IT hasn’t taken Dublin long to realize that they are going to have to work incredibly hard to repeat last season’s All-Ireland winning achievements.
Watched by a crowd of 45, 836 in their opening National League encounter against Kerry at Croke Park on Saturday night, they went down to a 0-11 to 1-14 defeat. Kerry’s determination to exact some small revenge for their All-Ireland defeat saw them gain what was a very comfortable victory.
It is, of course, only the start of the season and Dublin will improve but the match did serve to show the reigning All-Ireland champions that it can be very tough to deliver for a second successive year. There were some excuses in that they were missing the Brogan brothers Bernard and Alan, but manager Pat Gilroy was the first to admit that they weren’t good enough.
“Our effort in the second half wasn’t what it should have been,” he agreed. “Our use of the ball at times was terrible.
“There were unforced errors and that really knocked the stuffing out of us. Also, Kerry were completely on top in the middle of the field in the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
“There’s no question, they were the better team. We have got to make that ground up,” he added.
Kerry, by comparison, were much happier. Manager Jack O’Connor was entitled to feel pleased, particularly as the victory was achieved without Colm “Gouch” Cooper. He said: All of the young lads played well. They were not in any way overawed by the occasion ñ in fact, they relished it.”
The best player on the field, however, was Kerry’s veteran defender Tomas O Se. Bryan Sheehan also made a big impact in midfield, while the Daran O’Sullivan were well supported in attack by young corner forwards Barry John Keane and James O’Donoghue.
Dublin were only really in contention in the first half, at end of which they trailed 0-7 to 0-5. Kerry subsequently took complete control and would have had a much bigger winning margin had it not been for 17 wides.
As it was, Sheehan finished with 0-5, five from frees, while Darran O’Sullivan got their goal and Keane contributed 0-3. Tomas Quinn was the top scorer for a disappointing Dublin, scoring 0-4, three of which were from frees.
Elsewhere in Division One, Armagh secured a surprise 0-10 to 1-7 draw with the defending champions at the Athletic Grounds. But Cork didn’t help themselves by having Paul Kerrigan red carded and subsequently playing the second half with 14 men.
Cork manager Conor Counihan didn’t offer an opinion about the straight red card. What he did say was that he was “reasonably happy” given the situation his team found themselves in during the second half.
At the time of the sending off, Cork were 1-3 to 0-1 up and seemingly well in control. But Armagh gradually grew in confidence and, in the end, could have snatched it.
They relied on a point from Andy Mallon three minutes from the end to get the draw but top scorer Eugene McVerry (0-4) then saw a free drift wide.
Elsewhere, Down won an entertaining encounter by 1-10 to 1-9 against Ulster rivals Donegal at Newry. In a game which could have gone either way.
Liam Doyle’s accuracy proved the difference with the Down man getting an all-important goal and finishing with 1-4. Substitute Martin McElhinney gave Donegal a second half lead with a goal but a Doyle inspired Down did enough to hit back and secure victory.
Mayo started their campaign with a 1-11 to 0-8 away success over Laois. Conor Mortimer (0-5) and alan Freeman (1-2) were significant contributors.
The big game in Division Two saw Tyrone beat Kildare by 2-11 to 0-12 in the first match at Croke Park on Saturday night. It was an impressive effort which argues well for the prospects of Mickey Harte’s new-look outfit.
The difference was Tyrone’s ability to put away two goal chances through the impressive Peter Harte and Martin Penrose while Kildare wasted their goalscoring opportunities. “We owed ourselves a good league start. In recent years we’ve put ourselves under a lot of pressure by losing our first few games,” stressed Mickey Harte.
Mick Conway did well to contribute six points for Kildare but manager Kieran McGeeney was quite right in his assessment that they missed too many goalscoring chances.
Elsewhere in the Division, Stephen Bray spearheaded Meath’s 1-15 to 1-9 victory over Monaghan, scoring six points, while Galway’s young side got the better of Derry by 1-15 to 1-11 at Celtic Park. The final game saw Louth prove too good for Westmeath, winning by 0-12 to 1-6.
Wexford, Roscommon, Antrim and Longford all made winning starts in Division Three. Wexford beat Cavan (4-9 to 1-13), Roscommon defeated Tipperary (1-12 to 0-12), Antrim edged out Sligo (0-13 to 0-12), and Longford got the better of Offaly (2-15 to 0-8).
Division Four saw Clare, Wickow and Limerick start with victories. Clare beat Waterford (1-17 to 0-12), Wickow trounced Kilkenny (3-25 to 1-1) while Limerick got the better of Leitrim (1-9 to 0-9).
On the hurling front, Galway and Kilkenny qualified for the Walsh Cup final, beating Laoise and Westmeath respectively in the semi-finals. Galway succeeded by 2-19 to 0-11, with Kilkenny getting the better of Westmeath by 1-23 to 1-16.
IRELAND could so easily have blamed some highly controversial decisions on the part of the English match officials for their 23-21 opening Six Nations Championship defeat by Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.
Without doubt, the visiting forward Bradley Davies should have received a red card for a dangerous second-half spear tackle on Donnacha Ryan. Instead, the second-row only received a yellow card after referee Wayne Barnes consulted with touch judge Dave Pearson .
To add fuel to the situation, Barnes then controversially awarded Wales what proved to be the match-winning penalty in final minute. He deemed that Stephen Ferris’s tackle on Ian Evans was dangerous.
But, to most people’s minds, it was the earlier decision was an extremely harsh call. Even Warren Gatland, the Welsh coach, admitted that Davies was lucky not to have received a red card.
For all that, there’s the undeniable fact that, on the balance of play, Wales deserved their victory. Yet, the Irish team and fans left the Aviva Stadium deeply frustrated, not only due to the bad decisions on the part of the officials but also because Ireland blew a great chance of victory.
It would not have mattered too much that they were a long way short of their best. The important thing was to get the win that would have provided some impetus for the Six Nations campaign.
Instead, Ireland must travel to Paris to face World Cup runners-up France this Saturday night, with the prospect of two consecutive defeats in their opening matches. Last Sunday’s events appears to have destroyed Ireland’s Six Nations ambitions.
At least there was a realization in the Irish camp that there’s no point in blaming everything on the officials. Even allowing for those decisions, Ireland were totally in charge of their own destiny as the game entered the closing stages.
Ahead 21-15 with seven minutes remaining, Ireland decided that Johnny Sexton should take a kick at goal from just inside his own half. Many would have felt that the correct decision was to kick into the corner and keep the pressure on the Welsh.
Either way, Ireland did regain possession after Sexton’s attempt went wide. Paul O’Connell brilliantly secured the ball from the drop out only for Ireland then to be penalized after Sean OíBrien found himself isolated.
That, to my mind, was the winning and losing of the match. At that point, with five minutes remaining, Ireland only had to keep possession to make certain of victory.
To give Wales their due, they seized their opportunity. Initially, their powerful wing George North got over for a try before Leigh Halfpenny kicked the winning penalty in the final minute.
Of course, Halfpenny was given that chance by a highly questionable refereeing decision. But the point must also be made that Wales had moved, or were moving to a position, where they could have easily landed a match-winning drop goal.
As skipper Paul OíConnell stated afterwards: “We had put ourselves in with a great chance of winning. We had a bit of work to do to see that game out, and we didn’t do it.”
Coach Declan Kidney is always going to choose his words carefully. Typically, he refused to comment on the referee’s decisions, preferring instead to concentrate on what Ireland can do better for the French match.
And the answer to that is an awful lot. “I know we are a lot better than that,” insisted Kidney. “We have buckets of work to do and six days to do it.”
“We had to defend for 60 percent plus of the game and, if you do that, you are in trouble,” That’s exactly what happened as Wales ran in three tries to Ireland’s two.
Unfortunately, they were helped by some poor tackling on the part of the Irish team. Somehow though, Ireland managed to lead 13-5 at half time, despite the fact that Wales had dominated possession.
They led 3-0 with an early Sexton penalty before Wales deservedly went in front through Jonathan Davies’s first try. That’s how it stayed until Ireland produced their best move of the game, with Tommy Bowe sending hooker Rory Best in for a try.
Sexton’s conversion made it 10-5 and the same player then added a penalty to give Ireland their 13-5 interval advantage. But Wales came roaring back with a penalty from Halfpenny before the hugely impressive North powering through a suspect Irish defence to set up Jonathan Davies for his second try.
Halfpenny’s conversion made it 15-13 in the visiting team’s favor, only for Sexton to regain his goalkicking touch to pick a penalty and leave Ireland 16-15 in front. Thatís when the controversy started with the decision 20 minutes from time not to send off Bradley Davies for a blatant spear tackle.
Still, Wales were down to 14 men for 10 minutes because of the yellow card, and Ireland did initially take advantage with full-back Rob Kearney sending Bowe over for a try in the corner and Sexton then adding a penalty.
At 21-15 that should have been that but sadly they just could not go through with their effort. Okay, the decision to penalize Ferris and yellow card him was very harsh but, in truth, Ireland should never have found themselves in that position.
The GAA come in for criticism every summer when the football championship gets under way without any high profile game to capture the public’s imagination. No such problems in the National League in recent years as the All-Ireland champions were normally involved in a high profile game on the opening weekend. This year will have a high-profile double header at Croke Park to kick start the Allianz National Football league. Division two teams Tyrone and Kildare meet at 5 p.m. and then at 7.15 p.m. we will have a repeat of the 2011 All-Ireland final when Dublin play Kerry. Kildare are looking good this year and with Dermot Earley and Hugh Lynch both due back from long-term injuries in March the Lillies should be serious challengers for the All-Ireland this year. There has been much talk about Seánie Johnston transferring from Cavan to Kildare, but at the time of writing the talented forward hadn’t secured a transfer from Cavan Gaels to the St Kevin’s club in Staplestown, but Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney has said that newcomers would be welcome in his squad. In Cavan, Johnston was a one-man show and he will have to become more of a team player if he joins Kildare, where he could be the final link in the team being built by McGeeney.
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is also re-building after Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan, Enda McGinley and Ciarán Gourly all retired. But there is plenty of talent coming through from the minor ranks in Tyrone and for their recent Dr. McKenna Cup semifinal against Fermanagh, Harte included eight players under the age of 22. As usual Tyrone will be hard to beat, but I think Kildare are looking very good at this early stage of the year.
Meanwhile Dublin will be short several regulars against Kerry. The Brogan brothers Alan and Bernard are both unavailable, as are Paul Griffin, Denis Bastic and Barry Cahill and Kevin Nolan. So this game will give manager Pat Gilroy an opportunity to judge the strength of his extended panel. Kerry didn’t play in the McGrath Cup in Munster and apart from a game against Dr. Crokes we don’t known how they are going. But no doubt manager Jack O’Connor will be trying to avenge that All-Ireland final defeat. Tommy Griffin is the only one of the of the Kerry squad from last year who has retired, so we should see some familiar faces in the green and gold on Saturday night although O’Connor is unlikely to call on the Dr. Crokes trio of Colm Cooper, Eoin Brosnan and Kieran O’Leary as the Killarney club prepare for their All-Ireland club semifinal against Crossmaglen Rangers in two weeks.
This is the first of the GAA’s Spring Series, which worked well last year with two games and a musical act in between. The latter on Saturday night is a Limerick duo called the Rubberbandits, who wear platic bags over their faces when performing (they will be appearing in New York in March).
Elsewhere on Saturday night in division one, Laois are home to Mayo and Down play Donegal in Newry. On Sunday in division one reigning League champions Cork travel to play Armagh and new Fermanagh manager Peter Canavan should get off to a winning start when he takes the Erne men to Ruislip to play London in a division four fixture. Kilkenny who didn’t field a team in the O’Byrne Cup, have confirmed that they will play in the League and they will be at home to Wicklow in division four on Sunday.
IT’S PAYBACK TIME VS. WALES
Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney is a conservative, modest man and when Ireland win he is never one to show his emotions in public. After much success with Munster Kidney got the Irish job in 2008 and led Ireland to the Grand Slam in 2009. That success was not repeated in the Six Nations Championship in 2010 or last year. In September Ireland went to the Rugby World Cup on a downer after a few below par performances in the warm up games. But morale was lifted with a win over the U.S. and then there was that historic win over the Aussies which gave Irish fans at home and abroad a massive lift. But we were brought back to down earth when Wales beat us 22-10 in the quarterfinal in Wellington on Oct. 8. Now four months on it’s time for revenge when Wales visit the Aviva Stadium for our opening game in this season’s Six Nations championship. It will be Wales’ first visit to the new Ballsbridge arena.
Among the people who claim that Kidney has been conservative in his squad selection is Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin. However, Kidney has called up six uncapped players and if any of them impress at a training camp in Limerick, they could make the Six Nations squad. Apart from the glory of winning the Six Nations a few of the national coaches will be hoping to improve their own CV and the honor of leading the Lions in 2013.
Warren Gatland has recalled Gavin Henson to the Welsh squad. Henson, who is famous for having one of the best fake tans in rugby, has been troubled with injury and has not played in the Six Nations since 2009. Also Michael Kearney takes over from Paul McNaughton as Irish team manager, but in rugby the team manager’s job is more of a logistical role and coach Kidney plus his backs and forwards coaches the shots.
MUNSTER, ULSTER PLAY EASTER SUNDAY
The much anticipated all-Irish Heineken Cup quarterfinal clash between Munster and Ulster will be played at Thomond Park, Limerick on Easter Sunday with a 1.45 p.m. kick-off. Leinster’s quarterfinal tie against Cardiff goes ahead at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin on Easter Saturday, with a 5.45 p.m. kick-off. It promises to be a fantastic weekend of rugby and with the winners of those games kept apart in the semifinals, we could yet see the first-ever all-Irish Heineken Cup final.
PLAYERS TO WEAR SOS LOGO
Suicide is a major problem in Ireland right now, especially among young males. In an effort to raise further awareness of the mental health problems, Vodafone has agreed to vacate its jersey sponsorship of the Dublin hurlers and footballers for the opening games in the hurling and football National Leagues. On Saturday night the Dublin footballers will wear jerseys with the Suicide or Survive Charity logo as will the Dubs hurling the following week against Galway. This will be the first time a jersey logo will be handed over by a sponsor to a charity for competitive intercounty games.
EAGER IS LIMERICK’S BOSS Ladies football has become very popular in recent years, but most of the intercounty teams are managed by men. Limerick has now broken with tradition and they have appointed Kerry-born Ann Eager as their new manager. Eager takes over from former Limerick footballer Tommy Stack. Eager is an experienced coach, having being in charge of a number of club teams over the last few years, while she is also a former PRO of the Kerry Ladies board.
NORTH AIM TO BREAK SOUTH DOMINANCE
Linfield won the inaugural Setanta Sports Cup in 2005, but since then League of Ireland clubs have dominated the All-Ireland competition and the last two finals have been contested by clubs from the premier division of the League of Ireland. The League of Ireland winners have been: Drogheda (twice), Cork City, Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers. The draw was made last week for the first round of the 2012 Setanta Sports Cup and the pairings are: Bray Wanderers v Glentoran, Bohemians v Portadown, Lisburn Distillery v Derry City and Cliftonville v St Patrick’s Athletic. The ties will be played on Feb. 13 and Feb. 20. The draw for the quarterfinals will be made on Feb. 20 when the four seeded clubs: Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers, Linfield and Crusaders, will enter the draw. The final is fixed for May 12 and it will be played in the North if an Irish League team is involved.
Providence College senior David McCarthy exceeded his own personal best in the indoor mile by two seconds in winning that event at the Terrier Invitational in Boston on Saturday. McCarthy, who hails from Waterford, broke the tape in 3:55.75. That mark also betters the NCAA qualifying standard by two seconds, establishes new records for both the school and all New England collegians, and ranks as the best in the country thus far this season.
Teammate Shane Quinn got 10th place in the 3,000 meters at the Terrier. He finished in 8:06.3 in a race won in 7:54.59 by Iona’s Leonard Korir. Quinn, like McCarthy, is a Waterford resident.
Ursinus dropped two games last week, despite strong performances down low from freshman Jermaine Kamara. The Corkman pulled down 17 rebounds and scored 14 points in Wednesday’s 73-66 loss to Washington (Md.). He took 11 of those caroms off the defensive glass and the six he claimed off the offensive window matched the team high for anybody on the opposition. He also redirected three Washington shots. Going the other way, he scored his points on 4-for-6 shooting from the field and he was perfect on six free throws.
Ursinus then fell to 7-12 overall and 6-6 in the Centennial Conference with Saturday’s 84-56 road loss to Dickinson. Kamara managed a game-high 13 rebounds and scored six points, shooting 2-for-5 from the floor and 2-for-4 from the foul line.
Dara McKeon had an all-around solid game as he and his Drew mates defeated Susquehanna, 67-56, in Madison, N.J. on Saturday. A senior forward from Dunboyne, Co. Meath, McKeon scored eight points on 4-for-9 shooting, with five rebounds and four assists. Drew is now 4-15 overall and 2-6 in the Landmark Conference.
Neil Randolph hit three of four shots from outside the 3-point perimeter to provide Elmira College with nine points in Friday’s 65-52 home loss to St. John Fisher. The Soaring Eagles then dropped to 0-19 on the season on Saturday, when they came out on the short side of a 90-78 verdict to visiting Nazareth. Randolph scored eight points on 3-for-5 shooting from the floor, including 1-for-2 from long range, and 1-for-2 from the foul line. A freshman from Co. Wicklow, Randolph also had four rebounds in the Nazareth loss.
Fionnaula Toner shot 50 percent from the field, making four of eight shots, for eight points in MacMurray College’s 69-35 road loss to Eureka on Wednesday. Toner, a senior from Belfast, also had a team-high three steals. The Highlanders then returned home, where they lost, 69-47, to Fontbonne on Saturday. Toner put six points on the scoreboard on 2-for-4 shooting from the floor and 2-for-5 from the foul line. She also recorded three assists and two steals. MacMurray is now 6-10.
Orla O’Reilly scored nearly half her team’s points in a defensive struggle as Binghamton lost, 37-36, in Vestal, N.Y. on Wednesday. O’Reilly netted 16 points on 6-for-16 shooting from the floor, including 2-for-6 from bonus territory, and 2-for-2 from the foul line. She played every minute of the game, as did her sister Sinead, who pulled down nine rebounds and cashed on one of three field goal attempts for two points. The O’Reillys are both seniors from Cork. The Bearcats are 10-12 overall and 4-5 in America East play.
Yale swept Brown, 9-0, in Providence, R.I. on Tuesday. Senior John Roberts manned the 4 spot, where he defeated William Bryan, 3-0 (11-5, 11-3, 11-5). Sophomore Neil Martin knocked off John Eric Oberbeck, 3-0 (11-7, 11-9, 11-3), at the 6 position, while freshman Joseph Roberts also pulled off a 3-0 (11-5, 11-4, 11-6) victory over Charles Lebovitz at no. 8. The trio hail from Belfast.
Kiaran McLaughlin had a big day at Aqueduct on Saturday, winning three races, including one of the two stakes races on the card. The Evening Attire Stakes was run as the third race on the program and Fitriani Hay’s Redding Colliery led all the way to post a 2-length victory over I Want Revenge, the odds-on favorite. The winner, ridden by Alan Garcia, returned a $6.90 win mutuel.
Darley Stable’s Side Road, a 3-year-old colt, finally put it together in the fifth race, breaking his maiden in his fourth career start. Mike Luzzi was along for the 4-length victory that returned $11.60 to win. Shadwell Stable’s late-developing Ghaaleb then made it 2-for-3 when he won the ninth race, a first-level allowance at a mile around two turns. He paid $7.30 to win. Garcia had the mount.
Naoise Agnew came away a winner after Saturday’s sixth race, a restricted claimer at a mile, at Laurel. His More Mayhem, which he trains, battled the entire trip with Wheresmokethrsfire, and prevailed by a nose over that rival. Juan Rios rode More Mayhem, which was bred in Kentucky by Moyglare Stud. Agnew picked up an additional $7,500 when rival trainer Hugh McMahon claimed the 4-year-old gelding. The win mutuel was $4.20.
The third time proved to be a charm, as did the first and second times, where Cathal Lynch and Bellezza Rosso are concerned. The Derryman is on his third go-round with the 4-year-old filly, winner of Sunday’s fourth race, a 2-turn starter allowance, at Parx. She’s been claimed from him twice before and he’s thought highly enough of her to claim her back twice. Angel Arroyo had the seat on Bellezza Rosso, which is now owned by Earl Daniels and George Scotland. She paid $4.00 to win.
Hog’s Hollow left no doubt who was best in Friday’s second race at Santa Anita. The Pat Gallagher trainee led this second-level allowance race at 10 furlongs on the grass from flagfall to finish, reaching the wire in front by almost four lengths with Rafael Bejarano aboard. Derrick Fisher’s homebred 6-year-old gelding likes to go long – his previous wins came at nine and 11 furlongs. He paid $14.60 in winning this race.
Tugger’s Light didn’t really fit into Eddie Kenneally’s plans, so he offloaded the 3-year-old gelding onto Jimmy Corrigan. The latter got a maiden win out of Tugger’s Light in Saturday’s first race at Turfway Park, the fourth career start for the winner. Tugger’s Light moved up with a flourish on the far turn and led the field to the wire, winning by one and one-half lengths with Victor Lebron in the saddle for a $4.60 win mutuel.
James Graham remains in the thick of the jockeys’ race at Fair Grounds. The Dublin native won two races on both Friday and Sunday to boost his meet total to 50. He trails only Rosie Napravnik, the reigning queen of New Orleans, who has 62.
Graham won Friday’s first race on Sterling Madame ($4.40 to win) and got the second in the seventh race on Wheemaway ($4.60). Purple Barbie ($5.60) got him home on top in Sunday’s second race and he came right back in the third aboard Bergman ($6.40).
Do the math. It doesn’t lie. Going to press Arsenal and Newcastle are 18 points behind Manchester City with 16 games left. Basically that means City have to lose 6 games while the Gunners and Toon likely have to win all remaining matches. And on that note with 19 points adrift it’s safe to also write Liverpool off to win the EPL title.
Chelsea can also be considered a reach to win the league. When they beat City 2-1 on Dec. 12 all agreed they would contend. Then 4 ties and a loss in the next 7 games leaving them 13 points behind City all but ended Chelsea’s title hopes. City (leading by three points and a 9-point superior goal difference), Manchester United and Tottenham, would have to collapse for Chelsea to have a chance, and so the latter is highly unlikely. So, what’s in store for the table toppers in the next handful of games through February and into early March?
If there is one thing the Blues do have going for them it’s the February and early March schedule. It begins this weekend with home advantage at the Bridge over Manchester United. New Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas knows this is the biggest game since he arrived in London. If Boas wins this one then his Blues can fancy their chances to stay in the hunt for a top-3 spot with games against Everton away, Bolton at home, West Brom away and Stoke at home.
Chelsea can close the gap at least on United and Spurs. Their biggest challenge will be to collect 3 points apiece over Bolton and West Brom, as failing against the bottom-half teams has continued to hurt them.
Chelsea’s hopes are also based on comparing their next 5 games to Spurs. It’s like night and day. Tottenham have it all to do to sustain their attempt to challenge City. The away fixtures of Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton are tough roads to travel. Liverpool do not lose at Anfield while Arsenal is the most unpredictable team in the league. On certain days the Gunners can still be invincible. Tottenham’s home games are even tougher against Manchester United and high flying Newcastle.
Poor old Harry Redknapp is having such a hard time in court these days: ‘Arry is battling bad tax raps. He claims he’s a giver not a taker and that he’s a bad businessman man. It’s a lot of pressure that Tottenham don’t need over the next 5 games. Business must be taken care off at the Lane’s ground not in the court and a lack of focus will certainly take Spurs out of the race.
Alex Ferguson is known for his famous comment, “Squeezy Bum Time.” Well it looks like the squeeze is ahead of its time. Like Spurs, United will be tested in the next month as try to keep the pressure on their neighbors, City. Chelsea away and Liverpool at home are two massive hurdles to get over to stay in the race. While United may close the gap when they play Norwich on the road, another big hurdle is around the corner at White Harte Lane. These back-to-back road games will hurt United taking them out of their comfort zone.
Every game has become a challenge for United as the fear factor has gone from opponents. Finally United seem beatable and that includes games at Old Trafford. Bringing back Paul Scholes was a step backwards for United. Now everybody knows just how brilliant Roy Keane was for Utd. It’s a void Ferguson has found next to impossible to fill for both Keano the player and the man.
Make no mistake about it, it’s Manchester City’s league to lose. And while nobody in their right mind would write off Fergie’s United even the Old Trafford legend would admit that City’s schedule can open up a bigger gap. Fulham, Villa, Blackburn, Bolton and Swansea are certainly preferred games that the top teams would rather. While the chasing pack can potentially knock each other out of the race City can cruise ahead into the spring season.
Roberto Mancini continues to speak up about injustices against his team and all the while his side manage to win games, at least in the league they do. He’s clever enough with the media, meanwhile taking away any nonsense that could have a negative impact on his players. Mancini managed to stay out of the circus surrounding Carlos Tevez who in the end may stay at Maine Road. Go figure. Mancini is also managing Mario Balotelli really well, though the star is currently banned for violent conduct. Good management of his superstars has allowed Mancini to bring his team together, another factor to keep an eye on throughout
It has been a good week for Liverpool F.C. On Wednesday they beat Manchester City 3-2 on aggregate to qualify for this season’s League Cup final and on Saturday they beat the other Manchester club United 2-1 to reach the 5th round of the FA Cup. They’ll play against Cardiff at Wembley on Feb. 26, and before that will have a home tie against Brighton in the 5th Round of the FA Cup which will be played on the weekend of Feb. 18/19.
At Anfield on Saturday, United’s Patrice Evra was booed throughout the game by Liverpool supporters who were furious that he had accused their Uruguay international Luis Suarez of racially abusing him in October. Agger put Liverpool ahead, but Park equalised for United before half-time. Suarez, who is serving an eight-game ban, watched from the stands with his young daughter. Meanwhile, a mistake by Evra allowed Liverpool sub Dirk Kuyt sneak in to score the winner 12 minutes from the end.
No love lost either at Loftus Road in London with an increased police presence for the meeting of Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea in the Cup. Rangers fans gave Chelsea captain John Terry a bad time. Terry will be in court this week for allegedly racially abusing Rangers Anton Ferdinand in October. With rumours abounding that the entire QPR team were going to refuse to shake hands with Terry, the English FA announced that they were dropping the traditional “respect” hand shake before the game. Chelsea won 1-0 thanks to suspect penalty that was converted by Juan Mata.
At the Emirates, Robbie Keane provided the cross for his Irish colleague Richard Dunne to give Aston Villa the lead over Arsenal. But Dunne gave away a penalty in the second half as the Gunners came back from two goals down to win 3-2. Goalkeeper Shay Given, who went the wrong way on the two penalties, was the third current Republic international playing for Villa, while Stephen Ireland, who has absented himself in recent years, was also centrally involved.
North of the border, Dubliner Anthony Stokes scored twice as Celtic beat Falkirk 3-1 to qualify for the Scottish League Cup Final where they will meet Kilmarnock on
It is fair to say that the elevation of James McLean to the Sunderland first team has been one of the most uplifting aspects of the remarkable way Martin O’Neill has revitalized the club since succeeding Steve Bruce as manager. The boldness of O’Neill’s decision to throw the Derry-born 22 year old into the side as soon as he took over was as admirable as the way McLean has acquitted himself ever since getting his chance against Blackburn Rovers in December. The comfort level he’s enjoyed in the Premier League is a tribute to the player and also to the League of Ireland from which he was sprung just last summer.
Of course, no sooner had McLean started a game than the speculation began about whether he should be going to the Euros with Ireland this summer. The jury remains out on whether he’s up to making that jump this early in his development even if the story has legs mostly because he used to play for Northern Ireland. In any case, all previous evidence regarding Trapattoni’s rather conservative approach to squad selection suggests this debate seems to be moot. Does anybody really see the Italian catapulting somebody onto the plane after half a season starting in England?
That said, there is something troubling about McLean’s emergence. It’s not that his raw talent doesn’t bode well for the future. Or that he looks like he may become the type of player who could be pivotal to the Republic’s campaigns over the next decade. It’s about his background. Here is a player whose development as a footballer had very little if anything to do with the FAI. They may well give him an FAI blazer this summer but it won’t change the fact he was born and bred under the auspices of the IFA.
Think about it. McLean grew up in the Creggan in Derry city. Indeed, it’s uplifting to read locals up there talk about seeing this player put in so much extra work over the years to try to make it in the game. But he played all of his soccer in his formative years with Trojans, a club that play in the Derry and District League, a competition which ultimately is overseen by the IFA. Like any promising kid in Northern Ireland, he saw action in the Milk Cup, the annual festival of international football that takes place there. He played for Northern Ireland in that event.
My point here is that McLean’s arrival on the scene looks like being a boon for the Irish team going forward. However, the FAI can take no credit for the emergence of what looks like being our newest creative threat. The only time the FAI ever had any input into McLean’s career was when he played for Derry City in the League of Ireland. Other than that admittedly crucial stage in his development, everything else that went into making this guy the player he is was down to the structures and coaching available in Northern Ireland.
Why is this important? It’s important because qualifying for the European Championships this summer is going to gloss over a lot of what is wrong with the game in Ireland. The country will wring so much fun out of the fortnight in Poland that it will seem churlish to point out the conveyor belt of Irish talent isn’t exactly overworked of late. And hasn’t been for some time. The FAI can take credit for McLean switching allegiances but they made no contribution to his growth as a player and that is, unfortunately, part of a disturbing pattern.
By any objective estimate, Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGeady and Wigan Athletic’s James McCarthy are two of the brighter, young Irish talents. Again, the FAI had nothing to do with them emerging as quality players. They were born and, as footballers at least, made in Scotland. The SFA’s structures and competitions are what helped them become the exciting prospects they are today. The FAI did well to get them to come on board but, again, that’s all they did. The same story applies to Shane Duffy.
Over the past couple of weeks, Duffy has starred for an injury-hit Everton, playing like a veteran central defender despite the fact he’s just 20. Already, there’s a sense around Goodison Park that this guy could turn into a true stalwart. This will benefit Ireland hugely but he’s a Northern Ireland product. Aside from learning his trade with Foyle Harps in Derry, Duffy played alongside McLean for the Northern Ireland U-19s in the 2008 Milk Cup. Indeed, that was where and when Everton spotted his ability and started to go after his signature.
Against this background, it’s easy to see why Northern Ireland and Scotland are getting annoyed. They invest hugely in their coaching structures and in their competitions in order to afford their players the opportunity to learn and grow. Then they watch the Republic of Ireland swoop in and take advantage of all the work they put in. Essentially, the FAI are the magpies of underage football, waiting and watching before prowling. Yes, we know it’s legal and players can pick and choose their national allegiances within the rules but there’s something even more worrying here.
Why aren’t there more players born in the Republic of Ireland coming through to star for Premier League clubs and to knock on the doors of the international squad? How come a tiny place like Northern Ireland can produce McLean and Duffy (and even Darron Gibson now that he looks like becoming a player again!) in such a short spell? What are the Scots doing so right than they end up bringing forth the likes of McGeady and McCarthy? Aside from Seamus Coleman, where are the Irish equivalents? Where are the Roy Keanes, the Damien Duffs and the Robbie Keanes of this generation? Are they there at all or do we have to wait for Northern Ireland to put in more work so the FAI can pick the low-hanging fruit?
Some of the GAA’s intercounty stars are heading to Ethiopia for a challenge game later this month. Limerick hurlers Gavin O’Mahony and Graeme Mulcahy, Clare hurler John Conlon and Meath footballers Jamie Queeney and Mickey Burke will be part of an Irish selection who will take on the locals in a game of Karsa in the city of Aksum. The ancient Ethiopian game is similar to hurling and the trip is part of a fundraiser for the “Playing for Life” charity, which was founded seven years ago by horseracing trainer Tracy Piggott. The players will also help in the construction of a school.
IRELAND’S Declan Kidney has admitted that he is among those to have put their names forward for the post of the Lions coach for the 2013 tour of
Australia. He would appear to be a major contender along with Warren Gatland from Wales, while Scotland’s Andy Robinson is also on the shortlist. The situation provides some extra spice to the Six Nations, particularly
as Ireland and Wales clash in their opening match at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. The home side are hoping to avenge having their strong World Cup run being halted by the Welshmen at the quarterfinal stage in New Zealand in the fall. Kieran Rooney