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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