Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Great Divide

The first sniff of competitive action for TV voyeurs came our way this week in the shape of Pat Dolan & Felix Healy - the Dull Duo - seemingly each unable to hear what the other is saying as they waffle on at each other in ever increasing spirals of guff. Fortunately that embarrassing technical fault spared us their prematch build up. That said, I must acknowledge how great it is to be offered domestic football live by those nice people at Setanta. Nice, because they sent me three texts asking that I ring them urgently. What kind of customer service is that? Ultimately I caved in lest I be denied the opportunity to catch the Drogheda United v Cliftonville clash. Turned out my good friends in Setantaland - which now appears to be somewhere in Scotland - had charged me three times for my subscription, at three different rates. Welcome to the world of Setanta Sports, giving you even more choice!

Anyhow, after watching the players warm up sans commentary for about twenty minutes, I was almost happy to see the wee commentator pop up on screen, soon to be followed by a gassed up Will Downing, who sounded as if he might go into orbit if he weren't staked down. There was an element of 'new-look' about the formula, but it's incredibly difficult to present Bryan Hamilton as new-look. Thankfully the man who can rival Gerry Armstrong's Sky Sports Irish League commentaries has lost none of his ability to deliver inanities to the tortured audience.

There were notable absentees at both ends of United Park as the game kicked off on Tuesday night. Dan Connor, Jason Gavin, Fabio, Shane Barrett and Stuart Byrne were among the non-starters for the holders. In the green corner - normally red - Kieran O'Connor, Deccy O'Hara and Mark Holland chilled on the bench while Chris Scannell denied himself a welcome kip by lining out for the 90 plus minutes. His was a brave performance, maintained right until the dying moments - for it was his head that felt the smack of Mikko Vilmunuen's gloved fist in that controversial last minute coming together of committed opponents.

Generally it seems to be accepted that the visitors were worth the draw which they were in some ways cruelly denied. Let us not forget the venerable adage oft trotted out by well-seasoned football managers - 'luck evens out over a season' - it evened out over 90 minutes for Cliftonville. The offence that led to Franny Murphy's sublime execution of a second half free-kick was innocuous to say the most - Wee Will got the mike into Eddie Patterson's face in the heat of the battle and even the genial ( that's how he came across on the night) boss pondered the veracity of the award. The penalty incident has been identified as one of those from the Stonewall stable. Thus, Davy Malcolm in the middle (Good one Pat) atoned for his earlier indiscretion.

It would be blithe to say that there wasn't much between the sides. Yes, the visitors were overly respectful of their opponents during the opening half. Given that this was their maiden foray into this competition and against the two-time holders in their own domain, it is forgivable. Had they repeated that courtesy during the closing forty-five minutes it would be a different matter. Resultantly, a partly-charged Drogheda eleven were allowed to look slicker and more cohesive than they actually were during the first half. They created the most dangerous openings and looked the side most likely to open the scoring. That it took them almost the entire half to do this again points to their ring rustiness on the night.

Paul Doolin's side are renowned for their unattractive winning style - their penalty area is normally roped off throughout the 90 minutes whilst they go in careful search of a goal; sometimes they will even look for a second. The absence of the injured Jason Gavin offered a hole in their defensive heart. The departure of Stuart Webb allowed Joe Kendrick another opportunity to bed in at left back; defensively he was found lacking on occasion - he shows well for his attacking colleagues when the opportunity presents.

For many moons now followers of the domestic leagues on this island have had to squeeze their way into ramshackle grounds usually inhabited by a hardy few every second weekend - our only relief from this scenario would come in the form of a friendly game against some English or maybe even Scottish luminaries. Armchairs would be parked outside the ground as half-hearted fathers seized the opportunity to bond with their grunting offspring by bringing them to see their heroes.

It was always a frustrating situation as the British pros generally strolled through the contest, concerned mainly with not getting injured - although in latter times this concern has spread to delicate hairstyles and expensive bling. Rarely did they subject their Irish hosts to a sound thrashing and we all went away frustrated. One thing always stood out to me in those exchanges; it was the speed of thought and the exceptional agility of the crosschannel pros - even in second gear against turbo-boosted opponents.

That situation was replicated last Tuesday night, albeit on a less grand scale. Drogheda's opening goal came as a result of quick thinking allied to sharp movement opposed in the main by leaden feet. When such a goal to be scored at any level of football friendships are threatened. The probing runs of Brian Shelley would have come as no surprise to the Cliftonville management team - ditto their playing staff. Still the Drogs defender enjoyed all the space of a deer grazing in the urban expanses of the Phoenix Park. A quick dart from Eamon Zayed and while his marker wondered where he'd gone the ball was floating lazily into the netting.

In such fashion did the Drogs enjoy two more goals; it wasn't that Cliftonville were any less capable as a team; but they were certainly less focussed. Errors were expoited - inaction punished. Situations that would regularly be rescued against nondescript midtable opposition became panicfests against professional opponents - even ring rusty ones.

It gladdens this heart to recognise this progression.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Setanta Sets Sail

Next week, four hopefuls set sail on their respective journeys in the hope of capturing the Golden Fleece that is Setanta Cup triumph. Three of those are familiar protagonists, with one newcomer adding an element of novelty to Group A. The opening round of fixtures sees said novices Cliftonville, travel to United Park for a clash with back-to-back winners and defending champions, Drogheda United.

Cliftonville v Drogheda United

Eddie Patterson's side have been charged with the mantle of 'the best footballing side' in the Irish League, and there are few who would argue with that. This season has proven to be a trying one for the Reds - following a good showing last term which saw a miniscule squad force their way into the title race before inevitably fading, they beefed up their ranks in order to progress even further this term. As recently as last Saturday they lost their first league game this season and are still in the hunt for Irish Cup glory. But those glowing references mask a slip in performance levels helped least of all by the surface at Solitude, their North Belfast bastion. Five consecutive outings on a porridge-like surface produced 4 wins and a draw, while leaving the Reds leaden-legged. They waxed lyrical last week about an impending trip to Stangmore Park - home of Setanta contestants Dungannon Swifts - talking wistfully of the velvet sward at the Tyrone venue and the asset it would prove to be for their passing game. They proceeded to lose their unbeaten league record.

While they have been defensively sound this term, two hefty centre-backs may struggle with the quality and mobility of Eamon Zayed and his ilk at United Park. Captain Liam Fleming has not produced his best form at right-back thus far, and potential replacement Aaron Smyth is still feeling his way into top level football. At left-back, Ronan Scannell offers a dangerous alternative in attack mode, although the presence of either Richie Baker or Shane Robinson may curtail his forward fervour at United Park. Kieran O'Connor's hamstring has fallen victim to the sticky pitches, should he make it into the starting eleven his attacking prowess will provide an important option for the visiting side.

Franny Murphy's gifts can test the best of defenders - his jousts with eL player of the Year Brian Shelley will be intriguing. Barry Holland has recently returned to the fray - unfortunately Mark Holland has replaced him on the treatment table, a serious blow to the visitors. Whilst Chris Scannell and George McMullan present a threat up front, it's difficult to see the vaunted United defence struggling to cope with a frontline which has struggled to finish off opponents in recent games. The alternative talents and imposing presence of Vinny Sweeney have been denied Cliftonville all season - his physicality will be missed in the sort of games where deadball situations may offer their best hope of scoring.

Deadball situations aside, Drogheda's disrupted preparations may offer the Setanta newcomers a glimmer of opportunity. Two friendlies hardly constitute a preseason, especially when you are trying to bed in new staff members. Joe Kendrick replaces the reliable but retired Simon Webb, while former Sligo Rovers' powerhouse Adam Hughes adds forward momentum and goal threat to the midfield area. Paul Doolin has been further thwarted by the temporary loss of Steven Prunty, while rumblings of Jason Gavin's discontent are tempered by the acquisition of the talented Shaun Maher during the off-season - John Tambouras waits in the wings also. First choice 'keeper Dan Connor is also ruled out, but Mikko Vilmunen is an able deputy. Even with both Shane Barrett and Declan O'Brien still recovering from long-term injury, the duo of Guy Bates and Eamon Zayed present a formidable attacking proposition. The game is live on Setanta on Tuesday February 26th.

Cork City v Dungannon Swifts

On the following evening, Cork City and Dungannon Swifts renew acquaintances in the group stages for the 3rd consecutive season. The hosts have yet to register a win in four meetings with their Southern nemesis, and have managed only one goal in those meetings - that in a meaningless outing against a half-baked City eleven last April. Such stats don't augur well for a Dungannon side which has been shorn of many gifted players in the intervening months. Shane McCabe and David Scullion are amongst the notable movers - they will enhance Glentoran's efforts in this season's renewal - while the up and coming talent of Niall McGinn will boost Derry City's challenge. Ryan McCluskey is another defector, but it's the faltering campaign of Rodney McAree that hurts most; struggling all season with a knee injury, his contribution for '07/'08 came to a shuddering end when he suffered a fractured cheekbone recently. Easily the Swifts most polished performer, his steadying influence and deadball expertise will be sorely missed. Central defender Adam McMinn is another casualty, although he should be back for the last two instalments of Part 1. Harry Fay appeared to have struck gold when Mark McAllister turned down a contract at Glasgow Celtic to remain at Stangmore Park - the striker has failed to reach the heights of last term in a disappointing season.

It's been a strange, undulating, campaign for followers of the normally fluid football of Dungannon Swifts. A season of stop start and stop again has been counterpointed by excellent performances at home to the Irish League's top three sides - Linfield had 4 goals rattled past them; the Glens were held scoreless and Cliftonville we've already spoken about. Those standouts apart, it looks like being the worst season since Joe McAree spearheaded their entry to the topflight four years ago and they will not qualify for next season's all-Ireland competition.

Cork City have ousted Damien Richardson from the manager's tent and replaced him with Alan Matthews, a manager who has experienced Setanta action during his stewardship at Longford Town. The return of the enigmatic George O'Callaghan has endowed Matthews with arguably the finest midfield quartet on the island - Colin Healy, Joe Gamble and Gareth Farrelly have all collected full international honours - while last year's topscorer in the eL, Dave Mooney, has followed his former leader to the Rebel Republic.

In contrast to Drogheda United's below par preseason, City have enjoyed plenty of friendly action, allowing the new boss to decide upon his best eleven before the competitive kick-off. If there is to be a lack of familiarity anywhere in the Cork line-up it will most likely be in their back-four. Rarely a settled formation last year, the departure of Alan Bennett to Reading hit hard. Brian O'Callaghan - Dan Murray's sometime defensive partner - has moved on; Pat Sullivan has come in from Longford Town. Dave Mulcahy is another defensive option, but he and Murray are probably too similar in style to partner one another. It's a small quibble, for it's difficult to envisage the hosts penetrating the opposition midfield to begin with and Cork should retain their unbeaten record against the Swifts.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Trapped In A Cliche

It's been a week where Shamrock Rovers have turned to selling Easter Eggs in an effort to promote their club while Denis O'Brien has lobbed a few Smarties in the direction of the FAI. Meanwhile headline writers across the land have collided blindly in their efforts to concoct the wittiest Trap headline of them all. The sooner we have some on-field action to get excited about the better - thankfully the Setanta kick-of is just over a week away.

Yet already that nubile institution bears an air of staleness as we prepare ourselves for re-runs of last year's fixtures. The contest is crying out for something new, and the sponsors must surely see this also. Derry City, Cork City, Drogheda United, Linfield, Glentoran and Dungannon Swifts. Those six sides are participating for the third consecutive year.

All else has been the stuff of cameo as the odd cup winner floated to the surface or the odd league winner sunk to the bottom. We will endure endless speculation regarding the ring-rustiness of the eL contenders versus the leggy limbs of jaded part-time operatives from the Irish League contestants. Felix & Pat will attempt to bring some sex appeal to the live offerings as Will Downing freezes at pitchside on an icy Tuesday night in February or March.

Then just as we feel that things are heating up, it will be gone. Until October. Again we will hear about leggy limbs versus fresh muscle, but the eL lads are full-timers so it shouldn't be a problem type-thing. Managers will moan about the fixture lists, the demands on the players and all the rest of the showboating that goes on around getting your excuses in first.

What of the fans? All we want is action. No more frustrating friendlies with UTP's (Unidentified Trialling Players) flooding the field for the second-half of a one-paced contest against an opposition eleven inundated with same. Yes we know it's all part of the incremental process of attaining peak fitness at just the right time but we're dying here - give us a competitive game and give us it soon.

Back to Denis & the Smarties; who cares? The FAI are in no position to turn down an offer like this one. You can't please some of the people any of the time. Were the ruling body firing grotesquely large paychecks the way of the aging - and which of us aren't? - Italian, there would be a complaining body. Were they to hire Terry Venables - and for a long time that threat prevailed - there would be a complaining body. Had they hired any one of the countless other half-cooked washed out managers there would be an uprising.

Here we are on Quality Street, and someone else is paying. Without a doubt the most decorated and qualified manager we have ever appointed - unfortunately he is nearing antiquity- let's hope he takes his Benecol every morning. It's a novel approach for Irish football and a gamble well worth taking. Maybe, just maybe, we'll all be kissing inflatable Denis O'Brien's in a couple of years.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

David vs Goliath

Before Tuesday night's victory over the mighty Roesiders this observer was prepared to accept that Ciftonville's title challenge was exhausted. Despite the handsome grab of seven from the previous nine points available the Reds had forfeited an important advantage.

The elements had conspired to deny them the opportunity to retain top spot - a serious blow to any side facing the challenge of Linfield's bloated squad. Games in hand on muddy fields would serve only to further weaken heavy legs, with the added burden of Setanta Cup games at the top of the hill. Indeed, the decision to split the Setanta season was a boon to the neutral observer - or the Anyone But Linfield camp. With due deference to the champions and their supporters, a change of ribbons on the Gibson Cup would be invigorating for the Premier League.

So, 7 from 9, and every one of those scrambled - an indication perhaps of Cliftonville's relentless determination - or their limited squad. Their will always be hiccup or so on the long and winding route to a title victory. The so-called 'breaks' deemed by pickled observers to even themselves out appeared to be piling high in Cliftonville's favour - until that is, they found themselves second to the Blues' vastly superior goal difference last Friday night, without the comfort of a game in hand.

Suddenly DJ's men had the upper arm - their CIS Cup redemption a stark message to any David's contemplating a pop off Goliath - in spite of any errors the perennially Proud One may have made, he has been repaid for the stubborn streak that he has instilled in his players. They are possessed of that air of inevitability - there always looms a sense that they will come back from disadvantage to snatch a replay - which they will of course win - or a 3 point harvest, even on a poor judgement day.

There have ben a few of those this term - most especially so since the recent return of Conor Downey. Of late both Glenn Ferguson , less so Noel Bailie, have been reduced to the role of impact subs - one suspects that their wearied limbs are being preserved for sterner challeges which lie ahead. Peter Thompson's goal glut has coincided with Thomas Stewart's overdue elevation to the striking role he favours. There are unresolved issues in other areas.

The aforementioned Downey is central in every sense. Like an ovid salmon, he is drawn from his berth on the right-hand side into the centre circle. There he is greeted by the similar talents of Paul McAreavey and the unrivalled athleticism of Michael Gault. Meanwhile Damien Curran struggles manfully to keep left, pass right.

David Jeffrey's failure to resolve this mess may prove to be Eddie Patterson's trump card - the return of Vincent Sweeney a close second. Gault and one of Downey & McAreavey
must form the fulcrum of a 4-man midfield, the wide berths are DJ's issue. He could of course opt for 3 midfielders, with either of his gifted ball players in that place we have grown accustomed to calling the hole - the 3-man midfield is currently out of vogue.

What of Vincent Sweeney, the striker's protracted absence has seriously stunted Patterson's options. Even were he not to start, the big striker's assets provide an invaluable alternative in moments of pressing need. Yes, you can throw a hefty centre-half up front when things are desperate as the seconds drift into the night. Better though to have a hefty striker's instinct and aggression.

The challengers served serious notice of their refusal to acknowledge that the war is far from won, with an emphatic midweek trouncing of Limavady United. They remain toe-to-toe with Linfield but now enjoy the luxury of having played more games. Every advantage, no matter how minute, is crucial in such a tight contest. Bring it on!

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