Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They're Off

Looking on at the entrancing encounter betwixt Bohs and Pats last weekend I was reminded of what Pat Fenlon can bring to the game in this country. Not necessarily a good thing. Of the top four sides - by this I mean Bohemians, Cork City, Drogheda United and St. Patrick's Athletic - Nutsy and Alan Matthews are the least responsible for their current squads; each is inheriting players largely in situ before their respective arrivals.

Such an important detail can often buy a besieged boss an extra few weeks in the proverbial heated seat. They may need added time to learn their new charges, let alone bed in whatever new faces that they may have added. Similar, but lesser, issues exist for Messrs. McDonnell and Doolin.

This pair have presided over the development of their squads across the last few seasons and as such are entirely responsible for their efficiencies or lack thereof. Last season, it was clear to this observer that the Drogs were title certs - this canny deduction was based upon the fact that their opponents had regressed in terms of squad depth, while the champions in waiting had maintained their strength. So it shall be written, so it shall be done.

The Louth club now find themselves under greater scrutiny than heretofore - often the target of green-eyed jibes regarding their finances - they now have to bear the intensity of competition which comes with being champions.

Being the best is a warm fuzzy feeling - apparently - and warm and fuzzy can induce sloppy and lazy. Players who are still sleeping with their league winner's medal on their pillow may be sleeping too soundly. eL Rico proclaimed on MNS - 'fairness has nothing to do with the professional game', or something along those lines. This should be pinned across the foreheads of Drogheda United's first teamers. The dream is over, the league is won; it must be won again, and opponents will make it even harder to achieve this year.

Everyone loves to say they held the champions to a draw - or beat them, even. Lazy heifers raise their game for the visit of the champs, then return to hibernation. Allied to such challenges are the improvements at the challenging clubs. As Cork City proved last night, and Shamrock Rovers before them, this will be a tough title to win in 2008.

Alan Matthews is reforming his image with the talent at his disposal in Turner's Cross - his side played a wonderful brand of football against a dour Drogs side. All that was missing was the end-product, Matthews will be given time to get this right. In contrast, Paul Doolin should not need to be experimenting to the degree that he has been.

His previous omission of Stuart Byrne came in for criticism, last night his finest player was played out of position. Why? Because he was replacing last season's finest player who had been shifted from his best position. This is dream stuff for any opposition manager. Ultimately, the visitors nailed a scoreless draw - at just about any stage in a season visiting opponents would take that scoreline at the Cross.

It was the manner of United's challenge that frustrated. Their undoubted quality was buried under a reluctance to commit players into the opposing penalty area. Shane Robinson and Olly Cahill were anonymous - think of the influence of O'Callaghan and to a lesser extent Kearney. Had they been forced to work back a little more in order to contain their opposite numbers, Drogheda would not have been under as much pressure as they were. Had Brian Shelley been urging Robinson on courtesy of his own raiding instincts it would have offered more to the tame Drogs attack.

We had a sighting of what may soon be an extinct creature on these islands - the Ibrahima Iyane Thiam - a long-legged colourful character which likes to roll about on the ground. There have been no positive signs to suggest that he can prosper on our shores. While Guy Bates was bedding in, learning the runs of those around him, his footballing intelligence was visible in the little things he managed to do. Touch, control, an awareness of what was going on around him - all of these are attributes which the one time PSG man does not appear to possess. At least he's good in the air - there has been precious little evidence to reinforce that statement.

Meanwhile Pats are playing with panache; their style in attack procuring temporary forgiveness for what may prove to be fatal defensive frailties. There has been such an influx of new talent at Inchicore that they will need time to develop the crucial understanding required for the white-hot temperatures of high-level competition. Even without the blessed artistry of Joe Ndo they have illuminated the opening stages of the 2008 season.

Things look far glummer at Dalymount Park. Nutsy has Owen Heary, Glenn Crowe and Jason Byrne in the camp - three of the alumni from his Shelbourne years. Heary's pedigree is unquestionable; his dedication likewise. I have never believed that Crowe and Byrne constitute a lethal combination. At the peak of their powers each represents a significant threat, but they have never operated well in tandem. If Crowe is at the peak of his powers, the striker keeps it well disguised. Too often he saunters through a game displaying little appetite for the events unfolding within his line of vision. The beautifully controlled volley against the Saints last Friday served only to indicate the level of his abilities; a level he rarely attains nowadays.

Jason Byrne will score goals - for Bohs to challenge seriously he will need a willing strike partner - Neale Fenn's first goal for the Gypsys may have signalled a second coming for the undoubtedly talented 'in the hole' player. Joxer Kelly has been a promising player for too long now. In fairness to the lad, he could have 2007 removed from his CV; in fairness to Bohs supporters he needs to progress significantly this term.

Bohs are a different side when Kelly is in full flight; he adds a dimension that cannot be taught - a la Pat McCourt at Derry - he has some way to go to imprint his legend upon the memories of the Bohs loyals. One player who has already managed to succeed in this task is Kevin Hunt. A veritable deity in Phibsboro, his star has waned over the last couple of seasons owing to what TV companies used to call 'circumstances beyond our control.' It was demoralising to note last Friday that Hunt has become an also-ran among central midfielders in this country.

A tireless worker, he still has a lot to offer the game but he was eclipsed by Keith Fahey who is finally letting his football do the talking - Fahey possesses an edginess which complements his skill. Fenlon's men looked pedestrian and lacking in creativity. Their successful back-four of 2007 remains intact; I must confess to knowing little about the qualities of Glenn Cronin; but Stephen Rice could have ascended to the Hunt throne with ease.

In what should be an intriguing title chase the merits of Shamrock Rovers are not to be dismissed; Derry City will upset some of the best laid plans, while Paul Cook's Rovers are capable of stealing points on their day.

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