Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Cliche Is The Limit

For 'Cliche' read 'Sky'; I just hadn't the stomach to use it in the title. So if I'm talking Sky I'm talking Cliftonville versus Linfield. Being as I was in transit - returning from a weekend of research in Stockholm - I didn't catch the live offering on Monday night. To my delightment there were extensive highlights on the mother of all sports channels the following day at 3pm.

Is there something that reaches deep into our inner child when it comes to English football commentators? I don't mean to be unpatriotic, nor do I seek to undermine the efforts of our native commentators, but it just sounds better with an English accent. I was weaned on English football; when we mimicked our heroes as we played ball outside the local nark's house, our volleys and jinking runs were always accompanied by our own commentaries with English accents. Brian Moore, John Motson, Barry Davies and their ilk were the combined voice of my football schooling; broken only by the sometimes strange contributions of Jimmy McGee. In the same vein, I wouldn't be able to listen to a GAA commentary with an English accent. As for Jackie Fullerton's efforts....

With such baggage I tuned into Climville and Linfield. The boys had done their research. Their slick presentation skills, combined with the financial might which allows for multiple camera angles - 'here's how that shot looked from the goalkeeper's hole' didn't descend into the annoying gadgetry that their hype is often responsible for. In comparison to TV3's wooden efforts for insomniacs this was orgasm territory. It has not been difficult to hold my tongue regarding the inadequacies of the coverage we endure on a weekly basis - whether it be live or highlights - but sixty minutes with Sky has left me green with envy of our Northern counterparts.

The satellite demigod has agreed as part of their coverage of the NI national side to cover 5 domestic games during the new season. Certainly, they will handpick the creme fraiche of what is on offer - the equivalent of the Bohs / Rovers derbies down South. I suggested recently that the extensive live coverage of the eL may actually be undermining our efforts to promote the home league. Empty stadia, with all their warts on view as a result of the dearth of fans and poor camera positions serve only to provide ammunition for the common barstooler. What is there to lure this creature to a live game experience?

Around three thousand professional karaoke singers created a fantastic atmosphere at Solitude on Monday night. They sang lustily from beginning to end adding to the cup final atmosphere which the players were feeding off. Every tackle, every pass was greeted with such fervour I was transported back to the drama of the Chippy Brady Cup FA Final of 1979. The efforts of TG4 in this regard stretch to the commentator shutting up for a moment whilst they turn up the volume on the pitchside mics. Suddenly the crowd are loud and raucous, then they disappear. While their efforts are noble it does feel a little like being helped onto the toilet - I imagine.

So less may well be more. We should laud the work of the IFA and follow in their tracks. A select handful of live games, covered in a professional manner - by commentators with English accents - and crowds corralled into appropriate areas for maximum viewing effect and atmosphere. If there are any casualties, so be it; they will be worshipped as martyrs for eL football and their deaths will not be in vain.

Essentially we will be showing our best side to those whom we seek to attract - teams will even wear their own kits when in opposition. It is certainly easy to deride the swoosh, hype and soundbite sexy of Skysports, but it's done because it works. Even if it doesn't put seats on bums it attracts viewers, who attract sponsors, who invest money, which improves squads, facilities and grounds.

Footnote: Those of you who are rushing out to purchase FIFA 08, check carefully for any player who looks even vaguely like John Delaney; I have my suspicions.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Follow the Leader

How does it feel to be a fan of the Big Club right now? Following Monday night's chastening defeat by avowed foes Shamrock Rovers, I would dare to suggest that it feel's more than a little embarrassing.

It has been a token season so far for Bohs; nothing won, few goals scored and patchy form. But the tight backline was a token - something to cling on to and for Sean Connor to point to. The undefeated home record was another. How the Hoops celebrated when Tadhg Purcell's second goal imbued them with the belief that they were going to win on Monday night.

This was certainly due in part to the Hoops own impressive defensive statistics, but maybe due also to the belief that Bohs didn't have what it took to breach their defence twice. Monday night saw the Hoops assume the mantle of best defence in the Premier Division; they had shared it with Bohs prior to kick off. Denied their last two tokens, it was time for an exercise in spin from Sean Connor.

There are still two cup competitions up for grabs, and a Setanta Cup spot to play for. Silverware and Setanta would represent respectable progress for the new boss, but is it really enough?

The difference between Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians could not be more acute right now. Rovers - homeless; part-time; apprentice manager with an inexpensively assembled squad and an iron fist. Bohs - the finest facilities; full-time squad; wallowing in cash (or soon to be) and a media-driven manager.

Pat Scully is a winner, he expects his team to be winners; those who fall foul of his beliefs and rules are usually dealt with ruthlessly. Football management at the highest level is not a popularity contest - there are many who will not like Scully or his methods, but there are few who can deny the achievements of his fledgling managerial career. His Kilkenny City First Division vintage of 2006 were bettered defensively by none but the two promoted sides that season. The Cats finished fourth, just six points off the play-off spot. When he took charge at Shamrock Rovers the following season, few outside of the faithful paid much attention.

I recall attending the FAI's pre-season launch in 2007, or was that lunch? Anyhow, while I downed some kind of free stir-fry I spotted the lonesome figure of Pat Scully holding up a wall. All around me hungry journos jostled to corner Premier Division bosses - Scully looked unmoved. He did his talking by taking a youthful Hoops side to their first ever First Division title. I watched many of their games last season and couldn't but be impressed by the qualities he had instilled into his side. Tenacity and industry were their hallmarks, all else was garnish. From the front two to the last line they were possessed of a determination to work for the team.

Many expected them to burn brightly but briefly in the top tier; they were not expected to defend so well against strikers of Premier Division quality. But a couple of shrewd signings later and Rovers were battling for one of the top spots. In my lack of wisdom, I expected them to get leggy during the season and eventually tail off - but the boss was not having it. The burp came but was rapidly expelled. Scully was relentless in his mantra; his side could and would challenge for the title; with seven games to go, they have - and for the greater part without the defensive safety pin that is Aidan Price.

There is a whiff of totalitarianism about his rule at the club; but success - even relative - affords a manager such luxury.

Sean Connor surfed into Dalymount Park riding a wave of negativity regarding his premature departure from Sligo Rovers. The Bit O'Red legions had spent their money to buy a piece of the dream that SC was selling. Give him his due, he brought in some decent players - the kind of new blood that the forked tongue of Roddy Collins had previously lured to our shores. Things were on the up at the Showgies; but some fans suspected that the emperor had goosepimples. Certainly, he had imbued the club with a refreshing brand of optimism, but it did not take too long before the beady-eyed Showgies set began to query his tactical nous.

In parallel with Scully, Connor too swept his charges to First Division glory in his inaugural campaign at Sligo. Nobody expected great things of the side when they were elevated to the Premier Division, but the aforementioned optimism was still tangible. Then the former Birmingham City press officer signalled the extent of his personal ambition by upping sticks to take whatever would come his way at the Big Club.

In hindsight, his early pronouncements would seem to have been his downfall. There is plenty of talent at Dalymount Park; title-winning experience permeates the squad. SC was boxing clever by delivering the Top 4 finish line. It afforded him some breathing space, a rare commodity in the pressurised atmosphere of football management. Meanwhile the Board afforded him money. 'Sign them and they will come,' said the naked Indian to Wayne. SC signed them and they came but Seanstock has not been a success. His targets have moved throughout the season; he has remained consistent in one aspect however. Never has he allowed his side to believe that they were serious title challengers; and never have they been.

There have been instances - the FAI Cup victory at United Park was the most notable - the league win over Pats another. A glut of midfielders arrived during the transfer window; the team's form nosedived - Stephen Rice was expelled from SC's 'gallery of pleasures'. This was a major decision; Rice had been one of his successes, in his central midfield role. An honest and uncomplicated player, his efforts had endeared him to the harshest critics in the Dalymount crowd. In some ways, this was a reflection of the underperforming nature of the squad. When honest toil and endeavour stand out, it suggests that the more gifted players are failing to deliver.

Neale Fenn has cast no shadow under Connor's regime; yet we knew him as one of the league's most intuitive footballers when he graced the turf with Cork City. Glen Crowe has mustered seven league goals, only one of these against top opposition - he rarely strikes this observer as a goal threat. Before Rice's expulsion from the fiefdom he was second top scorer with three successful strikes - he still is - although Mark Rossiter reined him in while he sat in the stands. Darren Mansaram looks to have the ability, but flatters to deceive.

Rice was returned to the squad for the crunch game last Monday; what does this say? It's less than sincere to claim that he was always part of the squad. Multiple reports suggest otherwise.

What manager of a big professional club with title aspirations tells his players that they will finish fourth? It's not acceptable, and fosters the infiltration of acceptable defeats and feelings of inferiority in players; it is an essential part of a manager's workload to instil confidence and belief in his squad. Pat Scully clearly understands this.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Send In The Clones

Unaffiliated, unattatched and unaligned. No, I am not looking for a date, just a pleasurable interlude of sorts. For I have endured many unfulfilling appointments this year and have finally begun to wonder why.

It has been a season of false dawns and false starts in the Premier Division; no more clearly illustrated than in the fall from grace of the title challengers in the last couple of months. Early in the season Drogheda United were deprived of the combined and significant gifts of Shane Barrett, Declan O'Brien and the recently returned Jason Gavin. United's bulging squad aside, spectators and the league were to be denied the pleasure of watching such classy operators in action.

John McDonnell's Saints took full advantage of the Louthmen's ongoing injury woes to compile a considerable advantage at the top of the table. Shamrock Rovers surprised all, and continue to surprise many. Cork City were hamstrung by the Case of the FIFA Two; Derry City were Nutsied to within an inch of their season.

Once Bohs had called a halt to the Saints flying start everything changed. Johnny Macs' new signings had bedded in beautifully to his 3-5-2 system. Sean Connor's side played in their faces at Richmond Park and proved to others that Pats could be stopped. The second half of that game told a story.

McDonnell reverted to 4-4-2 in the second half; the game finished scoreless. Rather than inflict his side's previously successful formation on Bohs, the Pats boss cultivated seeds of doubt by changing it midway through its first serious test. Yes, he used the system subsequently, but it raised questions about the tactical nous of eL managers.

They are a group still in the infancy of modern management; licenses and badges are relatively recent adornments for eL bosses. Therein, I believe, lies the reason for the underlying sameness that pervades.

Managerial experience is for the most part lacking; Rico has been around for a while, Pete Mahon has come up from what is often described as the games grassroots - it appears to follow then that he is 'steeped' in football. John Robertson and Paul Cook are relative newcomers to our stadia; early signs are not discouraging.

Remember that the bulk of our managerial stock are attending caching courses together, learning the same stuff at the same time; save for Sean Connor of course who achieved his A License before his brethren - maybe he does know it all. Consequently they will be putting the same ideas into practise, the same counteractions to the various situations that present themselves in a game. As a result we the spectators are rarely presented with any innovative or incisive thinking.

Coupled with the emerging professionalism that enables bosses to spend more time with their charges on the training astroturf, we are seeing more sides strive for good organisation and defensive strength as a basis for relative success. The early season flair of Pats was a welcome relief from these mundanities but that has long since joined the greenhouse gases.

Only a fool would deny the importance of organisation and sound defence; no I am not quoting Paul Osam. They are bedrocks of most successful sides; each side has a point at kick off, if you don't concede you still have that point. One from each game will usually keep you up, or very close to it. Certainly not a magnetic maxim when it comes to drawing punters through the time warp that is a turnstile.

So when all the bosses have attained their A licenses, what then for football in our land? The FAI Groundhog Day Premier Division? Definitely not. Eventually. The passing of time will render this previously new knowledge to the bowels of a good manager's mind. It should be assimilated, digested and processed. It will become the raw material of management. Give two artists the same lump of clay - and I'm not deriding any centre halves here - and both will produce very different pieces.

In these words; the good manager when experienced enough will develop the confidence to move from the License blueprint to put his own slant on the lessons learned. The brightest prospect we have produced so far is Pat Scully; young and new to the job he has already added his own seasoning to the mix and coaxed superhuman efforts from his side. A part-time set-up with predominantly young players, he has already moulded them into a successful team. As they say in all the corny Hollywood movies 'there's no I in team' - Rovers are a hardworking and honest unit who defend from front to back with equal application. Definitely a testament to their manager's ability, Scully remains a prospect for another season or two - then cometh Judgement Day.

He has created a side that is greater than the sum of its parts; what is disappointing in the overview is that such a side can challenge so strongly in our league for the top prize. The struggle to attain UEFA Club Licenses, the ongoing ground improvements which see capacity temporarily limited and the recent exodus of some of our finest talents; the sameness of our managerial pool is a passing symptom, I hope, of our incremental forward movement in the professional game.

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