Monday, August 25, 2008

Nuts and Bohs

With just 2/3 of their league programme complete I am prepared to honour Bohemians FC with the title of eircom League Champions for 2008. Wily professional that he is, there can be no doubt that Pat Fenlon would refuse to accept victory at such an early stage - his side still have 33 points to play for.

Even where his side to implode spectacularly in a blaze of angry Dundalk fans, the achievements of Nutsy's Class of 2008 have to be admired. Rumoured to bathe with bevvies of €50 notes during his tenure at the ill-fated Shelbourne FC, many were happy to point to the size of Nutsy's chequebook when it came to doling out praise for the Drumcondra based club's achievements. That said, many a football manager has been given money to buy players only to fail in a blaze of inglorious debt - Dave O'Leary is the patron saint that elite club. World football is littered with disastrous deals and misspent monies.

When Sean Connor - not to be confused with comedian Shaun Connors - took up the whip at Dalymount Park in 2006, he set about sorting out the Bohs backline. In came Liam Burns and Owen Heary alongside the emerging talent of Conor Powell. Jason McGuinness and goalkeeper Brian Murphy completed the line-up. Heary's organisational talents were hugely instrumental in the face lift. The Gypsys registered the best defensive record in the Premier Division for 2007 - 17 goals conceded in 33 games. However, their failure to find the net in seventeen of those fixtures undermined any dreams of a league success. Glen Crowe started all but one of those games and the club's record scorer found the net just eight times in league action - a poor return for a striker playing in a side which managed a third place finish.

So the oft quoted dogs in the street knew what was required to restore some pride and silverware to Phibsborough. Happy to see the back of the comedian, many were less than pleased to see his replacement enter via the cat-flap, but he is 2/3 of the way towards winning them over.

Neale Fenn was revitalised, Ken Oman was re-signed; the merry-go-round of central midfielders spun a little more. On jumped Glenn Cronin - Killian Brennan followed Oman from the Northwest Passage. Jason Byrne gave up his Welsh lessons. The season began with a 1-0 win at promoted Galway United, followed up by a narrow 1-0 defeat at home to St. Pats. That remains the only defeat thus far. Eight different sides have pierced the meanest defence in league action this season; none have repeated that feat. Soon players will be putting 'scored against Bohs' on their CV's. It is a phenomenal achievement in a division blessed with the nylony attacking football of the Saints and Cork City.

Glenn Crowe will never be a spring chicken again, but he has begun to look more like a free-range chicken after some time in the wilderness. Only on three occasions have the Gypsys failed to find the net - Fenlon can never be accused of playing an open game; the much travelled footballer is more concerned with winning than scoring. Brennan is oozing a confidence which is matched by his performances. The retirement of Kevin Hunt has brought tears, but few ripples.
The biggest disappointment this term has been their early exit from European competition; a league title will banish the pain.

Recent weeks have thrown up an injury crisis. The unglamourous but highly effective Cronin has been sidelined; with him outside the physio's room have been all three centre halves. This forced the manager to throw the recovering Thomas Heary in at centre half. Owen was to be his partner in a totally reshaped back-four; the league leaders glided through the challenges that came their way. A stern test in Turner's Cross failed to find a way past Brian Murphy. Burns is back now, which should allow Owen Heary to return to his familiar position.

Was that their crisis for this season, or is there a dip in form to come? Should the wounded Drogs hole them tomorrow there remains a seven point gap between first and second. Should Pats inflict a second defeat upon them at Dalymount Park there will still be four points between the pair with nine games remaining. In the meantime, Cork City St. Patrick's Athletic and Derry City return to Setanta Cup action. Doubtless the Phibsboro faithful are casting an envious eye in their direction but Bohs' absence from the all-Ireland competition offers them an advantage as the finishing line appears on the horizon.

Nutsy is weaving his magic again and Setanta Cup football will grace the turf of Dalymount Park in 2009.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where Have All The * Gone?

Storm clouds have taken up almost permanent residence over our emerald isle and their primary target seems to be the ailing League of Ireland. Week upon week heaps gloom upon doom and it's becoming tougher for fans to get off the canvas.

Cobh Ramblers, Bohemians, Galway United, Finn Harps, Cork City and Sligo Rovers. Six of the Premier Division's dozen clubs have been awarded unwelcome exposure surrounding their financial difficulties. It reads like a drip feed of death and disease. When it's just one club we can absorb the punch, digest its aftershock and take the standing count. This has been a powerful combination in a season without asterisks.

Those were the days - some shoddily run club would be caught with their hands in a brown envelope. The powers that be would deliver suitable admonishment and the downtrodden club would have to suffer the indignity of playing out the season with an asterisk after their points total. The unexpected descent of Cork City has been hardest to take. Cork look like a proper club; when the camera swings around to the Shed at the Cross they look like proper supporters at a proper ground - a set-up for others to aspire to. That illusion has been splattered.

Where are the FAI through all of this? They released a terse statement in relation to Cork's nervous breakdown in midweek; one which smacked of an annoyed parent having to leave work to collect a persistently unruly child from school.

As the human beings we are, at a time like this we need reassurance and leadership. Neither is forthcoming from Abbotstown. There are multiple theories abroad, even at home - theories are not immune to infection and hyperbole. Maybe there are frantic efforts going on at the highest level in an effort to pour balm on these potentially fatal wounds. On reflection that last sentence really needed a question mark. Maybe this season's financial woes are a means to an end. A purge of sorts as the ruling bureau's tighter rein squeezes the pus to the surface before irrevocable damage can be done - and everything will be OK once we've ridden out these stormy waters.

Or maybe we're in deep manure and nobody in power is doing anything about it. The ordinary fan just does not know and the extraordinary leaders are saying nothing. Meanwhile, these bad news stories continue to feed the print media's insatiable appetite for bad news, heaping further deprecation upon our domestic league. There are many individuals doing untold work to improve the status of our game; this tsunami of silence is rapidly unpicking those efforts.

Earn your junkets FAI and stand up for the League of Ireland.

Friday, August 08, 2008

In Rod We Trust

Then there was one - first Bohs, followed by Cork City, then Drogs. Pats are our remaining Euro representatives for 2008 and it will be a tough ask for the Saints to see off Elfsborg of Sweden to maintain their progress in the UEFA Cup.

There hangs a frustrating smog over the non-achievement of our European representatives thus far - Drogheda's late drama last Wednesday notwithstanding. But behind those apparent disappointments lays some basis for future optimism - that is assuming that our clubs don't collapse under the weight of their combined financial commitments.

The form of Cork City offered great hope ahead of their UEFA Cup 1st qualifying round - that turned out to be a false dawn as the Leesiders ' defensive fragility was cruelly exposed in those moray eel- infested waters. City shipped 6 goals across the two legs, most of those in a 4-0 second leg defeat. The air of gloom was tangible, for we have come to demand that our sides negotiate the first hurdle of Euro action.

Such was the case with Pats, who broke new ground by winning an away leg in Europe for the first time in their 47 year Euro history. The Saints built upon that with a home win - recording wins in both legs for the first time also. They must see off IF Elfsborg of Sweden in the Second qualifying round inn order to advance to the Group stages of the UEFA Cup.

Therein lies a connection with our Intertoto representatives Bohemians. The confident Gypsys rattled Rhyl with a 9-3 aggregate win in their first round tie; that scoreline represented a record VE for an Irish side. Another incremental progression for our domestic game. Next up for the Bohs were Skonto Riga. This was another faltering effort from a well-prepared Irish representative, with Pat Fenlon's side slipping out on the away goals rule - that after spurning a couple of excellent opportunities on their trek into deepest Latvia for the first leg.

That same Latvian side progressed into the UEFA Cup qualifiers to provide the opposition for a certain IF Elfsborg of Sweden. The Swedes won by the only goal of the tie, scored on their home patch - they now represent a formidable bouncer between St. Pats and a sustained involvement in Europe. They too are chasing a league title - just a single point behind the leaders after both have played 17 times, their defensive record commands a bow. They have conceded just once in Europe - just five in their domestic league. Pats will need to be at their fluid best to progress.

It is a mark of our progress that we anticipate second round matches nowadays. We are still learners at that stage - the odd heady third round moment a la Derry City and Shelbourne fans the dreams of group stage heaven. Cork's capitulation was uncharacteristic as they have been sturdy flag bearers in recent years. Setanta Cup participants Cliftonville, of the now defunct Irish Premier League (it's been jazzed up into an invitational league now) and widely regarded to be the best footballing team in Northern Ireland were on the wrong end of a 10-0 hiding against Copenhagen.

That sort of thing just doesn't happen to eircom League clubs anymore. Yet still we had Shoddy Collins pissing all over our game on the edges of Drogheda's two legs against the affluent Ukrainians of Dinamo Kyiv. There is no denying that the bad cop speaks some truth, he just seems to revel in garnishing that truth with a well-aimed elbow to the league. This a man who very recently attempted to get involved with Longford Town. Possibly he cannot compete with the verbal flourish of the good cop el Rico, opting instead to go the direct route with his negativity.

The Champions League is the Valhalla of club football. Only the juiciest, tenderest peas get to enter this moneyspinner; at present qualification for the Group Stages represents the summit of our ambitions. Thus, the pairing of Drogheda United and Dinamo Kyiv represented an ideal opportunity for us to measure our game against the worst that the Group Stage has to offer. Much fanfare was given to the fact that the Ukrainians have qualified for 10 of the last 11 Group Stages. It was also mentioned, in a less celebratory fashion, that these boys had failed to register a win in any of their group games last season.

Yet this side pulled Drogheda apart with the ease of a lion playing with a mouse. Their technique was excellent, their application less so. But one could have fit Roddy's mouth into the chasm in class and ability between the sides. One could have fit Roddy's mouth into the chasm in effort between the sides during the second leg. Workrate and application have always been the tools with which sides of inferior skill and technique from Northern Europe have levelled the playing field against more skilful but less hungry opposition.

Here were two fully professional sides who should both have been prepared and cosseted to the same prematch level. Both should have been equally fit. But after all the preparation there still exists the possibility that one side may be better organised or prepared than the other. Differences in skill and ability can be lessened by tactics; in a case such as Drogheda's often the 'in their face, deny them space' method is applied.

Paul Doolin's charges stretched every sinew and ligament to the nth degree. Every player gave 100% - contrary to some pundits' declarations of 110%. Still they were almost always second to the ball; their own efforts tired them so that often their own passes were tired and wanting. This was an uphill battle at every turn. Yet this is the level to which we aspire.

Throughout the pitch the Dinamo players were pacier, with greater control skill and technique - granted their defence was poorly organised. The difference here was in the playing staff - not one United player would make it into Dinamo's starting eleven. Obviously that's why such players are valued in millions of euro as opposed to tens of thousands. Yet this side struggle at group level in Champions League football.

We have a huge way to go in order to attract the quality of player required to sustain group qualification; lucky draws combined with freak results may allow us an adventure in the meantime. But Roddy does have a point.

Labels: ,

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Platinum Bullet

A couple of seasons back we were awaiting the dawn of the FAI's impending stewardship of the eircom League. Despite the misgivings held by many giving the ruling body's inglorious past, the promise of increased prize money and wider TV coverage proved a horse's mouth not to be looked into.

Effectively, the FAI's offer was the only one around and the ailing league had little to lose. Did the FAI know what they were facing into? Currently, keeping to the equine analogy, the ailing beast needs lead in the head; in the eyes of many. Notably, the same many are those who follow football but view the eircom League with disdain.

Whether or not we like to admit it the league as it stands is a soiled product. Our league champions have no main shirt sponsor - this is unheard of in modern football - Barca excepted - and points to everything that is wrong with how the league is viewed by potential sponsors.

I want the league to succeed; I want the youngsters of Ireland to grow up sporting Rovers, Bohs, Drogs etc. shirts. I want them to torment their parents top bring them to a game, to buy them everything in sight with a club logo on it. I want them to buy sticker books with photos of Tadhg Purcell, David Cassidy, Fabio, Joxer et al. But it's not going to happen.

We are taking welcome, incremental, steps to improving standards on and off the field. Necessary steps and the FAI must be complimented for their efforts to impose sturdier criteria upon participating clubs. The five-year participation agreements are, I believe, in their second year of existence. Clubs are feeling the growing pains; stories of financial meltdowns permeate the psyche of our target market.

Our target market is over 4 million strong - the people who don't attend live games. Usually, their interaction with anything eircom League comes via the latest bad news story relating to players not being paid or clubs going to the wall. I firmly beli8eve that if we threw open the gates at every eircom League game next weekend we would not struggle to cope with the extra numbers. Outside of our 20, 000 hardnuts, people are not interested.

We are regarded as freaks, cultists and saddos. We are. But there is a new show in town.

When a man like Fintan Drury attempts to become involved in Irish football we must welcome it. Drury brings a lot of kudos with him; beneath that svelte media friendly exterior beats a heart of platinum. This is not a man interested in dealing in sentiment - unless it can put buttocks on seats. Preferably big fat buttocks carefully cultivated at food outlets in football grounds up and down the island - obviously that rules Michael Keane out. Everyone is entitled to one cheap shot.

There is a sediment of good sentiment towards the halcyon days of Drums, Shels, Rovers and the packed stadia of the black & white era. But we have left those days behind us, surging past Skyplus to HD and Wii.

We are being offered the opportunity to start anew with 10 handpicked clubs from across the island. This may smack of franchise and elitism to traditionalists - gaudy bangles sell. Elitism begets aspiration. Put it on a pedestal, make it special. With the deepest respect to the so-called lesser clubs, there is a huge difference in the atmosphere at a Rovers / Derry game when compared to say, Rovers and Bray Wanderers.

A few eggs would have to be cracked, a few noses put out of joint; the dust will settle and our soiled product will have been replaced by one which would hopefully have sponsors clambering to be associated with the new dawn. Of course, the grounds will have to be vastly improved.

There cannot be a top club who do not privately welcome the opportunity presented by the Platinum One proposals. John Delaney has been hiding behind the IFA's intransigence. The Irish League is in even worse condition than its Southern cousin; they are introducing an invitational Premiership for the coming season. Linfield's resources dwarf even those of close rivals Glentoran; their annual Boxing Day (St. Stephen's Day to the Fenians amongst you) derby game attracts crowds of 12,000. Look further down and crowds are regularly in their hundreds as clubs struggle to exist and in some cases resemble progressive junior outfits.

What club board would turn down the chances of attracting 5 figure crowds for league games? Irish domestic football is the poor relation of sport in this country - here is someone offering us the chance to raise the profile of the game wearing a suit of new clothes fit for a king - hopefully not an emperor, though.