Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not Another FAI Cup Final Preview

Following what has been an anus horrible of a season with regards to the profile of eircom League football, we are left with the Ford FAI Cup Final to redeem some respectability for a tarnished product.

The pairing of Derry City and Bohemians may not produce the most spectacular of games, but it does have the potential to serve up ninety minutes of quality. It has been well documented that the Candystripes have been a bogey side for Bohs during 2008, so I won't repeat it. Except to say that the Gypsys failed to score against them in each of the three league meetings this year; the League Cup encounter doesn't count.

That not said, because I didn't repeat it, Derry have managed just once to pierce the solid rearguard created by Sean Connor but remixed by Pat Fenlon. So what we don't want - by we I mean the neutrals - is for Bohs to open the scoring.

There are set to be intriguing contests throughout the park. Nutsy, ever-cautious - can be expected to target the influence of Niall McGinn as the greatest threat to his side's success. The sight of the newly-crowned Young Player of the Year bearing down on Owen Heary is a porn director's dream.

Back on track now; if brought to bear, Mc Ginn's pace and confidence will negate Heary's attacking influence and the experienced defender often forms the nucleus of Bohs' forward momentum. That's not to say that the Gypsys' captain provides their only outlet. The right-side of midfield is a berth which has been filled by a succession of players this term; amongst them Joxer, Micheal Kalounas, Jason Byrne, Anto Murphy and latterly Brendan McGill. I'd expect Jayo to get the nod as he has performed well there in a mainly defensive role before - not to mention his goalscoring prowess.

Jason McGuinness' aerial threat will be missed at deadball situations; it may have come in handy to thwart the efforts of Clive Delaney at the other end also. Derry City's greatest strength this year has been Stephen Kenny's determination to present his side with attacking widemen. On the right flank, Gareth McGlynn should return refreshed to the fray after a brief injury absence. For those of you seeking a return to the porn theme, there are possibilities within that sentence.

McGlynn has regularly been City's best player for my money this season; not as obvious to the naked eye as the eyecatching pace and artistry of McGinn, he is nonetheless possessed of a rare combination of work ethic and talent. Killian Brennan will know he has been in a game, after the mini-Mc's of McCallion and McGlynn have done with him.

Therein may lie the matchwinner though - whether or no Brennan is subdued throughout the contest, he needs but one accommodating deadball position to tilt the game in the Dublin club's favour. Derry do not possess a similarly potent threat.

Neale Fenn will offer a torment afternoon for the aging but willing legs of Peter Hutton. No footballer better encapsulates the meaning of the word fulcrum than the former Cork City frontman. His renaissance under Nutsy's tutelage offers a lift from the mundanity of Bohs' humdrum rhythm.

We must hope that this Final does not descend into a dour midfield battle, for there is the centre of the humdrum. It is in this area that the champions are at their most oppressively affective. It's a case of any two from three with the return from suspension of Stephen O'Donnell. Glenn Cronin was the Galwayman's regular partner - stop it! - before injury afforded Gary Deegan the opportunity to swap studmarks with the league's best midfielders. Barry Molloy offers similar talents to City's cause - Kevin Deery less so; Ruairdhi Higgins' silken passing may be deemed a luxury in the face of such aggression. Ciaran Martyn has started only 16 of Derry's near fifty outings this term.

The calculating and minimalist nature of Bohemians' style is underpinned perfectly by the understated excellence of goalkeeper Brian Murphy. Easily the league's best netminder, he presents an awesome challenge after you have beaten your way past Liam Burns and Ken Oman; for all his talents, Ger Doherty does not carry the same aura of unbeatability.

Here's to a game that showcases the best of our talent in a fashion which helps us to forget, even temporarily, about our horrible arse of a year.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tarnished Goods

Just like our once rampant economy, professional football in Ireland was built on an unsustainable air pocket which would eventually burst to leave those who once rested on it struggling for life. Close scrutiny of the reasons for our financial difficulties may yield varying explanations - in the case of Galway United and Sligo Rovers for example, some rapid realignment was required to ensure that they fell within the parameters of their own projections in order to fulfil their wage cap obligations - even the Irish government were forced into similar actions with their 2009 Budget. In the case of Cork City, Arkaga saw the light after Platinum 1 had packed their kit and high-tailed it out of Ireland.

Drogheda United's claret and blueprint for success reached three of its points with an FAI Cup win, Setanta Cup double and a League title. The elusive planning permission proved a bridge too far for the investors and the snuggest club in Ireland are fast approaching a nadir without a Plan A2.

Today's threatened strike action by the players has shed the club of its last remaining shred of dignity. That's not to deny the players their right to take action; although there are many who hold their profession culpable in the mire in which Irish football finds itself.

I hold neither footballers nor managers responsible for the money that clubs have spent. It is the job of a board to direct operations, construct budgets and employ managers who have no option but to adhere to same. Should a player ask for more money and a manager ask for funds to assuage the pro, it is the board who decide whether or not to furnish the readies.

But yes, we are and have been seeing players being paid beyond the range of their talent; just as we have seen cowboys masquerading as craftsmen earning inordinate sums of money to talk to us about building a wall.

There are those among us who will welcome this 'readjustment' - it may have come at too high a price though. The eircom League and all who sail in her are damaged goods. The fabricated controversies around betting patterns have helped to undermine our integrity; the Gary Dempsey affair was an opportunity for the meeja to throw some accelerant onto the pyre. What the likeable Pats midfielder did was against the spirit of the game in every moral aspect, but a far cry from roasting a drunken teenage girl with your teammates a la the preferred Premiership model.

If it is the tip of an unseen iceberg, then let there be light. Otherwise, move on. Whether or no, these unfavourable stories will make it even more difficult to attract advertising revenues into the game, at a time when clubs can ill afford it. Again, this points to that 'readjustment' word. Even before this season has had time to revel in its highs - Bohs' colossal points total, Pats and Drogs in Europe - there appears to be a dull dawn ahead in the early Spring of 2009.

There is plenty to laud in the League of Ireland; volunteers doing what Mary O'Rourke might describe as the work of 1000's 'black Arabs'; fundraising, scouting, painting, whatever needs doing. There are two things we have failed to do during the boom times, such as they were - build a cohort of modern grounds and sort out the Health Service. The ailing duo must limp on for the foreseeable.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Show Me The Rainbow's End

For true football fans, Cork City's Setanta Cup success represents a triumph over evil in this most unforgettable of seasons. Having taken a royal shafting from those nice people at Arkaga, it was a pleasure to watch the remaining management and players have something tangible and silver to show for their pains. The boardroom gets the nice papery bit with the noughts on it.

Meanwhile, rivals Drogheda United are suffering the hangover of their miscalculated risk. This has been a painful blow to take, for here there was real hope that the professional status so generously bankrolled in recent years could finally attain a status bordering on the sustainable. But just as rapidly that our national finances have collapsed, so too is the ongoing status of our professional set-ups.

We seem to have returned to the brink. Standing around are the haves, the hads, the never hads and the never will haves. The former are a threatened species - Pats and to a lesser extent Bohs remain the sole occupants of this treacherous stratosphere. Their existence is predicated upon the whims of others - never a healthy way to live your life. Derry City remain reasonably solid, but precarious nonetheless. That ridiculous sentence illustrates the tightrope upon which our clubs riverdance.

The financial antics of eircom League clubs made Prime Time this year - probably the only the this season that thousands of football fans will have come face to face with their domestic game. What they saw was a cartoon football league living far beyond its means, populated by half-baked footballers who play in less than half-full stadia. Such informal meetings knock us right back to the dullest of days in the eyes of the great uninterested.

Despicable and all as his actions may be perceived, Stuart Byrne's thoughts on the eL are irritatingly spot on. Byrne was quoted thus in the Irish Independent...

"People are laughing at the league. It’s a laughing stock, it genuinely is. I’m worried about the PR and perception that’s out there, the damage that has been done to people’s perception of the league. I think it will take two or three years to get over that, I really do. I genuinely feel it will take a long time for people to think more positively about the league given what has happened in the last six months. People are just sick and tired reading about it. I wonder do they even read about it any more?"

Of course it does the bould Stuey no harm to get his name into the papers with a transfer window looming. With so many of our players out of contract come season's end, many fans may barely recognise their squads next season. It's natural for professional footballers to follow the money in this country - the best will gravitate to the flushest. Many pros may decide that the future here is too precarious and opt for poorer paid but guaranteed employment across the water. An exodus of talent is hardly likely to help with the promotion of the league.

Cork City's aforementioned troubles are a clear pointer of this. The Leesiders were forced into the sale of Dave Mooney in order to produce some much needed cash. Going into the final two series of games, Mooney remains the Premier Division's top scorer; not bad for a player who scored his last league goal here in July.

Shamrock Rovers have shown that there is an incremental route to a competitive squad; granted the Hoops have the advantage of a rich past and a loyal core of fans to maintain their existence. They have also benefited from the refusal of some players to embrace the full-time game - opting instead to remain within the well worn and infinitely safer structures of dual employment.

The prospect of an All-Ireland league seems more remote than ever. Following the aborted Platinum 1 proposal we have been forced to endure the war-cries of Linfield and Glentoran as they threaten to withdraw their services from the Setanta Cup. It may not be an elegant solution, but it's a moneyspinner for successful clubs and provides plenty of TV exposure - I doubt the overlords in Setantaland will need too much encouragement to scrap the competition now that they have two feet placed firmly in the Holy Grail of Premiership football.

Eoin Hand's recent comments on UEFA's future plans for compensation with regard to the development of young players seems to offer our best hope of a rainbow's end. If you don't fancy listening to the whole conversation, dip in around the 29-minute mark.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dark Thoughts

A player registration controversy is bubbling over, St. Pats don't win the FAI Cup this season and an Irish team fails to qualify from its group. Name the year? The more things change and all that.

Hot on the ankles of the Saints' exit from the FAI Cup came confirmation that Keith Fahey was on his way. Having donned the claret & blue of Aston Villa and Drogheda United, the Pats midfielder has opted to model the West Ham colours in 2009. His departure will diminish the quality of our league but we can only wish him well. Fats' Pats side face a difficult task in attempting to replace the finest central midfielder in the country.

His passing, dribbling and deadball expertise has been a treat to witness this season especially - unfortunately that artistry has failed to yield a trophy for the Inchicore side who have again failed to deliver any silverware to Garret Kelliher's sideboard.

Bohemians march on, looking nigh invincible against domestic opposition. Their restoration to title challenging status is a welcome boon for the league - sustainability is questionable. It is a dirty word in eL circles and to see newspaper adverts courting investors for Drogheda United serves only to underline this.

Possibly the activity provided to the legal profession by our clubs will result in some lucrative sponsorship deals from said bodies. One quantum of solace - did you see what I did there? - lay in the progress of our U23 side.

Pat Fenlon's pet project were impressive in their dismissal of Slovakia about 50 weeks ago; not so against our Northern counterparts, but we collected the points. a draw against Belgium was enough to see us into a final against the winners of the England/Italy game in the competition's other group. The International Challenge Trophy was never going to attract wads of TV cash or hoards of supporters, but it provided a higher stage for homebased players.

Had we progressed to that final, it would have presented supporters with something to point proudly at - a successful Irish international side, comprised entirely of young homebased footballers. We were so close, another hard luck story in a season full of them.

Instead we are forced to further endure the growing pains of a dancing league in disjointed orbit - one step forward, two steps sideways, one step back, one step back.

The atmosphere at Richmond Park last night was a heartmelting sight. Passionate, noisy fans enjoying a top class game of football, played out between two well-prepared sides on a good surface. We have made great strides at the highest level and to regress will be extremely painful for fans and clubs alike.

Never before has the home game enjoyed the TV coverage that it does now. Hardly a week passes during the season when there isn't at least one live game on; and we have a dedicated one-hour highlights programme. It has been a struggle to achieve such status and recent rumours suggest it would not be a struggle for us to lose it.

Is it to be to infinity and beyond for Irish football? No, that will never happen while we simper at the soles of the Premiership behemoth. Is it to be extinction and beyond? Never. There will always be a top level game in this country - the standards it aspires to and achieves may be in question. Those standards may well take it off the radar and off the TV. The best of our current crop of players would return to England or Scotland to earn a crust a la John O'Flynn - we will watch a game that hovers just beyond the level of the top provincial Senior League sides.

Support your local examiner!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

PS We Love You

The trajectory of Pat Scully's adolescent managerial career has taken on the curve of a Zimbabwean growth chart within the past week. Relative success during his debut appointment at Kilkenny City in 2005 brought attention onto his abilities in the dugout. That led to his appointment in 2006 at a then downbeat Shamrock Rovers. The illustrious Dublin club were slumming it for the first time, swimming with the minnows in the First Division.

This scribe was a keen observer of the nomads during that particular season when the former Irish cap brought many of his former Kilkenny proteges - imagine the accents are there over the 'e's - with him to Tolka Park. They included the likes of Tadhg Purcell and Aidan Price. In spite of falling victim to the dreaded asterisk - they were docked three points for fielding an ineligible player - rovers squeezed into the top spot courtesy of an enviable defensive record. Across 36 league games they conceded only 13 times. Shamrock Rovers were looking ahead to a return to the Premier Division with a freshfaced young squad and an eager manager.

The newbies took to life in the top flight with the brashness that comes with youth. They showed no respect to opponents as they inflicted their all-action game on the Premier Division. It was paying dividends - Rovers faced down professional opposition with their tireless approach. They were well placed to split the Big 4 of Drogheda United, Derry City, Cork City and St. Patrick's Athletic. The legs of the part-timers began to give during the run-in as their exertions took a toll. 4 defeats were followed by three draws in their final 7 games and the club had to 'settle' for a fifth-placed finish; 4 points behind Cork. Their was smoke - one or two players were rumoured to have fallen foul of the Scully's totalitarianism and were shunted aside.

But fans were prepared to overlook such traits, preferring dreams of success in the new season. 2007 had been a good year for Pat Scully - young, determined and ruthless in search of success - Irish football took a shine to the learner manager and his cubs. That ruthless streak saw the talents of David Cassidy, Paul Shiels and Davie O'Connor ousted in favour of established Premier division footballers. The growing trend towards professionalism was forcing some of the league's elder statesmen into difficult decisions. Players like Darragh Maguire, who chose not to go full-time and had to move away from Richmond Parks were Garret Kelliher was bankrolling a professional set-up. The Hoops were benefactors of this situation; as a Dublin Premier Division club they were in a position to hoover up such players to bolster their squad. Fresh from his spat with Sean Connor at Bohs came Stephen Rice. Joining Pat Flynn, Alan Murphy and the unrelated O'Connors - Danny and Sean - there were continuing signs of growth and progression from the tenants at Tolka.

They opened the 2008 season with a visit to defending champions Drogheda United - Alan Murphy scored a memorable goal to ignite a potential title challenge from Drumcondra. As things stand they won't match last season's total of 51 points - so there has not been progress. All managers can point to absenteeism as a hurdle to success; Rovers' back four has borne a strange look at times this year. Aidan Price's long running flirtations with the physio's table didn't help. Barry Ferguson's penchant for daydreaming led to his exit - Ricer was a revelation.

Then the midfielder fell foul of his manager and was sent to Coventry - it was a horse pill to swallow for the hooped faithful. Their side was struggling in a way they hadn't anticipated - their most effective midfielder was now a spectator. Scully was digging his heels in. Fans were beginning to tire of his dictatorial diatribes. Success papers over a lot of cracks, but not it seems, crackpots.

Rice's fall from grace was symptomatic of what was being perceived as Scully's increasingly demanding and sometimes unreasonable behaviour. There could be no doubting his commitment to the club and the cause. he nurtured the cause from the grassroots up in an attempt to impose a structure for future sustained success ahead of Rovers' impending move to Tallaght Stadium. But in the cutthroat world of management a man, or woman, is measured by their results - PS hadn't achieved enough to make his deficiencies palatable to the Rovers boardrom. The cup runs which often buy time and breathing space didn't materialise.

Legend will have it that the former Shelbourne, Rovers and Drogheda centre-half approached his paymasters in search of a contract extension - disagreement was recorded and Pat was out of a job.

At just 38 he has a long career in management ahead of him. Doubtless a period away from the game will allow him to digest the lessons of the last four seasons and he will return a better manager. The League of Ireland/ eircom League/ Famous Fried whatever you're having league needs motivators of his calibre and intensity. Don't be long, Pat.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Another Fine Mess

Yes, as if the eL hasn't already been victim of enough negative media coverage regarding the financial precariousness of its member clubs. It's wearying and repetitive, unless you're a sports journalist eyeing up a handy story.

Because there are not multi-million sums at play, as in the 'great leagues' of this world, all of our issues can be portrayed as petty. By using such a word a hack doesn't need to work too hard to elicit a sneer from the casual reader - just more internecine squabbling in that downmarket eL - an all too easily held perception and one which we will struggle to shatter in the forthcoming years.

With regards to the financial impurities involving many clubs; recent news reports have shown that we are not on our own when it comes to unsustainable budgets. Three of last season's Champions League semi-finalists are in combined debt to the tune of £1 billion. There are moves afoot to restrict overspending by clubs. Obviously the sums involved on our wee plot are mere fractions of the fortunes borrowed and spent by the elite. An unfortunate side effect of this is that eircom League fans are rarely treated to grisly tales of professional footballers roasting young ladies for the craic.

UEFA's discontent at clubs effectively buying success at any price reflects positively upon the imposition by the FAI of the notorious 65% wage cap. That cap has forced clubs out into open ground and once there, there can be no hiding. It can be accepted as part of a process of growth and maturity. Not so the saga in Wexford last Monday night.

This is exactly the kind of tale which brings all the wrong sort of attention on the league. This is one of the rare cases where the 'no publicity is bad publicity' adage fails to apply. The league was the butt of many a tongue-in-cheek report throughout Tuesday; even the rock of common sense that is Mick Wallace was swept away in the commotion of it all. The Wexford maestro was pretty in pink as he turned up to suggest that Limerick never had any intention of fulfilling the fixture.

Lims have been occupying fifth place of the First Division in splendid isolation for weeks now. Ten points behind Sporting Fingal, they are unlikely to climb further and with Monaghan United trailing them by seven - with a game more played - they are unlikely to be caught. The points on offer were hardly of critical importance to the visitors. Their decision to retreat from the Model County will have done little to endear them to the powers that fine; unless the Youths' facilities really are substandard for the dark nights, 37 can expect to have their particular cough softened by the Disciplinary Committee. We can attribute an element of farce to those events - with about 500 fans on site and members of the media present, it certainly wasn't going to slip under the radar, however unwelcome.

Would that the same could be said of the petty squabbling of Bohemians and Drogheda United. Both clubs have netted spectacular own goals in the week preceding their championship showdown. It was a setting fit for such an esteemed moment. Bohs, one win away from clinching the title, with Drogheda the deposed champions standing in their way. I was expecting a rare tussle, with the hosts pulling out all the stops to prevent Pat Fenlon's side from stealing the trophy away from United Park.

As were many others; the Gypsys were expecting a large travelling support for the televised game. On form, these are two good footballing sides; playing before a throaty crowd, it would have come across really well on flat screens across the land. Then the schoolyard handbags set in. At its root is reputed to be an incident wherein the Bohemian landlords prevented United from warming up on the Dalymount Park pitch ahead of their European tie versus Dinamo Kyiv. Drogs withheld some of the monies due to their hosts for the night. When Bohemians came calling for their ticket allocation ahead of the title showdown things became very shifty as United boxed clever in order to regain the upper hand.

It all smacked of greasy aftertaste and the league could have done without the Bohs board going public on the matter. Understandably, they were under pressure from demanding fans, but the situation should have been sorted out by the FAI without the need for Bohemians to share their frustration with the assembled benibbed ones. Again we are a laughing stock; efforts to sell the importance of the game undermined by the public infighting that for so long has been hand in glove with the League of Ireland. Some clever manoeuvres from our ruling body should put a stop to this in the future. That'll be another fine so.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pats Pass Out

The good news story for Irish football this week centred on the performance of St. Patrick's Athletic in their UEFA Cup qualifying tie against Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin. Taking the broadest of sweeps, this represented a really good performance by the Inchicore based club.

For much of the tie, Pats' performance was a measured one during which they displayed much of the talent and ability that has endeared their playing style to followers of the domestic game. Normally when faced with 'superior' opposition we are reduced to the Charlton Formula. For the benefit of my younger reader, this constitutes ninety minutes of 'in their faces, constant harrying and hustling to deny them space and hopefully grab a scruffy goal off a long ball or a set piece'.

In Keith Fahey Pats possessed the game's most skilful player last Tuesday. His staccato running style saw him regularly leave the opposition flailing in his slipstream - his passing and movement were a treat to witness. 'Fats'- the nickname bears the annoying hallmark of English football jargon - represents the peak of his profession on this island and must surely be 2008's Player of the Year.

What of the opposition; the commonly held opinion was that they were beatable. Their defending was suspect, even with Friedrich and Simunic within their defensive ranks. Their goalkeeper appeared to be of Scottish descent. Up front Pantelic was a threat - he didn't appear for the second leg; Voronin posseses the striking virility of a windsock at Doldrums Airport. This is a side which finished midtable in their league last season and offer little indication of surpassing that mundanity this term. Their accession to European competition came courtesy of UEFA's Fair Play place, making them one of the 'must have' draws for the third round qualifying ties.

St. Pats greatest achievement in Europe was to see off Elfsborg; their greatest failure was failing to score against a mediocre midtable Bundesliga side. That may have been acceptable in times past, but this Saints side are better than that. There is a deep yearning amongst the 20,000 or sop domestic diehards for one of our European representatives to make it into the group stages of a European competition - this represented a great chance. The UEFA Cup is of a lower standard then its Champions League sibling; progression can be a mite easier; especially if a club can afford to beef up its staff profile in the timespan between qualification and participation.

All through the opening half at the RDS, Berlin meandered around the pitch looking disinterested and lacklustre. Still Pats didn't punish them. Andriy Voronin answered the wishes of every supporter in the stadium when he sent the best chance of the game into a low-flying orbit; I include the Hertha fans in this for they must dearly wish his loan period to end sooner rather than soon.

What we witnessed was progress; an eL side imbued with the confidence to play football against Bundesliga opposition. But let there be no talk of moral victories for we are on the precipice of professionalism here and must learn to rub shinpads with the cream if we are to survive. Congratulations to Pats for taking that a step closer, but let's not deny the reality of their departure from Europe.

Looking ahead, we can allow ourselves a morsel of optimism if Nutsy manages to hold onto, or even improve his squad next season. Bohs' was a disappointing European campaign but they are a squad flush with good qualities; with a benevolent draw they might squeeze in. Was that just a little too optimistic?

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