Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It's a Vision Thing

It was mentioned last week - by some members of the mongrel pack that huddle at the side of Malahide United's pitch for gristly morsels of quotes from the Republic of Ireland manager - that Stephen Staunton seemed in relatively "good form".

Some speculated that it was due to the bludgeoning being dished out on Eddie O'Sullivan, that the erstwhile paragon of Irish international managerial excellence was now occupying the stocks to which Staunton was usually bound. That line sounds glib, but, by the infantile standards of Staunton's usual public justifications, nonetheless believeable.

More likely, however, is that the manager was enjoying the hubris of suddenly-realised invulnerability. The trip to central Europe had been characterised by similar - if not quite as disastrous - incompetencies to the Cyprus fiasco of 11 months previously, yet the support of Staunton's employers for their manager rang out more loudly than the clamour for his removal.

The same selectorial eccentricities, further erroneous substitutions and a continuing overwhelming lack of sense of purpose were evident.

This is not to suggest that the players' commitment to the cause was lacking in any way; one of the redeeming features of Staunton's management is the undoubted efforts his players continue to provide. But no-one questioned the commitment of the soldiers at the Somme as they were ordered towards their doom, neither does anyone credit their commanders for it.

The fact that a dismal return from the pivotal qualification matches resulted in voluminous backing from the FAI must surely have emboldened Staunton thereafter, perhaps explaining then his levity of mood last week.

Nothing that happened on Saturday will have damaged or abetted the manager. The attitude of the players was once again excellent; the performance of Joey O'Brien another success for the blooding policy of this campaign.

But that sense of purposeless is highlighted at home more than anywhere. The understrength Germans' general comfort with proceedings pinpoints the sad demise of the Irish international team. No matter how low we think we are, in these days when we are constantly reminded to redefine our expectations, no international side, especially one denuded of most of their best players, should expect to sleepwalk their way through an international in Dublin.

The lack of a vision for his team is something which our manager should now be eliminating. The fact that Andy Reid has gone from pariah to the central hub of the team in the space of two games demontrates the haphazard nature of Staunton's stewardship. The tossing in of Andy Keogh on the right wing another random, surreal whim of a selection.

By this stage we should expect - whatever the other flaws - to have a notion of how Staunton's Ireland would ideally line-up and play. That we don't is the fundamental problem with this ramshackle, irrational operation.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

We'll Answer Our Hemisphere's Call

Is there a word - a noun like patriotism, or nationalism, or jingoism, or sectarianism - for a devoted love, support and defence of one's hemisphere? Hemiphilism, being a hemiphiliac maybe? An odd word like that would work, to fit the feeling of spending a weekend cheering on a hemisphere!

Perhaps it's something that will catch on. Instead of children being taught about the flag and the struggle and the history at school, instead the little 'uns will be reminded regularly about their responsibilities as Northern Hemispherians.

"Remember sonny, north means 'on top', ok?"

Maybe the brain-bleeding drone of the argument over the Irish rugby team's anthem could be rendered obsolete by the simple use of two, new Hemisphere anthems: Land Down Under by Men At Work for the South, Up On The Roof by The Drifters for the North.

That's all for the future. But with our own group of tortured souls long returned from France to attend meetings with irate commercial endorsers brandishing small print, England, France and Scotland all enjoyed the benefits of this new Trans-Hemisphere support.

Say what you like about us Northern Hemispherians, but we stick together when the chips are down. Frankly, we'd had just about enough of folks criticising our hemisphere. We knew how Lynyrd Skynyrd felt when writing Sweet Home Alabama: "I hope David Campese will remember, Northern Man don't need him round anyhow!"

Yes indeed, there's nothing we Northern Hemispherians like more than getting one over on our old enemies in the south. Even the French kept their end up, despite being forced to play away from home at their own World Cup (that's the Northern spirit for you!).

Scotland couldn't quite make it a perfect weekend for God's own hemisphere, but then the Argies are honorary Northerners anyway, what with Contepomi being more Leinster than the Leinstermen themselves, and all those grizzled forwards playing in France.

Gosh, with England and France, our two Northern brothers, playing in the semi, I don't know who I'm going to support!

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Parkhead Pimpernel

Old William Gaillard at UEFA's seen plenty of tough cases but nothing like the sickening act of violence that put a World Cup and Champions League winning goalkeeper out of football for possibly hours.

The lethal nature of the blow inflicted on Dida by the Buckfast-fuelled trespasser will surely not help Celtic's cause. The speed, precision and force of the blow were such that the television cameras did not even pick up its full impact.

Such was the stealth at which the (surely black-belt martial art practising) assailant inflicted his attack that Dida himself did not realise the grievous pain he was suffering for several moments. The brave goalkeeper gave chase, reacting like the true warrior he is, but his highly trained adversary had the fleet of foot to evade Dida's vengeance, escaping just as the crippling pain began to invade the unfortunate Brazilian's nervous system.

The timely intervention of AC Milan's doctor stabilised Dida's condition, and he is believed to be recovering well, though dropping in and out of consciousness. Seemingly, in lucid moments, he desribes his assailant, muttering "he was so pished," or words to that effect.

So who was this Parkhead Pimpernel, this Glaswegian Bruce Lee? No-one knows, but bystanders did report a shadowy figure disappearing down the London Road carrying what apparently was "a kebab of some sort."

A fearful football world turns its eyes to UEFA.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Death in the Family

The use of the world 'post-mortem' in relation to the fall-out from Ireland's disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign is instructive. The insinuation is of death, that we are standing around a slab in a chilly mortuary looking at the lifeless corpse of Irish rugby.

The inclination to view a sporting collapse in such dramatic terms is common.

I remember, when Celtic lost to Basle in the qualifying round of the Champions League early in the 2002-03 season, feeling such a sense of void that it seemed like the upcoming season was stillborn. Nine months later, Celtic were playing in a UEFA Cup final, providing the club's supporters with such rich memories that seemed so unlikely at the start of the season.

Rumours of the demise of the Irish soccer team are unlikely to exaggerated at the moment. However, while the sense of terminal decline pervades the Stephen Staunton era right now, even the blackest-mooded depressive cannot say that there will be good times again sometime in the future, most probably depending on how long the current manager lasts.

The mourning over the Irish rugby team is so pronounced because it's reminiscient of the untimely passing of a brilliant, much-loved child. It is hard to do 'perspective' when one looks at the scale of what just happened in France.

We all know the lines: the best team in our history, the best-prepared, at the peak of their powers. The Pool D table makes horrific, chastening reading for even those who approached this World Cup with excessive caution. "We'll lose to France, and will just squeeze by Argentina," said those priding themselves on not being drawn into the mass cheerleading.

If only, eh?

But perspective I will urge, dammit. Clearly those who call for the head of Eddie O'Sullivan are no mere fickle Salomés. The list of mistakes, flaws, cataclysmic errors of judgement, and basic poor man-management that O'Sullivan is responsible for is long and very, very damning. Were it not for the man's curriculum vitae, I would take aim myself.

But has the coach not buttressed himself to any degree with his previous achievements? The would-be executioners are now treating the successes of the last few years as pure chimera, Mickey Mouse honours in a weak Six Nations, devalued Autumn international success against teams looking at the long game of France '07, rather than Lansdowne Road '06.

But where was such wisdom at the time?

Sure, the hype over this team has exceeded their achievements. But just as those who watched the dismal fare in the early games from France could not be codded by post-match pleadings of improvements and individual errors, when we watched Ireland over the last few seasons it was with a sense of awe and exhiliration that simply cannot be deemed to be worthless now.

There's no need to throw any more mitigating circumstances into the pot; everyone knows about the timing of the tournament, the difficult draw etc. Clearly hard questions need to be asked. Big, big mistakes were made, some of them - the failure to develop a sufficiently deep squad - were being made even at the height of our success. O'Sullivan has to address severe question marks over his control-freakery, the overly-structured play and the cold-hearted squad management.
But he has, just about, earned the right to answer them.

But a bit of perspective please. Nobody died here.

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