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.

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