Thursday, December 27, 2007

Brilliant Whites, Fading Blues?

'Twas a windy Wednesday at the Oval office in East Belfast when the protagonists took to the field for another instalment of the Big Two Derby. But this was to be different, this is Big Two in the 21st Century, even if the setting did not reflect same. Satellite television technology was beaming this game - for the first time ever - live into millions of warm comfy sitting rooms across the British Isles and beyond.

All the more kudos then to the hardy souls who levered their backsides from warm barstools and armchairs to roar on the sides. within three minutes of Adrian McCourt's opening bars, Glenn Ferguson had alerted Elliot Morris to his threat as the wind-assisted Blues took the contest to their hosts. Undaunted the Glens retaliated through David scullion, but the midfielder scuffed at his excellent opportunity.

We were still inside the opening ten minutes when Ferguson again threatened- this time he was blown up for a foul as he forced his way in to meet Jamie Mulgrew's centre. There was scarcely time to draw anything before the oldest man on the field - match official aside - was hogging the close-ups again. Oran Kearney was the creator from his perch on the Blues' left-hand side; his clever pull-back was found by the inrushing striker, whose drive was blocked. Some seconds of panic ensued in the hearts of Glenmen worldwide before the ball was hacked away for the relative safety of a corner kick; it turned out to be one of those fruitless ones.

The dizzying openness of the game continued unchecked; Gary Hamilton was about to announce his intentions for the evening. It was a defining statement - Noel Bailie's reluctance to engage the striker in anything resembling a challenge must have unnerved all Blues brothers. The learned defender reversed, and reversed, and back pedalled until Hamilton was left with no option but to strike for goal. Fortunately, Alan Mannus was equal to the task. The ball stubbornly refused to depart the linfield penalty area; Bailie finally intervened, unconvincingly, as he hacked the ball upwards but not away. Another fruitless corner ensued - Baile redeemed his earlier efforts with a crucial intervention which set his side off on the break.

From the corner which resulted, Elliot Morris failed to cover himself in glory, but his teammates bailed him out. Then as the 20th minute approached the first gaping chance of the game presented itself for conversion. It was Philip Carson's ball that set Gary Hamilton into motion; again the former Blackburn Rovers man was afforded an excess of time and space. He waited patiently for a white shirt to arrive into the sparsely populated lands on the right-hand side of Alan Mannus' box - Kyle Neill obliged, and the delivery was perfection. Neill's attempt was not forgettable and not nearly on target - it was to be the first of four fine chances for the left-footer.

The game continued in a harem-scarem fashion with little time afforded the midfielders for purposes of creativity or garnish. A speculative long throw into the hosts' box extracted a soft corner kick from Paul Leeman - the Glentoran backline was looking brittle and disorganised. It seemed that if they were to take anything from this game then they would most definitely have to score - for it seemed a certainty that they would concede. The scrappy midfield exchanges continued as the half hour marker came and went. Gary Hamilton continued to offer the best chance of a goal. A long punt from Mannus brought Peter Thompson and Elliot Morris into collision - both recovered.

Gary Hamilton again offered Kyle Neill the chance to open the scoring - frustatingly for Neill the ball refused to cooperate with his intentions and combined with Mark Dickson's attentions, were enough to snuff out the danger. When Daryl Fordyce fed Hamilton out on the left, the striker crossed into a dangerous channel. Strike partner Michael Halliday looked set to meet the ball - it didn't happen and the ball flew threateningly across the goal to safety. The final threat of the opening forty-five came from Ferguson's driven free kick; it was too high and Glentoran's wind-assisted half was ended.

DJ withdrew Dickson at the break; the introduction of Paul McAreavey offered the hope of some better football during the second half. The Neill/Hamilton axis combined again. This time the latter drew the cover towards him on the right as Neill raced unchaperoned into the central area. Fed perfectly, he refused the offer of a right foot strike; this delay proved decisive as the ball was uncooperative when it camed to the left footed alternative. Again, Linfield struggled to deal with the movement of the duo; again Glentoran failed to capitalise.

Next it was David Scullion who burst through onto Neill's ball - Pat McShane earned his sterling to thwart the former Dungannon Swifts man. for the third time in the opening ten minutes of the second half Glentoran threatened - Kyle Neill's deadball delivery had the opposition defence at fives and sixes before Bailie nullified the danger. then events took a familiar turn for the worse for Glentoran fans. After years of disappointing Boxing Days the injury to Elliot Morris offered little hope of an improvement to that record.

Whether it was a dead leg or a tight hamstring, signs were he wouldn't be continuing. When Paul McAreavey lined up a free kick before the ailing 'keeper the air hung heavy with portent. Thompson met the ball superbly, Morris reacted superbly - it remained scoreless as the hour mark passed.

Alan McDonald's side were making light of the adversities of the elements; the Blues were spurning the advantage offered them. Neill delivered another fre from the right, dropping it dangerously close to Mannus' goal. Colin Nixon followed the trajectory of the ball closely enough to arrive underneath it at the perfect moment. Muscling his way into primacy, he met the dropping ball on the volley, leaving Mannus rooted. The ball flew towards goal. 1-0. No. The woodwork took the brunt of the impact and the ball sat-navved it's way into the arms of the still immobile Mannus.

The anticipated retaliation from the Blues never emanated. Damien Curran made a rare appearance in lieu of Kearney; the hosts continued to exert pressure. Still, their slack defending offered hope to Bluemen. Their were sixty six minutes on the clock when Neill popped up in an unlikely position on the right side of the Glens' attack. Forced into crossing on his right foot, the ball stood up beautifully for Michael Halliday. Ball. Head. Net.1-0 to the Glens.

Once the euphoria had not died down, Linfield responded well initially, through Thompson. That early optimism soon evaporated for their fans though as their heroes soon settled back into their lacklustre comfort zone. Sloppy work from Stephen Douglas heralded the visitors return to the average; he recoverd his error to cut out he immediate danger, the ping-pong nature of the pressure ended with the ball in the arms of Mannus. Then Ferguson, drawing on all of his guile, extracted a free kick from Sean Ward. From the placed ball Michael Halliday appeared to handle - most importantly not in the eyes of the referee - a couple of corners resulted but came to nowt. McAreavey met a free with his head but was wide.

Meanwhile, goalscorer Halliday was perpetual motion personified. Not for the first time, Bailie was made to look human - his error allowed Neill in with just the 'keeper to beat. Not for the first time, Neill's finish was disappointing, especially so if you are a Glens fan. Glentoran were exuding confidence now, passing the ball well as the Blues faded. To their credit, Linfield mustered one last rally - it was not to be however.

The whistle sounded, the Whites celebrated. The monkey was cast aside. Gusto - too much gusto for a game which produced nothing more for the victors than three points in a title race. A sign of blinkered ambition? DJ's post-match benevolence suggested that he could see the bigger picture, his side were still in touch and in line for a royal roasting from the big man.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

All Quiet on the eL Front?

Part of the excitement and anxiety of end of season drama is the interwoven dread of the imminent vacuum heading the football fan's way. Three months of scavenging for news, while the rest of Europe suckles on the Champions League cashcow, can be demoralising. There is much to be done during those three months or so; budgets to be agreed, squads to be deconstructed - then reconstructed, ground improvements to be made, Christmas shopping, signatures to be forged etc.

Yet the increasing demands which professionalism is bringing to the highest level of the game here have combined to make this close season one of the most newsworthy of recent times - most notably in the managerial department. Already, hot Roddy Collins has made his close-seasonal appearance, this time linked to the Kilkenny City job - no doubt he has a mate who's looking to invest in a club. Damian Richardson drew notice to the fragile nature of his tenure at Turner's Cross on the eve of City's FAI Cup Final win; meanwhile John Robertson's dwindling influence at Derry City was cut short by the incoming board at the Brandywell.

Dunfermline Athletic's below Pars league performances resulted in the inevitable for gone-but-not-forgotten Stephen Kenny. With Alan Matthews resigning his position - but retaining his dignity - at relegated Longford Town and Rico coming to an arrangement with those nice people at Arkaga, there were a lot of vacancies on the FAS boards for football managers. For us fans it meant that there was plenty to speculate upon and discuss - and that was before Sean Connor's penchant for daring to bare landed his backside in hot water, or was it deep shit.

Mike Kerley's return to Limerick, albeit the 37 edition, followed on Paul McGee's dismissal from the novice club. But, as if to underline the positives of management, Paul Doolin dragged eL football into repute when he was announced Manager of the Year recently - just the second time that an eL boss has captured the title, following on from the great Jim McLaughlin. Shamrock Rovers' legal triumph has turfed the way for the Hoops' to finally put down roots after over 20 nomadic years.

Most significant though, has been the news of RTE's upcoming hour-long weekly highlights show. I remain unconvinced of the benefit that live games carry in terms of attracting potential new fans to the league. Vast expanses of empty seats do little to suggest that the undecided punter is missing out on something. A well-edited highlights programme featuring action, interview, chat and analysis should prove infinitely more effective. Given the proposed 'primetime' slot, this is gold, frankincense and myrrh for the eL.

Much thought needs to be given to the format here - the FAI are unlikely to hold much sway - let's hope that the bods in RTE can come up with something befitting the direction of the domestic game here, rather than harking back to dated ideas. Who hasn't looked at the closing credits of a live game - or even sleepy old Eircom League Weekly - and been impressed by the effect of modern editing techniques combined with a good soundtrack to produce a very potent and positive snapshot of the quality on show in the modern game?

John Delaney is disliked by many - hated by others- few reach the position that he is in without being in possession of a dark side. His faux pas on the international scene have lent his reputation little breathing space, there can be no doubt that he is improving, incrementally, the off-field situation in the eircom League. There will continue to be detractors, but if it all goes SeanConnors'arse-up in the future, it won't have been for want of TV exposure.

Speaking of SC, maybe he could take up a promotional role with the ruling body? Maybe not.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What Next?

Off season - a time for reflection, careful planning, preparation, relaxation and restoration. If that sounds tranquil then it bears scant resemblance to reality. At time of writing Damian Richardson is purportedly standing on the managerial plank; measuring his office are the likes of Alan Matthews. Fresh from expanding his prowess for cup competitions is Stephen Kenny, recently dumped by Dunfermline for his abysmal league showing. John Robertson finally got his wish and will not be returning to Derry City- the possible return of King Kenny to the Brandywell seems too convenient.

Nutsy is only on the periphery of the action with his under 23 obligations and it's noticeable that his name bubbles up less frequently now with regard to vacant managerial posts. Paul Doolin has left many a mouth agape with his remarks regarding the excessive wages being offered to players, some of which he is quoted as calling 'unsustainable' - unless of course your club are sustained by male parents of the glucose/lactose/fructose family of carbohydrates - which does not apply to Drogheda United. the same Drogheda United which has collected first team players like Panini stickers over the last couple of seasons.

One significant victim of such player-grabbing has been the talented midfielder Stephen Bradley. Bradley started just nine of the Drogs league games last term, he completed just four of those. For my limited resources, one of the best passing midfielders in the league, it has been criminal to see him consigned to wearing the club tracksuit in the stand on matchnights. Drogheda's squad-building harks back to the early days of restrictions on foreign imports back in the 80's. AC Milan were the Emperors of Europe then, built on the brilliant orange of vanBasten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Unfortunately the three foreigners per team rule of the era confined such gifts as those of Jean-Pierre Papin to a besuited role in the stands while football's biggest finals were being played.

I accept it's a great leap from Drogheda United to AC Milan - at the moment - it just frustrates me too see talent sat on it's gluteus maximus rather than entertaining on the field of play. Falkirk's intervention must be a welcome lifebuoy for the former Arsenal man, but his talent is an unheralded loss to the future of eircom League football. Given the rumours surrounding an all-Ireland professional league which have been given an outlet recently, his departure is even more unwelcome.

Those proposals are currently shrouded in fog, but come about at a crucial time in the development of the game down South. With all the prerogative of an indecisive female, most of our newly professional clubs are railing against the terms of an agreement they signed about a year ago - particularly that section dealing with wage caps. No longer content - although one suspects that they never were - to accept such an imposition, the flying of the all-Ireland kite smacks of mischievous leverage tactics alongside the resurrection of the old chestnut.

Kaiser Delaney underlined the importance of the wage cap for all clubs this week, and the agreed 65% wage/35% development split is merited when one takes a peek inside our current ground stock. They are hardly welcoming arenae for the potential new punter and will not encourage patronage from those unsuspecting members of the public lured anew into our games. Of course, for those clubs propped up by the aforementioned fathers of sugar, such restrictions represent the Roddy Collins of irritants. It's all about making carcinogens while the sun shines - when Daddy's wallet is open such clubs would be foolish not to indulge his whims. The statement by Linfield's chairman Jim Kerr ruling his club out of the new proposals represents a setback for their substance.

All of this comes at a time of mixed relations between the authorities on both sides of the sterling/euro divide. The IFA contingent are still coming to terms with the admittance of Sunday football from next year, finally bringing the ruling body into line with the rest of Europe. Where Europe and the IFA diverge again though is on the thorny subject of player eligibility. The Darren Gibson saga continues to thwart the idyll; FIFA's interim proposal seems to have incensed further our Northern brethren, while the FAI have predictably towed the line - and why not -we've accepted players from all over the globe under the granny rule, we would have no qualms about pilfering the best that Northern Ireland have to offer. Just this week the issue again spilled over into the realms of our political dunces. This time it was Edwin Poots -a man who must be admired for refusing to change his surname -the NI Assembly's Sports Minister attempted to have a motion condemning FIFA's proposals passed at Stormont during the week. Poots, a DUP member was less than pleased with the disinterest of the Nationalist parties in his motion; his political motion that is. Meanwhile deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, Danny Kennedy, rounded on Dermot Ahern for his publicly voiced support of world football's governing body's suggestion. The head bods at FIFA meet in Tokyo this Sunday when hopefully a sensible resolution can be produced.

An all-Ireland professional league would provide the impetus that domestic football still clearly needs, but we are not yet ready to present ourselves in our finery to the viewing public. Bohs are in transit - but have been presented with the inevitable legal objections; the sale of Tolka Park will render Shels homeless - this too is the subject of legal process following Ivano Cafolla's objections. Rovers await the keys to their new hoopdom in Tallaght. Drogheda United's plans for a new ground drag on. Windsor Park is falling into disrepair while the authorities decide upon proposals for the site of a new national stadium for Northern Ireland - the site at the Maze is current favourite.

Until we have grounds that welcome families in comfort, we will not attract sufficient numbers to sustain a professsional league upon this island, regardless of any other issues.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Very Irish Cup Final

The weather conditions invoked fantasies of coddle, stew, boiled bacon and cabbage. This was not the face of modern Ireland with its panninis, ciabattas and cheeses - the mere fact that the conditions were influential underscores the Irishness of this Cup Final.

Of course those who proclaimed that this must be the time and the place were sitting in the nice covered area with, no doubt, lashings and lashings of latte macchiatos on stream. All around them lay the unholy trinity of uncovered areas populated with hardened football fans, parfrozen, pre-soaked. It was so cold, even the plastic seats were blue. Definitely not the kind of conditions conducive to sellout crowds - neither Ford nor the FAI can be held responsible for the prevailing barometric pressure - Dalymount Park would have provided greater protection from the elements for the hardy faithful - we ought to know better than to expect favourable weather in December.

Cork City chose the occasion to unveil their all-new stripeless strip, replete with all-new crest; a crest depicting a vessel sailing into shelter, or out, into waters choppy? The minute's silence in memory of Longford Town's longstanding President- the late Peter Keenan - was impeccably observed as kick-off approached. Both sides fielded much as anticipated; the only surprise being Gareth Farrelly's omission from the right side of Cork's midfield in favour of Leon McSweeney. Prematch fitness doubts surrounding Brian O'Callaghan, John O'Flynn and Liam Kearney had evaporated - the appeals against the suspensions of Gary Deegan and Neal Horgan fell on hard hearts. Deegan's absence presented Daire Doyle with a start in the underdogs' engine room. Cillian Lordan replaced Horgan.

On the line was the previously contentious prizemoney of €100k for the victors; €75k for the vanquished; and European football next season. Cork City's build-up had been fractious to say the least; a river of stories relating to player unrest over contracts and the possible departure of Damien Richardson provided a possible opportunity for Longford to steal ahead.

Perhaps it was with this in mind that the relegated side began so forcefully. Wind-assisted, they took the contest to City from kick off. Daire Doyle pummelled in to dispossess Joe Gamble from the tip off; Town's No.6 was involved again seconds later as part of the move which saw Baker flick the ball on to Mooney. The striking duo made O'Callaghan and defensive leader Dan Murray look ponderous at times during the early exchanges. Clearly, this pairing was key to the scant chance of success for Longford.

That said, at the other end of the arena Kevin Doherty and shay Kelly got themselves into a mess with Denis Behan lurking - luckily the ball was scuffed to safety. With eleven minutes gone Damien Brennan crossed the halfway line to deliver a high ball into the opposing penalty area - Lordan was lax in letting Baker slip in ahead of him, but the defender's blushes were spared by the striker's poor connection. A couple of minutes later Mooney was prominent as Baker set up Doyle, but Mick Devine was equal to his effort. With the quarter hour mark approaching the Cork netminder reacted superbly to thwart Jamie Duffy as Alan Matthews' men pressed hard.

Wily Billy Woods took the opportunity afforded him to rebuke Duffy soon after and was fortunate not to see yellow for his challenge. Mark Rutherford, Robbie Martin and Doyle were operating at maximum power to deny the vaunted Cork midfield time and space; and enjoying much success. After about twenty five minutes we saw the first signs of mental fatigue from the part-timers: City were beginning to put passes together but had not yet found enough rhythm to retain possession.

Devine was slowing the game down at every kick out as the favourites controlled their ambition. There was an injury scare for Baker when Joe Gamble challenged him in that fair but solid fashion beloved of hardworking footballers. With the 30 minute signpost in the near distance, Lordan sent a hopeful ball forward. Two Longford defenders got up close and unreliable with the clearance ricocheting off Kevin Doherty; Shay Kelly blocked Behan's effort before the ball dropped to the unmarked Kearney. Kelly was in land were no goalkeeper should be as the half-litre sized winger weighed up the situation. He dallied too long before attempting a cross for the inrushing O'Flynn and the chance was wasted.

Explanations had not yet been collected from the defenders when Colin Healy released Behan. Pat Sullivan was alert enough to block the blocky striker for the game's first corner and cork were beginning to find that rhythm. The opening corner was promptly followed by Cork's second. Longford's nervous moments abated temporarily when they won their opening corner seven minutes before the break - Baker's delivery was poor. Ominously for the Town, Joe Gamble was becoming a more prominent figure in the contest; his efforts were leading to the enhancement of Healy's input and the break could not come soon enough for Alan Matthews. His side had another narrow escape from McSweeney's free -kick - the ball dropped to O'Callaghan deep in enemy territory; Kelly raced to smother the potential danger, not realising the Cork centre-half had been ruled offside.

So it was scoreless at the break, but the elements were in Cork's favour for the second forty-five ; even the tide was. Longford's failure to score while in the ascendancy would surely unseat their challenge, while their intensity had dropped sufficiently to allow Cork time and space - surely a bad thing. There was little scope on the red & black bench for further influencing the game and the part-timers were sure to wilt as the game wore on.

Cup finals in December are not usually frequented by streakers; this was to be no exception. We were treated to the sight of crumpled flags making their bid for freedom - purple fingers no longer able to retain their grip on the green and white, red and black plastic, as it streaked across the playing area.

The second half opened just as the first had; only roles were reversed. This time it was Gamble who pounced to win possession for his side from Longford's tip-off. Straight away el Rico's charges were on the offensive and Kelly didn't have time to get cold in the Longford goal before he was called upon to make a save. Less than three minutes into the new half Robbie Martin looked to have played his last part in the 2007 Cup Final. While he lay on the sideline receiving treatment Woods flashed a free kick across the delicate area between defender and goalkeeper; neither branch made contact as the ball passed dangerously close to Kelly's back post. While Martin was receiving the rub of the relic Dessie Baker began to signal to the sideline. The striker was withdrawn, replaced by midfielder Ian Wexler. Robbie Martin rose again and was asked to partner Mooney up front - gallant and heroic, but not 100% - he did not shirk the challenge.

Cork were finally beginning to dominate in the wide areas of the RDS; the poor quality of delivery was offering Longford a stay of execution though. The men in red & lack were struggling to cross the equator; rare breaks offered rarer respite as wave upon wave of white set sail for Kelly's goal. Captain Dan delivered a ball from deep within his own half. Damien Brennan and John O'Flynn took off in pursuit - Johno's lower mileage showing as he arrived just ahead of the industrious Brennan. Little did the Town's skipper realise that all was not well back at base.

Central defence's second in command, Officer Kevin Doherty was indulging himself in a momentary lapse of concentration. Denis Behan wasn't prepared to wait for Doherty to return to the game, so he set off towards the opposition goalmouth. O'Flynn prospered down the left, well enough to deliver a knee-high cross into Limerick (aka 'the danger area'). Behan arrived - pursued by Sean Prunty who had abandoned his post in favour of the pursuit - launching himself with all the grace a man of his bulk can muster, he met the ball perfectly and the rain fell from Kelly's net. 1-0 to CCFC, with half an hour outstanding.

The aforementioned Brennan was making headway down City's port side three minutes later; Billy Woods injured himself in the act of halting Brennan's progress- he returned briefly to the action, but succumbed to the pain moments later. Colin O'Brien replaced Lordan at right-back; the latter switched to the left. It was one-way traffic now; Cork were flowing freely, like mid morning buses in a bus lane, towards Kelly's goal. Not that they were busting a gut to score another goal; City were strangling the game. Longford looked forlorn, bereft of hope and ingenuity. If they were to level it would have to be from a deadball situation. One such scenario was played out in the 75th minute; bizarrely it was the country's top scorer Dave Mooney who swung in the corner kick. A minute later Doherty was carded - O'Callaghan's free kick was memorable for it's lack of quality. Jamie Duffy was replaced; nothing changed.

Gamble released McSweeney, his cutback is marginally behind Behan who eventually assembles himself to shoot high into the roof of the net - only it's too high and the crossbar bends with the ferocity of the impact. Eight minutes to go and Sullivan is the second Townman to be carded as frustration begins to take a hold. Six minutes remaining; this time Kearney exploits Longford's right flank - Johno is next to rattle the bar; probably not for the last time that evening. Farrelly is seconded to the right side of midfield; Cork are pulling the shutters down. Robbie Martin makes a late dash for that last pint er, goal; his brave legs cannot carry him quickly enough and the opportunity is lost. Three minutes left; Mooney ends his Longford career with a woeful corner kick, surely his side's last chance. The last minute of regulation time - Pat Sullivan dismisses himself; Dave McKeon confirms the defender's interpretation of events.

It's all over. But the battle continues for Cork City's playing staff - their victory a bi-fingered salute to the faceless enemy.

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