Friday, February 4, 2011

Home Nations? We Are The Home Nations!

The original delay in getting the Carling Nations Cup going still confuses many in Ireland – we just don’t know what the problem was all about. Not called the Home Nations due to certain attendees and non-attendees, soon the forgotten four of the British Isles (geographical lads, let us not go down that messy road) will get together to compete for the only silverware each genuinely have a chance of winning. 

A series of competitive friendlies, if you will, this offers national bosses Giovanni Trapattoni, Nigel Worthington, Craig Levein and Gary Speed each the chance to get some games with their players, gain some interest from their fans, and earn some money for their Associations. It suits all involved, no? 

Every couple of months, meaningless friendlies interrupt a perfectly enjoyable football calendar for soccer fans. And unless it is against a Brazil or Spain side, no one really cares – unless those youngsters, who we all know are going to change our fortunes, finally get a chance…am I right? 

But this series, although unfortunately formatted months apart, is a genuine glimmer of hope. The standard between the four nations cannot be too far apart and it is likely that the best organised team will probably win out (although we here are punting on all draws). There is genuine optimism among fans, in Ireland at least, as we finally get something to cheer about, something we have been lacking since Thierry Henry as good as murdered our pets – I can’t remember the details, but that is how it felt and still feels…

But although we Irish have been ignoring and ignored by the Associations we come up against for what seems like eternity, we should be more than used to such parameters when we kick off against Wales in Dublin on Tuesday, before our brothers up north host our cousins from Scotland on Wednesday. 

Abolished in 1984, the tournament is a memory of only our elder gentry now but, in Ireland at least, we have been flying the flag of the Home Nations for decades. Different accents from the United Kingdom heard coming down the tunnel, out onto the pitch…we have had our own little collection of players from the British Isles all knocking it about in one arena, in one jersey! 

While we were absent from the Home Nations tournament, from 1921 until a few days from now, we went on our own little nostalgic walk down memory lane. No player was too English for our boys, as Tony Cascarino admitted, no player too Scottish, as Gordon Strachan once bemoaned during the Aiden McGeady coup and no player too Northern Irish, as countless legal debacles showed in the recent past. We, under the blind ideology of desire, passion and pride, scoured the known world – at least the known English-speaking world that Ryanair could fly to in under 20 minutes, in search of our sons. Hell, under Steve Staunton we even went to America on a recruitment drive more suited to colleges or grovelling politicians of late. 

For every Damien Duff, there was Ray Houghton. For every Kenny Cunningham, there was Phil Babb. For every Roy Keane, there was Mick McCarthy. Kevin Doyle? Give us Clinton Morrison! We Irish, ignored by the tournament, took the competitors and it seemed no one was safe. 

One of the greatest media campaigns I ever witnessed in Ireland was the Carlsberg billboards ahead of the 2002 World Cup – that’s right, after Roy left there was actually a World Cup on. Carlsberg put up a series of billboards with superstar players’ grandmothers on an Irish passport saying ‘Carlsberg don’t make passports…’ Roberto Carlos to replace Ian Harte? Euphoria in the streets! 

No embarrassment is taken, ‘the grand mother rule’ we yell. These players are seen as heroes, revisiting their homeland, thirsty for success in the green shirt! No one dares think that a certain number of the players would have gladly taken the call from their respective homelands if it came early enough. No one dares think of the easy opportunity we have for a decent player to make it to a World Cup, therefore attracting the type of players we would hate to join our club sides, nomadic mercenaries I believe they are often referred to as. No one dares think that it was just a drinking team not too long ago, but then again it was because they drank with us. No. We accept all who join. 

While other countries struggle with the threat of multiculturalism, we allow the only remaining discriminatory allowance under EU law, that of the home-grown national football side, to be cast aside in the pursuit of international unity. 

Take note Angela Merkel. You may indeed now finance us, but we, the boys in green, break the international mould. What you see before you now will only be best understood in 2022 when, I suspect, a distinctly South-American looking Qatar side embark on one of the most bizarre World Cups ever imagined…

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The January Sales

The January transfer window represented interesting viewing for several sections of football fans, primarily due to Monday’s insanity. Chelsea spent their hidden roubles, Liverpool lost their mind, Newcastle won the lottery, Tottenham Hotspur threw so much defecation against the wall that only Stephen Pienaar would enter their living room and Manchester City signed a giant but, hidden in the background, underneath a small pile of journalists recently incapacitated due to psychological burn-out, several Irish players made moves which can only help in some cases their own early careers and, in other cases, Giovanni Trapattoni’s national squad. 

Behind Monday’s Sky Sports hyperbole, Twitter rampage, extortionate price-rises in helicopter based travel opportunities and broken f5 buttons on everybody’s keyboard, players including Robbie Keane, Kevin Kilbane, Conor Sammon, Andy Keogh, Paddy Madden, James Chambers, Stephen Ireland, Andy Reid, Jay O’Shea and Jamie O’Hara (we can dream) all made moves, while Alan Judge, Liam Lawrence and Andy O’Brien cemented their deals at clubs where they had already been on loan. 

This has been quite the month for Ireland-eligible players, actually. Not long ago you could pick a team of eleven Irish players who were out of their club sides respectively and come close to the starting eleven you would see turn out for the boys in green. Now, however, game time will be the minimum factor acquired by players up and down the spectrum of our exports – encompassing all but one starting spot for Ireland. 

All eyes were on Robbie Keane since August and he finally got the move we all expected. Two years to the day since leaving second in the table Liverpool for Spurs in an about turn, Ireland’s leading scorer signed for the Premiership’s bottom club. However this is not to be greeted in a gloomy manner, for at West Ham at least he will be playing football, regularly, in the top division in England…until May at least. West Ham signed the injured but talented Demba Ba along with sensible signings like Gary O’Neill and Wayne Bridge during January so it is important to realise the West Ham Keane turns out for in February will not be the West Ham Keane was linked with in August. 

Irish society’s greatest point of contention, Stephen Ireland, has ended his time as a Villan, in club spelling at least, by moving to a side more suited to his public persona. There are enough mad men at Newcastle to push Ireland into the background – which is exactly where he prospered from when wearing sky-blue not so long ago. Whether he is accepted by Irish fans, accepted by Irish teammates, accepted by Irish management or even bothered returning to the Irish squad himself, we all still keep an eye on the midfielder, remembering the great hopes we had – be they real life club hopes, real life international hopes, or marginally less than real life fantasy football hopes. 

Kevin Kilbane – the closest thing to both a current and former-playing legend one could ever get – took the step down to League One, where his spell at Huddersfield will see him return to a more settled environment to maintain his incredible career, having lost heart at Hull. Still in the Irish squad, Kilbane has admitted he will probably not finish this international campaign. Yet his attendance is still breathtaking when you consider the consistent votes of confidence he has receive from successive national managers. 

Conor Sammon, who has a scoring rate in Scotland that can do nothing but impress, won his personal gamble of January. Having mulled over and eventually rejected a move to Championship strugglers Scunthorpe, Sammon was rewarded with a move to Wigan – who themselves shipped out a striker in Mauro Boselli – and the chances there were simply too good to turn down for the ex-Kilmarnock man. For those who see an international 29-man-squad for a friendly as an opportunity to both source youngsters and reward form players, Sammon was shockingly left out of the current Irish set-up. For those unsure as to the scoring exploits of all but the great Swede in the Scottish Premier League, now is the time to test out the former UCD and Derry City striker in a real division. 

Andy Keogh’s loan move to Portsmouth in August was eyed as a good idea for the Irishman to gain yet more experience, having already achieved international recognition under Trapattoni. However it didn’t work out and he has now joined Bristol City for similar reasons. It is not clear just what level the Wolves-owned player is best suited to, but regular playing is all that is required at this stage. 

Paddy Madden has left the begging Gypsies in Phibsboro for a stint at Carlisle. A lower profile move than the Celtic rumours we were all hearing, but a decent opportunity for a player who is only going to improve in England. Bohemians fans know just how good the Dubliner has been, but more-so know the potential he shows for the future. Another League of Ireland export is James Chambers, who left title-winning Shamrock Rovers to sign for Hamilton Academicals – a team now widely known in Ireland ever since the emergence of James McCarthy not too long ago. Chambers was one the league’s best players last year and the ex-Shelbourne player will be monitored by many now that he has headed to Scotland. 

Andy Reid’s loan-move into Charlie Adam’s space at Blackpool was more sensible than many of January’s panic-decisions, scuppered only by the Adam shaped body still holding down a position which he has more than made his own this season. How Reid will fit in is a mystery, but let us hope he gets a look in at a side he really should be starting in, long-term. Reid is never higher regarded than when not playing, but a good run in the side should get him back to the form which encouraged idiocy around these shores – idiocy encapsulated by vitriolic complaints that Trapattoni was leaving out Ireland’s answer to Michel Platini. 

Under the radar, Jamie O’Hara – still undecided on his international status – has gone to Wolves in a rather sensible move. Mick McCarthy has been crying out for a centre-midfielder of the standard of Steve Sidwell, O’Hara is better than Steve Sidwell, so all is well there. Now if we could just get him to make his mind up and usurp either of our centre midfielders we would be all happy. Elsewhere Jay O’Shea returned to Birmingham from his loan deal at Stevenage just long enough to sign the dotted line for a spell at Port Vale. 

Alan Judge has signed permanently for Notts County following a successful six-month loan deal, Liam Lawrence signed permanently for the somehow-still-functioning Portsmouth, and, perhaps the most consistent of Irishmen in England this season, Andy O’Brien, made his stellar move to Leeds permanent – half of an all Irish partnership with Alex Bruce at the centre of defence. 

Of course this would not be a description of the January transfer window without reference to dusty handed Manchester City dweller Shay Given. Given is rumoured to have turned down an approach from Sven Goran Eriksson’s Championship side Leicester a couple of weeks into the window, before head Citizen Roberto Mancini encouraged such a loan-move to the lower divisions for Ireland’s No 1. No such move was forthcoming though, which is quite the worry for Trapattoni, despite the relative positives listed above. However, looking at the Italian’s recent squad, it is clear he and Shay share the same view of disdain for goalkeepers in the division one below the greatest in the world (so we are told). Kieran Westwood – behind Paddy Kenny in both form and performance standards in the Championship this season – is the only challenger to Given, so he’s more than safe for the time being.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Amond Interview

Padraig Amond was left with a simple choice last year. Either he stayed in Ireland with Sligo Rovers and continued his domestic career as an already impressive striker, or he travel the short trip overseas to make the step up in grade and try his hand at a level arguably far above that of his Irish counter-parts. This ‘promotion’ in personal football terms was markedly different to that of many other League of Ireland exports, though. 

For unlike Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey, Steven Ward or Seamus Coleman - to name but a few - Amond was not heading to England. He in fact made the decision to go off to Portugal, to a club called Pacos de Ferreira, to play in a league featuring some of Europe’s most iconic sides, Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto. 

Having scored 17 goals for Sligo before departing, it is not perhaps too surprising to find out foreign clubs were interested in him. But how did such a surprising move come about? 

“The sporting director came to watch me against Shamrock Rovers in the League Cup semi-final when I scored twice -- the interest became concrete then. I tried to stay out of the deal as much as I could and left it to my agent to sort it out for me. When terms were agreed by all parties I was delighted and travelled over for a medical and to sign,” said Amond. 

“It was a tough decision for a number of reasons but at the end of the day I want to play football at the highest level possible and this was too good an opportunity for me to turn down. My time in Sligo was brilliant and I can’t thank everybody up there enough for giving me the chance to show what I could do when I played.” 

Of course, as Irish exports continue to excel (the names already mentioned in this column do enough to explain that) many eyes will be on who is next to make the jump over to the continent, with places other than Portugal also prime candidates for Irish sanctuaries. 

“I think its a great learning curve playing in the League of Ireland for young players because you get great experience from it and, although when I was 14 or 15 I would have loved to have gone to England, I'm really glad I have done it the way I have. There is no substitute for first team football and I was more mature coming over here, which has helped me a lot. 

“The likes of Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey and Seamie Coleman have made more teams aware that there are some really good players that play in the league. If you do well in Ireland you can get the chance to go across the water to play and try to earn a good living. 

“I think there are a good number of players in the Airtricity League who would be very comfortable on the continent -- players like Shaun Williams and Richie Ryan for example, who have great technical ability.” 

Of course, playing in an environment completely alien to that of the League of Ireland will have many benefits, and experiencing a different, professional approach to the game will no doubt serve many of our exports very well. 

“So far I believe I have improved a lot as a player, the training here is brilliant. We do a lot of work on technique and of course being up against really good players everyday is going to make you a better player. 

“The standard of the league out here is really high and it is great to be involved so far -- hopefully I'll get to be more involved in the coming months too. Probably the hardest thing to get used to is the speed of the game. Everything is done so quickly out here that you have to be ready for anything to happen at any stage. Initially the heat was difficult for me, but I have gotten used to it at this stage.” 

While Amond has been away, two of his former clubs, Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers, played out the monumental FAI Ford cup final in the Aviva Stadium, and unfortunately for Padraig he had to skip the game and turn out for Pacos instead. 

“We actually had a game that day an hour before the cup final so I didn’t get to see it but my parents and my little brother were at it. I was on the phone to them for the last five minutes of extra time and the penalties but, when I got back from my game that night, I watched the match -- it was a great game to watch, the atmosphere was unbelievable too.” 

Seeing his old clubs battle it out at the Aviva didn’t cause Amond to rethink his steps though, with the striker positive he has made the right decision in making the step up in Portugal. 

“I want to keep improving as a player to enjoy the experience of playing in a different culture, playing a different style and do the best I can out here. I’m still learning Portuguese at the minute. It is a very hard language to get the hang of but I can understand a good bit of it. I’m getting used to it and I am enjoying everything so far. 

“I just want to keep working hard out here, break into the starting 11 and take everything from there. I want to play at the highest level possible. Whatever that level is remains to be seen, but I signed a three year contract here last September and so far things have gone well -- to be honest I'm only concentrating on the present so who knows what will happen.” 

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Well the other day things went faster then what could be reported at the time, so lets do a Little re-cap.. 

The heave on Fianna Fail was comfortably beaten by Brian Cowen for reasons other than total faith in him -- the party just didn't really know which way to vote. Ideally they wanted him gone but they value the finance bill so hugely that they need to stay solid for five more weeks just to get it through. 

Cowen git a bit cocky following it and I blame alot of the media for letting him, reporting that his radio performances were 'incredible' and 'top of his game' comments were thrown about for media performances. He wasn't, he merely pointed out why he should stay in charge and spoke quite loudly. By that logic a GAA minor manager is a better motivator than Tony Quinn, clearly not.
Cowen was all over the media during the days leading to the FF vote of confidence, even though he hadn't really been on since he was 'not' drunk, which was before the bail-out, yet some interviewers were willing to look beyond that. Not George Hook funnily enough, who wouldn't give him an inch. 

Then Mary Harney stepped down from Health at around 3/4 on Wednesday with statements and that saying she had thought about it for weeks, yadda yadda, and told Cowen a couple of weeks back -- but interestingly she said anyone who is not re-running should step down from a ministerial position. (I totally disagree with that suggestion, incredibly opposite to my views)

Anyway I wasn't in work in a paper on that day, Wed I think, so I didn't get to throw my cautious warnings about that I thought more would follow. So, at 11.05pm 3/4 more ministers stepped down for the same reasons, saying they had made the decision weeks ago.

The key things there is a) they said it was ages ago when they decided it b) they announced it in unison c) the greens heard nothing about it until they woke up the next day d) and this is the key one... d) Alot of papers would have dominated the pages with Harney news, using the five or six hours to review her career....going to print around 11pm ish. First editions around ten or half anyway. The news broke at 11.05 on ''Coleman at large'' on newstalk, I was listening with a friend saying alot of papers would miss it. 

Anyway, next day the Times and Indo had totally missed it i'm told, tonight with Vincent Browne had just missed it, by minutes I'd say, but the red tops got it. I still reckon that was a kick in the balls of the media because FF blame them, in unison, as the reason why Ireland is no longer the Real Madrid of economies, merely the Deportivo la Caruna who enjoyed a few good years in early naughties before having a shit attack on their bank manager's daughter's face.

Then it turned out, supposed by opposition parties and then followed extensively by the media outlets, that FF were pulling a lil scam by getting junior names into ministerial positions just to big up their profiles ahead of the general election.

Greens heard this, fully invested in it and may even have been first to mention it actually, maybe not, but they held a crisis meeting. Cowen approached them with a list of new ministers, they stopped him and said 'No Dice' showing the back-bone which surprised alot of people, myself included, as I didn't know jellyfish shaped lemmings had spinal-cords, and Cowen was left to divvy up the ministerial positions amongst the still-in-office ministers. A total farce, the biggest one I can think of...

My only issue with the whole thing is why Prez McAleese Okay'd the minister retirements, I understand she is just a figure-head but she was in as good a position as the Greens to make a stand as she was approached by Cowen first.

But, I was fully sure that FF would do OK in the election, that they would do enough to stay quite strong, thus dominating the next election in 4 years, but now they really look hilariously screwed. If Cowen stays they genuinely could come up short of about 10 seats, almost definitely smaller than Sinn Fein. If he gets the boot, dumb ass people, people who say things like 'turned the corner', will probably vote for them.


Up next, sport.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

German efficiency could scupper the bookies

With the end of one of the most thrilling F1 seasons now a distant memory -- the energy emancipated by the five-way title race / the curiosity brought by the retired Fuhrer returning to stumble through the first three quarters of the season before performing some quite outstanding races whilst the leaders blew up at the front towards the end / the incredible ability of ex-World Champion Lewis Hamilton to drag his sub-standard McClaren to within a win of the title -- what could possibly hold our attention this season?
Well it's not Red Bull's ridiculous ability to create a monster machine rivalled in very few aspects by even fewer contenders, it's not Ferrari's imminent response to throwing away last year's title in the most embarrassing of circumstances, and it's not the uncomfortable relationship carefully maintained by McLaren's Britons to erase painful recent team memories.
No this year could be all about Mercedes.
Think about it, in a car obviously restricted by planning for this season's travails they managed to have the most consistent performer of last season in Nico Rosberg look extremly determined in their lineage (of which even Michael Schumacher was impressed), the experience of said Schumacher which was evident as the season drew closer to the end in Yeongam, and the knowledge of almost a full year's preparation for 2011.
Yes, under Ross Brawn, it looks at least part-likely that Mercedes will be closer to the front, perhaps even the car to beat this season.
So why have the bookies not thought so? Or is this one of the great cleavages in their profession, a mere oversight agreed on by the fraternity.
At this very moment Victor Chandler offer huge odds of 14/1 for Schumacher, and 16/1 for Nico Rosberg, to lift the drivers title. Even better odds, however, can be found on Betfred, where they make Mercedes quite a ludicrous 9/1 for the constructors title. The general consesus is that  they will finish fourth, despite having the tools cited above, and not having the restrictions of (a) a poor McLaren in almost all aspects of performance bar straight line speed last season (b) an underperforming Felipe Massa (c) an unhappy Mark Webber.
Of course alot will be known after the early season performances, yet even then Renault managed to outplay their hand rather cynically last season before the lights had gone green in Bahrain, so alas it will be perhaps mid-season before we know if the bookies have made a mistake, but my 20e docket is already made out and I'm looking forward to next November's winnings.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Honeymoon Period? This makes no sense!

Branded the ‘silly season’ by politicians, December and January is largely the ‘sacking season’ in the Premier League as nervous owners have their hands forced by fans, media and, ultimately, results.

With January the only chance a struggling club has to directly change playing personnel during the season, it offers clubs the chance to replace a manager in time for the incumbent to go out and purchase the players he feels will help an ailing situation.

Don’t act, and owners face the prospect of sitting on their hands as their beloved club gets relegated, misses out on a European place or even fails to land the title. Act after January and owners face the prospect of replacing a manager with no possibility of financially backing the new one – a very risky prospect as the players already at the club are surely worth some of the blame.

However, it is generally assumed that new managers enjoy a ‘Honeymoon Period’ where results and performances, for no apparent reason other than a new man in the dugout, dramatically improve in the short term.

This can have drastic effects when achieved by a club suffering near the foot of the table, as it is usually only a handful of points between the bottom half dozen or so teams come January, and is another key factor in the timing and reason of dismissal.

So Liverpool have gambled on this honeymoon theory – as well as allowing Kenny Dalglish a pop at the transfer window - in sacking Roy Hodgson, hoping that Dalglish can come in and immediately improve their admittedly dismal performances and results of late.

But is this possible? Do players improve when a manager flies in to save a club? If so, why? Surely it can only be a sign of mental weakness on the players part, an ineptitude underlined by the apparent drastic change in fortunes – even if the new manager makes changes to the personnel on the pitch, it can’t be hugely different at the immediate outset.

In the last two seasons, many clubs in the Premier League have changed their manager during a campaign, thus encountering an opportunity for players to drastically improve. Is there a link between their immediate results post-sacking?

First up, in November last season, Paul Hart was sacked as manager of Portsmouth. With the club struggling desperately, they turned to Avram Grant. Ultimately he failed to get the club out of the bottom three all season, but in fact, under his first 5 league games he achieved just under three times the points/game ratio which Pompey had under Hart up to that point. Hart had earned a point every two games but Grant’s first 5 games secured 7 points themselves.

Then in December last season, two managers lost their jobs: Gary Megson at Bolton was replaced by Owen Coyle; and Mark Hughes was replaced by Roberto Mancini at Manchester City.

Bolton’s immediate results barely changed, but at Eastlands Hughes exited with a very respectable 1.7 points per game, before Mancini achieved vastly more, securing 2.4 points per game in his first five league fixtures.

Hull waited until March before replacing Phil Brown with Iain Dowie, but there was no change in their fortunes. So two managers last season made drastic improvements, while two made no immediate effect.

During the summer there were obviously management changes but the ‘Honeymoon Period’ argument would not work if the manager was given lengthy time to train with his side and portray his visions.

So the first one this season worth looking at came at the eve of the season’s start, when Martin O’Neill walked out on Aston Villa.

Villa then earned 1.4 points per game under Kevin MacDonald before the permanent position was filled by Gerard Houllier, who came in and won just five points from his first five league games, a substantial reduction.

Then in December, Newcastle amazingly fired Christ Hughton, after he had won 1.18 points per game since August. But in replacing him with Alan Pardew, Newcastle actually managed to net 1.8 points per game in his opening five league fixtures.

Blackburn, not to be outdone by this Honeymoon tactic, fired Sam Allardyce – who had averaged just over a point a game – replacing him with Steve Kean, who managed to earn 1.4 points per game in the short term.

That’s two out of three this season who have had fairly large immediate improvements on results. Four out of the seven management changes listed were ‘succesful’ in the short term, two made no difference, and only one went sour – that of Houllier at Villa.

Should Liverpool excel in their first five games under Dalglish so, do not get too carried away, as by that theory, they probably would have done well under Steve Staunton!