 1987 and 1988 in particular. Des Cahill's perambulations around the country for The Road to Croker took him to Ratoath last week, a show which featured delicious slices from the ripe old rivalry of that time.

You'd almost have put your hands over the children's eyes such was the extremity of the violence on show. The next time a Heated Debate erupts over the issue of clouting and schemozzling in the GAA, a perspective-inducing viewing of the tape from the 1988 All-Ireland final replay should be insisted on. Quite honestly, today's game is like rhythmic gymnastics in comparison.

Regardless of the harsh light of history or the echoing buttresses of a half-empty Croke Park, yesterday's semi-final was a disappointing affair in itself. None of the responsibility for that rests with Cork, however, who absolutely destroyed Meath, dominating every blade of grass and all the key areas with embarassing ease.

Hopefully now the likes of Nicholas Murphy, Derek Kavanagh, Donnacha O'Connor, Kevin McMahon and Pearse O'Neill will emerge into the limelight their hurling brethren have long enjoyed, and in which their historical predecessors once revelled.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Never Had It So Good?

So off they went, thirty bold adventurers and true, to acclimatise, presumably due to France being a country with the occasional day without biblical rain-showers.

For most of them, the announcement of the squad on Sunday morning would barely have necessitated a pause in the crunching of corn flakes, so certain were they of their autumnal travel plans. But a few would have dreaded Eddie O'Sullivan's Dear John phone call like the icy finger of the Reaper himself.

Four years ago many of the same players endured a similar Sunday morning in August before embarking on a campaign which ultimately petered out in a quarter-final defeat to France.

Expectations are higher this time, but the challenge ahead seems even greater. So how does Eddie's 2007 squad compare to the 30 of four years ago?


Reggie Corrigan, John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Simon Best.

2007: John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Simon Best, Bryan Young.


2003: Keith Wood, Shane Byrne, Frankie Sheahan.

2007: Jerry Flannery, Rory Best, Frankie Sheahan.


Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Malcolm O'Kelly, Gary Longwell.

2007: Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Malcolm O'Kelly.


2003: Victor Costello, Simon Easterby, Anthony Foley, Keith Gleeson, Alan Quinlan, Eric Miller.

Simon Easterby, Neil Best, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan, Stephen Ferris.


2003: Peter Stringer, Guy Easterby, Neil Doak.

2007: Peter Stringer, Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan.


2003: Ronan O'Gara, David Humphreys.

2007: Ronan O'Gara, Paddy Wallace.


2003: Brian O'Driscoll, Kevin Maggs, Jonathan Bell.

2007: Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Gavin Duffy.


2003: Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie, Anthony Horgan, John Kelly.

2007: Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie, Brian Carney, Andrew Trimble.


2003: Girvan Dempsey.

2007: Girvan Dempsey, Geordan Murphy.

Immediately, for all the cribbing over the second-string results in Argentina and Scotland, a greater strength in depth is obvious. Only at fly-half was the 2003 squad actually stronger, although prop, hooker and lock seem much of a muchness.

In some positions cover was embarrassingly light four years ago. Neil Doak? Jonathan Bell? Anthony Horgan? John Kelly (forced into action against France)? Kevin Maggs started every game! No genuine cover at full-back!

The five games in 2003 saw just 21 of the squad featuring in the starting line-ups, with eight starting every game. The back division remained totally unchanged, apart from John Kelly's enforced start against France for the injured Denis Hickie, and David Humphreys getting the nod at fly-half for the Namibia and Argentina games.

2003's final act was the disappointing quarter-final against France, when a plainly exhausted Ireland simply ran out of puff. While the recent friendlies have shown that we don't necessarily have an All Black-style alternative XV, looking at this year's squad, we should at least have viable options both to allow the resting of front-liners, and also to provide impact substitutes in the big matches.

In the outside backs, for example, the trio of Carney, Trimble and Murphy all carry the potential to skewer a tiring opposing defence if needed. What foe would welcome the sight of a bloodthirsty Neil Best charging on for ten minutes of barely controlled mayhem? And the option of Trimble provides a modicum of insurance in the event of the dreaded worst happening to O'Driscoll and D'Arcy.

Sure, we remain utterly dependent on the central core staying fit, but compared to last time out, Ireland look to have packed more than just the bare essentials.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

TSA Report: Limerick's Tale of the Unexpected

Sport, like a bold child crushing an insect, is cruel and thoughtless.

All summer, Waterford was its Story, the fulfilment of their long struggle for an All-Ireland the central, captivating theme of this year's Championships. It would be good for hurling. Great for hurling, in fact.

Casually, however, Waterford's wings were pulled off yesterday, and its wriggling body squashed under Limerick's ferocious heel.

And as the beaten down Waterford faithful scuttled away, turning their eyes from the sight, those remaining in Croke Park stood to acclaim Limerick. The new Story. As easy as that.

It sounds ludicrous to say that Limerick blindsided Waterford, given that the hurling Championship is so small, and that the counties have already played each other this year. But since last weekend, the gauntlet laid down to the team that wishes to challenge Kilkenny rested in Waterford's hands. Limerick were a formality to be negotiated, like the pre-match parade.

It wouldn't take the most eminent sports psychologist to figure this one out. Richie Bennis managed it fine. One presumes that the portly pied piper of Patrickswell strayed little in the past week from simply underlining to his players the indignation and affrontedness they should feel at their expected roles in Waterford's grand plan. And every ripple of the Waterford net, and bone-shattering shoulder charge, and clenched fist celebration was evidence of that.

Of course, there was more to it than the old familiar snarl of the underdog. Limerick's gameplan wasn't massively dissimilar to that employed in the Munster final. Not that they have another gameplan anyway. The policy of all-out war fell short that day due to Limerick's forwards' ineffectiveness and the ruthlessness of their Waterford counterparts.

Yesterday, the reversal of that situation was the difference. Limerick's front three struck hard and clean when given the chance, and were pleased to find that their defenders - the full-back line of Reale, Lucey and Hickey in particular - had decided on August 12th 2007 to produce the games of their lives.

Waterford's wide count was excruciating, but the statistics don't reveal the pressure that every Déise man was under when striking for the posts. A more useful statistic would be the number of blocks that Limerick defenders made. In the Munster final, Limerick got in close but drifted away. Yesterday, they got in close, then got closer.

Whether the double-header with Cork had taken the pep out of Waterford that they had used in Thurles to pull away from Limerick, or whether Bennis's key use of substitutions helped his team last the course, Waterford were unable to put in sprint finish that has marked their successes this year since the League final.

That was the shocker, the unexpected. Limerick kept it going when the Story said they should be gallantly standing aside.
And now, they are the Story.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Football - Fifteen Years On

When football was invented in 1992 by a brave, visionary group of television executives, none of them could possibly have foreseen the juncture at which we now find ourselves, on the cusp of the sixteenth season of what those founding fathers lovingly called 'the Premiership'.

Looking back on those days is like watching footage of the Wright Brothers first successful flight: how did this unlikely contraption, firstly, stay airborne, and then, eventually, soar?

Back in 1992 most of the early footballers were actually British or Irish, and all the clubs were owned by British people - sounds ridiculous, I know, but check the record books if you don't believe me.

Quite how the humble but ambitious TV men persuaded millions to watch what must have been horrifyingly unsophisticated football, practised by podgy, ale-quaffing Brits rather than lithe, pasta-slurping foreigners is unfathomable now.

But here we are, 15 years later, and this thing called football is better than ever. We know this because the TV people (now called Sky) are paying £1.314 billion of lovely cash to show it to us, and other TV people called Setanta are paying £392 million to show us even more of it, and people from foreign places (where the footballers come from) are paying £625 million to show it to other people from foreign places (presumably so they can learn how to be footballers when they grow up).

Some people - you can't please everyone! - don't like how great football is now. They think it's a bad thing that, say, Pol Pot, could, of an afternoon, after a morning spent pottering around massacring a few hundred thousand bourgeois intellectuals, fetch up with his life savings and buy himself an Everton or a Derby County.

A bad thing? They wouldn't be saying that when Pol Pot's investment secures a tidy little £16 million deal with add-ons for Steed Malbranque!

Some people - honestly, I know, but we live in a democracy, what can you do? - don't like how all the lovely footballers get all the lovely cash. Duh, hello? Have you seen Footballers Cribs? How could you possibly expect Robbie Savage to maintain that wonderful home on anything less than £40,000 a week?

Could Sheree Murphy have had that 360 degree mirror in her downstairs toilet on an Emmerdale salary, without Harry Kewell chipping in with the few quid for housekeeping?

Some of these people - were Pol Pot's methods so wrong? - even think that the TV people put too much football on, which is ridiculous, given that a) as we know, the TV people invented football, you cricket-loving pinkos, so they can do what they like!.....and b) have you seen the telly lately? It's rubbish! Even Big Brother is crap this year. And it's either that or bloody CSI! More football please!

Yes indeed, fifteen years on from the birth of football, and what a fine young adolescent it has become! Not surly, irresponsible, strange-smelling, pock-marked with unsightly boils, vaguely repulsive and utterly self-centred like many other adolescents at all.

Oh no, not at all.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

My Secret Meath Shame

I have an embarassing admission to make. Rather like the son of landed gentry who has taken up with one of the servant girls, I'm in the midst of an utterly inappropriate infatuation.

This Meath team, well, Papa, you see the thing is I'm afraid I've rather fallen for them. I know it's wrong, and it goes against the very laws of nature, and no good can possibly come of it. But our eyes met across a crowded stadium and, gosh, I was captivated.

Pretty much since that drawn Leinster quarter-final game with Dublin announced them as rosy-cheeked debutantes on the summer season, they've drawn plenty of admiring glances. For me, it was the invigorating directness, the liberating absence of complexity, the can-do gumption that did it.

Since then they've only gotten better, and the defeat of Tyrone on Saturday would make a Dub swoon, so full was it of heart and skill and countless almost-lost Gaelic football attributes.

Is it so wrong to love this Meath team?

The doctrine of Colm Coyle's All-Ireland semi-finalists (for the first time since 2001) is so blindingly straightforward as to create the image of countless rival inter-county managers smacking their foreheads in self-chastising disbelief that they hadn't thought of it before.

Firstly, populate the spine of the team with experienced but still hungry old heads. Brendan Murphy (the one-time-Premiership goalkeeper), Darren Fay, Nigel Crawford, Anthony Moyles and Graham Geraghty bring the know-how. Then surround them with a group of youngsters oozing fresh-faced chutzpah.

Then - and this is the best bit - larrup in the ball to your forwards whenever you have it, trusting them to win it and score, and seeing them grow through the sheer fact of being empowered to do so. See how Stephen Bray, Brian Farrell and Shane O'Rourke begin to inhabit the Croke Park manor over which their predecessors once lorded.

This current infatuation has nothing to do with seeing one of the old heroes of one's boyhood restored to former glory. No, while Meath were one of the big shots of the late 1980s and early 1990s, no-one actually liked them. They were rough and tough and mean and lean and they wouldn't have had the poets of the press box reaching for the Book of Heavenly Metaphors.

No, there isn't really any residual goodwill for the county; and I can't remember many shaken-headed conversations in recent years in which Meath's rehabiliation was yearned for.

So it's caught me by surprise, this feeling of excitement for the next time I see them play. I haven't felt like this for some time, you see!

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

TSA SPL Preview: It Takes Two

When is a two-horse race not a two-horse race? When it's a one-horse race.
Ask anyone on this dirty old planet who has even the most fleeting acquaintance with football matters about the SPL, and your reply will, in every case, include the words "Celtic" and "Rangers", and perhaps also "Mickey" and "Mouse".

But while, in broad historical terms, the notion of the two-team cartel is reinforced by the record books, the last couple of decades have seen, in general, monopoly rather than duopoly.

From the late 1980s until the late 1990s, Rangers utterly dominated Scottish football, their eminence powered by the liberal chequebook of owner and chairman David Murray. Celtic, along with all other rivals, were cowed into distant inferiority by the Ibrox club's financial clout.

Then, as Murray's efforts to extend his team's success to the European theatre petered out with the dwindling of his financial largesse, the club now known as Celtic plc found the on-field general to match footballing success to their stronger financial situation, when Martin O'Neill became manager in the summer of 2000.

The title count in the years since has been 5-2 in Celtic's favour, with the two Rangers successes being nailbiting, last day finishes; the first while their rivals were distracted by a UEFA Cup campaign that saw them reach the final, the second in O'Neill's final days as manager, when his aging team threw the title away in the dying moments of their final game against Motherwell.

Celtic's triumphs, on the other hand, have been by 15, 18, 17, 17 (from Hearts in second in 2005-06) and 12 points respectively, and in each of those seasons the champions were 'pulling up' before the finish, foregoing meaningless points that would have meant even bigger margins of victory, often in favour of experimentation with young players.

So, will the 2007-08 season, which starts on Saturday with Rangers' lunchtime visit to Inverness (Celtic unfurl the league flag against Kilmarnock on Sunday afternoon), see the SPL return to close combat between the Glasgow big two, or will Celtic's domination continue with another canter to the title?

In purely financial terms, the Parkhead club look to be operating with much superior weaponry than their old enemy. Celtic outbid Rangers for the signing of Scott Brown, the £4.4 million Gordon Strachan's side paid being far in excess of the fee Rangers by which had hoped to secure the highly rated youngster.

Scott McDonald arrived at Celtic from Motherwell after also being a target for Rangers, joining Chris Killen, the New Zealander recruited from Hibs. Massimo Donati's signature from AC Milan has thus far concluded Strachan's summer business, although many expect further movement in the remaining month of the summer transfer window, with full-backs especially seen as a priority.

Rangers have also been extremely active, even if Walter Smith's budget has not matched those he enjoyed in his first spell as manager. The new men may not be of the calibre of Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne, but the likes of Carlos Cuellar (£2.4 million from Osasuna), Lee McCulloch (£2.25 million from Wigan Athletic), Stephen Whittaker (£2 million from Hibs), as well as free transfers DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven), Jean Claude Darcheville (Bordeaux) and Roy Carroll (West Ham) demonstrate that, at the very least, the Ibrox faithful will have the novelty of new faces to enjoy.

Most observer expect Rangers' challenge to be immeasurably more competitive this season. Walter Smith's return inspired a retrieval of self-respect from the second half of a season which had brought only embarassment and internal strife under the stewardship of Paul Le Guen.

Smith's wealth of experience and keen understanding of the Scottish game should ensure Rangers will be a stronger force at home this season, even if the manager's record in Europe during his first period in charge does little to promise a badly-needed, revenue-generating Champions League run.

As far the rest, the hope inspired by Vladimir Romanov's initial arrival in Scottish football that Hearts might become a genuine third force has long been dissipated in a firestorm of managerial rows, player revolts and peculiar transfer dealings. Aberdeen, third last season, will be happy to repeat the feat having lost captain Russell Anderson to Sunderland, while Hibs have been victims of their own successful youth policy, Brown and Whittaker joining the long list of Easter Road talent who have left for bigger things.

This season, it seems, those running Scottish football would be perfectly happy to have the much maligned two-horse race back in place, rather than the procession it often, actually, is.

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