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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