Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beauty and the Beast

Cork City P33 W15 D 10 L 8 F 44 A 32 Pts 55 Final position 4th
Longford Town P33 W 9 D 8 L 16 F 34 A 49 Pts 29? Final position 12th

I've gone for a question mark as opposed to the more regularly roadtested asterisk, as one is usually liable to strike a quizzical pose in these instances - it denotes the deduction of six points from Longford's accumulated total due to licensing irregularities.

The final league table tells the tale of a season beset with hurdles, injuries, suspensions and unforeseen events. Cork City were always better equipped for the long haul then the slender squad bequeathed to Alan Matthews last Spring, and it shows in the stats. The never generous bookies make the Leesiders odds on favs to record their second success from the club's fourth appearance in the decider. The Town are also appearing for the fourth time, although they are chasing their 3rd success of the 21st century; the similarities don't begin there though - this pair joined the league on the same day back in 1984!

The last side to defeat Cork City in FAI Cup football were Longford Town, and the occasion produced one of Irish footballs most celebrated acronyms. The evening of May 26th 2006 is recorded in the anals of Corkonians as the night when they finally identified RRS - not the venue of the 2007 final, but Ridden Rock Solid.

On the field of play el Rico's side hold most of the trumps. An almost completely full-time squad confers his charges with the advantage of greater stamina, fitness and enhanced preparation. Not to mention his trio of international midfielders! Alan Matthews has assembled a squad of honest footballers; stuck together with the gaffer's tape, but he is possessed of a rare gift in the goalscoring talents of Dave Mooney.

Mooney has not set the eircom League alight before this campaign but his tally of 22 goals from 37 starts was the springboard for Longford's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to retain their Premier Division status. In midfield, the Midlanders will be without the suspended Gary Deegan - a serious blow to their hopes given that they are already without the cup-tied triumvirate of Colm James, Sean Kelly and Ian Ryan. Following the club's relegation it can be assumed that many of the Town's side will be turning out for the last time in the Red & Black stripes.

Both clubs appealed against their respective suspensions - Neal Horgan was ruled out for Cork City - but were rebuffed by the b's that power. City will absorb Hoggy's absence more readily with either Cillian Lordan or the experienced Colin O'Brien ready to slot in at right full. On the other flank there will be no return for hernia victim Darragh Ryan and Billy Woods is set to continue his stint at left full.

If Longford are to upset the odds at the RDS this Sunday they will have to negate the influence of the City midfield. It's very unlikely that Matthews' side can nullify the threat of all four for 90 minutes without defending gamely from the front two right through. Should they manage to achieve that they will give themselves a chance. City do not boast the defensive unity of the 2005 and 2006 camapigns and the trickery of Dessie Baker allied to the goaltouch and movement of Mooney can certainly cause problems for the favourites.

This suggests a serving of the beautiful game from City - should Longford allow it - and a helping of rugged cup football from the opposition. Longford are no strangers to the dark side of the beautiful game and will no doubt be inspired by their recent trip to the RDS to watch Leinster's rugby heroes in action. Up front, John O'Flynn has had a stop-one start-stop kind of season and is not at his sharpest; Denis Behan is boisterous and brawny but not prolific; Leon McSweeney may be preferred to one or other of that pair, he certainly showed enough against Bohemians in the semi-final to be worthy of a start. That start is unlikely to be in the wide position from which he bedazzled Bohs; he has been the most effective of Rico's strikers since Roy O'Donovan departed.

Alan Matthews is leading his men to their 5th cup final (League & FAI) in six seasons, a phenomenal achievement for the understated boss; Damien Richardson is under great pressure to deliver a trophy following a disappointing league campaign which was buoyed only by the ineptitudes of their closest rivals. With Arkaga leaning over his shoulder, a win may well provide him with welcome leverage when attempting to prise open the chequebook during the off season.

In a one-off game anything is possible, who thought Derry and Pats would exchange seven goals last year? Referee, Dave McKeon will begin proceedings at 3.30pm in the RDS on Sunday 2nd December and the winners will happily accept their €100K, while the losers will be consoled by the texture and scent of a cheque for €75K - it has been decreed.

Cork City

Path To The Final
Bohemians 0-2 Cork City Ford FAI Cup 2007 26 Oct 07 ->>
Cork City 4-0 Waterford United Ford FAI Cup 2007 25 Sep 07 ->>
Waterford United 1-1 Cork City Ford FAI Cup 2007 22 Sep 07 ->>
Cork City 5-1 Kilkenny City Ford FAI Cup 2007 17 Aug 07 ->>
Shelbourne 0-1 Cork City Ford FAI Cup 2007 15 Jun 07 ->>

4: Denis Behan 3: Liam Kearney 2: John O'Flynn 1: Colin Healy, Leon McSweeney, Brian O'Callaghan, Roy O'Donovan

Longford Town

Path To The Final
UCD 0-1 Longford Town Ford FAI Cup 2007 28 Oct 07 ->>
Longford Town 3-1 Limerick 37 Ford FAI Cup 2007 22 Sep 07 ->>
Longford Town 2-0 Fanad United Ford FAI Cup 2007 18 Aug 07 ->>
Longford Town 1-0 Celbridge Town Ford FAI Cup 2007 16 Jun 07 ->>

3: Dave Mooney 1: Richie Baker, Kevin Doherty, Jamie Duffy, Robbie Martin.

Previous meetings:
Cork City 3-2 Longford Town Eircom League Premier Division 2007 14 Sep 07 ->>
Longford Town 1-2 Cork City Eircom League Premier Division 2007 26 Jun 07 ->>
Cork City 2-0 Longford Town Eircom League Premier Division 2007 30 Mar 07 ->>
Cork City 1-1 Longford Town Eircom League Premier Division 2006 6 Oct 06 ->>
Longford Town 0-2 Cork City Eircom League Premier Division 2006 8 Jul 06 ->>
Longford Town 2-1 Cork City Ford FAI Cup 2006 26 May 06 ->>

Stan James Prices
Cork 4/6
Draw 9/4
Longford 4/1

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Go North Young Man

We're winding down now; the protracted promotion/relegation playoff is drawing to a finish and the FAI Cup final is nighish. We could have been licking our fingers in anticipation of the season finale this weekend, but the ruling body couldn't find a suitable venue in South Africa. The de-pressing business of finding out who will prevent our hapless international side from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals awaits.

Cork City have had another RRS moment; mysteriously Longford Town are again on the periphery- maybe it has nothing to do with Dublin at all. They are arguing, uniquely, for a scenario which would give them less income from their Cup Final appearance than the one currently agreed. At least, the FAI say it was agreed - by all four semi-finalists- even though this appears to be in clear contravention of their own rules.

But once December 2nd has passed it will all be behind us until next Spring; and how we will miss the self-flagellation. There is another way though, and it's only 90 minutes drive away with a fully-qualified driver in your passenger seat. The action next year kicks off with the 2008 Setanta Sports Cup competition. The winter months can be spent researching the quality of the opposition from across the border.

Unfortunately we cannot rely on the medium of television for help; the scant offerings on Saturday evening's 'Final Score from NI' on BBC serve only to frustrate - UTV's efforts are not dissimilar. Increasingly, clubs are offering highlights via their ever improving websites in order to indulge fans, both loyal and lazy. There is a very active fans forum offering tentative newcomers a view into the rough and tumble of rivalry NI-style.

Linfield, Glentoran, Dungannnon Swifts and Cliftonville compose next term's Setanta Cup quartet, and those four have shown prominently during the opening quarter of the league season. Alan McDonald has taken over the wheel at Glentoran amidst the kind of boardroom turmoil that delights opposing fans. Following a frustrating spell under Paul Millar - now at Bangor - Mc Donald has seen his side trot to the top of the table, unbeaten in their opening eight outings. Of course, knockers of the Glenmen titter gleefully when recalling a similar start last year when they raced away only to collapse like a Glentoran defence.

Cliftonville won many admirers with their footballing prowess last year; Eddie Patterson's side were ultimately undone by the lack of depth in their squad - nobody refers to this as shallowness - I don't know any of the members personally. Patterson has moved quietly and efficiently through the marketplace to enhance his side and there is a greater confidence and belief about them thus far. They have suffered their unfair share of injuries yet still remain unbeaten - the demands of the Setanta Cup later in the season will tell a tale about their stamina and resilience - Portadown boss Ronnie McFall expressed his satisfaction when his side failed to qualify, claiming participation had shredded the domestic title chances of his shallow squad.

Linfield are a known quantity, strangely David Jeffrey has added little to his armoury; that may change during January's transfer window being that the Blues have made an inauspicious start to the season by their own dizzying standards. Even so, they are but a single point from the summit. Joining them there are Newry City; although the fixture list has been benevolent to date, the border club have shown definite signs of improvement - bolstered by the acquisition of Friars brothers Emmet and Sean along with the retention of pivotal midfielder Richard Clarke. Gerry Flynn in his first full season as City supremo has certainly been producing results; that can be said of every manager of course.

The aforementioned Ports are struggling to find their goal touch - despite the high profile signing of Andy Smith - the goalshy striker netted on his debut for the club but has returned to familiar ways since. Theirs has been a disappointing start with five league defeats under their garters already. Given that just two points separate the Reds from Dungannon Swiftsone spot above them the contrast between the two is remarkable.

Harry Fay took Joe McAree's side to their first ever Irish Cup Final a few months back; it was some compensation for a disappointing league campaign despite the painful penalty shootout. The Swifts were slow out of the blocks this time around and endured a difficult run of fixtures which saw them fall behind early on. But with Mark McAllister retained and Rodney McAree returning to fitness they are beginning to show signs of improvement. Succesive victories over Linfield - their first ever win over the Blues - and Portadown were followed up with a 5-1 win over struggling Armagh City; if they can absorb the loss of Matt Walton from the squad the future looks appealing.

Sky Sports were forced to commit to broadcasting five live games this season as part of their deal to cover the buoyant international side and we have already been treated to a fine contest between Cliftonville and Linfield. Next up is the traditional battlefest featuring Glentoran and Linfield. Traditionally fixed for the Boxing Day (those south of Newry can insert St. Stephen's Day), this year is no exception although kick -off is a non-traditional 5.20pm.

So sit back and enjoy the pride, without prejudice, safe in the knowledge that you will be match fit come February.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No Over 23's Allowed - Neat Dress Essential

And so I trundled up to Dalymount Park for the final occasion this season to catch the opening group game of the International Challenge Trophy betwixt Ireland's U23's and Slovakia. Being as I know slightly more about the Irish side than I do about the Slovaks I made a conscious decision to concentrate on the performance of the hosts.

The word among the gaggle in the press area was that Slovakia were fielding an Under 20 selection. Their ensuing performance added credibility to this suggestion. Not having attended an underage international for quite a while, I had forgotten that such events are populated largely by unbroken voices and their mentors. Still, it made for a refreshing change from the usual battle-hardened supporters of the host club. A healthy 2,200 bodies - although there is sure to have been a few coughs and sniffles given the time of year - turned out to cheer on the youthful glitterati of the eircom League.

Pat Fenlon's first squad didn't raise too many hackles; neither did his first eleven. The biggest call was in the centre of midfield, with Paul Keegan and Stephen Rice in ahead of Stephen O'Donnell and Stephen Bradley. It suggested that Nutsy was going for enforcers rather than passers and left one fearing the worst for the upcoming ninety minutes. Given Stephen Bradley's lack of first team football this term, his absence could be understood; as a fan of the beautiful game I would have fancied seeing O'Donnell in ahead of Rice of the Rovers. However, until I am employed by the FAI as a manager this opinion is of no significance.

Anthems over, I always struggle with the second verse, we settled back for an evening of eircom League Fantasy Football. It was certainly a thrill to watch these seasonal enemies align themselves as teammates in Ireland's cause. Having endured the Stan Debacles this season, it was a treat to watch an Irish side eager to apply themselves to the cause and hungry for the ball. Fenlon's solid centre did allow him the freedom to play two wide attacking midfielders, both ably supported by marauding full backs.

It was in these areas that the Irish achieved most success. Conor Powell and Killian Brennan patrolled the left side, while Ger O'Brien and Joxer Kelly manned the right. The polished teak of Conor Kenna dovetailed nicely at centre-half with the aggression and determination of Gavin Peers. Barry Murphy's reputation remains untarnished, in truth he had a quiet evening. Up front Denis Behan and Dave Mooney atempted to forge a partnership.

The game was about eight minutes young when Peers set up Killian Brennan at the school end; the Derry City man rushed his scooped effort and it went harmlessly over. The Slovaks countered in an even opening quarter; Ger O'Brien's satnav failed him and he got lost under a dropping ball - memories of Sean Kelly's exquisite own goal raced across the collective consciousness - the wayward clearance allowed a moment of pressure from the blue-shirted Slovakians. It all ended tamely as Barry Murphy lined himself up behind a low shot to his near post.

Ireland began to up the pace of their game; Behan's ball to the right invited O'Brien forward. The Rovers full-back never needed to be asked a second time, his low cross was met by John Paul Kelly, but in an unconvincing fashion. Mooney was next to threaten as he rose for a long ball only to be denied by the visiting 'keeper before he could make contact. The lack of creativity in the Irish centre led to many long balls being lumped forward from wide areas of the pitch - it wasn't easy o the eye and it wasn't easy on the opposing defence - neither was it producing favourable results.

It was midway through the opening half before the hosts would reveal the most potent and accurate weapon in their armoury. Brennan stood over the deadball, before curling it wickedly to the far post. Unfortunately on this occasion there was nobody there to profit from the quality of the delivery. Within three minutes the scene was repeated; this time Gavin Peers was on hand to guide the ball netwards with the simplest of cushioned headers and Ireland were leading. On the half hour mark Dave Mooney was flattened, not for the last time and Brennan's resultant effort scraped the post.

The well-worn phrase that is 'one-way traffic' is about to be dusted off and inserted. Within minutes the visiting defence was again byt v rozpakoch; Joxer's low cut back from the left was intercepted but Ireland picked up the pieces. The ball was eventually worked out to the right for the perennially raiding O'Brien to cross low and hard into the critical zone. Rice raced to meet it but missed a gift, Brennan wasn't so benevolent - two nil to the boys in green.

Three minutes later Mooney wriggled free to offer Rice the opportunity to atone for his earlier miss - this time the Bohsrovers midfielder made good contact but the falling 'keeper got enough on the strike to deny him. Denis Behan's injury afforded Larry Byrne the opportunity to show that he has lost none of his pace as he raced across to treat the Cork bulldozer. Another deep cross, this time from the right back, was met by Mooney who forced a good save from the Slovak netminder - the follow up was blocked and Herr Winter's whistle signalled the end of the half.

The Blues brought on what my dear old Grandad oft referred to as a 'speed merchant' for the second half. His remit seemed to be to pin the threat of Ger O'Brien back, but he picked up a knock early on which cooled his jets; eventually the winger was withdrawn. Permit me to say 'early doors' - the visitors began with purpose and constructed a couple of good passing movements. The home side won a free kick in a central area - Denis Behan was letting nobody near the ball; his effort did not fail to disappoint.

The Slovakian Purpose strategy evaporated within minutes of the restart. Dave Mooney met Kenna's header to shoot first time - on another night the Longford Town hero could have scored a hat-trick; on another night he did. Kenna was next to have a header saved; Brennan again the provider from a deadball. Then Ireland hit a sloppery patch - yes a combination of slippery and sloppy. Slovakia availed of the space to put another good passing move together; it was fluffy and pink.

Denis Behan was called ashore midway through the second half; Ger Rowed out to replace him. The change brought some impetus to the Irish game again; O'Brien and Mooney linked up but the latter was called offside; I'm sure he's been called worse. Again it was Mooney who threatened, this time his half volley from the angle of the 18-yard box forced a good save from the 'keeper. Stephen O'Donnell replaced Rice in the 71st minute. Killian Brennan continued to stress out the 'keeper with his dangerous free-kicks; the same could not be said of his corners. With less than a quarter of an hour outstanding it was nearing bedtime for the kiddies, the crowd began to thin out as the game began to lose shape. Ireland were completely dominant and Slovakia had thrown in the towel- bereft of ideas and answers.

Conor Sammon was introduced for Dave Mooney in the 78th minute; within a couple of minutes he was hunting down O'Donnell's flick but was foiled by the 'keeper. Joxer caused flux down the right, cutting dangerously inside when there seemed nowhere to go; the ball broke to Keegan whose rasping drive rattled the bar from about 22 metres - I can't be more accurate than this, it all happened so fast. His follow up was less exciting. Ger Rowe should have hit the target with his header five minutes from the end of the regulation time. Then we discovered that four substitutes are allowed at this level - it was the guests who availed of the opportunity first, before Pat Kavanagh replaced Kelly.

Then there was the unanticipated promise of a yoga display from the stewards when they were called upon to assume their end of match positions - it wasn't attractive.

The gap between the sides was clear; physically Ireland were both more mature and stronger. Paul Keegan especially, and Stephen Rice prowled the midfield area like Saturday night bouncers. Professional bouncers at that; any hint of trouble was dealt with swiftly and efficiently. The Slovaks lacked the guile to penetrate and the physicality to compete. Ireland dealt with them in a cleancut fashion; fans would have fancied another couple of goals, but this is not Nutsy's way. In all, it provided optimism and pride for the assembled - the clash with Northern Ireland next spring will have an extra bite to it.

Ireland: Barry Murphy(Shamrock Rovers), Ger O'Brien(Shamrock Rovers), Conor Powell(Bohemians), Conor Kenna(UCD), Gavin Peers(Sligo Rovers), John Paul Kelly(Bohemians), Paul Keegan(Drogheda United), Stephen Rice(Shamrock Rovers), Killian Brennan(Derry City), Dave Mooney(Longford Town), Denis Behan(Cork City).

Subs: Darren Quigley(UCD), Conor Sammon(UCD) replaced Mooney 78; Stephen O'Donnell(Bohemians) replaced Rice 71; Sean Kelly(Cork City), Stephen Bradley(Drogheda United), Ger Rowe(Shamrock Rovers) replaced Behan 65; Patrick Kavanagh(Bray Wanderers) replaced Kelly 90.

Slovakia: You wouldn't know any of them.

Referee: Richie Winter

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