Tuesday, April 24, 2007

IT'S ALL OVER NOW

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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