Thursday, March 29, 2007


Last Monday's results in Matchday 4 of the Setanta Cup saw two of the IPL sides get a severe spanking from their eircom League counterparts. Cork City travelled to Shamrock Park and inflicted a 7-0 trouncing on Portadown, having roasted the same side by 4-0 the previous week. Having been ambushed somewhat by Dungannon Swifts in their 2-2 draw, the free-flowing Pats went all Brazilian as they slammed 5 without reply past Harry Fay's minnows. Glentoran have regularly underperformed, with Linfield the outstanding flag bearers for their countrymen.

I use the term minnows in the sense of the club, not the playing personnel. Dungannon are making, and have made gargantuan strides on and off the field of play in recent years.... consecutive 4th place finishes have rewarded them with Setanta Cup football for the last two seasons. In Rodney McAree they possess a player with a high degree of intelligence, craft and skill; but he has been largely absent this year, and ineffective when available, owing to a knee problem. Another of the side's rallying points is Gary Fitzpatrick- again absent for a large chunk of their season with a jaw injury. True, in such as David Scullion and Mark McAllister they have fine talents, but both are still apprentices.

As can happen, success in one season doesn't guarantee the same level of performance the following term, and the Swifts have endured a period of transition as their esteemed leader Joe McAree moved upstairs and handed the reins over to Harry Fay. Factor in the stresses and strains of salvaging something from their domestic season with a cup semi-final in the offing and 5 league games left, and there is a lot of stress and strain on a squad without a single full-time player contained therein.

Glentoran have been a greater puzzle. Seemingly within touching distance of their worstest rivals, Linfield, they lag far behind once out of their own pool. As one of the Big Two, they are in possession of a psychological advantage over their domestic opponents- one which they don't carry into Setanta Cup battle. They can give the Blues a royal battle on any given Saturday, but cannot match the squad depth of Daithi Mor's men in the wider world.

And as for Portadown; a few short weeks ago they were the form team; meanness personified with a back four as tight as Nadine Coyle's rear. Kevin Pressman seeped confidence into those ahead of him, Kevin Braniff breathed new life into a slighty coy forward line. They were heading for the No.1 spot in the Carnegie Premier League as the Setanta Cup began. Then disaster struck; and we are talking unsinkable ships and iceberg surprises here. John Convery, a centre half hewn from granite was struck down; out for the remainder of the season. The defensive cohesion upon which the Shamrock Park side had built their season began to unravel around them. Another club bereft of full time professionals, they too lacked the strength in depth to absorb such a loss.

Many would argue that if this is as good as it gets from the northern clubs we should ditch them. Some would call for a four team Setanta competition. Surely, after all, the sponsors will lose interest if the tournament becomes lopsided in favour of one league over the other. Agreed, but the Setanta Cup is the glamour competition on this island and we must preserve it. The all- Ireland angle continues to enthral, although it is a possibility that should the same sides qualify year on year it will become dull and predictable. Should that be the case we could always follow el Rico's suggestion of involving a couple of Scotch and/or Welsh sides, while slimming down the Irish contingent.

In the interim what can be done? Well DJ has probably provided the answer to that question. Were the competition to straddle the season's of both leagues with matches replacing domestic weekend fixtures it would level the playing field considerably. Not alone that, but the away side would most likely bring greater support. There are few who fancy the round trip from Belfast to Cork on a dirty Monday or Tuesday night. The period from September to November covers both realms, as does March and April. The games can be spread across both periods; a transfer window can operate in the intervening months, with a new squad lists to be forwarded for the March/April segment.

The game up North is attempting to progress but undeniably lags behind its equally progressive Southern equivalent at the moment. League of Ireland sides are dabbling in full-time professionalism, with fantasy squads which are beyond the fiscal grasp of the majority of the barely there semi pro clubs across the border. None of the above draws a distinction in class; where the clubs are of comparable quality, the players are of comparable ability; just without the benefits of full time facilities and training.

In a cheese slice wrapper; let's not throw the rubber duck out with the water, let's level the playing field. Give part time players the opportunity to recuperate between games. Lets not expect them to play a domestic game on Friday or Saturday, then face a professionally prepared side on Monday night. And again the following week, and the week after that etc. Let's straighten up Setanta.

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