Monday, February 19, 2007

SETANTA AG TEACHT

The drudgery of off-field groundhog day scenarios can at last be hoofed high and hard over the corrugated roof of a venerable stand because the real action is fast approaching. Forgive me if I salivate on your new replica jersey, but the opening ties of the 2007 Setanta Sports Cup are less than a week away. Begone you fixtures with your phalanxes of substitutions; this is proper competitive action at last.

There was much talk last season of the fitness advantage held by the IPL sides, as they were operating at the height of their season when the Setanta tournament commenced. Derry City rubbished that idea in the opening tie against Linfield. The competitive edge may tilt the balance northwards, but the vagaries of a hard season culminating in a tight title finish will sap some of the strength from those legs as the weeks roll by; thereby levelling the pitch somewhat.

Group 1 features Glentoran v Derry City and the televised offering, Drogheda United v Linfield on February 26th. At the turn of the year it would have been difficult to get a toothpick between these four, but Glentoran have suffered an outburst of defensive incontinence in the interim. They were 5 points clear of their nearest rivals, gliding high at the summit of the IPL. At time of writing they lie in 4th place, six points behind leaders Linfield.

Paul Millar is a novice boss, facing the biggest crisis yet of his managerial career. Interestingly, former Northern Ireland skipper Alan McDonald, has just been parachuted in as assistant to Windy. His influence has yet to be felt though, with the woeful Glens shipping three goals to lowly Larne in a recent game.

Gary Smyth partners Paul Leeman at the cardiac centre of their defence; the former's legs are not what they were. Up front Gary Hamilton has been scoring for fun and he'll cause any defence problems, given a decent supply. Conversely, any back four that can subdue the IPL's top scorer will render the Cock and Hens impotent. Of interest to eircom League followers will be the presence of ex-Longford Town midfielder Dean Fitzgerald, and former Hoops player Willo McDonagh in the Glentoran squad.

Linfield [I will not mention that they were 'winners of the inaugural tournament', because you will doubtless be tired of reading that phrase] have just recently ascended into pole position in the IPL. With less than a third of the season remaining they are easing into the next gear. Not the unassailable force of last season, there is a hint of vulnerability about their back line. Daithi Mor has bought wisely, and the exciting talent of Thomas Stewart has been acquired, likewise the assured touch of Conor Downey; a recent target for Bohemians. There is an impressive depth to the Blues squad, there are more full-time pros at Windsor Park now and their challenge will not be easily dismissed.

Of course the same must be said of Drogheda United. Many people's favourites for the 2007 eircom Premier Division title, the current holders were hugely impressive when they disposed of Linfield last season. Non-porous at the back when Gavin and Gartland are in tandem; they will pose a greater attacking threat with the experience of former Shelbourne duo, Ollie Cahill and Stuart Byrne in their ranks. Declan O'Brien is their main striking threat, Tony Grant is fit again and Eamonn Zayed will have benefitted from a professional pre-season - a lot is expected from the young striker this term.

Derry City collected two cups last year, and with Pat Fenlon at the helm will be expecting to be parading the Premier Division trophy at the Brandywell next winter. Although Nutsy has inherited an embarrassment of attacking options, he has added the exciting talents of Karl Bermingham and Kyle Moran to his squad. Bermingham shone brightly but briefly at Newry City earlier this season when he scored 4 goals in 4 outings before succumbing to injury. It seems as if Greg O'Halloran will be bringing his tent to the Northwest also, with another of the Shelbourne diaspora, Dean Delaney, not far behind.

In Group 2, we have Dungannon Swifts, Cork City, Portadown and Shelb, er St. Patrick's Athletic.

It's Pats v Ports and Dungannon v Cork on the opening night. Three of these protagonists did battle in the Group stages last term, and they have had mixed fortunes in the interim. This is definitely a weaker group, and it's difficult to conceive that the competition winners could emerge it.

Damian Richardson's Cork side built their 2006 season on a defence which looked upon Ebenezer Scrooge as a benevolent uncle. Neal Horgan. Alan Bennett. Danny Murphy. Gone! Neale Fenn. George O'Callaghan. Gone! The arrival of Gareth Farrelly redresses the balance marginally; Colin Healy would be a significant signing. Up front an over reliance on the brittle fitness of John O'Flynn undoes their efforts. Roy O'Donovan finished last season in a manner which was almost replicated by a certain Christmas tree in Merrion Square. el Rico may decide to persist with the speed merchant's skills up front. The Rebel fans are restless following a hollow season last term; they'll qualify from the group, but no more than that [Put your money on them so].

Ronnie Mc Fall's side disappointed in 2006, but he has used every ounce of his experience to produce an extremely competitive 2007 version. They have been one of the most consistent sides in the IPL; Kevin Pressman keeps them tight from the back, Peter Kennedy adds solidity in midfield, and Kevin Braniff is beginnning to bed in nicely up front. The Ports have the ability to make it to the knockout stage; they'll need to be lucky with injuries and suspensions, as they don't have the depth of squad that others do. They've already put it up to Linfield and Glentoran this season and need fear no one.

Dungannon Swifts are experiencing their first season with Harry Fay at the tiller; he was promoted from within when Joe McAree moved onward and upward. Accordingly the Swifts' dogma of attractive free-flowing football has been maintained. Unfortunately it is a toothless one. When Linfield bought Timmy Adamson and put him on a shelf at Windsor Park they took the bite from the Stangmore Blues. Allied to that problem is a less than convincing defensive line... Gary Fitzpatrick's prolonged absence hasn't helped. They languish currently in mid-table anonymity, and we won't be seeing them in next season's competition. The universally popular club will be happy to put on a good show.

The Saints are at once latecomers and newcomers to Setanta Cup action. They flirted briefly with the notion early last season and then produced a run of indifferent results to firmly banish the thought. Since then their strike force has taken the boat to Scotland. John McDonnell's side are not ready to make a serious challenge at this level. They'll be nobody's whipping boys, but the journey will be one of learning and experience for the Inchicoremen. 2006 Player of the Year, Joseph Ndo would grace any side; along with livewire striker Gary O'Neill he will inject a fresh spark. Keith Fahey, properly harnessed, is a hugely talented midfielder with devilish dead ball ability. They lack firepower, and the squad is a bit thin.

Bring it on!




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