Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Capello To Raise England's Game

Like a new headmaster walking into his first assembly, Fabio Capello would have critically surveyed the horde gathered to welcome him. This one will be trouble, that's a cheeky one, this one could be useful.

Equally, like a bunch of surly schoolkids presented with their new headmaster, the gentlemen of the English press would have analysed the new manager carefully. Possible nicknames, quirks of mannerism - curious turns of phrase to gleefully satirise must wait, for a month at least - the sketched outlines of a soon-to-be-familiar caricature will have been drawn.

The basic structures have already been put in place: the classic sergeant-major character will be the template; 'grumpy' the fittingly infantile adjective most prominent so far. The more forward thinking opinion-formers will already have the permutations of both success and failure mapped out: if victorious, the Roman general - or emperor? - if a failure, a bungling pizza chef.

Far away from Soho Square, in the TV rooms of Premier League club training grounds, or the audio-visual chambers of preposterous footballer mansions, Capello will also have been getting the once over. Few of the England players will view the Italian's appointment in the same way that many of the public and press have: that being the procurement of an exquisitely-crafted, staggeringly-expensive designer Italian shoe, to be launched hard and true at the complacent posteriors of England's finest.

No, with vast wealth usually comes a shield of self-righteousness. The players will have ascribed their absence from Euro 2008 as solely the fault of the toothy mediocrity that led their failed qualifying campaign. They will see themselves as the precious metal, and Capello as another goldsmith charged with making the priceless masterpiece.

But the myth of England possessing a stellar generation of footballers has long been exposed as, at the very least, a wild exaggeration. Quite sensibly, many in English football are not so much equating the current squad with the star-filled rosters that Capello led to nine league championships, but are rather doubting if the Italian can work his magic on a group that is barely average in many areas.

At this point, little also has been said of Capello's methods. Chased out of Madrid despite delivering La Liga in both of his single season spells, in Spain they quip that Wembley will be bored to tears. But after the humiliation they have just endured, few in England have the spirit to demand winning with style.

For us on the outside though, the whole point of the England team is the show, the familiar yet captivating plotline. It's why we secretly curse when they don't qualify for major championships. The vaulting ambition, the groundless optimism, the heartbreaking and hilarious defeat. Steve McLaren's small-time operation never even allowed them the momentum to hyperinflate their expectations. Capello, on the other hand, will have them thinking they can rule the world.

Thing is, they might just be right this time.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Munster Ramble On, As Black Dog Catches Leinster

Remember that old rock bedtime story about how if you played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in sync with The Wizard of Oz, that it all made freaky sense, dude? Well, you could probably do the same with Munster's win in Llanelli the other night and the soundtrack to Led Zeppelin's reunion concert last night in London.

"Ah-aaaaaaa-ah, Ah-aaaaaaa-ah! We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow....Hammah of the Ggghodds""

Imagine those ear-bursting riffs and that heavy metal pack, the storms of rain and wind swirling as if from the darkest depths of Mordor itself.

I shudder to picture Anthony Foley barechested in skinny, cucumber-packing leather jeans, but the veteran number eight showed yet again that no-one thumps out a more infectious rhythm for his pack than he.

If ever there was a soundtrack to a team, or a particular performance, this is it: Page, Plant and co. would have been far better plugging amps effects pedals into the rickety Stradey Park than the comparably sedate O2 Arena.

Not that the godfathers of heavy metal and Irish rugby's monsters of rock are always so suitably in tune. On occasion, like in the loss to Leinster a few weeks ago, Munster can veer into prog rock excess: the big riffs are there, but it just doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Leinster also played on Friday night, running through a set that had all the hits at the start but tailed off somewhat in a second half full of stuff from that cocaine-fuelled self-indulgent period they went through a few years ago.

They certainly have beefed up the rhythm section though: no more the tinny, boyband jangle of their erstwhile pack; the current lineup rocks hard, and in Jamie Heaslip has a virtuoso, Jack White-type multi-instrumentalist.

But there is still the problem of creative differences elsewhere. With the low-key, Bill Wyman presence of Chris Whitaker missing from scrum-half, the psychedelic excesses of Felipe Contepomi are utterly unchecked. For each sweet, chiming melody he produces, there is a perplexing, Japanese industrial funk-influenced solo project which, sadly, none of his baffled teammates know how to play along with.

For Leinster, despite the encouraging new direction, the song, too often, remains the same.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Hair-raising Evening

I had the great pleasure of travelling to Funtasia in the Dromore Industrial Park just outside Drogheda on Tuesday night in order to glean wisdom and insight from the mouth of John Delaney, who was there to launch a book on the history of Drogheda United.

Fair play to John, he did throw me gristly morsel of a scoop in the news that a third 'wise man' was to be appointed to the FAI's crack team of international manager headhunters, before Ray Houghton's employers, RTE and The Star, served up the juicier fillet of the actual identity of the new man the next morning.

Delaney seems like a nice fellow. He's certainly well regarded by the grassroots types that were gathered in Drogheda; though I think the event organisers were delighted just to have someone of repute to headline the evening, otherwise the irksome, ginger-bearded town mayor would have been the main man, and no one wanted that.

Far from the Machiavellian political animal of reknown, whose skill in the committee room as he finessed his way to the top of the FAI tree sees him generally portrayed as more Richelieu than Richmond Park, Delaney came across rather normal off-record.

He enthused about his esteemed guest Michel Platini, whom he would shortly afterwards join for a sumptuous banquet back in Dublin. Perhaps there he would point out to Platini that, only a short time ago it was cocktail sausages and ham sandwiches in Funtasia in Drogheda, and that, Michel, see, was the secret of his power: knowing the time for foie gras and the time for fish fingers.

On record he was admittedly, a walking advertisement for whichever PR consultancy firm was brought in to transform the image of the FAI from Keano-baiting chancers of yore to that Blairite smoothocrat thing that everyone from the manager of your local petrol station to the CEO of your local multi-national does these days.

It's all about those hand gestures that say "I'm serving these eye-catching initiatives to you like a pastor would serve the host to his flock, dear child", the hands always moving forward to underline the progressiveness of these fabulous words, but never forming off-putting fists or jabbing fingers.

The omnipresent "going forward" peppers the content, as does "it is important that we remember...", another nod to the vicarspeak that did so well for Tony Blair.

But there were no outward signs of the bungling incompetence of which his battalion of critics often accuse him: he didn't insult anyone; trip on any carpet while walking up to the stage; he didn't declare how great it was to be here in Athlone; his flies were resolutely closed.

In fact that only vestige of haplessness the man offered up was his now notorious hairdo. Delaney has always had trouble with his barnet, a scruffy mop that looks as appropriate to its environment as a Romany halting site on a roundabout. The latest look, which you might have seen on the news yesterday, was a cross between pudding bowl chic and Roman slaveboy.

Clearly, there is a clue to the man's success in the FAI in the story of his tonsorial plight. Did he, arriving at a crossroads outside of Dungarvan some years ago, meet the devil himself? And did the Dark Lord offer him the stewardship of the nation's football destiny in exchange for - no, not your soul, oh no, I have enough of them boy! - his previously stylish and immaculately coiffured hairdo?

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Been Busy?

It is with regret that I announce that the contract of Stephen Staunton as 'latest post' on Tom's Sporting Almanac has been terminated by mutual consent. TSA will now appoint a committee to recommend where to find funny photos of Terry Venables to put up instead, preferably one of him wearing a sombrero in the Eighties.

It's a been a while, I give you that. Not that there has been anything much happening in sport to write about since October 16th. Just yer international managerial escapades, the denouement of a Rugby World Cup, the first ever general player strike in Gaelic games history, the familar clank of Brit-failure that brought the Formula One season to an end, a football season that has ratcheted up the usual manager-disembowelling count and much more.

So yes, not writing about sport over the last six weeks or so is a bit like Santa going off somewhere nice and warm in late November, then ambling back into the elves' workshop mid-January and idly querying of the little toysmiths "been busy?" (An analogy which works only if Santa is indeed involved in the toymaking process, not if his only job is, as such, dispatch. In which case it's no skin off the elves' noses what he does, it just means "there's a big pile of bloody toys lying out the back waiting to be delivered, you great fat, brandy-quaffing, christmas cake-munching oaf!")

Unlike this indolent Santa, TSA has been exceptionally busy of late, seeing as how I've started a new job and that. Having gotten through that opening six week period of a job wherein one suppressess those natural characteristics so unappealing to new employers - negligible personal hygiene, workplace narcolepsy, tendency to attempt seduction of boss's wife/daughter/mother -
I feel I can now relax and renew the idle, yet exquisitely-gentrified lifestyle of the blogger.

So where were we? Ah, the old San Siro once again. As part of my sabbatical, a trip to the Celtic v Shaktar Donetsk match last Wednesday was squeezed in, to witness yet another eye-rubbingly unlikely Champions League win for Celtic at Parkhead.

Two last minute winners and a deflection have given Celtic the nine points from which they hope this evening to springboard to the knockout stages this evening, and a bit more of that sort of fortune will be needed.

The hopes of Celtic fans - the bluster about "going there to win" to win aside - have strayed this past week to Messrs Strachan and Ancelotti being fellow members of some sort of managers' freemason group, through which a particular prematch handshake will signify the ensuing of the most gentlemanly, inoffensive, tedious scoreless draw imaginable.

However, even were Celtic to arrange a scurrilous carve-up, you can be sure some hapless calamity will befall one of their defenders early in tonight's game, and a probably-terminal goal conceded.

No, Celtic will get no favours this evening, unless they navigate themselves to the closing twenty minutes on level terms, in which case an informal armistice may materialise.

Although, even then, Inzaghi will probably scuff one in off his kneecap. The little shit.

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