Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not Another FAI Cup Final Preview

Following what has been an anus horrible of a season with regards to the profile of eircom League football, we are left with the Ford FAI Cup Final to redeem some respectability for a tarnished product.

The pairing of Derry City and Bohemians may not produce the most spectacular of games, but it does have the potential to serve up ninety minutes of quality. It has been well documented that the Candystripes have been a bogey side for Bohs during 2008, so I won't repeat it. Except to say that the Gypsys failed to score against them in each of the three league meetings this year; the League Cup encounter doesn't count.

That not said, because I didn't repeat it, Derry have managed just once to pierce the solid rearguard created by Sean Connor but remixed by Pat Fenlon. So what we don't want - by we I mean the neutrals - is for Bohs to open the scoring.

There are set to be intriguing contests throughout the park. Nutsy, ever-cautious - can be expected to target the influence of Niall McGinn as the greatest threat to his side's success. The sight of the newly-crowned Young Player of the Year bearing down on Owen Heary is a porn director's dream.

Back on track now; if brought to bear, Mc Ginn's pace and confidence will negate Heary's attacking influence and the experienced defender often forms the nucleus of Bohs' forward momentum. That's not to say that the Gypsys' captain provides their only outlet. The right-side of midfield is a berth which has been filled by a succession of players this term; amongst them Joxer, Micheal Kalounas, Jason Byrne, Anto Murphy and latterly Brendan McGill. I'd expect Jayo to get the nod as he has performed well there in a mainly defensive role before - not to mention his goalscoring prowess.

Jason McGuinness' aerial threat will be missed at deadball situations; it may have come in handy to thwart the efforts of Clive Delaney at the other end also. Derry City's greatest strength this year has been Stephen Kenny's determination to present his side with attacking widemen. On the right flank, Gareth McGlynn should return refreshed to the fray after a brief injury absence. For those of you seeking a return to the porn theme, there are possibilities within that sentence.

McGlynn has regularly been City's best player for my money this season; not as obvious to the naked eye as the eyecatching pace and artistry of McGinn, he is nonetheless possessed of a rare combination of work ethic and talent. Killian Brennan will know he has been in a game, after the mini-Mc's of McCallion and McGlynn have done with him.

Therein may lie the matchwinner though - whether or no Brennan is subdued throughout the contest, he needs but one accommodating deadball position to tilt the game in the Dublin club's favour. Derry do not possess a similarly potent threat.

Neale Fenn will offer a torment afternoon for the aging but willing legs of Peter Hutton. No footballer better encapsulates the meaning of the word fulcrum than the former Cork City frontman. His renaissance under Nutsy's tutelage offers a lift from the mundanity of Bohs' humdrum rhythm.

We must hope that this Final does not descend into a dour midfield battle, for there is the centre of the humdrum. It is in this area that the champions are at their most oppressively affective. It's a case of any two from three with the return from suspension of Stephen O'Donnell. Glenn Cronin was the Galwayman's regular partner - stop it! - before injury afforded Gary Deegan the opportunity to swap studmarks with the league's best midfielders. Barry Molloy offers similar talents to City's cause - Kevin Deery less so; Ruairdhi Higgins' silken passing may be deemed a luxury in the face of such aggression. Ciaran Martyn has started only 16 of Derry's near fifty outings this term.

The calculating and minimalist nature of Bohemians' style is underpinned perfectly by the understated excellence of goalkeeper Brian Murphy. Easily the league's best netminder, he presents an awesome challenge after you have beaten your way past Liam Burns and Ken Oman; for all his talents, Ger Doherty does not carry the same aura of unbeatability.

Here's to a game that showcases the best of our talent in a fashion which helps us to forget, even temporarily, about our horrible arse of a year.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tarnished Goods

Just like our once rampant economy, professional football in Ireland was built on an unsustainable air pocket which would eventually burst to leave those who once rested on it struggling for life. Close scrutiny of the reasons for our financial difficulties may yield varying explanations - in the case of Galway United and Sligo Rovers for example, some rapid realignment was required to ensure that they fell within the parameters of their own projections in order to fulfil their wage cap obligations - even the Irish government were forced into similar actions with their 2009 Budget. In the case of Cork City, Arkaga saw the light after Platinum 1 had packed their kit and high-tailed it out of Ireland.

Drogheda United's claret and blueprint for success reached three of its points with an FAI Cup win, Setanta Cup double and a League title. The elusive planning permission proved a bridge too far for the investors and the snuggest club in Ireland are fast approaching a nadir without a Plan A2.

Today's threatened strike action by the players has shed the club of its last remaining shred of dignity. That's not to deny the players their right to take action; although there are many who hold their profession culpable in the mire in which Irish football finds itself.

I hold neither footballers nor managers responsible for the money that clubs have spent. It is the job of a board to direct operations, construct budgets and employ managers who have no option but to adhere to same. Should a player ask for more money and a manager ask for funds to assuage the pro, it is the board who decide whether or not to furnish the readies.

But yes, we are and have been seeing players being paid beyond the range of their talent; just as we have seen cowboys masquerading as craftsmen earning inordinate sums of money to talk to us about building a wall.

There are those among us who will welcome this 'readjustment' - it may have come at too high a price though. The eircom League and all who sail in her are damaged goods. The fabricated controversies around betting patterns have helped to undermine our integrity; the Gary Dempsey affair was an opportunity for the meeja to throw some accelerant onto the pyre. What the likeable Pats midfielder did was against the spirit of the game in every moral aspect, but a far cry from roasting a drunken teenage girl with your teammates a la the preferred Premiership model.

If it is the tip of an unseen iceberg, then let there be light. Otherwise, move on. Whether or no, these unfavourable stories will make it even more difficult to attract advertising revenues into the game, at a time when clubs can ill afford it. Again, this points to that 'readjustment' word. Even before this season has had time to revel in its highs - Bohs' colossal points total, Pats and Drogs in Europe - there appears to be a dull dawn ahead in the early Spring of 2009.

There is plenty to laud in the League of Ireland; volunteers doing what Mary O'Rourke might describe as the work of 1000's 'black Arabs'; fundraising, scouting, painting, whatever needs doing. There are two things we have failed to do during the boom times, such as they were - build a cohort of modern grounds and sort out the Health Service. The ailing duo must limp on for the foreseeable.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Show Me The Rainbow's End

For true football fans, Cork City's Setanta Cup success represents a triumph over evil in this most unforgettable of seasons. Having taken a royal shafting from those nice people at Arkaga, it was a pleasure to watch the remaining management and players have something tangible and silver to show for their pains. The boardroom gets the nice papery bit with the noughts on it.

Meanwhile, rivals Drogheda United are suffering the hangover of their miscalculated risk. This has been a painful blow to take, for here there was real hope that the professional status so generously bankrolled in recent years could finally attain a status bordering on the sustainable. But just as rapidly that our national finances have collapsed, so too is the ongoing status of our professional set-ups.

We seem to have returned to the brink. Standing around are the haves, the hads, the never hads and the never will haves. The former are a threatened species - Pats and to a lesser extent Bohs remain the sole occupants of this treacherous stratosphere. Their existence is predicated upon the whims of others - never a healthy way to live your life. Derry City remain reasonably solid, but precarious nonetheless. That ridiculous sentence illustrates the tightrope upon which our clubs riverdance.

The financial antics of eircom League clubs made Prime Time this year - probably the only the this season that thousands of football fans will have come face to face with their domestic game. What they saw was a cartoon football league living far beyond its means, populated by half-baked footballers who play in less than half-full stadia. Such informal meetings knock us right back to the dullest of days in the eyes of the great uninterested.

Despicable and all as his actions may be perceived, Stuart Byrne's thoughts on the eL are irritatingly spot on. Byrne was quoted thus in the Irish Independent...

"People are laughing at the league. It’s a laughing stock, it genuinely is. I’m worried about the PR and perception that’s out there, the damage that has been done to people’s perception of the league. I think it will take two or three years to get over that, I really do. I genuinely feel it will take a long time for people to think more positively about the league given what has happened in the last six months. People are just sick and tired reading about it. I wonder do they even read about it any more?"

Of course it does the bould Stuey no harm to get his name into the papers with a transfer window looming. With so many of our players out of contract come season's end, many fans may barely recognise their squads next season. It's natural for professional footballers to follow the money in this country - the best will gravitate to the flushest. Many pros may decide that the future here is too precarious and opt for poorer paid but guaranteed employment across the water. An exodus of talent is hardly likely to help with the promotion of the league.

Cork City's aforementioned troubles are a clear pointer of this. The Leesiders were forced into the sale of Dave Mooney in order to produce some much needed cash. Going into the final two series of games, Mooney remains the Premier Division's top scorer; not bad for a player who scored his last league goal here in July.

Shamrock Rovers have shown that there is an incremental route to a competitive squad; granted the Hoops have the advantage of a rich past and a loyal core of fans to maintain their existence. They have also benefited from the refusal of some players to embrace the full-time game - opting instead to remain within the well worn and infinitely safer structures of dual employment.

The prospect of an All-Ireland league seems more remote than ever. Following the aborted Platinum 1 proposal we have been forced to endure the war-cries of Linfield and Glentoran as they threaten to withdraw their services from the Setanta Cup. It may not be an elegant solution, but it's a moneyspinner for successful clubs and provides plenty of TV exposure - I doubt the overlords in Setantaland will need too much encouragement to scrap the competition now that they have two feet placed firmly in the Holy Grail of Premiership football.

Eoin Hand's recent comments on UEFA's future plans for compensation with regard to the development of young players seems to offer our best hope of a rainbow's end. If you don't fancy listening to the whole conversation, dip in around the 29-minute mark.

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