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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