Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Too Easily Hurt

Ireland 1.

Germany 6.

The type of score line the Vidiprinter had to write in brackets to confirm it wasn’t a mistake.

Ireland 1.

Germany 6 (Six).

That hurt.

That really hurt.

No matter what way you look at it.

Even if the team was severely depleted.

Missing the big four of Shay, Richard, Damien and Robbie was always going to be tough to cope with.

Not to mention the withdrawals of James McClean, Sean St. Ledger, Glen Whelan, Darron Gibson and Kevin Doyle.

That’s nine players who would have all felt they could start had Giovanni been able to choose from a fully fit squad.

But that hurt.

It still hurt knowing that goal difference actually counts for little in this group.

And defeat to Germany was mathematically at least, just 3 points dropped against the team everybody expects to win the group.

It was unlikely we were ever going to challenge Germany for top spot anyway.

So the result for once, actually does sound worse than it is.

That still hurt.

But it also hurt to think that we have a world class manager and this was the best he could do.

I always felt Giovanni might have a problem utilising the players at his disposal.

He was extremely successful when the players executing his orders were Totti, Brady or Mattheus.

With Ireland he has only ever been able to call on players from the lower half of the Premier League and beyond.

Not World Players of the year like before.

Instead, hard grafters and honest professionals.

Gifted to a certain extent but not in the same league as Michel Platini for instance.

Giovanni was able to build successful team after successful team around some of the world’s greats.

Now he must rely on players from L.A. Galaxy, West Bromich Albion or Stoke City to form his focal point.

Meaning Irish players are extremely restricted when it comes to world class talent.

And this was never more evident then when faced against a giant like Germany.

But it is Giovanni’s job to make sure these players play above themselves.

Give more than they are capable of as a team than they are as individual parts.

Yet even lowly Premier League players have more than what we saw on Friday night.

Championship players too.

Even Toronto FC.

But none of this was evident at the Aviva.

And it hurt.

Teams like that shouldn’t lose so heavily.

But they do.

The Germans thumped a full strength England side 4-1 at the last World Cup.

Only this summer, Spain handed out a 4 goal drubbing to Italy.

As for losing 6-1 at home - that’s the same score line that occurred when both Manchester teams met at Old Trafford last season.

England, Italy and Manchester United can all boast far superior playing squads than Ireland.

Yet all succumbed to heavy defeats.

Just like Ireland.

Losing to Germany is not a travesty.

Losing to Germany 6-1 isn’t either.

But the way that Ireland lost was.

And that’s what hurt the most.

They may not have the level of ability of their opponents.

But they can match them for heart.

Match their fight and spirit - so synonymous with Irish teams of the past.

Not the spirit that underpinned so many moral victories.

But the spirit that let the supporters know they were giving it their all.

Playing above themselves.

The sort that has been sadly lacking from Giovanni’s team for some months now.

Whether or not he can find it again is a serious question.

And all this is making it hard to defend Giovanni of late.

But defend him we must.

He took us to a first major championships in 10 years.

He deserves the chance to take us to the next...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Same Pitch. Different Playing Fields.



Aviva Stadium.

The road to World Cup qualification has begun.

And tonight’s fixture will go a long way to deciding who qualifies from Group C.

Ireland have just come off the back of qualification for their first major tournament in 10 years.

Germany have failed to qualify for a major tournament just once.


In all 29 tournaments they've entered.

Failed just once.

At this summers European Championships, Ireland of course, failed to win a single point.

Germany won every game in a group containing Holland, Portugal and Denmark before being knocked out in the semi-finals.

Their loss to Italy ending a run of 14 straight competitive victories.

Meaning in their last qualification campaign, the Germans won 10 out of 10.

In fact, Germany can boast such an impressive qualification record that they come to Dublin having never lost a World Cup qualification game away from home.

Let me repeat myself.

Since 1932, Germany have never lost an away game during qualification for the World Cup.

Ireland’s last notable away victory came in 1987.

And it was Scotland who won it for them.

They also go into this match without their 4 most influential players of the last decade.

They will start a competitive match without one of Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff or Robbie Keane for the first time in 13 seasons.

In fact, their squad has been so decimated with injuries and retirement that it contains only 3 players from the top half of the Premier League.

It has a grand total of 1 player from this seasons Champions League.

15 less than their counterparts.

Ireland will start the match with Sunderland’s reserve team goalkeeper.

Germany will have the second most expensive keeper of all time between the posts.

The home sides defence will be made up from Everton, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Toronto FC.

The away side will include players from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.

Midfield will pith Bolton Wanderers against Real Madrid.

Birmingham City against Bayern Munich.

And Nottingham Forest against even more Real Madrid.

In attack, one notable absentee will be a L.A. Galaxy centre forward.

No such worries on the other side with options from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal to choose from.

The type of clubs that Germany usually pick their players from.

The type of clubs that has allowed Germany finish at least 3rd in the last 3 World Cups.

The type that has them ranked as the second best team in the world.

Second only to Spain.

The team that punished the Irish so severely when Ireland had their full strength side out.

A team that will line up tonight against a nation who are on a different playing field.

But this game doesn’t take place on a playing field.

It takes place on a pitch.

A pitch where strange things occur.

A pitch where anything can happen.

Where teams ranked 28th defeat teams ranked much higher.

Where 1 goal is all it takes.

A deflection.

An own goal.

A set-piece.

Where one team can completely dominate a game and fail to score.

The same sort of pitch that Greece prevailed on.

Same sort that saw Switzerland put 5 past Germany just a couple of months ago.

The sort that has seen Ireland defeat Italians and Dutch and English and Spanish.

Defeat Germans even.

We may not be on the same playing field tonight.

But we are on the same pitch.

It’s time to believe...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Good Memories Were Had In Kazakhstan

World Cup qualification begun on Friday for Ireland.

A boost was needed to erase the memories of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.

A resounding victory over the lowly ranked Kazakhstan and we could all start to move on from those 3 heavy defeats from the summer.

A resounding victory and we may all start to believe again.

Not only believe in Brazil.

But believe in Giovanni once more.

Cut to the 89th minute in Astana on Friday night and calls for Giovanni’s head could be heard all the way back to Ireland.

What transpired over the next 2 minutes had a big effect on our qualification hopes.

But no doubt, it also had major consequences on the next 2 years of Irish football.

Lost, and we may already have had to give up the chase for qualification.

Worse still - lost, and we may have had to find a new manager.

The pressure Giovanni would have brought upon himself following a 1-0 defeat to Kazakhstan, coupled with the memory of the summer, may have proved too much even for the greatest of Italian managers to survive.

So although appreciative Robbie and Kevin’s double got us 3 points, it’s the ramifications they’ve had on Giovanni that we should be most thankful for.

You see, memory in football these days is shorter than it’s ever been.

Calls for Giovanni’s head, despite 3 points in Astana, is no greater proof of this.

Irish supporters seem to forget, that although the performance in both the Euros and on the astro pitch on Friday night were poor - they were a far cry from where we were before Giovanni’s appointment.

Being placed in a tough group containing the 2 finalists in Euro 2012 has been discussed before.

With our squad of players it was very difficult to see us with Giovanni, or any other manager for that matter, getting out of the group.

As for Kazakhstan, the supporters need to realise this was something of a new beginning.

Missing through retirement or suspension was Shay Given, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne.

That’s 201 caps that would usually have been there.

That’s a lot of memories for the Irish supporters.

Keith Andrews was also suspended meaning James McCarthy was starting his first competitive game.

Our defense had 2 players from the Championship, 1 from the MLS and a reserve goalkeeper.

Add to this an astro pitch, a 6,000 km journey and the fact it was the start of the season, meant a 2-1 victory, no matter how we got it, was actually a terrific result.

A bad performance alright.

But a much better result.

A much better result than the 5-2 drubbing received at the hands of Cyprus.

A result which should live long in the memory.

A result which occurred under the reign of the last manager before Giovanni.

The sort of manager we could expect to attract had the FAI decided to rid our nation of this trophy laden Italian.

It’s one thing ridding us of Giovanni after a few bad results.

It’s another finding a manager to replace him.

With us being in somewhat of a decline, it will be tough to attract a manager as successful as Giovanni again.

Losing players such as Damien and Shay coupled with father time catching up on John, Robbie and Richard means this position is hardly the most attractive of propositions.

Not for a manager as successful as Giovanni anyway.

More like a Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton or caretaker Don Givens.

All of who failed to even make a play-off.

Not once.

In 6 long years.

Giovanni of course got us to within extra time of the World Cup in 2010.

Giovanni of course got us to the European Championships in 2012.

The man that could have been out of a job had Robbie and Kevin not intervened late on in a disappointing performance.

Not a memorable performance.

But a memorable result.

As memory in football is very short alright.

Just short of being a disaster this time...

Monday, 23 July 2012

Players Only Loyalty is to the Game

Loyalty does not exist in football.

And nor should it.

Yet the topic of players and disloyalty rears it’s ugly head in the transfer window as frequently as players move club.

The problem with loyalty is simple.

The subject matter is always broached from a supporters point of view.

But supporters aren’t in football.

They are always only the support that allows football to live.

Football supporters can be the embodiment of loyalty.

Some will tell you they haven’t missed a games in 30 years.

Others have tattoos of crests twice the size of their heart.

But it is because of this almost blind loyalty that supporters believe their players will feel the same way about their club.

After all, these players are getting to live the dream of so many of these supporters.

They must love the club to do so.

must therefore be loyal.

After all, every supporter would be - if given the chance to play for their club.

Or so some supporters would believe.

Wayne Rooney grew up joining his boyhood heros Everton.

They gave him Premier League football.

Yet Wayne wanted more.

As loyal as he was to the blue half of Merseyside, he wanted to win major honours.

He joined Manchester United.

He won major honours.

Jamie Carragher has now spent his entire career at Liverpool.

The biggest rival to Everton, whom like Wayne, he also supported.

Jamie would never have won the Champions League with the Toffees.

‘Loyal’ to the reds.

Yet I use the word loyal loosely.

True, Jamie and also Steven Gerard have stayed at the one club their entire careers.

Through thick an thin, supporters might argue.

But the reality is, they both stayed because they were getting something in return.

Their careers were benefitting from playing for a club who regularly qualified for the Champions League.

Who won the Champions league.

Along with numerous other cups.

But even after capturing the biggest club prize of all, Steven’s head was being turned by another team.

Liverpool supporters will say he was loyal in the end when he opted against the switch.

But if winning the Champions League was almost not enough to keep the player who joined them at the age of 10 - imagine what finishing mid-table would have done?

Or getting relegated?

Like the Leeds United team of 2003.

A great team that had taken a gamble on Champions League glory and when success on the pitch wasn’t achieved - the wheels came off rapidly.

A player exodus commenced.

Amongst them was a young Alan Smith.

A Leeds man through and through.

Made up of equal measures of love for his club and hatred for
his rivals.

No bigger rival to
his team of course was Manchester United.

The team he joined 3 weeks after Leeds left the Premier League.

No championship for Alan.

No, straight to the Champions League for this loyal supporters favourite.

Even those who stayed with the sunken ship cannot claim loyalty.

Gary Kelly hung around for 3 more seasons in the Championship.

Unlikely he could have found another big club at his age.

And he was the third highest paid full back in England after all.

Manchester United have their loyal bunch too.

Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs to name a few.

All loyal one club men.

All achieving every ambition imaginable in the game at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

No sign of the championship for them.

There are of course players who remain ‘loyal’ to their smaller clubs.

Matt Le Tissier perhaps the most overt.

Regularly coveted by larger, more successful clubs.

It would have been easy for him to move on.

But he was the star man at Southampton.

The center of everything.

And he was guaranteed Premier league football.

Finishing his career at Southampton was great to see.

Loyal to the team that gave him his break.

Yet Matt grew up in Guernsey - hardly a haven for Southampton supporters.

Supporters adorn some of the aforementioned players.

They see them as ‘loyal’ servants to the cause as they have remained at their beloved club.

The truth is, the ‘loyal’ ones always made sure it suited them to stay.

This was their career after all.

They don’t support their clubs.

Their clubs support them.

‘There’s no loyalty in the game anymore’ is heard up and down every terrace come transfer window season.

Could it just be that is heard during the period since the Bosman ruling came to fruition?

No longer could the clubs decide where and when the player would go.

Instead the player inherited the power.

The power to remain loyal.

Loyal to the club.

Or loyal to their career...

Monday, 9 July 2012

Ireland’s Performances Are Not the Peak of the Problem

Ireland’s performance at the European Championships in Poland was a harsh reality.

But a review of the players decline in the squad brings forth a reality even harsher.

Talk of retirements usually surface after era ending markers such as this.

The big 5 getting a constant mention at the moment.

Shay Given in goal had an extremely poor tournament by his own highest of standards.

Always considered one of the top keepers in the English Premier League, if never the top, his decline in form has coincided with father time and his inability to recover sufficiently from ever increasing injuries.

The first signs came when Shay finally landed himself at a big club only to find after 1 season, he was demoted to the reserves to allow the returning Joe Hart claim first choice.

His decline cemented when he sealed his transfer to Aston Villa a year later.

While Manchester City were being crowned champions of England last month - Shay had to look back on a season that saw his new team finish 16th.

The same team of course, in which Richard Dunne played.

Similar to Shay, when Man City started getting big, they realised they could afford to bring in whoever they wanted.

Despite 4 player of the season awards at the Ethiad in a row, it wasn’t long before Richard was replaced with players the calibre of Vincent Kompany and Kolo Toure.

Much like Ireland in Poland - he never stood a chance.

Damian Duff was once a diamond in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea dynasty.

Valued as high as €17 at one stage - it wasn’t long before he took a step down too.

The dizzying heights of Champions League football and Premier League titles were replaced with relegation involving Newcastle and his current spell at the never threatening Fulham.

John O’Shea spent 12 seasons at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

11 major honours in total - including the Champions League.

Only 3 Irish players have ever won more.

Yet last summer it was pastures new for John and the not so dizzying heights of the Stadium of Light.

And of course, our Captain and talisman, Robbie Keane.

After finding his home at White Hart Lane, one last big money move looked on the cards when Liverpool came calling.

But after only 4 months at Anfield, it was back to Tottenham and soon a drop further to West Ham on loan in double quick time.

For the amount of goals Robbie has got in the Premier League over the years, it’s tough to think our greatest goal threat is spending his early 30’s in the less than impressive Major League.

Outside the senior 5 there are plenty of examples of decline in the Irish squad too.

With the exception of Aiden McGeady, most of the squad are in worse shape than they were when Giovanni took over.

Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Stephen Ward will all begin next season in the Championship with Wolves.

Kevin had been linked with Arsenal not so long ago.

Sean St. Ledger has gone from promising young defender on the cusp of the Premier League to a Championship regular.

Keith Andrews has had a lot of ups and downs in the past 3 seasons culminating in him currently being without a club.

And the reserves don’t fare off much better either.

Kieron Westwood has gone from being in the Championship team of the year 2 seasons in a row to warming the bench of Sunderland.

Paul McShane has dropped out of the top flight.

Darren O’Dea and Paul Green are both unattached.

And Darron Gibson followed John out the Old Trafford door.

It could be argued that Shane Long, Glen Whelan and Jon Walters have improved.

But in truth, their talents have - their club status has remained the same.

That just leaves us with the young James McClean, who could do nothing but rise if he was to make the squad.

And it is with this youth that the next campaign may lye.

So many of this squads are no longer heading skyward - with this summers Championships seen as one of their peaks.

2 years from now when Brazil comes around, it’s hard to see many of the squad being in a better position.

But perhaps it is this reason alone that Giovanni should look for new blood.

The next generation are already looking better off than they were when Giovanni took over.

James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman, Ciaran Clark to name a few.

Indeed Brazil in 2014 might be a peak for some of these players.

Let’s just hope it’s not their highest peak...

Friday, 29 June 2012

Caught in a Trapp

3 games.

3 defeats.

And a goal difference of minus 8.

Pretty conclusive reading.

A dream to get to the European Championships.

A nightmare at it.

However, Ireland were in a much worse place when Giovanni Trapattoni first took over.

Embarrassing defeats like the 5-2 hammering by Cyprus meant Steve Staunton didn’t last long.

And while the FAI chased Paul Jewell to become the man to lead Ireland back to where the nation craved - a wily old Italian was having ideas of his own.

With 26 major honours to his name, ‘Il Trap’ was about to step in and lead the nation forward.

Never in our history had this nation been managed by a man so successful.

Indeed, an FA cup was all that had been won by all previous Ireland managers combined.

And after 3 campaigns in which Ireland had failed to even make the play-offs - Giovanni’s task was simple.

So too was his plan.

At least it was simple on the eye.

Make ourselves as defensively tight as possible and adopt his 'Italian' approach.

Cyprus would not be scoring 5 goals against us again anytime soon.

In fact most teams would not be scoring against us at all.

Giovanni’s system has been in place 37 years now.

It’s not the same in 2012 as it was in 1975.

It has been tinkered with plus thought about and adjusted accordingly over the years to allow for all the gradual changes that occur over what is now 5 decades that the Italian has been managing in.

It is a system that has brought him Italian titles.

German titles.

Portuguese titles.

Even every major European title that was on offer.

It was a system intended to bring qualification to a major tournament to a squad of players who so desperately craved it.

And it worked.

After 2 years in charge, the Irish came within extra time of qualifying for a World Cup.

A far cry from that night in Nicosia.

Defence was tight.

The team remained undefeated in a group that contained Italy and Bulgaria.

And a limited squad of players had come to the brink.

Failure to qualify for the fourth campaign in a row was suddenly not as ghastly as before.

This time we came close.

Very close.

The system was working.

Fast forward 2 years and with largely the same squad of players, Giovanni had masterminded his team through the play-offs and straight to the promised land.

The system, with 2 more years of adjustments and a squad well rehearsed at it - had qualified.

It wasn’t very attacking.

But it was very effective.

Ireland had gone 14 games undefeated.

Conceding only 1 goal in 12 games.

The system behind it all, of course.

Until suddenly Croatia played us.

Then Spain.

Then Italy.

And the system crashed around our feet.

4 years hard work under the highly decorated Italian had suddenly gone to waste.

And the system was to blame.

What else could it be?

What had been good enough to get us to Euro 2012 was actually not good enough to allow us compete at it.

The tight defence on which it was built had collapsed.

It was Cyprus all over again.

Ireland were leaking goals at almost every attack.

And not even threatening the oppositions goal.

Giovanni had perfected his system after managing in so many of the top league teams around.

But there in may lye his problem.

Ireland are no top side.

In fact, Ireland are a very limited side.

Whereas he could call upon Michel Platini or Lothar Matthaus or Francisco Totti in the past, he was now relying on players who were playing for Stoke City, Wolves and West Brom.

Honest, hard working professionals.

But not world players of the year as before.

The system is only as good as the sum of it parts.

And while it may be world class - the players unfortunately, are not.

The system is great if you can rely on Francisco in the final third to get you the goal.

Or Lothar running from midfield putting the opposition on the back foot.

Ireland unfortunately, are reliant on players like Keith Andrews and Kevin Doyle to do this.

The team made up of the lower half of the Premier league and beyond had found themselves able to turn over the likes of Armenia, Montenegro and Estonia in this system.

Something they'd struggled with before.

But when they faced real competition like both games against Russia and the 3 group games in the tournament - it was a different story.

It appeared the system had failed.

In some ways it had.

Not because it couldn't work against other teams.

But perhaps because the players weren't good enough to make it work...

Friday, 22 June 2012

Best Fans in the World Maybe, But Not the Best Supporters

I took a considered moment out for myself as the fields of Athenry billowed around Arena Gdansk.

After due deliberation, I too, joined in for a chorus of one of Ireland’s most renowned football anthems.

I was gutted that we had just been thumped so convincingly.

But I felt the Irish players deserved something back for all the effort they’d put in over the previous 2 seasons.

If they had of performed as inadequately as they had against the Croats - it would have been a different story.

When outclassed by superior opponents yet willing to give their all, I decided to support them.

I was there as a supporter after all.

And they needed me.

Support can change a game.

Fortress Anfield became synonymous with their successful football club due to the vociferous crowd.

Roy Keane himself spoke of the respect he had for the Liverpool atmosphere.

How intelligent they were about football, respectfully applauding when the opposition had done something worthy of ardent praise.

However, this week was also the week in which Roy questioned the expectations of the Irish support.

In an opinion subjected mainly towards the players of the Irish squad, it was the supporters who took offence.

Or at this point, I’ll switch the expression to ‘fans’.

The supporters knew what he meant.

They know enough about football and enough about what they’d seen unfold in front of them in Poland to interpret Roy correctly.

Roy was right.

Ireland weren’t good enough.

And the supporters should demand more.

In fact, they deserved more.

Roy has no problem with fans and supporters singing throughout the build-up and throughout the match itself.

He’d already gone on record as saying how great the Irish support is.

He even went as far as clarifying his comments in his column the following Sunday to avoid confusion.

Yet come kick off in the next game, the ‘fans’ of Ireland had already created a song all for the great man himself.

“F**k you Roy Keane, we’ll sing when we want”

Roy had won his potential debate with the Irish fans, without a need for retort.

4 nil down and heading for our heaviest competitive defeat in over 50 years.

“We’ll sing when we want”

Heading out of the European Championships after only 4 days?

“We’ll sing when we want”

Losing to Italy on the way to equalling the worst ever record at a European Championship?

Well, you get the picture.

If that’s all that’s needed to get the fans singing - there clearly is no requisite for expectation.

Not from the fans anyway.

The supporters, well that’s a different matter.

For them, this hurt.

And hurt badly.

10 years is a long time not to feature at a major tournament.

To come and see our dreams turn quickly to nightmares was not a singing affair.

The supporters were too crestfallen to keep the songs going.

And they were too knowing about football to join in with the “F**k yous” directed at the greatest player ever to don the green jersey.

Roy had done too much for Ireland to warrant abuse like this.

Let alone warrant abuse for a justified attack on our underachieving players.

Yet it was the fans who took exception to these home truths.

These same fans who had the audacity to hurl abuse at their captain and record goalscorer when deployed in the thankless task of chasing down the possession obsessed Spanish defence - outnumbered 5 to 1.

If they got frustrated at a player not giving 100%, behaving selfishly, even arrogantly - they could be forgiven.

But when their team is quite simply outclassed by potentially one of the most successful sides ever seen, support was the answer.

Not jeers.

Or cheers.

But encouragement to push them on.

Give them the support to chase down one more lost cause.

Force one more corner.

Score one more goal.

But no, the same fans who had just jeered Aiden McGeady to stay off the pitch after his momentum had taken him over the touchline, had turned their backs to the action to ‘do the Poznan’ by the time he had returned to play.

The Poznan, reserved only for goals by Manchester City supporters, was been exercised whilst 1 down to the Italians.

What was Mario Balotelli figuring as he watched on from the bench?

Had his beloved Italian support all wore green that day or did this Irish crowd just not ‘get’ his club’s goal celebration?

Manchester United supporters didn’t do the Poznan when 1 nil down at the Etihad.

They expected more from their team.

As did Roy.

The Irish fans had different ideas though.

They were there to party.

The atmosphere they created was unbelievable.

Build-up to every game commenced hours before any ball was kicked.

And it was world class to experience.

Unless you were a supporter.

It just made it all the more difficult knowing the only time the Aviva had sold out since it opened was against Estonia.

Not when the team needed support.

They were already 4 nil up.

No, the return leg was going to be a party.

Armenia at home was when support was needed.

But the fans weren’t there.

Slovakia didn’t sell out either.

Not even Russia could.

When the team really needed support.

It was when 4 nil up against Estonia.

When the fans could party.

And they did.

Unsure as to whether they were so jubilant for the group of players who had finally qualified after so many years of heartbreak.

Or because they’d secured the biggest two week party of the year for themselves.

The fans will remember the European Championship for the sing songs, the beers and the ‘craic’ that occurred on every night.

And who can blame them?

The supporters however, will all meet up in a few months at the Kazakhstan game.

In hope.

Eternal optimism for Ireland’s next campaign.

Their dreams may having turned to nightmares.

But in Kazakhstan, at least they’ll be able to support each other...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Ireland Insured that it was Fully Comprehensive

The great adventure is over.

What started with a 1-0 win over Armenia almost 2 years ago - ended in defeat this week.

Not the heroic kind synonymous with Irish football over the years.

No, not at all.

No handballs from Frenchmen.

No last minute Macedonian headers.

No missed penalties.

Just defeat.

Comprehensive defeat.

The hopes and dreams of so many Irish fans were in full flow coming into the tournament.

14 games without loss.

Only 1 goal conceded in 10 games.

We had a manager who had given us a game plan.

Made us really tough to score against.

Even tougher to beat.

Oh how we had improved since the embarrassment of our last management team.

Heck, we were world beaters.

In the last 4 years we had done one on the French in Paris.

Until that ‘heroic defeat’ entered the fray again.

We had played Italy 3 times since they won the World Cup.

Masterminding 2 draws and a victory.

And the last competitive tie we played before our trip to Poland, saw us destroy Estonia in the Play-offs.


The belief was back.

And we were taking it to the Euros with us.

The fans sang songs.

Invaded the square.

Belief all over the stadium.

That is, until the officials kicked things off.

3 games later and Ireland had equalled the all time worst record of any team in a European Championship.

Our undefeated record was smashed with 3 straight losses.

Our defence caved in and conceded 9 goals.

Our attack replied with just the 1.

Our greatest ever goalkeeper, so long a hero, had proved culpable on more than 1 occasion.

That was more than 1 occasion in every game mind.

The leader of our defence, so masterful in Moscow, was playing desperately below his own high standards.

Our all time leading goalscorer, and Captain, had little or no impact.

The list goes on.

And on.

Each of our heros defeated.

Each so comprehensively.

Of course, effort was not an issue.

It never is with this squad.

It was just the harsh reality that this time, defeat came about because we were not good enough.




The belief that had returned to Ireland since the change in management had evaporated after just 3 minutes.

Replaced with this cold harsh reality.

The Ireland team were simply not good enough.

And unlike the heroic defeats, we now had nothing to hold on to this time.

The emptiness of being outclassed was a lot harder to stomach.

No Frenchman to direct our anger at.

No referee to curse through the next campaign.

No excuses.

Just comprehension.

That Ireland simply were not good enough...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Leagues of Opportunity

23 players will board the plane for Ireland’s first involvement in a major tournament in 10 years.

A squad with players plying their trade in England, Scotland, US of A and Russia.

A squad with Premiership experience - Champions League too.

And a squad with 610 games in the League of Ireland between them.

Of the group still in with a chance of starting the tournament, there are no fewer than 7 players who have strutted their stuff in this islands own League.

An absolute testament to how the standard of talent in the League of Ireland has risen in the last ten years.

Stephen Ward, James McClean, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, David Forde, Keith Fahey and Seamus Coleman.

All stand a chance of being in the final squad for Euro 2012.

All played in the League of Ireland at some stage in their career.

And the list doesn’t stop there.

Calls for Wes Hoolahan of Norwich have been loud.

Daryl Murphy at Celtic, Conor Sammon at Wigan, Noel Hunt at Reading, David Meyler at Sunderland and Brian Murphy at QPR were all on the periphery of the squad over the last season.

All together making 457 appearances in the League at home.

A League that has risen in stock.

And keeps rising.

Having knocked on the door of the group stages of Europe for a few years, it was Shamrock Rovers who finally made the break though only last season.

Aston Villa were the first to identify the talent from that pool of players.

And with our options at left back in the senior team limited - how long before we see Enda Stevens gain international recognition?

The standard of the English Premier League has of course risen in this time as well.

Pushing Ireland’s best - lower down the ranks.

The lower they fall, the more the League of Ireland presents it’s appeal.

In search of either redemption or simply a continuation of their craft, the option to return home is far more enticing of late compared to even the early ‘00’s.

Any young Irish player contemplating a return home need look no further than the success story of Keith Fahey.

Having spent 2 seasons at Arsenal and a further 2 at Aston Villa, Keith found himself playing for Bluebell United at the age of 20.

9 years on and he’s heading to Poland for a major championship.

Roy O’Donovan, Gary Deegan, Karl Sheppard to name but a few have all come home for a period and headed back over after very successful spells.

The League of Ireland also has great offerings on the pictch too, for players outside the Premier League.

Shamrock Rovers’ squad got to play in 12 European games this season.

Against some quality opposition.

Even lesser teams like St. Pats made it through 4 rounds of European competition when Keith was their talisman.

Sligo, Derry, Cork,
Bohemians and Shelbourne have all had great success in Europe too.

An unlikely occurrence for those plying their trade in the Championship or lower.

It can provide opportunities for players who can look beyond the Premier League bubble as well.

Padraig Amond, Dominic Foley and Shane Robinson all earned rewards to the top divisions of Portugal, Belgium and Finland respectively, after being spotted while playing in European competition.

Managers too.

Brian Kerr went from managing St. Pats to landing the biggest job in Ireland.

Lawrie Sanchez went from Sligo to the Premier League to the biggest job in Northern Ireland.

Michael O’Neill has that hotseat now.

And there was Sam Allardyce at Limerick too.

Stephen Kenny, Jim Gannon and now Pat Fenlon have all engineered moves to bigger clubs after successful periods managing at home.

But of course for every success story of players going back across to bigger clubs -  there are those who ended up in League 1, 2 or lower.

Roy O’Donovan, Joe Gamble, Dave Mooney and Alan Bennett were star players for Cork around the same time as Kevin and Shane.

But they couldn’t match the success they found.

Instead they found their level.

The league still granted them the opportunity to go higher, they just couldn’t find the path.

But it is giving the opportunities to these players.

No many had heard of James McClean at the start of the season.

But that’s because attendances are low in the league.

For those of us who did see him for the candystripes - we knew how good he was.

Good enough to have the whole nation demand he gets an opportunity against Spain.

Good enough to ensure a Derry City player gets the opportunity to finish a season at a European Championships.

Good enough to take his opportunity...

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Marginal Victory that is Winning The Champions League

Roman took over Chelsea in the summer of 2003.

Transforming a modest team into one of the top sides in the world.

Traditionalists will cite that what took place over the course of the next nine years was a club buying their success.

Realists will know that this is how football works these days.

Chelsea are no different to Blackburn, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United.

Arsenal would have seen the same success but spent their money on a stadium instead of players.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are funded by Spanish banks and the Government.

And money has dictated the Italian championship a lot longer than it’s European counterparts.

Yet even those who have spent big have still only managed limited success in Europe’s top competition.

No team has ever retained the competition.

No team has ever dominated it.

Sir Alex Ferguson has had 17 attempts at winning the competition yet has only yielded 2 titles.

By his own accord that has not been good enough - but he is still the most successful manager in the competitions history.

Arsene Wenger has had 14 attempts with just 1 runner-ups spot.

Roman has tried and failed with the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Luis Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Avram Grant, even Jose Mourinho.


We have witnessed one of the greatest sides to ever come out of England continuously miss out on Champions League glory.

And by the smallest of margins.

John’s slip in the final.

Luis’ goal that never crossed the line.

Eidur’s miss in the last minute.

The penalties at Anfield.


This squad, more than most, have proved what little margins there are between coming first - or coming last.

For to win the Champions League - everything must go your way.

Everything over the course of the season.

Liverpool were 4 minutes away from elimination in the group stage in 2005.

Not to mention what happened in Istanbul.

Manchester United were losing 1-0 in injury time in 1999.

The same club of course, who benefitted from John’s slip.

And then we had Chelsea in 2012.

How many times had they looked dead and buried in this seasons competition?

Napoli defeating them 3-1 in the first leg.

Then scoring an away goal at the Bridge.

Losing both centre backs in Camp Nou.

Barcelona going 2-0 up.

Lionel stepping up to take a penalty to give Barcelona the lead.

Their opponents in the final playing with home advantage.

Bayern scoring in the 84th minute of the final.

Arjen looked to seal it from 12 yards in extra time.

Juan missing his kick.

Before finally Bastian tipped the competition in Chelsea’s favour.

They were down and out on so many occasions yet they would not die.

Neutrals may not like some of these Chelsea players but they have to have been impressed with their mentality.

They have earned the respect of everyone who really knows about this sport.

Their ‘not knowing when to quit’ attitude was exceptional.

Desire unquestionable.

Every time they looked out, they somehow found something extra special to keep them in the fight.

This is what makes great teams great.

What made Chelsea great.

And Chelsea have been exactly that this century.

It’s just now, they’ve finally got what they deserve - a marginal victory...

Monday, 14 May 2012

End of Season Awards

Player of the Season:
(1) Vincent Kompany
(2) Robin Van Persie
(3) Yaya Toure

Young Player of the Season:
(1) Sergio Aguero
(2) Gareth Bale
(3) James McClean

Manager of the Season:
(1) Alan Pardew
(2) Roberto Martinez
(3) Roberto Mancini


Goal of the Season:
(1) Peter Crouch vs. Man City 
(2) Papiss Cisse vs. Chelsea (2nd) 
(3) Hatem Ben Arfa vs. Bolton

Game of the Season:
(1) Man City 3-2 QPR
(2) Man Utd 1-6 Man City
(3) Man Utd 8-2 Arsenal 
(4) Man Utd 4-4 Everton
(5) Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal


Moment of the Season:
(1) Sergio Aguero vs. QPR 
(2) Eden Dzeko vs. Man United 
(3) Steven Pienaar vs. Man United

Gripe of the Season:
(1) Luis Suarez vs. Man United 
(2) John Terry vs. QPR 
(3) Roy Hodgsons’ Media Treatment

Reality check of the Season:
(1) Gary Speed
(2) Fabrice Muamba
(3) Stylian Petrov


Best signing of the Season:
(1) Sergio Aguero 
(2) Paul Scholes 
(3) Papiss Cissé

Worst signing of the Season:
(1) Stewart Downing 
(2) Charlie Adam
(3) Roger Johnson


Team of the Season:

Joe Hart

Kyle Walker
Vincent Kompany
Johnny Evans
Leighton Baines

Antonio Valencia
Yaya Toure
Clint Dempsey

Wayne Rooney
Robin Van Persie
Sergio Aguero

Monday, 30 April 2012

Barcelona just could not pass

There was only one way to sum up Chelsea’s performance against Barcelona in the Camp Nou - World Class.

Petr Cech in goal.

World Class.

Ashley Cole at left back.

World Class.

Didier Drogba at left back.

World Class.

Ramires’ finish.

Frank’s pass.

Fernando’ goal.

All World Class.

An expression that is overused in the extreme when it comes to football expletives.

But not when used to describe this match.

It was quite simply the best night of football in many a year.

The first leg set it up perfectly.

Didier Drogba scoring the only goal of a game Barcelona dominated in possession.

But that was all Barcelona could manage - possession.

The goals that usually appear from this much time on the ball just never materialised.

Lionel Messi.

Xavi Hernández.

Andrés Iniesta.

The greatest attack in the world.

Able to unlock almost any defence in the world.

They have done so for 4 straight seasons now.

But then they hit Chelsea.

Only one team has come close to stopping Barcelona in this time - Inter Milan.

They went on to be crowned European Champions that season and indeed completed a treble.

That’s how good that team were.

Real Madrid have come up desperately short in that period against their main rivals - even under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.

Manchester United were the best team in Europe until Barcelona knocked them back into second and then created a considerable gap between them.

Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Arsenal couldn’t touch them.

Yet Chelsea did.

They not only defended superbly - they attacked superbly.

They didn’t get many chances over the two legs, but when they did - they took them.

World class passing and world class finishing from Frank, Ramires and Fernando were needed.

But Chelsea had that in them.

Barcelona did not.

When their chances came they found an imperious Petr in goal.

When he was beaten - they hit the woodwork.

Not bad luck.

Just bad finishing.

And good defending.

For even when Barcelona found space, it was closed down so quickly by the Chelsea defence that their usually composed finishes were rushed time and again.

It was incredible to watch.

It was heroic.

It was romantic.

It was one of the greatest feats of defending in a long time.

It is why I love football.

Why people love the underdog.

And why the underdog believes.

It was not lucky.

It was not anti football.

It was a team with limitations telling superior opponents that they shall not pass.

And as ironic as it is for a team who hold onto the ball better than any team in the world, they could not do just that.

Barcelona could not pass.

Even when Chelsea went down to 10 men.

Even when their second centre back went off injured.

Even when they conceeded a penalty from a dive.

Barcelona could not pass.

A team that had won 13 out of the previous 14 tournaments they had entered.

A team that was on course to become the first team to ever retain the Champions League.

This is how good a team FC Barcelona are.

World class.

They just weren’t as good as the Chelsea defence...

Monday, 23 April 2012

Who cares what Liverpool Supporters think

Liverpool 0 West Bromwich Albion 1.

Yet another defeat at Anfield for the mighty Liverpool.

They now sit in the Premier League in a group of teams separated by 3 points that include Norwich, Swansea and West Bromich Albion.

With only a couple of games left to go in the season, I see that as a disgrace for a club the size of Liverpool considering how much they have spent in the last year and a half.

However, I am not a Liverpool supporter.

I have enjoyed watching what I consider to have been great football under Rafa Benitez.

I have enjoyed watching the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher over the years and would hate to see them retire without winning the Premier League.

And I have enjoyed numerous epic European nights over the last decade.

But I am not a Liverpool supporter.

And I say supporter, as opposed to fan.

For it is they who support the club.

They who pay the entrance fee.

They who are the ones who experience the emotions of both the clubs successes - and failures.

Not me, nor other neutrals.

Who cares what they think about their club - It’s their club.

So as most Liverpool supporters have been staunch in the defence of Kenny Dalglish - most neutrals think it is blind nostalgia towards a hero of yesteryear who is so far out of the game he should not be allowed near a club the size of theirs.

Liverpool supporters believe that because Andy Carroll scored 2 important goals recently - he starting to prove his worth.

Most neutrals think Andy was a colossal waste of money and at €40m, consider him to be one of the greatest flops in the history of the Premier League.

Liverpool supporters believe Charlie Adam is an acceptable signing because he cost only €8m.

Most neutrals think he is nowhere near good enough to even grace the bench of a club that size.

Liverpool supporters believe Luis Suarez is in the World Class bracket.

Most neutrals look at the record of Luis this season - 8 goals in 28 games - and think why?

Van Persie has 27 in 35.

Rooney has 26 in 31.

Even Yakubu has twice as many as Luis and played a game less.

But again, us neutrals are not Liverpool supporters.

The way Kenny brought shame onto the club with his handling of the racism row was again something that we didn’t agree with.

We also didn’t like the handling of Roy Hodgson.

Sacked after only a few months, Roy now sits 1 point behind Liverpool despite not spending €130million.

Most neutrals laughed when Liverpool won the Carling Cup.

We think it’s a trophy that lost all its prestige when big teams, and Liverpool were one of them, started using the cup to blood youngsters and allow recently injured players get back to full fitness.

As Real Madrid defeated Barcelona on Saturday night to almost guarantee them La Liga - I couldn’t help but wonder what has happened in the 3 years since Liverpool destroyed Real Madrid 5-0.

I miss that team.

That for me, was where Liverpool belonged.

Not winning Carling Cups with Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing in their team.

Hammering the greatest club in Europe with World Class players like Torres, Gerard and Alonso.

But alas, as I said, I am not a Liverpool supporter.

It’s them and only them who can make their judgement on their club and where it should be.

If they support Kenny and Charlie, Andy and Luis, plus the Carling Cup and feel all that is good enough for their club - they will get what they deserve.

I just feel they should be aiming a little higher...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Size Doesn't Matter on Big Decisions

Old Trafford.

Sunday afternoon.

14 minutes gone.

Wayne Rooney slips a little throughball for Ashley Young to run on to.

Big chance to score.

Big chance to put one hand firmly on the Premier League trophy.

Enter Shaun Derry.

The QPR defender inexplicably hauls down Ashley, giving away a clear penalty and earning a stone wall red card.

Usual complaints ensue from the offending players teammates but all falling on deaf ears.

However, as the match is being televised by hyper detailed coverage of Sky Sports, the viewer is about to be afforded the opportunity to review the situation from the best of 24 different angles.

Just as conclusive as Sky is at having an angle to find unequivocal proof, Ashley was a yard offside.

Another big decision.

Another big mistake.

Another example of the decision going in favour of the ‘big’ club when in opposition against the little one.

Only one day before had Branislav Ivanovic taken advantage of this ‘occurrence’ by slotting home for his big club from an offside position even more overt than that of Ashley’s.

Two weeks ago, Manchester United were 1-0 up against Fulham and with only seconds remaining, Michael Carrick upended Danny Murphy in the box.

Again, at first viewing it appeared Michael won the ball as it had clearly changed direction.

Thanks to Sky though, the viewer was able to see upon closer inspection that the referee had again made a mistake.

A goal for Fulham here and the title race might have swung in Manchester City’s favour.

But again, another big decision goes the way of a big club.

However, what most people seem to forget was that Patrice Evra had a clear penalty in the first half not given.

It wasn’t deemed as big a decision as Manchester United went on to win 1-0.

But it was a decision that went against them and it would have been a big one had Danny Murphy denied the leaders 2 points.

The 75,000 shouting at Michael Oliver couldn’t convince him to give Patrice a penalty.

Likewise, I don’t believe the 75,000 influenced the decision not to penalise Michael Carrick.

Instead I look to the attacking statistics in the game.

Manchester United had 60% possession with 21 attempts on goal compared to Fulham’s 7.

Against QPR they had 72% possession with 28 attempts compared to QPR’s 9.

The more possession a team has and the more chances they create on goal, the more likely they are going to give the referee a big decision to make.

It doesn’t matter what size the club is.

It matters how successful they are.

Because the more successful they are, the more time they spend around the oppositions box.

Liverpool are a perfect example.

One of the biggest clubs in the world yet right now they are going through an extremely poor patch.

Suddenly, all the big decisions seem to be going against them.

If the big clubs are getting all the big decisions then Liverpool Football Club must be the anomaly.

Focus on the referees failure to send Mario Balotelli off against Arsenal and the landscape changes further.

One big club got the decision in their favour that time and another one didn’t.

And as most of the decisions they have to make seem to be when the bigger clubs are attacking - they’ve created this stigma around the leagues best.

It’s not the big clubs that get all the big decisions in their favour - it’s the successful clubs.

The more times you ask the referee to make a decision about a penalty incident, the more times you’ll be awarded one.

It’s the law of averages.

Something all the successful clubs have in common.

None more so than the team at the top of the league...

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Less Fashionable Managers are Setting the Trend

When the manager of the year award gets handed out at close of play - Sir Alex Ferguson will be pretty close to top of mind again this season.

And deservedly so.

Should he take this team to their 20th league title, it would be enough to win him the MOTY award 9 times out of 10.

But while his usual competitors for the crown are nowhere to be seen, it’s the less fashionable names that will come closest to knocking him of his perch.

The Chelsea manager, the Arsenal manager and the Liverpool manager will be more focused on trying to keep their jobs than winning the manager award.

And while Manchester City’s manager would usually have a shout if he took his club to second place, he will now see that as a failure considering the amount he has invested in the squad.

Instead, this seasons contenders will come from managers punching above their weight.

They may not have come close to winning any trophies.

They certainly didn’t do well in Europe.

But they did all exceed expectations at theirs clubs this season.

Who would have thought Brendan Rodgers would be 3 points behind Liverpool after 31 games.

Same can be said of Paul Lambert and his Norwich side.

Both only promoted to the Premier League this season.

And should Blackburn survive then Steve Kean should get an honourable mention.

But for me the MOTY so far has to be Alan Pardew at Newcastle.

Many people scoffed at Alan’s appointment just over a year ago.

Especially considering Chris Hughton had been doing such a good job.

Alan had relative success at teams like West Ham United and Reading but never had he the chance to work at a club the size of Newcastle United.

The club was in a sordid mess since Mike Ashley had began his reign and the way he treated Chris only fuelled belief that things would continue in the same vein.

Alan comes in on a 5 and a half year contract as a show of stability from Mike and all most people could think was - that’s going to be a big payday when he gets fired.

Not only does Alan have to deal with the circus that surrounds Mike but over the coming months and subsequent summer he had to watch arguably the 4 best performers of last season leave the club.

Andy Carroll and Jose Enrique headed to Anfield.

Joey Barton left for Queens Park Rangers.

And club captain Kevin Nolan joined up with West Ham United.

Take the top 4 performers out of any side and they would struggle, let alone an average team like Newcastle were.

Alan had other ideas though.

He wanted to put his own stamp on the club.

The talent in the departing 4 was obvious.

But there was a question mark over the character of at least 3 of them.

Alan obviously felt the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze and aimed to spend the transfer fees recouped on players he wanted at the club.

Demba Ba was picked up on a free transfer.

Demba has scored 16 goals in 26 games so far.

£9m was spent on Papiss Demba Cissé to partner him up front.

Papiss has scored 7 from 7 so far.

Add to this a central midfield partnership of Cheick Tioté with Yohan Cabaye and the team that Alan built was really starting to take shape.

So much so, that after 31 games, Alan finds himself level on points with Chelsea in 5th place.

Still in with a shout of a Champions League place.

And well clear of the chasing pack for European spots.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team only promoted to the Premier league last season.

Even more remarkable considering Mike Ashley is still in charge.

Alas, there is still a lot to play for this season.

And if Sir Alex does win the league title this season, it will be hard not to hand him the MOTY award.

But should Alan catch the 2 London clubs to secure Champions League football - the decision might not be so foregone...

Monday, 26 March 2012

Mind the Games

So Patrick Vieira has chosen this week as the week to kick off the end of season mind games.

Every season come ‘squeaky bum’ time, the clubs going for the title all look for any little advantage they can get over each other.

What a surprise then that Patrick should open his mouth this week without the care to actually think about what he was saying.

Especially considering the fact that he is a student of a former master of the art - Arsene Wenger.

He should know better.

Arsene usually did.

So used to doing his talking on the pitch, Patrick has opened his mouth to the press and played straight into the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Kevin had ‘Love it’.

Rafa had ‘Facts’.

And if Manchester City capitulate over the coming weeks, don’t be surprised to find numerous mentions of Patrick and ‘Tevez’.

Manchester United were going about their business in their own way and keeping shut - knowing full well that they had the Carlos Tevez card to play at any stage if needed.

Roberto Mancini knew this.

David Platt knew this.

Yet somehow, inexplicably, Patrick judged the situation entirely different to everyone else at the club.

If you are going to fire the first shot of the mind game season - then make sure you have a good defence.

Patrick attacks Sir Alex’s decision to bring back ‘the greatest British midfielder of the last 20 years’ on a free.

A complete legend at the club.

One of the nicest guys in football.

And 9 league games later, having amalgamated 25 points from a possible 27 in the games Paul played, Patrick decides to call it a sign of weakness on United’s part.

In the same period, Manchester City also brought back a player of their own.

A player who refused to go on to the pitch during a key game this season.

A player we were told would never play for the club again.

He goes on a five month holiday in his homeland and is pretty much been condemned from every corner of the footballing world for being the kind of player who personifies everything that is wrong with the beautiful game today.

His return coincides with his team dropping a lead at the top of the table that at one stage was 8 points.

Yet Patrick believes bringing back Paul was the sign a weakness?

A disgusting situation that wouldn’t go away in January despite City’s best attempts to off load their Argentinian has once again reared it’s ugly head thanks in no small part to Patrick’s attempt at mind games.

The last thing Roberto would have wanted is any more press surrounding Carlos Tevez.

He knows himself that by bringing back the player he said would never play for him again - he has invited scrutiny upon his title charge.

Carlos has become a spotlight for weakness.

A spotlight for desperation.

A spotlight that could potentially derail his clubs title challenge.

And it was his own clubs ‘football development executive’ who turned it on.

Patrick has once again demonstrated just how effective a talker he is.

It’s just a pity that Patrick can no longer do his talking on the pitch...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Spain are not yet leagues ahead of England

A lot has been said about Athletic Bilbao’s extremely impressive win over Manchester United last week.

Defeating the current English champions both home and away led to a comprehensive score line and a place in the quarter finals.

A lesson in football and incontrovertible proof that the Spanish league is superior to the English Premier - I’m afraid not.

Firstly, it was one tie.

Not 5 seasons of dominance.

Secondly, you have to question the motives of Sir Alex Ferguson and look at the benefits of getting knocked out.

The Europa League is a great competition for the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Stoke City and Athletic Bilbao.

But it quite simply isn’t entertained by clubs the size of Manchester United, Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur.

Especially when they are going for the league.

They all want to be sitting at the top table with Europe’s finest and if they fail to do so, see very little point in taking part in European competition.

So while Athletic did so comprehensively defeat United, you can’t help but think that Sir Alex was more concerned with his weekend trip to face Wolves.

This season has been a strange one for English clubs.

So dominant for much of the previous 5 years, they now find themselves with only 1 team remaining in the Champions League quarter finals.

Chelsea are the only side performing to a similar level that we have come to expect.

Manchester United took a calculated risk in trying to qualify from a relatively easy group.

Unfortunately for them, they got their calculations wrong.

It doesn’t make them a bad team overnight.

They took a risk and it backfired.

Had they scraped through against Basle however, they would surely be vying for what would have been their 4th final in 5 years.

Manchester City had the misfortune of being drawn in the group of death.

Roberto Mancini’s expensively assembled side is still on a building process and will no doubt be serious contenders for next seasons crown having tasted some Champions League action for the first time.

It’s worth noting however that it was Spanish side Villarreal who finished bottom of that group with 0 points.

Arsenal’s campaign finished with a thumping at the hands of AC Milan in the last 16.

They however, similar to another one of England’s Champions League stalwarts Liverpool, are undergoing a rebuilding process.

A process that the English league seems to be going through too.

This seasons results have not seen the shift in power to Spain.

But rather England’s dominance suffering a blip.

Next season should see the return of Tottenham Hotspur - a team on the up.

The two Manchester clubs will see themselves as major contenders.

And one of either Chelsea or Arsenal, who have both come through a tough season looking that bit stronger will no doubt be looking to reach the quarters at least.

Which league is stronger will not be answered by one victory by Athletic Bilbao.

But it did raise some interesting questions.

English teams, so dominant for 5 seasons now - have had a major blip.

Repeating this next season will cause much concern.

Maybe then the Spanish league will be able to stake their claim as the best in the world.

But for now - they must make do with the best side in the world.

Leagues ahead of everybody else in Europe.

Just not in the best league...

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Age is not on Redknapp’s side

If I was Harry Redknapp, I would think long and hard about taking this England job he is being linked with so heavily.

The positives of staying at Tottenham are obvious.

No longer considered a selling club.

Looking good for a Champions League place for next season.

And perhaps most importantly - a squad that has age on it’s side.

Something you definitely could not say about the current English team.

Harry should look closely at the age profile of England’s best as their golden generation start to dissipate from centre stage.

Only last week Steven Gerard said he would consider his international future after the European Championships this summer.

He was certainly one of the world class players from the golden generation.

He’ll be 34 come the next world cup.

John Terry - England captain and leader, has marshalled the defence for almost a decade now.

He’ll turn 33 for the tournament in Brazil.

His partner in defence may not even make it that far.

With injuries adding up, Rio Ferdinand’s career has been nothing short of stop start over the past few seasons and if he’s still playing will be 35.

It wasn’t so long ago that England could choose between Terry, Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher.

They were the main force at the back of the big four clubs as well.

Not any more.

Then there’s Ashley Cole.

He’ll be 33.

Frank Lampard 36.

Paul Scholes 39.

All of these players have gone through World Class stages throughout their career.

But if Harry is thinking beyond the summer in Poland and Ukraine, he won’t be able to think about any of these players playing a central role for him.

He will still be able to pick from numerous great players - just not world class players.

World class players that the future of England look to potentially have.

Those who qualified for the U21 tournament last summer are either at big clubs or have demanded huge transfers to big clubs.

Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Micah Richards, Jordan Henderson, Tom Cleverly, Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll to name but a few.

Plus at just 24 - Joe Hart can consider himself in the same bracket considering the reality of goalkeepers not hitting their peaks until much later.

They come with huge promise and potential but of course, are players for the future, not the present.

It’s the present that should worry Harry the most.

With the exception of Wayne Rooney, not a single player in his prime in the England set-up can live in the world class bracket.

Not one.

Sure there’s good players.

Great players even.

But Wayne is the only one who can live with the 7 or 8 from the golden generation who are on their way out.

Perhaps in 5 years time some of last summers young stars will have laid claim to being in the same league as Gerard or Lampard.

But not for 5 years will they be performing to such a level.

Performing in their prime.

Harry must be looking at this and thinking to himself - I wish I’d had this opportunity 5 years ago.

Whether he would have made a bigger difference than Fabio Capello is a different debate - but he certainly won’t be starting from as good a platform.

If the golden generation could manage no further than a quarter final - then Harry must be questioning how far he can take this silver crop.

At 65, he doesn’t have many moves left in him.

He no longer has age on his side.

Nor it appears, do this England team...

Monday, 20 February 2012

One Major Honour to Manage England

So Harry Redknapp is the favourite to become the next England manager.

Ask most people their opinion and he is the first name that springs to mind.

But spend a little longer than just your gut reaction and you really start to question why.

Harry is doing a great job at Tottenham at the moment.

A really great job.

Perhaps though, the successful candidate should have done a bit more than just have a couple of good seasons of late.

After all, he took an underachieving Tottenham side into the Champions League during a period when Liverpool, Arsenal and now Chelsea all hurtled towards a rapid decline.

He’s not won anything with Tottenham.

In fact, his only major honour was an FA cup win with Portsmouth.

Splitting 2 spells at Portsmouth, was a brief and unsuccessful period at Southampton.

Preceded by 8 years doing a steady job with West Ham and his first role at Bournemouth.

Harry may be top of mind for most due to how well Tottenham have done this season and last.

But is the best man for the England job really a manager who has only 1 major honour to his name after 28 years in the role?

Not to mention he’s only ever had one season of Champions League football.

His experience of the English league will be great for knowing what assets he has available to him.

His one season mixing it with Europe’s elite won’t have given him much experience on the opposition.

As for Harry being the outstanding ‘English’ candidate - that just highlights the lack of top English managers at the moment.

Nothing more.

An Englishman will not do a better job than a ‘foreigner’ if he is not a better manager.

And with Euro 2012 fast approaching - decisiveness seems paramount.

But the English FA should not confuse decisiveness with haste.

A caretaker role now instead - can mean the decision on the long term future of the England national team be made in due course.

He will not have enough time anyway to shape the team his way.

It will be a case of steadying the ship in Poland and Ukraine as opposed to setting it a new course.

When the Republic of Ireland interviewed for the current position - Paul Jewell was the outstanding choice.

The FAI took their time over the decision and Giovanni Trapattoni appeared.

The landscape could shift dramatically come this summer too.

Jose Mourinho could become available.

Harry’s 1 major honour might need to total 3 if he’s to beat the Portuguese master tactician to the job.

If Martin O’Neill continues his surge up the table with Sunderland and takes fourth spot, would he be considered the outstanding candidate?

He has had relative little success in the English game too but has still won more major honours than Harry.

Coupled with a more sustained period of success.

Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren had 1 major honour between them and all had a shot at the England hot-seat.

But it was Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello - with 32 major honours who are the only managers to have taken England to a quarter final of a major tournament since Euro ‘96.

If Fabio and his 16 major honours cannot make a success of this group of players - I’m not sure Harry and his 1 can do any different...

Monday, 13 February 2012

Becoming international manager has become a national debate

Fabio Capello is no longer in charge of the English football team.

Stepping down this week to leave the hotseat vacant for someone else to lead them out at Euro 2012.

There has been a lot of talk since, that the next English manager should be just that - English.

Some go as far as saying that the same rules should apply to international managers that do to international players.

If large countries like England, Germany or Italy were to insist on their national team manager being born in their own country, then I could understand.

They have such a large pool to choose from.

But Dutchman Gus Hiddink did more for South Korean football in his 2 years in charge then anyone in the previous 50.

Giovanni Trapattoni helped Ireland qualify for their first major tournament in 10 years.

In fact, Ireland have never qualified for a major tournament with an Irish manager.

The development of football in Africa has been helped enormously by an influx of ‘foreign’ managers over the past twenty years.

Greece won Euro 2004 under a German.

Portugal reached that same final under a Brazilian.

Russia are currently managed by a Dutchman.

How are the smaller countries supposed to develop if they are only allowed to choose from their own country.

And what happens to players who play for a country they weren’t born in?

Can Deco only manage Brazil?

Miroslav Klose manage Poland?

Patrick Vieira Senegal?

Or do the same rules apply to managers?

Rafa Benitez has never managed another country but has lived in Liverpool long enough to qualify for them.

But after managing England for two years, becomes illegible when the top job in Spain comes up.

Managers like Gus would never have been able to have managed South Korea, Australia, Russia or Turkey as he had already overseen the reigns of the Netherlands for four years.

And some people this week have even put Martin O’Neill’s name forward.

Not exactly demanding an English manager.

But rather a British one.

If the FA are willing to go as far as Northern Ireland to find their new manager, then why not go as far as France?

And then why not as far as Italy?

Surely Martin is as foreign as Arsene Wenger?

I do understand where the English are coming from when they say they’d like an Englishman in charge.

In an ideal world, they would have a strong enough candidate every time the job came up.

But should the birthplace of a manager be a factor when it comes to getting the job?

The best man for England right now might well be from Poplar.

But he might instead be from Glasgow.

Men from Middlesex, Doncaster and York have all been in the hotseat in the Premier League era, but the only man to take them to a quarter finals of a major tournament since 1996 was from Sweden.

Harry Redknapp has proved to be the kneejerk favourite for the job.

But what if someone like a Sir Alex Ferguson or a Jose Mourinho were to declare an interest in the job.

Should Harry get it because he was born in Poplar?

Well if England insist on an Englishman, he surely will.

Meaning they might well get a good man for the job - but perhaps not the best one...