Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bohs v Cork City - A Neutral's Perspective

Act I- The Beginning

Were Steve Staunton still flailing about it in his former role as Republic of Ireland manager he could have taken a masterclass in the art of football management from Damian Richardson at Dalymount Park last night. While many football bosses hold to the mantra that once the players cross the white lime the game is out of your hands, there is a lot that can and should be done before that happens.

The streets of Phibsborough in downtown Dublin 7 thronged with angry looking German Shepherds and gaily clad Gardai; it was almost as if Shamrock Rovers were to be tonight's visitors. Poles, Lithuanians, Chinese and Corkies and poles populated the footpaths. Within the condemned stadium there was an air of anticipation; a press area thronged with flickering laptops and men with large earmuffs loaned an air of gravitas to the proceedings.

And impressive proceedings they were as the Big Club put on her finest clothes for the occasion. A packed stand allowed one to imagine what it could be like every week if only...It seems but a matter of time before each player is introduced individually to the crowd at a live game. Player T's name will be called ( X always seems to get this gig, but I'm trying to improve the image of T) to his individual musical intro. He may just jog on and wave; the more talented ones will somersault into the arena in the fashion of pompous boxing champions; there will be a scantily clad nubile on either side. End of fantasy.

The choreography bestowed by television on our live games, means the combatants must line up abreast of one another for a close up camera shot prior to the tossing and handshaking. An unfortunate oversight last night meant that the camera cable was too short to get close in. Bohs fans could not know it then, but it was to be a dire portent. The cohesion with which the red and black entered the arena was as good as it got for the home fans, their performance lacked in all departments thereafter.

In the game's first significant clash Liam Kearney faced up to his former Shels teammate Owen Heary. Ryan McCann was in close attendance; this double-up suggested that theirs was a predetermined dovetailing of duties on the right hand side for the hosts. Heary waited patiently as the magpied winger danced around the ball; then with all the wisdom and knowledge of a defender who's seen it all before, he ended the scene. Throw in to the visitors and the optimism of the home fans is uncontained.

But the Corkies weren't having it; undeterred they put it up to Bohs. Brian Murphy flapped uncharacteristically under a high ball. Denis Behan was wasteful. The first kick out of the contest painted a depressing picture. I decry these long kick outs, twenty players compressed into a fraction of the grass on one side of the pitch; it invokes memories of under 10's pursuing a terrified ball en masse into a corner of the pitch. Not alone that, but it turns clean possession into a lottery.

When Kevin Hunt made a poor choice of pass Cork were quick to capitalise. John O'Flynn had no time to think about injury as he burst towards goal - his effort was somewhat premature, and wide. The game had not yet settled. Heary hoofed a hopeful ball crossfield- it dropped from the airspace surrounding the figure of Cork's centre-half Brian O'Callaghan - he didn't deal well with the dropping ball and it landed in the vicinity of Harpal Singh. The former Leeds United player struck a shot that embarrassed this former Leeds United fan.

There must have been huge disappointment amongst the die-hard Gypsys when they learned of Gareth Farrelly's absence. A week of songwriting and banner building lay wasted, on the positive side it would weaken City's effort. It was not to be though. Farrelly's absence forced el Rico into a double change. Leon McSweeney was shifted from his striking role out to the right hand side of the visitor's midfield quartet; John O'Flynn cancelled any injury plans he was cultivating to partner Denis Behan up front.

It was McSweeney who dominated the opening stages of this game. His slaloming runs created havoc in the home guard - pace and skill combined in a package which harked back to the monochrome wingers beloved of old men in caps. For twenty four minutes Conor Powell chased dust as the Road Runner zipped past at his leisure. Wily Connor decided that Powell had had enough. The usually reliable - and pacy - defender was said to be suffering with stomach cramps; there were certainly skidmarks around the area in which he and McSweeney were operating. With Des Byrne again serving a ban it was left to SC to introduce an Acme Inc. left-full. Dean Richardson hadn't even time to introduce himself to the game when he heard 'Meep, Meep' as the ball was flicked beyond him in the left full position. Mc Sweeney exploited the momentary uncertainty to hit the byline. A driven cross scudded across the face of Murphy's goal - low and dangerous - Kearney aligned his left foot to divert the missile into the net. The less benign of the supporters in red and black hailed the inspired substitution.

The Gypsy's reply was swift; Billy Woods got himself into trouble in City's left full position. Darren Mansaram was lurking and pounced to rob the experienced midfielder-cum-defender. With eyes only for goal he bore down on Mick Devine. The ball was driven low to the 'keeper's right; Devine reacted quickly to get a strong hand to the ball and the danger was cleared. Cillian Lordan was introduced in place of Brian O'Callaghan and took his place alongside the monolith that is Dan Murray. The half hour mark was upon us.

Finally the home side put together a move of substance; the criminally underused Singh was picked out in good space on the left hand side. His accurate cross reached the forehead of Mansaram who headed downwards, just as Devine had anticipated. That sequence heralded the half time whistle, and some time for reflection.

Then the damn dancing girls came on and it was hard to concentrate. The posse of lithe damselettes callously eased away the frets and consternation of the home crowd, contorting and bouncing seductively like a Darren Mansaram poledance. At the other end of the field it was reported that Anthony Buttimer had to be physically restrained from entering the ground. A pair of girls' teams were squaring up to each other; one clad in green and yellow, the other in a fashionable silver. But it was the keepers' jerseys that were the problem. Both were appearing in grey, a clear clash of colours. The game went ahead nonetheless.

What was to happen in the second period? Bohs looked rudderless. Turner was not imposing himself on the game, Crowe and Hunt were anonymous. McSweeney and Behan were terrorising the back-four. O'Flynn looked dangerous, and Kearney's insistence on hanging out wide was a constant worry. The body language was all wrong from the early stages. Shoulders were shrugged, fingers pointed and arms held up in disbelief throughout the opening forty-five minutes. SC had 15 minutes to put it all right.

Conversely, the visitors were cohesive in everything they attempted. Operating as a unit, they excelled in their simplicity. Underpinned by the Dan Murray who's lack of conversation with the ball nullified any threats. Each intervention consisted solely of a fullstop; the ball arrived and was hastily despatched by a defender who had clearly been instructed that there was to be no nonsense. His defensive duties were utmost and the upfield sorties were never required.

Act II - The Second Half

Out came the main players, no changes to the cast - Bohs, predictably, were quick off the blocks.
Turner hit a tame effort; Richardson ballooned an attempted cross. Harpal Singh opened up his shop; Neal Horgan was the first customer, he bought a dummy. Clearly displeased with his purchase, he hauled the winger down and was given a yellow credit note for his troubles. With about an hour of the allotted time elapsed turner had an effort blocked as the hosts attempted to impose themselves upon the tie. Lordan and Mansaram tangled in the penalty area - Damien Hancock decided it was a no penalty area.

Yet there was still no cohesion or understanding about the Bohs' performance. Turner and Hunt, the players who would be expected to propel the side displayed no understanding. The former made gallant efforts to influence the game but his effort waned as the game wore on. Mike McGinlay replaced Ryan McCann on the right; the midfielder had such an anonymous game it was probably only the fact that he jogged by the bench that he was noticed by the coaching staff. Mc Ginlay did well to cross from his perch on the right; Glen Crowe rose to meet the ball and sent it into orbit. At no time were the home side freed from the threat of a second goal, despite their half efforts. Although McSweeney was raiding with less frequency both he and Behan were persistent thorns to Bohs' dreams of progression.

The visitors took the blows, soft as they were before retaliating. Heary was slow to absent himself from the former Ipswich Town striker's flightpath and received a yellow card for his cuteness. Behan stung Murphy's ribcage from the resultant free. Soon after O'Flynn broke in the inside right position; his rushed effort was well wide of the target. The home support won a soft free kick which Singh stood over; he threatened Devine's goal, the big 'keeper was scrambling as the ball sailed perilously close to the angle of post and bar.

The home support were growing increasingly critical. Behan got a sight of goal again; Murphy was equal to his attempt. Singh's flick freed Crowe whose cross was unremarkable. We were into the last twenty minutes now and there was still no suggestion that Sean Connor's side could create anything worthy of a goal.

In football's gallery the 77th minute carries little weight; but on Friday 26th October the little minute chose to announce itself in the most significant of fashions. Mc Sweeney was meandering across the field; eventually a dark-shirted opponent decided to end his progress. The winger managed to release the ball before he was impeded. It rolled out left to the boyish figure of Liam Kearney. Kearney assumed his full height as he addressed the ball, pushing it ahead of him before driving it clinically and low to the far corner of the net. 2-0. Soon after the two-goal hero picked Behan out but the big striker's header was limp; the same pair combined again, this time Behan shot weakly into the waiting arms of Murphy.

The introduction of Neale Fenn wasn't exactly hailed by the Bohs faithful; that almost changed when he sneaked in at the far post too get on the end of Turner's corner. Devine blocked to concede a second, but fruitless, corner. With the game in their back pocket and their opposition wilting there was little to inspire in the closing moments. The view of those moments was obscured by paying punters voting with their feet. Meanwhile at the School end, Rebel's confused; these were not Rebels at all, but supporters. They urged the object of their obsession on for 90 minutes, they cheered the dancing girls, they sang and chanted incessantly and deserved to enjoy every moment of their long trek.

Not half a million miles from where I was seated I could overhear a live radio commentary; Joe Gamble was on the ball during his live piece. The game was in its closing moments as the learned one told his listeners that 'we had not seen much of Gamble tonight'. McSweeney's performance was eyecatching and substantial, Kearney's goals were crucial; Murray's unfussy defending inspired confidence in those around him. Gambles work was the matchwinner. Tirelessly he protected his back four, like some kind of Rebel Superman he was everywhere that there was danger - but made it his business to be there first.

Maybe the TV pundits highlighted his efforts, I didn't see the coverage, but I have rarely witnessed such a complete display of the midfield arts from a footballer at any level. His understanding of his worth to the team, and the attributes of those around him; his application of that knowledge, his selfless and tireless running were a textbook lesson to all aspiring footballers. At the other end of the spectrum lies glen Crowe; I have seen a lot of this striker over the last two seasons and cannot recall seeing him play a good game in that period. Crowe is a shadow of the player who struck fear into defenders during his first spell with the Gypsys and appears to lack the necessary hunger and motivation required to excel at the highest level.

With no silverware in the Dalymount trophy cabinet this year, the patience of the frustrated masses is wearing thin in Dublin 7. Damien Richardson can take heart from the display given by his players. Each one seemed keenly aware of what was required, they played and fought for each other and were focussed on the task at hand. None can dispute their place in this season's FAI Ford Cup decider, a second appearance in three years. It contrasted starkly to the home side's disjointed approach, vaguely reminiscent of recent Irish performances.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Guilt By Association

Panglossian - there it is - defined as naively optimistic. I didn't feel that way at the outset though. I was one of those who welcomed the FAI's intentions towards our domestic league. It seemed a no lose situation for supporters, whether they be of the long or short suffering kind. The previous incumbents had consistently displayed their reckless attitude to our ailing divisions; consistently plunging them into freakshow status much to the glee and amusement of the supporters who are usually supported by armchairs.

The appointment of the Club Promotion Officers seemed a positive step; advertisements began to pop up like paedophiles at a jamboree. We were inundated with an unprecedented quantity of televised fixtures across three channels - barely a week passed without armchair football. Recently, the humble eircom League was introduced to 21st Century gameplay when EA Sports included the league in it's newest FIFA game.

Regular press receptions to announce such progressions resulted in greater TV and newspaper coverage all through the season. All but the diesel launderers in Dundalk seemed content to forgive the sins of the past and embrace the feelgood factor fostered by the FAI. Even when Longford Town were deducted six points few could argue.

This was a different sort of points deduction - a fair one - why even Alan Matthews has professed strongly on behalf of the judgement; whether or no he knew there was a position down the line on the new U23 backroom staff is open to discussion.

Some of the more jaded league-weary supporters will be sneering at my foolishness; they knew that given time the FAI would botch something up with great style and no little aplomb. When it finally came, it was more of a backfire than a direct hit. But then all of the most inept operators eventually fall victim to their own ineptitudes.

We had the situation where a Gang Of 6 clubs complained to the FAI about the looming 65% wage cap; they were reputed to be dissatisfied with the amount of money and attention being lavished on the senior international squad - to the detriment they felt of the domestic league.

There we were, enjoying the tension of the title run-in, listening to the squeaking bottoms of the relegation fodder a world apart from the Gaffer. Poor Stan, gone and forgotten; forever to be the Gaffer.

The amateur actions of the FAI throughout the dying days of Staunton's reign have again tarnished Irish football with the leftovers of a dirty protest. Firstly John Delaney's unstinting support for his man dissipated - radio reports replayed his 'Staunton's there for 4 years' speech. Of course most of us didn't care to much about this once Stan got the bullet. One thing the FAI are kings of is the messy break up, and they showed this week that they have lost none of their old sharpness.

The protracted dismissal, the ridiculous runaround - seeming to shy from the media on the last day. Then the even more ridiculous early morning announcement that they are so scared of criticism of their decision making that they will not pick the next Irish manager. As my better half has often suggested to me - grow a pair!

This committee has presided over one of Irish football's most ill-managed affairs; they have turned the sacking and subsequent appointment of a manager into the kind of freakish sideshow once reserved for League of Ireland.

This now becomes another stick for the eircom League's many detractors; we are guilty by association- the football association of Ireland. And I have lost my pangloss man.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Collection For Stan, Please Give Generously.

It has become impossible to steer myself away any longer from the painful embarrassment that it the current state of our international team. Endless denunciations from bloodthirsty scribes and pundits have been fuelling the bloodlust that surrounds the beleaguered principality of Stanland. These people are being paid for their opinions, in some cases because they are more learned than you or I.

They have the knowledge of what the pressures are at the top level; but more importantly they have an opinion which they are prepared to tout. Not a venal sin by any stretch of the hamstring; football is a game of opinions - no two people will select the same team for a game, nor a squad for a match. So those of us who are equivalent to taxpayers for the FAI are strongly entitled to voice our opinions. Especially, given that the FAI are now the sole rulers of football in the 26 counties, their decision making at any level is relevant to eL supporters.

Our monies go a long way towards providing Stan's reported €400k per annum; should we produce the kind of results in the workplace that Ireland have under Stan, our employment status would be up for grabs.

If I was going about my business and a stretch limo pulled up beside me I would assume that the chauffeur was looking for directions. Were the blacked out window at the cultured end to roll down I would anticipate a similar, if more urgent enquiry from the chauffeured one.

When mild-mannered football coach Steve Staunton was going about his daily business with the Saddlers in another world he was bitten by a fop-haired insect in a long black limo. Stan, as he was sometimes known was endowed with special powers - he would become overnight one half of a world class football management team. Untold riches would be his, and people would believe anything that the fophaired one said - Stan did.

But the spell was broken when Ireland capitulated in the balmy climes of Cyprus - the intervening efforts have left us cold. The efforts at talking up revenge have left this blogger limp and squirming. Revenge - against the mighty Cypriots? Again, the venerable Bobby Robson has been removed from his jar to rally the troops. Do they think we are too stupid to see through this also? 'He's been in the job two years now, and he's getting better', or words to that effect rallied Bob. I've never performed an appendectomy, but after two years of practise I reckon I'd be better than when I'd started. Whether or not my victims were still going through excruciating pain or not seems to be incidental.

We've introduced new players, the future is bright -2010 World Cup qualification is on the horizon. If this is true,if we really do have the players, now is the time to give them a manager capable of influencing them; moulding them into a cohesive unit. Ireland's strength has always come from our team ethic; we have always been better than the sum of our parts. As a disparate unfocussed collection of individuals we cannot hack it on the European or World stage. Jack Charlton's regime was the proof of this.

Yes, Charlton's uncoupling of Liam Brady and Dave O'Leary was hard to swallow; the rigid formations and direct football; but they were part of a system. The system brought unmatched success to our international side. Success in relative terms I acknowledge, but how we yearn for it now.

Charlton was imperfect, we all are; but there was no doubt who was in charge. He lived and died on his beliefs as to how the game would be played. Experience coupled with success endowed him with belief and substance to most supporters.

In this aspect the virginal Stan was hung out to dry. Clearly unprepared for what lay ahead he has failed on all fronts. Performances, both his and his players' have been abject overall. The recent opening 45 minutes against Germany confounded. The subsequent second half improvement even more so.

Post match analysis has been comically naive. One such instance culminated in the 102 times capped Louthman shrugging his shoulders and saying 'What can you do?' €400k a year and that's the response. I can think of plenty of things you can do, and I'm not getting paid to do so. Such utterances from our leader hardly inspire faith or cultivate belief in the young boss. He has learnt a little; now every performance is spun to within an inch of its natural existence. Does anybody swallow this? Surely not JD?

You don't reach the highest echelons of power in Merrion Square without learning how to kill silently in cold blood. JD's judgement is on the line; therefore his reputation. He made a gross error of judgement by appointing an inexperienced man to the highest post in Irish football. International management is not a schooling ground; it is replete with men who have served at the coalface; tired of the day-to-day grind they turn their assets to a part-time commitment. Stan is a guppy in shark-infested waters. He has never had the chance to hone his management skills - to establish a bespoke style of play; to learn how to deal with the intricate counterpoints presented as a game unfolds and a gameplan collapses.

There is not a football supporter in this country who could not have achieved what Staunton has, without the bloated pay packet. There is not a football supporter in this country who begrudges him for taking the job that he was offered - we would all take that chance for the money. If he resigns now his career will be incinerated; the ashes may constitute the compost for future progress, but it will be a long way off the international radar. The money will help. Fans may even consider contributing to a Stan Fund, it would be worth the expense.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Howzee Ref ?

The undulations of any football match are best parsed in a stark light; unfortunately this sometimes means the insomniac glow of eL Weekly. Whilst there was plenty that I didn't need to see or hear, but did, it was essential that I got to view Darren Mansaram's goal against Pats again to confirm my suspicions.

An aside, it was interesting to note the clothing of choice for two high profile managers. Earlier in the season we bathed in the ridicule of Sean Connor's red pantaloons; in general he was adopting tracksuit manager chic, but with a rare twist. John McDonnell too was fond of the tracksuit, but both bosses opted for a more sober suited style on the night. It loaned an air of gravitas to the proceedings; suggesting that we were dealing with two thinkers - the 'h' is important - men who could select the right wine for every occasion, deliver a post-match interview in several languages and mix the perfect Martini. I must get myself a suit.

Again and time we are reminded of the significance of the minutiae of football; the tiny moments that, like molecules, form the fabric of games. Incidents that win finals, end title dreams and condemn sides to relegation. Professional football offers its privileged protagonists the opportunity to eradicate the bad habits which can lead to these errors; the rest of us have to endure the lazy-arse shrug of the shoulders from a teammate. Professional football endows upon the gifted the opportunity to hone their talents to a degree which allows them to produce special moments; moments which can result in similarly significant outcomes. Moments which cause other professional footballers to shrug their shoulders in helpless disbelief.

Stephen Brennan is an honest and dependable footballer, yet his action last Friday cost his side a precious three point haul, thereby heaping pressure on his manager's already perilous position.

The aforementioned defender was outside his own 18-yard box, facing the play. His direct opponent - Mansaram - was within eyeshot and heading towards the Pats' left. The defender was almost as comfortable as he could have been. He had a clear view of the player in possession, who was shaping up to deliver a pass along the inside of the right back berth.

At this point, the defender knew where the ball would be delivered and for whom it was intended. He was tracking the striker's run from left to right and was actually in advance of Mansaram poised to meet the ball ahead of his opponent. No danger then, a searching ball cut out; headed to the right touchline for safety. His centre half partner was inside him, John Frost was taking up a covering position as would be expected.

Brennan's decision not to take a step back- not being in the Clive Delaney stratosphere of central defenders - in order to achieve a comfortable contact with the ball was his downfall. Who is to blame for his decision? The player? The coaching staff?

To willingly relinquish control of any situation on a football pitch is a cardinal error. To submit the destiny of your team to the whims and observational powers of the referee and his assistants is tantamount to deliberately scoring into your own goal. Stephen Brennan chose the latter by refusing to challenge for the ball. Instead he opted for my pet hate - the offside trap - bolthole of cowardly and lazy defenders the world over.

Your job as a defender is to defend your goal. Stepping up with your hand in the air while calling out 'HOWZEE REF' is not football. I am the vehicle for a Gilesean rant on the art of defending. What is wrong with a defender defending? Standing there with your arm in the air, looking to the linesman while a striker bears down on goal is not defending; it's an abdication of responsibility. Inevitably, the realisation that there will be no flag creeps across the consciousness of a near stationary mind. The margins needed to score in these situations are often dictated by speed of thought and anticipation - by the time the waving defender has resumed his defensive duties it is to late. Maybe another less indolent colleague has covered - in Pats' case Dave Rogers had not given up the chase, but was too far removed from the crisis point to effect an intervention.

Defending is as fine a footballing art as finishing, passing and goalkeeping. Not always to the forefront, but no less important than any other skill the game has to offer. A well-organised backline is a masterpiece of communication and teamwork. There are five people involved here, more than in any other area of the pitch and properly organised they can be moulded into an impermeable force.

From such rock are successful sides fashioned. The well-timed tackle; the masterfully anticipated interception, both followed up with a simple pass to a well-placed colleague. It looks simple but enlists the paddlework of a speeding duck beneath the line of vision.
The offside rule was introduced in an effort to prevent what the English call 'goalhanging'; Irelanders of a certain vintage would refer to it as 'hatching'. In other words, to prevent strikers from seeking to gain an unfair advantage by not adhering to the spirit of the game. It seems our ancestors couldn't give a flying funk about the spirit of the game if it became necessary to inflict the offside law on football.

Since the imposition of the law it has been defenders who have neglected the spirit of the game; abusing and exploiting the law to make their jobs easier. Tinkering with the rules has yielded some gain for attackers. The 'interfering with play' aspect has been watered down and the attacking player is now supposedly to be given the benefit of the doubt. Resultantly, it is now harder than ever to get a positive decision from the officials if you are a defender.

In the 20th century if a player was offside he was offside. Simple as. Tony Adams and Dermot Keely played much of the game with one arm in the air. Then it was decided that the referee would make a decision based on his opinion. Not a rule, an opinion. And we all have strong views on referees' opinions don't we. To further complicate a defender's world, the rules relating to passing the ball back to the 'keeper were given a welcome upgrade.

This is why the Italian's make the world's greatest defenders. Excuse me while I drool over the ability of Paolo Maldini. Every player needs to be able to play; understand that a defender must chase, tackle, anticipate and read. Be first to the ball and there is no tackle to make. Drop off and pick your moment to tackle. Stand shoulder to shoulder, run side by side battling for space and pick your moment to block.

Or stand there with your hand in the air and wait for a decision from the official; then berate that official for a wrong call. It is physically impossible for the human eye to detect where a player is at the precise moment in which another player strikes the ball - so all is chance at best.
It is possible to defend, if the official detects an offside the whistle will blow and the game will be halted temporarily. But the defender will have been in a position to effect the situation.

Brennan stepped out, offering Mansaram a free run on goal; Murphy turned and raised his arm - looking for offside; Rogers raced in vain, then turned to berate the linesman for disagreeing with Brennan's vista; Ryan raced to deny Mansaram but was exposed. Frost was even further away than Rogers. Mansaram scored; Bohs won; Pats lost.

View the winning goal here

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

And The First Shall Again Be Last

Come with me now for a fumble in a dimly lit corner of eircom League football that is usually called the First Division. Akin to the two-headed sibling who's kept locked away in the attic, we rarely come across any mention of the Cinderella division. Modern media concerns itself only with the shiny stuff; this trait applies itself across the British Isles; one has to scratch beneath the epidermis to find the heartbeat of provincial football at the highest level.

Names like Monaghan United, Kilkenny City, and the novices of Kildare County and Wexford Youths are unlikely to have football fans scrambling for train and bus timetables. But they are holding their own side by side with the more established reputations of Shelbourne, Dundalk and Athlone Town. Finn Harps, Cobh Ramblers and the league's 'newest' recruits Limerick 37 complete the package.

True, we expect more from a side representing the 90,000+ residents of Limerick City and its environs - currently the mere existence of one is sufficient. Shels, Harps, Dundalk and Athlone Town are vaunted names in League of Ireland spheres; each at varying stages of redemption and rebuilding. The smaller clubs rarely register on a national scale; but their position provides an outlet for emerging local talent - a stepping stone to greater things. Often poorly supported on and off the field, the very existence of these clubs sometimes beggars belief.

When Athlone Town moved to their shiny new ground they could have called it something sexier than Lissywoollen; their failure to terrorise opposition teams with a testosterone-charged name has backfired badly. Michael O'Connor was allowed to invest in a squad for 2007 worthy of the new stadium; the Midlanders looked like serious contenders for a promotion challenge. Their ineptitude cost the boss his job and the Town continue to languish just above the bottom two, twenty three points off the promotion places - with a sixth placed finish their greatest hope.

Tackling them for that illustrious title are Kildare County and Monaghan United. Mick Cooke gave his squad a transfusion in the second half of the season - it has seen them win half of their last 12 matches - heady stuff for the Mondogeaters who only managed the equivalent in 36 outings last season and took to the field without their 2006 topscorer, David Lee.

The Thoroughbreds can only aspire to justify their ill-judged nickname. It has been another season built on loose and inconsistent performances for John Ryan's side, and they will do well to improve upon last year's harvest of 42 points.

Both Kilkenny City and Wexford Youths are set to finish where most expected. The Cats have been forced into using an incredible forty-two players so far this season; the vast majority of them have been Under 21's. Already on their third manager this term, life is difficult for the hardworking citizens of Buckley Park. The Youths are on the early stages of a journey that Mick Wallace has high hopes for. The boreholes of longterm stability are not yet complete, but nonetheless there have been some flourishes to offer substance to the vision. Not least of these was the provision of a very flamboyant team bus for the young stars of tomorrow. Containing the leather of a large Brazilian beefherd, embossed with the club crest and adorned with the latest in in-bus entertainment, the arrival of the Youths certainly draws attention.

We are all well acquainted with the soap opera surrounding current Premier Division champions Shelbourne. Bothered, bewildered and bereft of a squad in the lead up to their opening league engagement, it was Dermot Keely who stepped into the breach at Tolka Park. It was 'finger in the dyke territory' for the damaged Reds, and they just managed to keep their snouts out of the uncannily blue waters of the Tolka until the transfer window arrived. The hastily borrowed squad was bolstered with some of the bosses' cronies and immediately they began to show the form of promotion hopefuls. It was unavoidably too little too late for the Reds, but 2008 beckons.

Limerick 37 shared the combined difficulties of Wexford Youths and Shelbourne; clubs at opposite ends of the historical scale in Irish football. Both new to the league and laden down with the baggage of times near past they were tasked with lifting eL football out of the doldrums in Limerick. Paul McGee was appointed and the early season results built on the panglossian mood in the West. Players from the old regime gradually returned to help the cause. Wayne Colbert, Robbie Kelliher and Tommy Barrett shelved Premier Division football with Shamrock Rovers in favour of a return to their hometown club. When Paul McGee was said to have applied for the vacancy left by Michael O'Connor at Lissywoollen there was much consternation. Stuttering league form was padded out with a run to the FAI Cup quarter finals; banishment turned the focus on a self-harming run of three wins in eleven games. All those lost points eventually saw Lims slip feebly out of the race to the top; doffing their cap to the royalty of Finn Harps, Dundalk and Cobh Ramblers.

It was easily anticipated that Dundalk would provide a sustained title challenge in 2007. With a stronger squad than that which had seen its hopes go up in flames, almost, the previous season - there was no Shamrock Rovers to foil them and Lims were in a state of disarray. Galway had moved on to the scrub pastures of a relegation catfight in the Premier Division, so who could stop the Lilywhites? Cobh Ramblers? With 13 points separating them at the close of 2006, John Gill's side should still succeed.

In the highlands of the Northwest, money was falling around the feet of new boss Paul Hegarty like drunks at a wedding. Steven Kenny's former right hand at Derry City raided the fringes of Nutsy's new squad; akin to the man from Del Monte he used his insider knowledge to pick only the finest fruit for his cocktail. Financial imperatives had seen the campaign of 2006 undermined at a crucial time - Conor Gethins was seconded to rivals Galway - his goals took United to a promotion of sorts. Back in the Harps' colours it seemed a second successive promotion was almost a formality for the lethal striker. An opening day five-goal thriller against Dundalk put meat on the bones of that supposition. The reversal was no cause for concern; they had matched the peoples' favourites and were unfortunate not to take something from the game.

Echoes of Dundalk's early season reversal at the hands of Shamrock Rovers then. The Louth side lost 2-1 then, but John Gill later surmised that he had underestimated the effect of the defeat on his charges. Dundalk went into a tailspin which culminated in them losing 4 on the trot. Harps' collapse was not quite so dramatic, but one win from their first eight games left them with a lot of work to do. But a run consisting of 14 games without a league defeat, underpinned by a defensive record of just two goals conceded took them right back into the twister. Even when Athlone Town slashed their tyres at the end of August, Higgsy's confident charges responded with a 6-0 demo job on the Cats - followed up with crucial wins over Dundalk, Shels and Cobh.

With home games against Limerick 37, Kildare County and Athlone Town interspersed with trips to Monaghan United, Wexford Youths and Kilkenny City - the title is now theirs to lose. Yet for so long it seemed as if Dundalk would get what Maxi felt was rightfully theirs, as they blazed a trail at the start of the season.

The acquisition of Shaun Williams was a cunning move - the youngster brought poise, class and goals to the Dundalk midfield. The continuation of his loan from rivals Drogheda United was immersed in doubt while he netted his seventh and eighth league goals on June 30th against Wexford Youths. That brace took the talented youngster to the head of Dundalk's, and the Division's scoring charts. His loan status turned out to be an aside; injury took control and the border club have been denied his services anyway. He is still the club's leading league marksman for this campaign. Philip Hughes has failed to scale the heights of last season; fortunately Robbie Doyle has settled in quickly. Gill's gallants face Monaghan united, Limerick 37 and Kildare County on their artificial surface - they'll have to get mucky at Lissywoollen, Wexford and crucially, Cobh.

That win against Wallace's Youths was Dundalk's last away win this season; unbeaten on plastic, that form has been supplanted on grass. When all around are winning you too must be - step out from the darkness Cobh Ramblers.

Preseason was not a happy time in Cobh; not everybody was happy to see Stephen Henderson continue at the helm, feeling he'd had his opportunity and failed. Nevertheless, he remained. Darren Murphy was amongst those who moved on - Shane Guthrie was amongst those who moved in. Guthrie was one half of a near impenetrable centre-half pairing with Aidan Price during Shamrock Rovers' triumphant campaign of 2006 before suffering a legbreak. His defensive ability has been an essential part of an immense back five effort from the Rams thus far. There will be red faces in Queenstown upon recollection of the foetal stages of the season. The assault opened with consecutive defeats to Limerick 37 and Wexford Youths; on both occasions Ramblers failed to find the net themselves. 26 games later, they had not tasted defeat again - until last Friday's cruncher in Finn Park. 27 games without defeat; just three losses in all and the meanest defence in the two divisions that has been violated just 14 times is the stuff of Rovers' emphatic title win.

Did anyone see it coming? Certainly not those who were calling for Hendo's head on a pike in March. Any side that defends as well as the Rams is in with a shout- but just as with Finn Harps when their comfort zone was invaded, it's all about the response to defeat in their next outing. The Rams must visit Kilkenny, Shels and Athlone Town while hosting Kildare, the aforementioned Dundalk and Monaghan United. Let the games commence.

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