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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