Sunday, December 31, 2006


It was only a 70 minute trip, keeping it fairly legal, from the slums of North Dublin to the shopping mecca that is Newry. With the comfort of excellent directions, I put Sam's Town into the CD player and headed north to view my first ever IPL game.

Feeling as excited as a teenager ripping open a condom I kept a close eye out for the graveyard on my left, and spotted it in my rear view mirror. One wrong turn wasn't too bad. Sh1t, u turn at next exit, then into another graveyard.

The Showgrounds in Newry were pretty empty when I arrived, and they were pretty empty when I was leaving. It's a neat stadium in an inelegant setting, the aroma of treated sewage caressing the nostrils of the faithful few. It was difficult to erase the vision of all those Warrenpoint gluteals squeezingand squirting the processed dirge of Christmas excess from their loins - so I passed on the burger.

Considering the recent weather conditions the playing surface was in fine shape, and the gods were in benign mood on the day; it was perfect footballing weather. The most recent efforts of both protagonists would not set the pulse racing, but a hungry virgin will always take whats on offer. Anyway, this was more indicative than a Big 2 game of the state of play in the IPL.

The Sky Blue supporters emerged just before kick off and assembled on the opposite side to me. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if there were any home supporters in the ground; there were bodies there alright, but the quietest fans I never heard.

That being said, they weren't given much to cheer about in a directionless first half. Their opposite numbers made a good effort in spite of this, creating a worthy noise when the mood took them. The half time whistle inspired the hope of a good earbashing for both sides, and an improved showing in the second period. While neither side seriously threatened, it was the visitors who had more menace about them in the opposing half.

Roy Coyle's Newry are workmanlike and uninspired; the continued absence / disappearance of Karl Bermingham leaves them severely hamstrung. Darren King deservedly won the home side's MOTM award, his performance easily outshining that of his colleague's. He probed along the left constantly, supported his attackers at every opportunity and covered well at the back. I think it was Kevin Keegan who nonchalantly flicked a cross onto the bar in the first half; it was more a half chance than a sculpted opening - Paul Murphy had little else to worry about throughout the game.

Ballymena have more than their fair share of blonde bombshells; all style, no substance? Unfair!
They seemed like a side lacking in confidence, there is an undertow of skill and ability, but a nervousness about imposing it. Once Newry produced their secret weapon [bring me the special shoot myself in the foot gun] and presented their visitors with an opening goal, United were a changed side.

Randal Reid impressed - his finish was emphatic, Aidan Watson and Mark Picking probed; Haveron was accomplished, ably complemented by Albert Watson's determined defending. The ball, which had been enjoying a bird's eye view of the local hamlet for much of the game, was suddenly glued to the ground as the Sky Blues came over all 'pass and movey'. Newry City were like bumbling detectives, two steps behind the action as Tommy Wright's side unwrapped their potential and pulled away into a 3-0 lead.

The Newry City silent knights unwrapped their vocal chords as Stephen Wetherall played his final tune of the afternoon; 'It's not good enough Roy' was probably the most pertinent observation of a rudderless performance.

For this neutral it was a royal treat, having been starved of live action for a month now; and I look forward to my next incursion.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Any individual who has been foolish enough to allow him/herself to be cajoled into football management is to be pitied. At the highest level the pressure is, to understate hugely, immense. But the lower one reaches, and I'm talking junior and schoolboy here, the greater it is.

I speak with oft envied expertise on this topic, as I cut my managerial arse at the raw age of fifteen. Most of the crack Under 13 side which I fielded in the Dublin & District Schoolboy League will have binned their shinpads by now, certainly the bangers will have.

Cue Abe Simpson voice - and I can tell you it was a tougher job in those days than it is now. Those pamperd p****s at Home Farm were the envy of every schoolboy manager, with all the concerned parents turning out each week to support Tristan, Jeremy and the like. They were never short of support or transport- goody two shoes parents tripping over each other to wash the gear 'because they have a drier'. Cue Jim Royle voice- drier my arse! Their matching socks and shorts, tracksuits for the subs, it makes me sick!

Our cautionary tale took place on one of those impossibly sunny early season mornings. The previous managerial team had suddenly resigned- these things were usually the result of a drunken disagreement in the clubhouse [ for clubhouse read pub, as we didn't even have dressing rooms]. Youth was given it's fling, and myself and my 16 year old narcissistic assistant, enthusiastically brought everything we'd learnt from Match of the Day to bear on our charges.

Our first appointment meant a trip across Dublin city, transport would have to be arranged. Maturely, we consulted the secretary of the schoolboy section and were satisfied that all would be well come Saturday. We skipped off hand in hand, to a street corner where the light was still working and flicked through the SHOOT magazine one more time.

Training went well, a good attendance. Everyone was a centre forward and nobody was a goalkeeper. We explained that we had no 'odds', that there would be training every week, we didn't have girlfriends and responded to innumerable other queries in a tough Q&A session. On the way home from training we decided to check on the transport situation.

Gullible lambs that we were, we had no idea of what was soon to unfold. Saturday came. A bowl of Rice Krispies and off to collect the gear. Final reminders from the Hon Sec. - 'Make sure you get all the subs, and don't let them bring the gear home to wash it.' A piece of p**s. Transport! 'Eh, couldn't get anyone to go out with yiz lads, but John O'B will drive yiz out in my truck.' AAAAGHHH - A FUCKIN SAM SPUDZ TRUCK. [FYI- Sam Spudz were Ireland's first thicker crinkled crisp, mmm].

'And don't let the little f*****s near the crisps; anything happens to them and it comes out of my pocket.'

'Yer leavin' them in there?'

'I've nowhere to put them, they'll have to stay there.'

The cargo compartment of the truck was metal, no windows, and it was hot. As soon as the kids set eyes on the prize they were overcome with an insatiable hunger. The managerial duo set ourselves up as a barrier between the starving thirteen-ish year olds and box upon box of cheese and onion flavoured utopia. It was pitch dark, but you could make out the shapes of ratlike urchins crawling towards their prey. We fought them off, teenagerfully, using every weapon in our armoury as the truck lurched towards it's destination.

Never a good traveller at the best of times, I was struggling to keep the Rice Krispies from ending their brief relationship with my digestive juices. And then this happened...

I don't know exactly why, but our experienced profesional driver had to impart maximum pressure on the brake pedal. CrispyCarnage. The boxes flew at us and past us. There was no way to protect every box in the darkness. The sound of savages rending cardboard asunder filled the metal box. All but the put upon mentors were experiencing a crispy high. We flailed blindly through the container, casting rabid bodies aside in a frantic effort to rescue the delicate potato slices. Most were saved, but not all. Our chauffeur continued on his way, unaware of the pre match meals being enjoyed only a few feet away from him.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination. The rear doors opened to let the Lord's sunlight rain in on the sight of Saturday's newest sin. There were crisps everywhere. Stuck to the walls, the floor, to clothes and hair. The smell was rank. Every kid was turned upside down and inside out to extract whatever he hadn't eaten from his person. Dunnes Stores plastic bags were bulging with boots and booty.

I don't recall much about the match, I was dreading the return journey too much. In we filed, the boxes neatly stacked at our backs. The driver wagged his finger and barked at the kids as they climbed aboard, ignoring him. His driving style was quite a bit smoother on the way back across the Liffey. The kids had sucked and bitten Sam and they were in the mood for more. The standoff continued, this time we reigned supreme, a testament to our managerial nous and strategic thinking. Our debut day ended with brush and shovel in hand as we swept up the plastic relics of our misfortune, all the while removing sodden crisps from our footwear.

'Training on Wednesday lads, if you're not there you won't be playing on Saturday.' We stuck it out for the rest of the season, steering our students to a creditable third spot in the table. 'If that was a real league we'd have qualified for Europe!' I was plenty happy to wash my hands of management after that success.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Both the FAI and IFA are in the process of reconstructing their respective domestic leagues as of now, and hopefully this heralds the birth of a saviour; word on the bough is that he will definitely not be named Maxi.

The FAI are further down the road with their plans, and are currently sailing their oft troubled vessel through some polluted water. Traces of an oil slick, Lilywhite corpses and homeless Limerick natives signal the wake of the FAI's partially feathered regime. The brains trust have settled, initially, on a 12 and 10 divide for the Premier and first division respectively.

The mathematically gifted amongst you will already have ascertained that, in a country of approximately 4 million people, we will have 22 senior teams. According to my calculator this breaks down to an average of one club per 181,818 of population.

I am very p'ed off by this figure as it just looks all wrong on the page, but I've doublechecked, and it's correct. The IFA are creating an 'invitational' league; and it is expected that the 'invitational' prefix will circumvent the rantings of the great unwashed who won't make it to the Promised Land. Clever move.

With the current count of 16 clubs in the top division of a nation of approximately 1.5 million we are looking at one club per 93,750 of population. Yes, almost double the density- no pun intended - of their Southern colleagues. To achieve parity with the FAI's new arrival, we would be looking at a top league of eight teams up North.

Realistically, any eight-team division would generate as much excitement as a new Enya album; and such a notion is readily discarded. So why mention it? Simple mathematics.

Domestic football in Erin's green valleys is the relation you're hoping doesn't call at Christmas. For too long now it's been a loafing, sponging and generally boring entity in the disinterested eyes of the populace. It's been poorly administrated, poorly attended and supporters are considered to be plastic raincoats, like the one your Granny used to have.

When measured, inevitably, against the HD whoosh of the Premiership, it looks cat! Empty grounds, shabby stadia and poor playing surfaces combine to project a miserable package. Those of us who love these leagues know it can be better.

Post match pints oil oft repeated conversations about what needs to be done. If we are to preserve our leagues, it won't be in the current formats. They need sexing up. Honestly, if every club were to allow free admission to a game over a weekend the crowds would not increase hugely, because people are generally disinterested.

But the sexiest thing to happen in the game of late has been the Setanta Cup. It has captured the imagination of followers north and south with it's unique fixture list, and the possibility of a team being crowned Champions of Ireland. Setanta's TV coverage has been great, helping to raise the profile of the competition to a level where even the 'great disinterested' may hazard a sideways glance. Essentially, the competition benefits from a novelty factor.

And isn't this just what we need to draw new supporters into our games? What Seth Godin calls the 'Purple Cow ' factor- a product with the novelty element inbuilt. People want to see it, without having to be sold it, and there are few football fans on this island who haven't at least heard of the Setanta Cup competition. And it's only two years old.

Surely, a blind man in an FAI or IFA blazer can see that this is the way forward for Irish football. A top league consisting of the island's top teams, backed up by a first division and two regional leagues. We've already had the likes of Waterford United and Cork City travelling to Derry City in the eircom Premier, and Cobh Ramblers journeying as far as Finn Harps in the eircom First Division; so the travel factor already exists.

The gap between the top sides from both leagues is minimal; further integration will help to raise the levels. Recall the arrival of Derry City to the eircom League; the huge novelty factor it invoked. True it has waned, but the Candystripes are probably the best-supported team in the land. Fans love rivalry, tribal loyalties, and football.

This is the 'radical change,' which is needed to drag Irish domestic football into the viewfinders of the lost fans. Many will argue that nothing will drag these people away from their plasma partners. Those are not the only people we're chasing. What about the thousands who desert their sofas to follow GAA? Many of these are soccer fans also, yet they don't attend domestic league fixtures.

Professionalism is slowly creeping into our game, presenting us with better, more skilful, players. Players who if given a chance, can retain the interest of fans and become role models for children who will dream of playing for Rovers or Linfield, rather than being shipped onto the Premiership conveyor belt and being spat out.

There have been rumblings of a possible UEFA ruling, which will limit the numbers of foreign players at clubs; this will make it even harder for Irish youngsters to make the grade across the water. All the more reason for us to ensure then, that we are in a position to offer them a livelihood in the game closer to home.

Monday, December 11, 2006


It seems a long while back now that we first heard tell of the FAI's uberplan for domestic football. Whilst sharing the obligatory fantipathy towards the residents of 80 Merrion Square, my gut instincts are telling me that this is the only way forward for football in this country.

When I say 'this country' it is with the belief that the way forward for the game on this island is an All Ireland league; but that is a toothache for another time. Can we honestly say that we are leaving anything worthwhile behind us? Last one to leave locks the door, then throw the expletive deleted key away. We do not ever want to return to that place.

Already there is worthwhile dialogue taking place between club managers and FAI officials; the standardised players' contracts are in the offing, prize money is up, up, up - and the public are being treated to 50 live TV games. Yes 50! This would have been the stuff of drug-addled fantasy for eL lifers in recent times.

The grinches will point to the FAI's less than exemplary performances in various fields over the years. Concerns re. their policing of the UEFA Licensing system, which culminated in the Rocky Horror Show at Dublin City still abound. There is a general air of impending carnage whenever those three letters are printed bold on anything to do with our cherished league competition.

To deny these reservations would be akin to sticking my head up Pat Dolan's rear aperture; and for varying reasons I have chosen not to do that. Yes the situation is an imperfect one; but who else was offering to take our struggling league in hand. Nobody.

What have we got to lose? Most of our clubs are struggling to survive financially. We are walking the tightrope of professionalism without a safety net. If we can push it on just a little more, it can become a nubile proposition for the people with deep pockets, and if professional football in this country is to succeed, it needs sweet money.

This is a new league- a clean slate. We're starting again, with the clubs best prepared for the task ahead on board. Of course everyone involved with Dundalk wants their club to be a part of the top tier. Of course Waterford fans want to see their team at football's apex. But we can only have the top 12.

It's what was agreed by EVERY club. EVERY club knew that winning a league, or a play off was not going to guarantee you a place at the table. So the bleatings of injustice are to be ignored. Dundalk finished ahead of Galway United; Galway United make the top tier, the Louthmen do not. EVERYBODY knew that this could be the case. League position alone would not do it for a club. This is not news to anybody who has followed these issues.

True it runs counter to what we love about football; but this is critical surgery for our game. A firm hand is needed on the tiller, and conformity from clubs will help to soothe the waters. We must support this for the sake of our game.

It's only for one season, then we're back to promotion and relegation; life as we know it. And did it make last season's on pitch dramas any less rivetting? Not for my money. There remains the 'meaningless play off' grinching.

The team that won the play off are officially regarded as 12th place finishers in the league. Each club was alloted points based on their finishing position in the 2006 competition. So, a 12th place finish was worth more points than a 13th placed one. Thus, more points for the play off winners, in pursuit of an overall points total high enough to open the gates of Premier football next season. Except in this case, Dundalk's overall total was still not high enough. So they don't make it. That seems easy to understand.

So in the words of Shirley Temple from the cool Playstation ad - 'Get On Board' - and support these efforts.

Monday, December 04, 2006


It was my own fault entirely. There was a clear choice to be made; Leeds United or Liverpool. I'd never heard of either and I still don't remember what logic, if any, was applied to my pronouncement. But at that moment I became the world's latest Leeds United fan, barely able to reach as high as Jack Charlton's knee, at four years of age.

The Yorkshire club were enjoying the flourish of the Revie era, I was too young to appreciate their achievements. By the time I'd developed a perspective on English football Liverpool were unstoppable. All around me Leeds United football bags-cum-schoolbags with broken straps, were jettisoned in favour of Liverpool football bags-cum-schoolbags with broken straps. Mine remained a cherished possession; I wasn't about to desert my side - and I didn't. An illicit affair with Irish football in my adult years, meant that relationship didn't last 'though.

But as a football fan I couldn't help but admire the simple brilliance of the all-powerful Liverpool side. They even had a 'Liverpool way' of playing. How the marketing men would love to get hold of that today! Often copied, never equalled. Their unflappable dedication to pass and move was an education. Over the years many managers have attempted to pursue such a strategy only to learn that your players have to be able to pass the ball to begin with.

And so to the red of Cliftonville - defeated CIS Cup finalists 2006. Finalists, it has a hollow tone, a modern euphemism for losers. But rarely does a team walk dejectedly from a football pitch with so much praise accompanying them to their dressing room - and not of the faint or hollow varieties.

Not since the glory days of Bob Paisley have I been so overwhelmed by a team's determination to pass and pass and pass. When all around are screaming at you to get it into the danger area it takes huge discipline to maintain your focus and passing rhythm. Cliftonville may have deserved more from Saturday's final. The Willo what-if's, the back post header what-if's, are the stuff of post match pints; what I hope will remain a constant is the dedication of Eddie Patterson and his charges to the simple tenets of the beautiful game.

Without the tints on my lenses I must grudgingly acknowledge that the onset of December, January and February is not going to help in this regard. It might indeed prove to be the downfall of the Reds' currently viable title challenge. Grainy pictures of FAI Cup finals played on rolled muck remind me that following summer football in the eircom League is a charmed existence. Even the washing powder admen don't use scruffy football gear as a proving ground for their products anymore.

The all important line continues however, from Rinus Michels through Bob Paisley to Eddie Patterson. From Johan Cruyff through Kenny Dalglish to Conor Downey. And it feels good.