Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rovers In Recession

Not so long ago all was fertile in the Garden of Rovers. A decent squad of players performing well, combined with an ambitious manager and supportive board were leading the faithful to the Promised Land in Tallaght. A club in crisis for much of the last 20 years, things are turning from KRAM to crap at one of the island's best-known clubs.

The ignominy of relegation from the Premier Division under the stewardship of Roderick Collins OBB provided the Hoops' long-suffering followers with a new low back in 2005. An eight-point deduction didn't help their cause as the always proud club finished second from bottom - notably, St. Pats finished that campaign just one place above Rovers.

Enter, stage left, Pat Scully. Young, hungry, ambitious. Fresh from an uplifting stint in charge of the now defunct Kilkenny City, he revitalised the club taking them straight back up to the Premier Division courtesy of a First Division title. Playing a brand of honest and refreshing football, his young side won many admirers and the future looked orange for the former Rovers centre-half.

In the new Ireland of professional footballers, the Hoops acquitted themselves admirably during the earliest stages of their return to the topflight. But some of the wheelnuts on the bus were loosening. Tales emerged of the bosses strict demands and standards - not all part-time footballers were suited to such a regime - Scully wasted no time in weeding them out. The 2007 campaign petered out - fans were in forgiving mood - happy with what had been achieved and optimistic about the future.

The winds of change showed no mercy during the winter of 2007/08. Many of Rovers' bright young things were cast aside in favour of more established eL players such as Darragh Maguire, Alan Murphy and Dessie Baker as PS sought to improve his squad's chances of success. In the meantime players such as Ger Rowe, Jamie Duffy, Dave O'Connor and David Cassidy had been cast aside.

The fledgling leadership of the club continued to place their trust in their appointment. The newish boss was shaping the club in his own image from bottom to top - his dynamism seemed perfectly suited to the boards' future plans. Once the Thomas Davis debacle was sorted they would be moving into their new home in Tallaght. With a reputation already established at grassroots level in the area, they were anticipating greater support and financial backing - for Rovers too, the future was orange.

But recent developments have caused much headscratching and backbiting amongst the Hooperatzi. Following a very public falling out with then Bohs boss Sean Connor - reputed to be the fastest manager around an office desk in eL football - Stephen Rice parted company with the Phibsboro club. Delighted Rovers fans welcomed the signing of Rice - young, energetic and dedicated to his game - he was exactly the type of player favoured by Pat Scully and seemingly a perfect foil for the manager's ambition.

Dreams came through, Rice was all Hoops fans had hoped for and more, quickly becoming a firm favourite at the Drumcondra end of Richmond Road. A 1-0 win on the opening week of the season at champions Drogheda United raised spirits, hopes and ambitions even higher on the terraces. Three wins and a draw from their opening four games was as expected and Scully could do no wrong.

Strangely, for a player who had left Rovers following a disagreement with then boss Liam Buckley - Pat Scully was now the man dishing out the P45's. His obdurate professionalism left little room for queries or opinions from his playing staff. His supposedly gruff exterior at club social gatherings did little to endear him to fans. Such qualities are adored by football fans when their team is successful, or travelling cleanly along the road to same. Its all about points and prizes for the paying punters. Even poor fare is acceptable to most, so long as it produces results. Italian managers have lived off it for decades.

That bright opening to the 2008 campaign was followed up with a run of 10 games without a win. There are always mitigating circumstances - but the fans were struggling to keep faith with a team that seemed to be slipping backwards. A welcome cup win over last season's cup conquerors Sligo Rovers provided some welcome relief; a return to winning ways against a wilting Galway United side was their first three-point haul since their trip to Terryland Park in March.

Then came the announcement that Alan Murphy was being allowed to leave, along with the news of Stephen Rice's transfer listing. Officially, Rice has requested a transfer - realistically, Scully is seen as having run him out of the club by many fans. Has Pat Scully finally over-extended himself? When the results are good fans can easily overlook the negatives and boards and mangers can do pretty much as they wish. That is not currently the case at Shamrock Rovers. They have slipped backwards since last term; the turnover of players has been high. Many question the manager's judgement - after all, it is he who is bringing in the players that he eventually elbows out, claiming they are not good enough for Shamrock Rovers.

Stephen Rice epitomised all that was good for the future of the soon to be Tallaght-based club. 2009 would dawn in brilliant orange with Rovers an established and significant Premier Division force. Scully's gruff ways are threatening that glowing vista for the 400 Club. As things stand, that dawn will take place without Stephen Rice. Recent results have undermined Scully's once iconic standing among the green and white deliria of Tolka Park. Is this a job for el Rico?

Ah, jaysus, no!

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Football's Coming Home

'Brilliant Orange' - The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football; the title of a wonderful football book by David Winner; is a phrase which has sprung to my lips a few times recently. It was oft said that if the Dutch inhabited Ireland they would feed the world. However, our fair isle ended up with the Royal Dutch - that too has the ability to produce neurotic genii.

Like a teenage boy wrestling with his hormones, I tend to avoid watching football other that eircom League, preferring to immerse myself in our beautiful game. I shelve this purgatory for the last 16 of the Champions League, the World Cup and latterly any games for which I can wrestle the remote from the Hollyoaks fans. Maybe it's a personality flaw, but once I have experienced the glory of full-fat cream I suffer withdrawal symptoms when returning to the slimline variety.

The Dutch apart, Euro 2008 hasn't reached those heights for me yet - but as a longtime fan of total football I become myopic in the presence of Brilliant Orange. Given our brief vacuum it could have been easy to be roped in by the glamour & glitz of the billiard table surfaces, modern stadia replete with colourful supporters and the flashes of footballing excellence. Oh and the new ball of course.

But the eL is back this weekend. Again I will inhale the atmosphere of Dalymount when Rovers or Pats are in opposition - Tolka, when one of the above visit the Hoops - anywhere where the Drogs, Derry or Cork are playing. Close to the pitch; close enough to hear Scully screaming, Nutsy losing his cool, Johnny Mc going hoarse - its like interactive football. Then away at half time to do a Wii.

The stuff beamed from Switzerland and Austria is a world or two removed from the fare served up from Finn Park to Terryland Park to Kingspan Century Park to Ferrycarrig Park - a footballing version of Quiddich, where almost anything seems possible and every angle is covered by a camera. we are close enough to wonder why Domenech hasn't plucked his nasal hair.

Then there's Richmond Park. Set in the unassuming 'hood of Inchicore, this is where Total Football Ireland is most often served up. The return to match-fitness of Joe Ndo is a huge boon to the Saints; how Johnny Mc would fit him into the team was the biggest problem it presented. With Keith Fahey ablaze and Gary Dempsey dovetailing nicely while Michael Keane scrabbled around the wastebins of Inchicore for 'Buy One-Get One Free' vouchers, all was well in the Pats central midfield area. Conveniently McDonnell was baled out by Fahey's injury last time out, but he has a decision to make this weekend.

Whilst the Inchicore side have played an attractive brand of football a la the Orangemen, Bohs have reflected the efforts of Germany. Generally effective, rarely breathtaking and impossible to discount - their stoic ways have taken them to the summit.

As always there are surprises - we wouldn't bother to watch football if it didn't throw up regular disappointments and bewildering outcomes. Throw in the unexpected and unavoidable and you end up with Shamrock Rovers languishing, Bray Wanderers floating and Galway United sinking. We are fast approaching the final throw of the dice - the knockout stages if you will; beleaguered bosses searching for wayward players whose careers they can resurrect without parting with large chunks of watermarked paper. Bemonied bosses diminishing the opposition threat by plucking the finest fruit from their squads, keeping the second tier where they belong in football's survival of the fittest.

Is Faz finally leaving Sligo? The People's Favourites can no longer dream of cup success. The league marathon favours the big squads - they will require an inordinate amount of good fortune to progress into the top four at season's end - Croatia could win Euro 2008, but they had just 3 league games to play before the winner takes all of the knockout stages. The countdown continues.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Tightrope Walkers

With the midseason break approaching and league action sidelined in favour of knockout competition, we could be forgiven for putting down our pens and stretching wearily. Only one all-Premier tie to capture the imagination, not many shocks around - in all, a quiet 3rd round. It was, however, pre-empted by a new genre of announcement - The Admission. Firstly, league kingpins Drogheda United entered the confessional, Chairman Vincent Hoey did the talking on behalf of the club's board. Essentially, Hoey was warning of the impending meltdown should the god-fearing folk Meath County Council fail to pass the Louth club's application for the rezoning of lands to facilitate United's proposed stadium development on lands in Meath. It's history now, given that the league champs scored a 25-0 win at the relevant meeting, and in these focussed times of Leaving Cert study I am reliably informed that such a majority constitutes more than the requisite 75%. The prayers for which the popular chairman had called were abundantly answered and Drogheda would not be slipping into an abyss of despair and debt. Although there are invariably those who feel that such a decline is no more than the Louth club deserve, given their splash-the-cash frivolity over the last few seasons, it would have painted a bleak picture of our leagues current status. Especially when taken in tandem with the subsequent events at Galway United. Wes Charles 13 apps. Steven O'Flynn 4 & 2 as sub. Daryl Robson 1. Ciaran Foley 3. John Lester 5 & 1 as sub. Alvin Rouse 0. Greg O'Halloran's wage had already been shipped out to Shels until July - he too is surplus to budget at Terryland Park. This was an obvious example of the strict new conditions which eL clubs are bound by - the salary cap et al - taking a large nip a professional squad during the fledgling days of increased professionalism in the eL. In some ways such events can be construed as car crash management. The optimists amongst us can be heartened by the attitude of the Galway board - they are keen to keep on top of things at all costs. Their course of action will hardly endear them to potential signings; their standing amongst pro footballers diminished. Rumblings of discontent have emanated from United Park for similar reasons. The Board were reputed to be stalling on contract talks with up to nine players pending the outcome of the vote by MCC. Such instability in any place of employment causes restlessness to permeate through all strata. These boards are populated by pioneers and risk-takers. We need steady heads and strong hands during these early days of our enhanced professionalism. True, we are still situated at a busy intersection - an area fraught with danger but filled with potential - like taking your shiny new motor onto the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. Many euros have been invested for scant return; in the hope of building something better; in the hope of being on any European gravy train that may be coming or leaving from these shores. All this in the face of indomitable opposition from the world's most powerful football product on our neighbouring island. That's not to dismiss the efforts being made by other stalwarts at various other club's across the league. For us hurler's (apologies) on the ditch these are exciting times. We stand on the lip the of greatness or the brink of total collapse. This push may well be the last that the domestic game will see; failure is unthinkable.

As such, every success is to be cherished, every sideways step to be accepted for what it is - prudent, hopefully. The two steps forward, one step sideways strategy will hopefully build firmer foundations than those upon which previous titanic collapses have occurred.

Doubtless, failure will not deter those who have held the mouths of League of Ireland football above the water for countless years - they will continue in their roles as always. Meanwhile we can follow the dream. That elusive spot in the group stages of the Champions League - will it be Galway United, Drogs, Pats, Bohs, Derry, Cork??

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Celine Dion Factor

Hers was the name on every sweaty pair of lips that arrived late into the romantic surroundings of Dalymount Park on Friday night last. Floodlight issues had forced kick-off time to be moved forward to 19.15, inconveniently colliding with the slightly larger following for the aforementioned diva, who were thronging in their tens of thousands to GAA HQ.

'Twas a beautiful summer's evening in leafy Phibsboro as this straggler strode purposefully towards the ground from the Northside. It was slightly depressing to note that there was nothing around me to suggest that an eL Premier Division game was soon to start less than 50 metres away. At least when the Hoops are providing the opposition the place is replete with hungry dogs and Gardai on horses. I don't mean that the dogs are on the horses with the Gardai.

As ever, some hardy souls had made the four-hour trek from the Northwest, and they had the Rovers manger sat in their midst. Whether or not this modified their abuse of underperforming players I could not tell. To my mind, few of the visiting side underperformed on the night.

It seems as if every ground you visit now features an overly large person with childish features - sometimes cartoonish - wandering around waving, dancing and generally being friendly to uncomfortable victims. The Bohs version of this phenomenon bears a strong resemblance to Dennis the Menace, but is as yet nameless.

On the field of play it was a case of Fenn is the Menace for the Gypsys. Pat Fenlon deserves credit for revitalising the career of a player who was in danger of being washed up following a disastrous season under the guidance of Sean Connor. Bohs held territorial sway for much of the first half as the visitors adapted to the absence of centre-half Mauro Almeida and Benin-bound striker Romauld Boco. The reluctance of Rovers' central defenders to be drawn out of position by Fenn was crucial to the game's opening goal. He collected, was watched, was watched, played a 1-2, was watched, shaped to shoot, was approached - too late. A rapier-like effort cut low into Pat Jennings' right hand corner.

It's my first time to see Paul Cook's side in the flesh and I am impressed. They recover their composure to finish the half in the ascendancy. Apart from one of those special PJ moments - he dwells on a clearance, only to eventually whack it against Glenn Crowe; the runaway ball sails over the bar - there is little threat to their goal.

In the battle of the attacking full-backs it was current title-holder Owen Heary who bossed the opening half; Seamus Coleman was to the fore after the break. His side may well have fared better had they been able to supply their front two with ball to their feet. With the double-lock of Ken Oman and Liam Burns breathing down their spines, any other type of delivery seemed pointless. That said, such was Sligo's second half dominance that Fenn slipped again into that near obscurity from whence he had been rescued. With the anonymous Jason Byrne already withdrawn from his midfield role, it was Glenn Crowe who made way for Rovers' old-boy Darren Mansaram.

Fenlon's persistence with Byrne on the right may be a passing thing - no pun intended - but he has never been more than an average footballer with an eye for goal. His contribution from midfield is limited to the mundanities of average footballers. Back to Mansaram - within a couple of minutes of his introduction the lanky striker had burst free of his marker. Ultimately there was little danger, yet the Bohs faithful cheered his effort loudly. So loudly as to belie their collective nervousness.

A game which captivated began to see-saw as the final fifteen minutes ticked down. For all their territorial dominance and abundant possession it was striking to note that Brian Murphy had yet to be seriously tested by the Bit o'Red. PJ too was enjoying a sedentary second half. With fewer than ten minutes remaining, Joxer Kelly & Mansaram linked on the outskirts of the Sligo penalty area.

Thit Joxer ar an talamh. Bhi se in san bhosca. Pionos. Apologies for lack of fadas. It seemed a soft peno from this vantage point, but the injured party was forced to withdraw from the action. Killian Brennan added to his reputation by netting the spot-kick. Sligo hearts hung low - this was yet another of those harsh footballing lessons. Whilst they digested it, Brennan added a second.

It was tough on Rovers after they had turned in a fine performance for most of this match. Anto Murphy revealed another side to his game following his long-throw party-piece years at Pats. Coleman's forward forays are effective, but his inexperience was betrayed by his willingness to over-carry late in the proceedings. Possibly a sign of the youngster's frustration and, conversely, his ability to shine on a bigger stage.

Cook will grow tired of empty plaudits - yes his side play a neat and attractive brand of football - they are a match for the top sides, but remain a notch below. Hopefully cup success comes their way, it will provide the backroom staff and off-field drays with renewed vigour for their difficult tasks.

What of Bohs - after all, they ran out clear winners against such a talented side. The Gypsys will fail to excite throughout this campaign. It is not Nutsy's style. He has quickly crafted an effective unit. Not for them the 4-3 win, or the 4-3 defeat; just the points. 1-0 will do. They are tough to break down, Fenlon would sleep a little easier if they were a little more potent - but Bohs will present a stiff challenge to anyone who fancies wresting the title from the stuttering Drogheda United this term.

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