Monday, April 30, 2007


Observers of the Irish League are presently enduring a groundhog moment as recrimination is heaped upon accusation, accompanied by allegation, followed by investigation. But I am not going to dip my sensitive bits into that mess.

While Linfield were collecting the Gibson Cup for the 47th time, Ronnie McFall, the wizened Portadown boss was giving the Sunday Life newspaper some filler. The esteemed Mister McFall has been managing at the highest level in Northern Ireland for as many years as aul' Mr. Brennan has been making radio ads, so his insights are not to be dismissed lightly.

He expressed his disappointment at not qualifying for European competition next season; the Ports finished in 4th spot, just one win away from Intertoto Cup action. He also expressed his delight at failing to qualify for the Setanta Cup; "I'm glad we are not in it because it doesn't generally help Irish League clubs with the timing of the competition. There is no doubt in my mind that it contributed to our downfall in the title race and a break from it might prove to be what we need next season."

I had to take the precaution of reading that statement a second time. What is happening in the Irish League? Eddie Patterson seemed determined all season that his side would not win the Gibson Cup, Portadown don't want to qualify for the Setanta Cup and Glentoran's squad just don't seem interested.

Reds fans will be quick to pounce in defence of their Jurassic leader; is there any sense in what he says? If one is taking a blinkered view, yes. Without the distraction of the Setanta Group matches the Ports may well have sustained their league challenge a little longer, but they would still have had to do so without the services of defensive cotter pin John Convery. Although, if we were to follow Ronnie's logic, were they to achieve success it would be tarnished with qualification for the Setanta Cup in 2008. This presents me with an excellent opportunity to use the word dichotomy.

That felt good. In fairness to Mr. McFall he is not the first Irish League supremo to question the timing of the tournament; and there may well be room for compromise on that score. Given the collapse of Portadown's effort this year, the sponsors are sure to review the situation in order to retain the interest in, and vitality of the competition.

Where Europe is concerned, since 1990 they have failed to qualify on only 6 occasions. In 22 games the Reds have managed just 8 goals, conceding 64 in the process. Not a single leg did they win, mustering the unimpressive total of three draws along the way. How is that better than qualifying for the Setanta Cup?


It is widely acknowledged in the game that every manager is striving constantly to improve his playing squad. There are necessary constraints, ask any Leeds United fan. But any IL or eircom League manager who is wooing a player can use Setanta qualification as a carrot. Players want to be involved in big games, receiving television exposure, and on this island any help the domestic game can get is welcome. of course, the bigger clubs will always have greater playing resources; Drogheda United and Linfield are the envy of their respective counterparts. So should we all just give up on trying to compete with them?

Then there's Dungannon Swifts, a 'smaller' club; they coped admirably with the demands placed upon them and their profile has increased greatly as a result. Both Cork City and St. Pats failed to beat them on their own turf; in the meantime they have achieved an Irish Cup Semi- Final appearance for the first time in their history, followed by an appearance in the Final itself. I've no doubt Harry Fay would be happy to expose his players to the highly competitive environment again in order to continue their footballing education.

Ronnie McFall, a man with the public image of Bad Santa, may well be peed off with the Setanta Cup, but I have enjoyed two top class semi-final games and am eagerly anticipating an intriguing final encounter. At least the Ports boss won't need to renew his subscription to the emerging sports channel for next year.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Anyone who is searching for some spare euphoria need look no further than the terraces of Richmond Park, wherein an unexpected sequence of events has combined to cause an abundance of the sensation. I have an antidote within my keyboard.

Firstly, the early season form of the Saints has surprised all, including I believe, John McDonnell. Rarely does a team gel as instantly as his has done. They took to the new season with gusto, playing a swashbuckling brand of football. The 3-5-2 formation is very sexy. The results served only to add to its allure.

There is enough commonsense in the water down by McDowells to realise that nothing is won yet. Progress has been made, nothing more. In 2006 the side began well, looked definite Top 5 material until the World Cup break, then tailed off miserably. Victorious just 9 times from 30 league starts; 32 for and 29 against; a huge 19 points off fourth spot and trailing in behind the superpower that is UCD in seventh place, represents a mediocre season. The drama of the FAI Cup Final glossed over the facts.

Already, the side have amassed 6 wins and a draw from their opening seven games; 14 for and 2 against. Impressive stats indeed. But whom ( I wanted 'who', but WORD says 'whom') have they beaten?

Derry City in the Randy. So have UCD, without the assistance of the Derry netminder. Cork City home and away in the Setanta Cup. Cork were, by Damian Richardson's own admission, ill-prepared entering the new season, and didn't present their optimum threat in Turner's Cross; the win at Richmond Park had merit; although it must be recalled that Pats managed to defeat the Rebels last season.

Bohs came to Inchicore and upset the midfield triumvirate courtesy of a man marking job on Joseph Ndo; a decent Gypsys outfit had the better chances that night in a scoreless draw. Then came the Setanta semi.

Almost by default Drogheda and St. Pats have been cast in the role of table toppers. What of last season's top 4? The reigning champions have self destructed; Derry City are reconstructing; Cork City's two best signings have still to get sand on their boots, and they've lost Alan Bennett and Danny Murphy from their frugal backline. Drogheda United only have to stand still to be the best team in the land.

And for my money they proved with some aplomb in the Setanta Cup semi final that they have not stood still. Consider the players who were unavailable through injury...

Connor - Lynch; Gavin; Gartland - Barrett; Baker; Keddy - O'Brien; O'Keeffe.

Paul Doolin builds his side unashamedly on the foundations of a sound defence; the absence of the Connor-Gavin-Gartland axis could reasonably be expected to throw them seriously out of orbit. Throw in a new 'keeper (one of those butter-fingerd Scandinavian ones, like Derry City have) and there is lots of room for excuses. But the professional mentality of the Drogheda squad has refused to recognise these liabilities as excuses for underperforming.

This was the difference between the league's top two at Inchicore. OK. The home side were without Joseph Ndo, a significant part of their shiny new armoury. Nevertheless, they weren't operating under the constraints of their opposition. There is another level to attain if a side is to manufacture a sustained title challenge. It comes both from the players and the bench.

There is something one-dimensional about the Saints formula at the moment. They don't seem to have the strength in depth to implement significant tactical changes during a game. When your side are second best for about an hour in a game changes need to be made. Drogheda regrouped at half time and thereafter took the game to the league leaders. Save for the standard cavalry charge in the dying embers of extra time, they were fairly comfortable.

Two significant questions must be asked. Why was Anto Murphy still on the pitch when his tired frame collapsed to the ground in a schoolgirl attempt at halting Simon Webb's progress? The midfielder is just back from injury, and played almost 70 minutes of the Sligo game 48 hours earlier. Secondly, Alan Kirby? One of my favourite eircom League players; he was a passenger after a typically industrious first half. Incredibly, he remained on the pitch until the 106th minute. On such decisions are tight games lost drawn and won.

Drogheda's established professionalism was the key here; alongside the fact that Paul Doolin has managed to light a fire up the rear end of the notoriously under-achieving Eamon Zayed. How long it will burn is a moot point. They presented the benefits of a couple of seasons of top class preparation and conditioning; Pats are a little behind in this field, but catching up. The extra 24 hours rest that the Boynesiders enjoyed is a factor; but the Pats' supremo rejected the option of substitutions until the game went into extra time. His choice.

While Johnny Mac was pointing out that the 2/3 games a week were maybe catching up on his players, his opposite number basked in the physical and mental reserves of his.

As things stand, it's all over; the league is Drogheda United's to lose. But I'd love it if Derry City , Cork City, Bohemians and St. Pats can prove me wrong!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Yellow Peril

As Pat Fenlon will tell you, there is a size 0 line between success and failure at the pinnacle of any sport. And seventeen shots at goal before your opponents manage one is not worth a hill of marrowfat peas in a game of football. Professional football is all about winning, and winning is all about goals; scoring them and not conceding them.

Only the deliriously interested will have endured the non-entity that was the Setanta Cup fixture between Dungannon Swifts and Cork City last Monday evening. Guilty! Unfortunately, the broadcasting of such a fixture will have done little to positively market the domestic game. The Swifts have no chance of a top four finish in the Carnegie Premier League, and had no chance of beating Cork City by 7 clear goals either. Their season now hinges on a first ever appearance in the Irish Cup final next month, and that engagement would have been uppermost in the minds of the players.

OK, so it's inevitable that there are 'meaningless' fixtures as the group stages reach their end; therefore it was no surprise to see below strength sides take to the field. Before Harry Fay's men had acclimatised they were a goal down thanks to a benevolent marking strategy at corners. The game droned on, with the home side rarely taxed, and 2-0 up at the break.

With 62 minutes elapsed the situation remained the same. The Tyrone side needed to score 9 times without reply in the final 28 minutes to put City out of the competition. Given that they had managed just five in their previous five group games, this was an increasingly remote possibility. Why then was Roy O'Donovan introduced to the fold?

The Rebel Army's most potent weapon of this season and last is an ardent collector of the 'carta bui,' and he was entering the field of play with a yellow cloud hovering. Within 15 minutes the pin-up boy of Cork football was having a yellow rectangle waved in his face by Declan Hanney.

Brendan Daly was one of those who were to benefit from the opportunity represented by this low-key affair. He was given a start on the right side of midfield. el Rico may have felt that he had seen enough; maybe the lad had played a lot of football lately. In any case, there was no risk involved in his withdrawal; there were options on the bench....Admir Softic, Liam Kearney and Darragh Ryan were all possibilities.

But no, Roy was the chosen one. His latest yellow card means that he will be suspended for the Setanta Cup semi-final against Linfield at Windsor Park. And here we return to the fine line. Linfield are this competitions most consistent side. They have reached the last four in each of the three years of its existence. They were mightily impressive when they defeated Shelbourne to clinch the inaugural trophy. Drogheda were even more impressive when they crossed the border to snatch victory by the only goal last year; some would say that performance alone merited their success last year.

The Blues gained revenge with victory at United Park this term, but it was the manner of their resurgence at the Brandywell which has most impressed. The Linfield '07 vintage is far superior to those that have preceded it. David Jeffrey has been allowed to strengthen his squad, there are about half a dozen full-timers at the club now. The manner in which the big man has juggled his resources has served to enhance his managerial reputation. The league title has been retained; by the time Cork City arrive in Belfast the Irish cup holders will know if they are to contest that final again this season.

A scan at Linfield's season might suggest to the casual observer that they are weaker this year. They swept all before them domestically in 06/07. This season they have turned around a six-point deficit to retain their title. Their perceived slip domestically has more to do with their competitors raising their levels than with Linfield dropping theirs. In a seashell, this side are serious contenders for the Setanta Cup 2007.

Surely then Damian Richardson fully intends to arrive at Windsor Park with the strongest possible squad available to him. His decision to sacrifice Roy O'Donovan may well come back to haunt him on April 30th. Denis Behan is a worthy striker, and is always useful when the game calls for an alternative attacking approach. Sicknote O'Flynn has failed to ignite, and turned in an embarrassing display of finishing against Dungannon Swifts. O'Donovan is Cork's 'get out of jail free card;' the player who can produce a special moment to unlock a defence and steal a goal. They are a side who don't share the goalscoring burden; centre half and captain Dan Murray is the next in line when it comes to being prolific.

In what is certain to be a tight affair, Damian Richardson may already have handed the initiative to his opposite number.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007


Derry City provided us with some of the most memorable moments of the 2006 campaign, and despite a change in the wheelhouse they have picked up where they left off. How reassuring it must be for Foyleside fanatics to hear that Pat was crap when he started at Linfield ; and then again at Shelbourne.

Are they privately comforting themselves that the same is probably true of Ola Timidman. Rarely has there been a more memorable debut. In a textbook replication of the halcyon era of Scottish goalkeeping both, Ola and PJ have rapidly unravelled a defensive unit that averaged .66 goals per game conceded in 2006.

Pat Fenlon has already doubled that average; a master stroke that must have politicians across the country apoplectic with envy. So what next for the Candystripes; a safe pair of hands?

In Nutsy they have such a thing; in goal they don't. OhNo Tidman is entitled to one more opportunity to redeem his unforgettable debut. It is clear that the manager is attempting to impose a different style of play onto his new charges; never the most earnestly gung-ho of tacticians, methinks the Derry fans will have to get used to a slower, cagier style from the Candystripes.

The addition of Peter Hynes also represents a new dimension to the current side; but nothing will be right until the defence regains that priceless sense of confidence in the man behind them. Whilst the new netminder was not directly at fault for Cork City's fourth goal last Monday; he was indirectly so.

When Ken Oman saw that ball dropping in his direction he had a decision to make. Last season the ball would have been headed comfortably into the realm of David Forde - a 'keeper who has risen immeasurably in my estimation since last Monday - but the realisation that there was a dodgy 'keeper behind him will have caused the minutest delay in that decision making process. In the meantime, before Oman had time to prepare himself for a clearing header, the ball was bouncing lazily off his Uncle Ned and into the orbit of a grateful Denis Behan.

His finish was exquisite. As the Great Wise One, Oso, often says, 'you will get punished at this level if you can't defend properly'. Nutsy must eradicate this problem immediately if not sooner, or else there will be a groundswell of support for Shelbourne's reinstatement to the Champions League.

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Friday, April 06, 2007


I opened the door to find a young man in one of those hats the Bushmen in Australia wear; without the bobbing corks. His mission, should I choose to entertain it, was to lure my custom back to eircom with an irresistible offer. The build-up to the Setanta clash between Derry City and Drogheda United was about to start. I invited him in, but explained that I needed to keep track of what was going on on my aged screen.

I felt slightly embarrassed as Felix and Pat batted awkwardly, remembering the Aussie sport presentations I had seen during my holiday in the Southern hemisphere. The salesman was into his sport; had a mate who went for Pats, even. I relaxed, did the deal and bade him good evening; he'd be back for some number or something tomorrow. I even felt that I might just be supporting the league a bit by returning to eircom, that'll be washed away when the bill comes in I suppose.

Two days later he turned up...'I got that number meself mate.' Cool.
'Hey, I was at that game last night; I've got a mate who goes for, is it Bohs?' Yep. I sheepishly explained how I had had to abort my plans to attend late on Tuesday afternoon. 'Great game, I loved it.'

I was blown away by this; the first time I'd ever engaged, or been tolerated, in a conversation about our league outside my own social parallelogram. And it was with an Australian; they can't even play Gah properly.

Speaking of the Gah; what is the story with Pat Jennings?

Goalkeepers more often cause their defence problems by not coming off their line, he seems to be afraid to stay on his. Is his goal line haunted? The man is liable to pop up anywhere in his box. Yes, yes, a good goalkeeper dominates his area, yes, yes. But he's not a good goalkeeper.

When PJ does make his spectacular mal-interventions he is more likely to 'break' the ball a la Gah midfielders. For the uninitiated, in Gah this involves rising high to knock the ball down - hopefully to a colleague - as opposed to catching it cleanly. He has struck terror with his antics into the heart of a previously sound defence.

Combine this with the tweaks that the new manager is making to the Derry City side, and you have a team in a state of turmoil. One of their chief goal threats has been jettisoned; although early signals were that Nutsy wasn't going to accommodate Ciaran Martyn's style in his plans.

It was noticeable that the Sligoman's runs had been reeled in during his early season appearances, as PF brought his beloved cagey game to the Brandywell. It's early entrances yet for the new boss, so only a foolish man would write off Derry City's chances just yet.....


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