Tuesday, January 30, 2007


The most crucial term of the 2007 Irish Premier League is upon us. Beautifully poised, with every side having 10 games to play, there's plenty of space for speculation. If there is one down side, it's the fact that Linfield are leading.

The Blues have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. There is an overpowering sense that they are going to show the rest a clean pair of cheeks from here on in. The depth of strength within their ranks, allied to the fact that they haven't properly hit their stride thus far is terrifying. The closing 45 minutes of their recent outing at Dungannon were reminiscent of that distant 1983 day, when Eamonn Coughlan powered past his opposition with fist clenched and a smile on his face to clinch the World 5000m title. In spite of perceived holes at the back, they have conceded just 17 times in the league; second only to Portadown. Ferguson and Thompson are scoring regularly, if not at last season's incredible rates. Clear favourites; were they ever any other way?

Glentoran lack the quality in depth of their Blue nemesis. Critics point to the dearth of creativity in their midfield; when Linfield hoovered up Conor Downey it was a dark day at the Oval. Of late, last season's defensive frailties have resurfaced and the team are in crisis. From a commanding position on Boxing Day, they have conspired to trail the leaders by 6 points. There is an over reliance on Gary Hamilton's goals and Paul Millar lacks managerial experience at this level. He is facing the first major crisis of his brief career and much depends on his ability to resurrect the confidence and belief of his players.

Laughin' Ronnie McFall on the other hand is a vastly experienced campaigner, and his performance this season has been a masterclass. He had turned his club on its head after the abdications of last season. A faltering start was rapidly pushed into the shadows by his impressive side. They have shown that they need fear no one, except Ballymena United of course - and even Sky Blues fans live in fear of the Braidmen. The Ports are tight at the back - the reassuring presence of Kevin Pressman has a lot to do with that - and solid if unspectacular throughout. Suspensions and injuries may prove to be their strongest opponents during the run-in.

Eddie Patterson should withdraw his side from the Premier League; if the Solitude boss is to be believed his side are only making up the numbers. Fortunately his charges appear to play little heed to his deceitful ramblings; they've crept quietly into 2nd spot. Vincent Sweeney and Daniel Lyons have clicked early, and the gaping hole left by the departing Conor Downey has been filled by the belief and unity of the Reds squad. And a lightweight squad it is, but without the challenge of Setanta Cup football to stretch their resources Lady Luck may well wink their way.

Mention of the prestigious cross border tournament adds further intrigue to an already tantalising chase. With a minimum of six tough games for each of the entrants - and at a crucial point in the season - the Setanta Cup could have a serious impact on the domestic title race. Assuming Glentoran recover their momentum, football fans are in for a treat as four sides push each other all the way to the finish line. Then there is the battle beneath for any scraps which might fall the way of Crusaders and Coleraine. Even the boys down Ballyskeagh way won't be throwing in the towel just yet; and Joe McAree has bequeathed expectation to Harry Fay.

It's a welcome return to competitiveness. After last season's procession it was hard not to fear the worst for 2006/'07. But there is a surprise around every corner flag, with even the also-rans capable of bowling a googly here and there. Bring it on!

Monday, January 29, 2007


Those among you who spend their close season in the company of females, or effeminate males, are sure to have seen the movie entitled 'Little Voice'. For those of you who are having little success in engaging with the 'people who never break wind' here's a brief synopsis.

Extremely shy, introverted young lady pines for her deceased father, and is repulsed by the antics of her brassy mother. She locks herself away in her bedroom over the redundant record store where her father earned his crust. She shares a passion for the sounds of artistes such as Shirley Bassey, and has an amazing talent for mimicking the singing voices of her heroines.

She is discovered accidentally by one of her mother's conquests, a smalltime promoter. He sinks every cent he has into promoting a professional show centred around her undoubted talents; cajoles the most powerful and influential promoter figure on the circuit to come and see her and she fails to perform.

Listen out for the sig. tune at the end of Ian Dempsey's radio slot on Today FM, just before 9 am. It features Michael Caine screaming It's Over; it's his character in the film that loses everything when Little Voice fails to perform. He takes to the stage and loses the plot as he sees his world unravel in glorious surround sound.

Transport yourself to Tolka Park. While Oliver Byrne lay in his hospital bed, possibly with a 'phone in one hand and a drip in the other the show came to an end in Drumcondra. I have the depth of sympathy for Mr. Byrne - I believe this is a sentiment shared by the majority of the Irish football community- and I wish him a speedy recovery. Your health is your wealth.

Sanity prevails by the banks of the Tolka in the person of Finbar Flood. The combined exits of Messrs. Crowe, Baker, Harris and Rogers constitute the last act of a soon to be forgotten dream. Hopefully it will double as the foreword to a never to be forgotten lesson for Irish football.

Cork City, via Brian Lennox, are providing the leadership for the future by refusing to accept Reading's devaluation of Alan Bennett. In tandem with the Rebels' refusal to allow Roy O'Donovan cross the water for trials during the off-season, this illustrates confidence and nous.
Cynics will be rapid in pointing out how these qualities have been acquired; hindsight is almost as wonderful as x-ray vision.

We know our top players can cut it trasna an farraige; our constantly improving training facilities and methods mean it is easy for them to slip into the groove be it in England or Scotland. The imminent success of those players will herald the arrival of many more besuited types with wads of sterling. The lower leagues will always lose players to the highest echelons; no footballer worth his game will refuse the opportunity to test his ability against the best.

So as long as we keep producing the raw material there will be a market for it; respect and kudos will inevitably follow; youngsters will learn their trade here, and enrich their nursery club should they move on to bigger things on the football planet. It might even encourage a few more bodies into our grounds. The knowledge that these lads are playing a 20-minute drive away, rather than a 50-minute flight, may just begin to drizzle into a brainwashed skull or two. Unlikely it may seem, then so was the re-emergence of Rocky Balboa!

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Utopian League

Dermot Ahern, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs dropped his trousers recently, bent over and allowed the Irish football fan an unpleasant moment. From his anal orifice the Dundalk-based politician talked about the need to merge the island's footballing bodies.

Not a universally popular topic, and if this arseburst was provoked by the upcoming election south of the border, it has if you'll pardon the pun, backfired. The prospect of an All Ireland league has merit; the possibility of an All Ireland national side is doomed to failure.

Cynics will point to the cull that would ensue if there were to be a single governing body on the island. All those blazers losing their perks - cabbages voting for vegeterianism! The NI football addict is being callously ignored by Minister Ahern. How?

Figures have been tossed about relating to sports played on our lovely green island which are run on an all-island basis. The common ground suggests that there are over 30 such bodies. This means that the area known as Ulster, the Six Counties, Northern Ireland - call it what you will - is poorly served by representative sports. Sawker, as those knowledegable Americans know it, is the most high profile sport through which the people of the North can identify with their homeland.

And they are fiercely proud of what their country have achieved on the world stage. And they want to keep it. So let them.

As for an All Ireland league, well that is a bit sexy. The Setanta Cup has titillated; but one wonders how much longer the TV channel will stay involved. They are expanding faster than a builder's wallet; will the Setanta Cup be big enough for them after their current commitment has expired? The channel is seriously challenging Sky Sports' domination in this part of the world, and this could mean we get left behind.

So football clubs on this island do need to come together in an effort to al least maintain the current level of TV interest. There is an element of the Emperor's New Clothes about a new league in whatever format. But there is little to lose. Many speak of the possibility of expanding the Setanta Cup.

At first glance, this is a comfortable compromise. But more teams means more fixtures. Travelling support is generally miserable for midweek games, so to extract the maximum attendance from the initially novel contests we would need weekend fixtures; of course the sponsors will still need a tasty tie for their midweek schedule. How do we fit the extra games into a crowded calendar?

It could only be done by scrapping another competition. The most likely victim would be the League Cup; as it is the Republic's European qualifiers don't enter that competition until the latter stages. The Northern participants would probably need to abandon their regional cup competitions and alter the format of the CIS Cup - possibly abandoning the Group stages for a straightforward KO competition.

There is the option of adjusting the format of the Setanta Cup; but it appears to work well as it is. Ultimately, where the potential for financial gain exists, changes can be made. The Setanta Cup presently is our Champions League, the most lucrative prize available to our clubs. Ergo, the clubs will bend to suit. So let's see how far we can take it, before we start to talk Utopia.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Punctured Shels

It was a day like many other days, plenty of stuff to do that I had no interest in doing. Suffering from Christmas-lag, wishing I'd made a resolution so that I could savour the moment when
I would purposefully break it. Then I got the news - Olly on Liveline!

At first I thought this meant he may be sitting in for Joe, but no, the reality was even better. Two of our national treasures would be in conversation; Oh the pure joy. The world of walkthechalk.com was put on hold whilst I immersed myself in the Wonderful World of Olly Byrne.

If it were a stage production there would be only two parts, for our hero refuses to let there be an end. Oliver Byrne opened his heart on the national airwaves and Joe Duffy prodded around inside. I was left feeling sympathy for a near broken man.

This man had a vision for Irish football, and he had the ability to convince others of its merit. He became a fearless speculator on behalf of his beloved Shelbourne, although his devotion to the club has cost it dearly. When I ponder this I can't help but think of megalomania; when I think of megalomania my memory accesses the Charlie Haughey file.

In the political arena, CJ is the Great Divider - loved and loathed in equal measure; our Olly falls into a similar category amongst the footballing fraternity. Many applaud his vision and his determination; the latter may well prove to be the prick that eventually bursts the balloon.

My attention was once drawn to a photograph which illustrated bureaucracy at its zenith. It was a monochrome reproduction of the inner tube of a bicycle used by a postman back in the day. The department of Post & Telegraphs decreed that these tubes should be repaired 45 times [or something very close to that number] before they could be removed from service.

Every departure from Shelbourne means another patch at the club; every managerial offer rebuffed, likewise. The time has come to replace the inner tube. The club has endured puncture after puncture, punctuated by hire purchase success. They have artificially upped the stakes for Irish football within the straw scaffold of guaranteed success.

Fortunately, the majority of eL clubs have not followed Olly's blueprint for world domination. Money talks in the professional game - it's a commodity in scarce supply by the banks of the Tolka, while the imprint of Mr. Byrne's rear end remains in the Chairman's seat.

Unexpectedly, His Ollyness has been speaking some common sense to the media; even talking of returning to a part time structure and rebuilding from there. Has the man been possessed by Eddie Hobbs? Don't believe it for a minute, it's a cunning ruse to lure foolish money towards the club. Once he has his hands on it, it'll be straight down to the shops for some new players and f*** the Revenue.

Hand it over Olly; you gave it your best shot. It's still within your gift to save the club; if you continue to ride on this flat you'll only make things worse. The tyre will break up; eventually the wheel will come off.

The beauty of sport is that success is never guaranteed, this is why we love to follow it. Chelski have invested incredible sums of money to dominate European football and real fans rejoice in their failure to do so. It all boils down to 11 v 11 for 90 minutes and anything can happen.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sniffer Goes To Glenavon

As the walkthechalk.com empire continues to cast a critical eye over the Irish Premier League, a somewhat tardy arrival at Mourneview Park was the scene of this week's lesson. A hastily arranged loan car made the journey possible at the last minute, after a week spent rueing my decision to teach Mrs. Sniffer to drive.

I pointed two fingers to the tree huggers and sped off in the direction of Newry. A pit stop at the Money Exchange left me rubbing my arse, but there was no time to spare. I figured out how to turn the wipers off just as I arrived in Lurgan. It was just after three, not bad. Swallowing my masculine leanings, I decided to ask for directions. Normally, I would stop in the vicinity of an attractive female in these circumstances, but time was of the essence.

The sensible thing to do was to ask a male, if you want proper directions they're you only man. Unfortunately, I happened upon one of the lesser lights of my species; a man who shared a remarkable facet of my wife's inabilities. He could easily distinguish between left and right i.e. left is one direction and right is the opposite direction, he just didn't know which was which.

Ergo, Paul Murphy had already served up the first course when I arrived on the deserted terrace at Glenavon FC. The Sky Blues' supporters seemed resigned, as if they knew this was to be one of 'those' days. For the remainder of the opening half Ballymena lacked everything; creativity, cohesion, a cutting edge, a solid rearguard. This was the side which had put Glentoran to the sword in their previous outing.

The Glentoran side which currently boasts the most prolific strike force in the top league, reinforced by a stubborn defence is the one of which I speak. And here were there conquerors showing all the ability of a Playstation Eleven in the hands of a newborn baby.

And what of Glenavon?

The first thing that struck me was the quality of there football. No doubt emboldened by the comedic efforts of the opposition, they were stroking the ball around with a swagger. Their play was expansive; Steven Caffrey brought solidity to their midfield before he was called ashore, ably assisted by Conor Walsh. From front to back they worked hard to protect the lead gifted to them in the first 45 minutes.

When Tommy Wright's side emerged after the break with the intention of saving a minute degree of face, they were regularly repelled by the in-your-face hunger of the Lurgan Blues. Inevitably the visitors had a couple of opportunities, but Paul Rice was equal to them. Ballymena's goal when it came was a triumph of farce on a day ruled by the bizarre; rather than a carefully constructed move.

The introduction of Paul Walsh was a welcome treat, his scampering runs down the right hand side forcing the Sky Blues to regroup; the shot that struck the woodwork was a bitesize depiction of divine skill. For regular watchers of Colin Malone's men this home victory was a rare gift. And they certainly showed their appreciation.

I have oft been present at better attended games than this one - but the atmosphere created by the tangible passion of the fans present enhanced the occasion hugely. Mourneview Park is a credit to Glenavon, and the fans from both sides were vocal and knowledgable. Football in Northern Ireland will always have a future with supporters like those present last Saturday. Full credit to those who assembled especially to give Tommy Wright an instant review of his side's performance - balanced with some valuable advice - at full time.

There is a huge sense of fans identifying with their club and their team, and it warms the heart on the coldest of terraces. It does nothing for the toes though.