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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