Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pats Pass Out

The good news story for Irish football this week centred on the performance of St. Patrick's Athletic in their UEFA Cup qualifying tie against Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin. Taking the broadest of sweeps, this represented a really good performance by the Inchicore based club.

For much of the tie, Pats' performance was a measured one during which they displayed much of the talent and ability that has endeared their playing style to followers of the domestic game. Normally when faced with 'superior' opposition we are reduced to the Charlton Formula. For the benefit of my younger reader, this constitutes ninety minutes of 'in their faces, constant harrying and hustling to deny them space and hopefully grab a scruffy goal off a long ball or a set piece'.

In Keith Fahey Pats possessed the game's most skilful player last Tuesday. His staccato running style saw him regularly leave the opposition flailing in his slipstream - his passing and movement were a treat to witness. 'Fats'- the nickname bears the annoying hallmark of English football jargon - represents the peak of his profession on this island and must surely be 2008's Player of the Year.

What of the opposition; the commonly held opinion was that they were beatable. Their defending was suspect, even with Friedrich and Simunic within their defensive ranks. Their goalkeeper appeared to be of Scottish descent. Up front Pantelic was a threat - he didn't appear for the second leg; Voronin posseses the striking virility of a windsock at Doldrums Airport. This is a side which finished midtable in their league last season and offer little indication of surpassing that mundanity this term. Their accession to European competition came courtesy of UEFA's Fair Play place, making them one of the 'must have' draws for the third round qualifying ties.

St. Pats greatest achievement in Europe was to see off Elfsborg; their greatest failure was failing to score against a mediocre midtable Bundesliga side. That may have been acceptable in times past, but this Saints side are better than that. There is a deep yearning amongst the 20,000 or sop domestic diehards for one of our European representatives to make it into the group stages of a European competition - this represented a great chance. The UEFA Cup is of a lower standard then its Champions League sibling; progression can be a mite easier; especially if a club can afford to beef up its staff profile in the timespan between qualification and participation.

All through the opening half at the RDS, Berlin meandered around the pitch looking disinterested and lacklustre. Still Pats didn't punish them. Andriy Voronin answered the wishes of every supporter in the stadium when he sent the best chance of the game into a low-flying orbit; I include the Hertha fans in this for they must dearly wish his loan period to end sooner rather than soon.

What we witnessed was progress; an eL side imbued with the confidence to play football against Bundesliga opposition. But let there be no talk of moral victories for we are on the precipice of professionalism here and must learn to rub shinpads with the cream if we are to survive. Congratulations to Pats for taking that a step closer, but let's not deny the reality of their departure from Europe.

Looking ahead, we can allow ourselves a morsel of optimism if Nutsy manages to hold onto, or even improve his squad next season. Bohs' was a disappointing European campaign but they are a squad flush with good qualities; with a benevolent draw they might squeeze in. Was that just a little too optimistic?

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