Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Trouble with John

It's hard to know where to start considering all that's gone on in Irish football since my last blog following the game in Germany. Work commitments meant that I couldn't make the trip to Glasgow which was absolutely gutting especially considering the game was to be in Parkhead which is obviously a special venue, being the only ground in the UK to fly the Tricolour.

As it happened, I only got to see the last 15 minutes of the game live as we frantically chased an equaliser to no avail with what would have been an og from a Grant Hanley header that came back off the bar being the closest we came.  I watched the game in full the following day and the less said about it the better.

While there is an argument that the aforementioned Hanley should have been shown a straight red for bringing Shane Long down early in the game and having been booked should certainly have had a second yellow for a blatant elbow on David Forde the fact remains that tactically what we saw was the worst of Martin O'Neill.  Had it been Trapattoni in the dug out, I've no doubt the criticism would have rang far louder and longer and improvements will need to be made before the group picks up again in March.

As I said as soon as the draw was made, this is a real group of death and with Gordon Strachan making a lot more of his resources than O'Neill is with ours we have surrended the initiative to a degree.

With Poland having essentially 3 bonus points from their home win v Germany it is now imperative that we take 3 points from them at home in March and I really hope that we won't be taking a safety first approach into the game.

I did attend the friendly against the USA a few days later and while there were encouraging signs from what was essentially a second XI, especially the debuts of David McGoldrick and Cyrus Christie (I really wanted us to get a penalty purely so I could roar "Let Christie take it!!!" but it wasn't to be), the big story of the night was what went on in the Singing Section with the OTT response of the Gardai and the stewards to what was a peaceful protest about the lack of transparency regarding the ticket allocation for the Scotland game.

At the start of the campaign, myself along with thousands of others had put in our applications for this year's away games on the new FAI away ticket portal.  At the time I was toying with the idea of going to Georgia, was definitely going to Germany and although I knew that Glasgow was unlikely, had also applied for Scotland tickets just in case.

I heard nothing back until I got a mail the week before the Georgia game telling me that although I had not paid my deposit (which I had never been invoiced for) I had still been successful in my application and could I pay up.  I mailed back saying that I hadn't received the original invoice and although I now couldn't travel to Georgia that I would happily pay the deposits for Germany and Scotland once the outstanding amount for Georgia was deleted from my account.

I got a response back telling me that as the portal was now closed they couldn't delete the amount off but that not paying the deposits "won’t in any way affect your chances of obtaining your allocations for these games". Having been told that I left it at that and when I was allocated tickets for the Germany game I just paid up in full and thought no more about it.

Although I knew at this stage that I wouldn't make the Scotland game I obviously still had the application in. Given the lack of any transparent allocation system and with my Dad, a couple of cousins and other mates who travel regulalry also having applications in, I was still waiting to see if I'd be allocated anything so I could sort out them if they were unlucky. I was surprised not to get a mail one way or the other on the Friday when YBIG, and everywhere that Irish fans frequent online went into meltdown as seasoned traveler after seasoned traveler got their rejection letters.

When I contacted the FAI the following week I finally got a reply after a number of mails advising me that they had "spoken with Ticketmaster and they have confirmed that as you did not pay a deposit on your application, it was unsuccessful".  The fact that this completely contradicted what I had been told a couple of months previously didn't seem to be relevant.

Just to be clear, I'm not being critical of the general staff in the ticket office.  I've been dealing with various people in there for over twenty years and have always found them courteous and decent to deal with.  Any issues with allocation policy isn't laid at their feet.  The above is just an example of how poorly the allocation for this game was handled.

The fallout from the ticket allocation for the Scotland game has been well documented at this stage.  I personally spoke to someone who had never been to an away game before but had got one of 50 tickets allocated to the club he plays for.  I heard another case where a club that has been in existence for less than five years received a similar amount.

There was zero transparency in the information that was given to aggrieved fans despite the statement from the FAI which read "“Of the tickets confirmed to date, 1,700 went to supporters’ clubs, season ticket holders, Club Ireland members and known away supporters. 700 went to clubs and leagues. The fulfillment of contractual obligations also meant that there were fewer tickets available to the Association to distribute directly for this match – 481 went to Abbey Travel for supporters’ travel packages as per contract (15% of allocation) as official travel partner of the Association, and 128 went to sponsors. The remaining 200 tickets are divided between players, backroom team, FAI staff and team management".

Requests for a breakdown of the 1,700 tickets were ignored leading to a degree of online disagreement between independent travelers and those in supporters clubs who had got tickets.  Was this a deliberate attempt to divide the support?

Given the interest in the game it was no surprise that thousands of Irish fans bought up tickets in the Scotland ends of the ground.  The comments from John Delaney where he tried to push the blame onto the Scottish FA were extremely unhelpful.  It is entirely up to them as to how they allocate their tickets as long as they provide a minimum of 5% of capacity to the away team which is exactly what they did.

Delaney's consistent references to potential trouble as a result of Irish fans buying tickets in the home end were completely unnecessary and were in fact a slur on our own support and the Tartan Army with both groups having received commendations in the past for their good natured behaviour while following their team.  As expected the game passed off peacefully with only a few minor isolated incidents reported.

However, at no stage did Mr. Delaney take any responsibility for the ticketing debacle and indeed tried shifting the blame back to his own office by stating that an unnamed staff member had "dropped the ball" on it.  Shamefully, the visiting FAI delegation boycotted the usual pre match reception held by the hosting FA in a childish fit of pique.

It was against this background that a number of posters on decided that they would hold a peaceful protest at the USA game the following Tuesday to highlight the ongoing ticketing issue.  I should point out that the Scotland scenario was not an isolated incident with similar happening on a smaller scale for games away to Andorra, Estonia and Switzerland in recent years.  The protest was to take place on the 12 minute mark (due to the YBIG supporters group being known as the 12th man) when banners supporting the team were to be taken down and banners protesting to be waved.

To be honest, myself and the usual crew were on our normal spot in the Singing Section and expected any protect to fizzle out relatively quickly as getting anything to catch on around the stadium has been difficult in recent years.  And that's what I think would have happened had the response from the Gardai and stewards not been as disproportionate as I've seen in a long time.

As soon as the first banners were unfurled a number of Gardai and stewards steamed straight in grabbing and confiscating banners and dragging those waving them out of the crowd.  This was all under the supervision of Joe McGlue, the FAI security officer who was seen in section 114 at the time.  I personally saw 2 lads kicked out for trying to argue their case in a non violent manner.

Some of the lads had a copy of the stadium regulations with them which clearly stated that their banners were not considered offensive under the regulations to no avail.  In fact, in one instant a steward simply tore up the regulations and threw the paper back at the fan.

Do we really need to ask under who's instruction this happened? What transpired was indicative of the dictatorial manner in which the FAI is run and in typical FAI fashion was a huge own goal which led to the coverage of the protest being multiplied tenfold.

However, just as that incident seemed about to blow over, things got even stranger.

In recent times, John Delaney has taken on another role as a favourite of the gossip column set with the Sunday Independent's resident social butterfly, Barry Egan, taking a special interest in Delaney's new relationship.  A detailed spread in last Sunday's edition spoke in glowing terms about Dublin's new golden couple who, having wowed the punters with an impromptu sing song in the Bath pub around the corner from Lansdowne Road, had decamped for a break in "Marbs" (Marbella apparently), a place they were "lighting up with their passionate intensity".

The only problem was that when a video showing said sing song had been posted on the sports website showing Delaney singing the Wolfe Tones song Joe McDonnell about the hunger strikes, they had swiftly been contacted by the FAI advising them to take the article featuring the clip down or face legal action as it 'wasn't John Delaney in the video'. Not having the wherewithal to defend a potential legal case, reluctantly agreed to do so.

However, as we all know, once something is published online it is exceptionally difficult to get it offline.  Given that this incident happened on the same night that English fans were criticised by their own FA for singing anti IRA songs at their game with Scotland, a story about the CEO of the FAI singing a republican song was generating interest in the UK and both the Guardian and the Telegraph were preparing to run the story over the water when they were contacted by London based law firm Debello Law in which a representative of the firm stated that: “My client’s position is simply that it is not him singing in the video. If you take the decision to publish legal proceedings will follow as it will undoubtedly cause various issues for my client.”  Both papers took the threat seriously and held off publishing while they tried to get verification that it was indeed Delaney in the video.

In the meantime, Emmet Malone, perhaps emboldened by Barry Egan's piece in the Sindo which referenced the sing song, pushed for publication and The Irish Times ran the story on their front page on Wednesday morning.  While this was going on on the Tuesday night a further statement was released by Mr. Delaney's partner, Emma English,  referencing some distasteful posts made regarding her which had been posted on YBIG and stating that this was tantamount to cyber bullying.

Although the posts were removed as soon as moderators on the site were made aware of them and an apology on behalf of the site along with an offer of a donation to a charity of her choice immediately issued, both John Delaney and Emma English refused to accept the apology.

It was strange watching the swing of the moral high ground for want of a better expression over the few days. Obviously as fans, we had it following the heavy handed response to the protest at the US game last week.  This changed a bit Tuesday night with the utterly unacceptable posts on YBIG regarding Emma Engish, I appreciate it was only a few unacceptable comments but they were visible on a public site and resulted in damage to the YBIG reputation as our name was dragged through the mud in a lot of the media as Delaney undertook his whistle stop tour of the nations airwaves and used it to deflect away from questions regarding his own judgement.

However, Delaney then scored a spectacular og by instructing his legal team to deny it was him in the videot. It's embarrassing behaviour and indicative of the dictatorial attitude of the man. Despite him still trying to spin the cyber bullying angle every chance he got, it is the instruction to his legal team that is being questioned by journalists across the board now.

Although the comments made regarding his relationship were completely out of line and should be condemned, it should also be noted that it was some comments on a message board that needed to be searched for, it wasn't her Facebook or Twitter account that people were posting on.  As already stated the comments were removed and those responsible banned from the site.  In an ironic twist, Ms English has now deleted her own Twitter account after re-tweeting numerous tweets that others had made attacking Emmet Malone for running the story.  Surely, that is as tantamount to cyber bullying as the unacceptable comments made regarding her?

As for the song, I've no issue with rebel songs and anyone who knows me can vouch for many I've sung on trips during the years.  However, what I do have a problem with is the consistent oafish behaviour of a man who is pulling in a salary of nearly €400k while running the FAI as a personal fiefdom and overseing debacle after debacle whether that's with the LOI, schoolboy football, issue of tickets etc.

A man in his position should not be filmed getting carried shoulder high off a train in Slovakia while obviously drunk as a lord, carried shoeless and shoulder high while drunk again in Poland or singing what is clearly a contentious song for someone who has to deal in their job with associations from the North and England, let alone the Scots.  If he wants so badly to be one of the lads then fine, jack it in and let someone take over who can carry themselves with the decorum that the CEO of a major sporting organisation earning his salary should do.

If he is as private a person as he claims, then he should not be splashing his new relationship all over the media, making a documentary that Alan Partridge would probably reject ( or having gushing articles by Barry Egan all over the gossip pages in the Sindo.

His public statements on the various issues have been as hamfisted and embarrassing as I'd expect.  He claims to have been un-contactable on Tuesday as he was taking all of what must have been a two and a half hour flight back from "Marbs" and stated "I now understand that while I was travelling and un-contactable there was some confusion through a third party around the background of a video which appeared and where it happened which led to misunderstanding."

This obviously begs the question of on whose instruction was the same legal threat made the previous Saturday to where the clip originally appeared?  And why he would not have been made aware of the situation with over the weekend?  Surely his mobile phone wouldn't have been off all weekend.

There are also further questions to be asked regarding the legal threats made to, The Guardian and The Telegraph.  The statement from Debello Law stated "My client’s position is simply that it is not him singing in the video. If you take the decision to publish legal proceedings will follow as it will undoubtedly cause various issues for my client.” which clearly indicates that the client in question is John Delaney.  Who is paying for what would obviously be expensive legal advice?  Is it John Delaney himself or is it being funded by the FAI and by extension the fans who pay for tickets etc.

Also, Delaney has spent most of the week arguing that an Irishman singing a song in an Irish pub is nothing to be ashamed of which runs counter to the instruction given to Drbello Law where they state "it will undoubtedly cause various issues".  If, as he argues, there is nothing to answer for regarding the song then why the cack handed attempt to suppress the story?  The fact that he has stated that this was him singing at a "private" event despite it happening in a public house (the clue is in the name) is truly staggering and again shows that his understanding of the difference between what is considered public and private to be skewed in the extreme.

I can't see him being sacked over this though, people need to understand that for right or wrong, John Delaney IS the FAI these days. He's surrounded himself with cronies and acolytes, all of whom essentially earn their corn through his say so.

That said, with rumours of further stories set to hit the news stands with Sunday's papers, who knows where this might end.  I don't think we've heard the last of it yet and last Sundays's gossip columns must seem a long time ago now.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Friends in Löw Places

A combination of the poor standard of the opposition, an early morning flight and the fact that plenty of recovery time was needed on Sunday to get ready for a morning flight to Germany after the pre and post game beers at Saturday's facile 7-0 victory over Gibraltar meant the lack of A False First XI on that game.  To be honest, there wasn't much that could be said about it, Gibraltar were by far the worst team I've seen us play in all my years going to games and having gone 7 up on 57 minutes I was actually disappointed not to see us beat our record score set in 1983 when we put 8 past Malta.  But it's splitting hairs to be moaning about a 7-nil victory and by the time Monday morning rolled around the fact that we were heading to Germany with the maximum 6 points on the board had put a spring in the step of the fans thronged around Dublin airport making their way to various departure gates to flights going to the various German airports that were within striking distance of the Ruhr valley by train.

My own flight was into Bremen and had a fair few fans on it that were making their way down towards Düsseldorf (in the larger Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area), Essen and Gelsenkirchen which were the three main bases that the support had stationed themselves in.  As Terry the Tash and an advance guard of the London Irish boys had made their way over on Sunday and Philly and Greg weren't travelling till Tuesday, I was travelling alone but there was plenty of chat about the game on the plane and as soon as we touched down myself and a couple of Galway lads jumped on the tram outside the airport and managed to make a 12:44 train heading in the direction of Düsseldorf with seconds to spare.  As the next train wasn't for another hour we were chuffed to make the early one which got the lads to Gelsenkirchen and myself to Dusseldorf by around 4 in the afternoon.  A quick freshen up after checking in to the hotel I made a quick call to find out where the lads were and took a stroll up to the old town and down to the banks of the Rhine for a couple of the local Altbier, which for a man fond of an ale like myself was a great change from the lager more prevalent elsewhere in Germany.  The views from the riverbank as the sun started setting was class and Düsseldorf seemed a great setting to have based ourselves in.

Given the advancement of the age profile of most of the lads I see on these trips, eating a decent meal rather than just relying on a kebab at the end of the night is necessary, so having moved on from the riverbank we hit a traditional Brauhaus for some typical German fare and treated ourselves to some pork knuckle, roast potatoes and sauerkraut.  The craic was good and once we'd eaten our fill we moved back up through the town and decamped to the local Irish bar, McLaughlins, to catch some of the Dundalk v. Shamrock Rovers match and see if any of the other YBIG'ers were around.  I generally prefer heading to a few local bars on trips rather than sticking to the ubiquitous Irish pub that each city has but, in their favour, they do tend to be good meeting spots and the atmosphere is always lively.  As it happened, this one was in the middle of a strip of bars and the balmy evening made it pretty easy to drop in and out of the various places and mix it up a bit.  As some of our usual number, such as the Quinn Towers, Caimin, Karl and the Brummies were based in Gelsenkirchen and Essen respectively it was a good chance to meet a few others and a good laugh was had with a few of the Derry lads and lasses from YBIG (shout out to SHH and his gang) before I wound up in a local bar round the corner with a few Cork heads having a bit of a sing song.  By the time I came back around to McLoughlins, it had closed but Terry, Peter and a few of the lads were in another local bar across the road.  A couple of night caps later we were astonished to see it was around 4:30 and deciding discretion was the better part of valour, we left a few of the lads to carry the torch and jumped a cab back to the hotel.

Spot the sauerkraut

A few hours sleep later and matchday dawned without too much of a hangover from the previous night although the throat was already feeling pretty raw from the singing!  My room mate for the couple of days, Tommy, had rolled into the room at about 10am so I was feeling pretty happy to have bailed out when I did.  Another couple of mates were arriving that morning so when I got a call from Philly to say himself and Greg had arrived, we decided that getting moving relatively early in the day was the best course of action so a plan was put together to meet up with a few of the others and head to Essen where the Brummies were based and have a drink and food there pre match  before getting the train up to Gelsenkirchen to hit the fanzone outside the ground around 6.  From all reports, they're wasn't a huge amount in Gelsenkirchen itself so a lot of the Irish support seemed to be congregating in Essen and we had a great afternoon sitting outside in the sunshine catching up with familiar faces as they arrived before heading up by train and then tram to the ground.  The ground itself is a fair distance outside the city but the atmosphere was good on both the train and tram rides with plenty of classics such as "The 12 Days of Paul McGrath", "A Team of Gary Breens" and "The Lonesome Boatman"ensuring that any recovery on the vocal chords would have to wait!  More friends were met up with at the ground where the excitement was building nicely although as most of us were thinking the World Champions would be looking to bounce back from their disastrous defeat to Poland on Saturday, the pre match nerves weren't as pronounced as they've been in the past.  Soon enough it was time to go in and having walked around the ground to our area we made our way in in plenty of time for a rousing rendition of Amhran na Bhfiann and got ready for game time!

Shalke's home ground, the Veltins-Arena

First things first and there are a few things to crib about on the team that Martin O'Neill picked for the game.  I questioned Robbie Keane's suitability for the lone striker role in the blog after the Georgia game and have indeed questioned it during the Trap era.  Even at his peak this was never a role best suited to him and, while there is still no doubt he's our best finisher by a mile, his effectiveness in playing in games like this means questions rightfully have to be asked.  I had thought that Shane Long not getting a run at all over the weekend had him in pole position to start this game but O'Neill really doesn't seem to fancy him for whatever reason although it may just be down to his current indifferent club form.  I've also said on previous blogs that Aiden McGeady's inconsistent end product means he was worth a go in the hole behind a lone striker but I don't think that a game against the World Champions and in behind Keane rather than a player such as Long or even Jon Walters was the time for that particular experiment.  The return of Glen Whelan and Stephen Quinn at the expense of Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson indicated to me that we'd attempt to soak up pressure and that we could struggle to retain possession as did Walters' inclusion ahead of Wes Hoolahan, ostensibly to add additional cover to David Myler in his unfamiliar left back role.  As the game began this issue with possession soon came to pass and those missing pre match nerves came back with a bang on 5 minutes as Erik Durm unleashed a cracking shot from 25 yards that cannoned back off the crossbar.

However, although the pattern around possession remained the same, we were managing to defend stoutly and despite one headed chance from a set play, Germany weren't really getting in behind us or threatening our goal.  The only real chance we had to ease the pressure was from a free after a foul on Keane but when the ball came back to Whelan a few yards back from the penalty area, his safety first instinct kicked in and the ball was played back to halfway without us creating a chance.  The first half continued in the same vein and bar an opportunity when a slack pass from Marc Wilson was charged down and although Forde came from his area to get to the ball ahead of Thomas Muller, instead of booting it to row Z, he tried to control the ball but mishit it straight to the opposition although they failed to create anything with the chance and the ball was eventually cleared.  A couple more half chances were all that were created with a shot from local boy Julian Draxler straight into Forde's chest on the dot of half time summing up the lack of incisiveness on the part of the hosts.

So, half time and O'Neill's gameplan for a nil all was still alive and we hunkered down for more of the same for another 45 minutes. Jogi Löw reacted to the goalless first half and our lack of possession by removing his defensive midfielder,Matthias Ginter and replacing him with the Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski.  The change did give Germany a little more impetus but bar a couple of long range shots that went wide, the second half began to pan out in a similar fashion to the first with an early half chance for Ireland from a McClean cross that Neuer saved at Keane's feet before the Germans regained control for a spell until Tony Kroos let go a swerving shot that David Forde did well to claw over the bar for a corner which also coughed up another chance that was blocked by James McClean's trailing leg.  Just before that, Whelan had succumbed to a knock and been replaced by Hendrick and the pressure was beginning to build but with every minute that passed the hope from the away end started to grow that we somehow might hang on.  Another substitution followed with Gibson replacing Keane and Walters moving up front with McGeady moving back to his more natural position out wide.  We seemed to be getting a few breaks as the game reached the 70 minute mark with a couple of penalty calls waved away (one never a pen, the other I've seen given on occasion) but just as we started to believe it might be our night disaster struck.

When the ball fell out to Kroos he was in exactly the sort of position that we'd been closing down all night.  However, although it seemed like Quinn had the time to get out and at least try and put the player off, he held back for a second and allowed Kroos to take a couple of touches and arrow a shot in off the post.  Joy for the home fans in the ground but to be fair to our support, who hadn't stopped singing all game, as soon as we tipped off again the roar of "Come On You Boys In Green!" began again as we tried to lift the team. While Germany remained on top in the immediate aftermath of the goal, O'Neill made his final change in bringing Wes Hoolahan on for Stephen Quinn and as the game reached the last 10 minutes after another great save from Forde, this time from Mario Gotze, the Germans seemed to settle for 1-0 and started sitting back a bit, allowing us more time to work something on the ball.  I was worried any chance we had might be gone when Stephen Ward, who'd probably had his best game for Ireland to that point, pulled up with an injury that was effectively reducing us to 10 men but he battled on bravely and our pressure increased as the Germans sat deeper and deeper.

On 85 minutes, McClean, another man who'd played very well defensively on the night and had been one of the few getting into attacking positions, got the ball on the left and managed to slide a ball into Hoolahan that looked certain to be the equaliser only for Erik Durm to somehow slide over and get a block in.  It's fair to say that nearly all the Irish fans in the ground turned to each other and said "That was the chance" at that moment and with the clock running down it seemed unlikely that we'd create another opportunity as good as it.  In fact, although we were now enjoying our best spell of possession we didn't really get near their penalty area again until stoppage time.  In the first minute of it another half chance arrived but Hoolahan dithered on the ball when he had options left and right and was tackled.  However, the Germans were getting decidedly nervy and we immediately won a free around the halfway line which was pumped forward to McClean who hit a cross-shot that pin-balled around the box before going out for a throw.  Despite giving away possession straight from the throw the composure on the ball normally associated with this German side had gone and the ball was just booted back to the half way line where Wilson returned it and it went out for another throw,

At this stage, I was nearly convinced that the 4 minutes stoppage time was up so was screaming for the ball to be put back in the box but when the ball came back to Hoolahan from McGeady it looked like the cross was too deep and the chance was gone.  What happened next was one of those moments that will go down in the annals of Irish soccer history and led to possibly the biggest celebration in the stands since Robbie Keane's stoppage time equaliser in Japan in 2002!  Jeff Hendrick somehow managed to hook the ball back across the box and, in fairytale fashion on his hundredth cap, John O'Shea managed to get himself across Matt Hummels and connect with the outside of his right boot to find the corner of the net!  Cue absolute mayhem in the stands as the heady mix of elation and disbelief cascaded through the away section!

View of celebrations from German stand

It's moments like that that make all the early starts, the travelling and the bad results worthwhile,  There's always something special about a late goal such as Keane's equaliser v Italy a few years back but that was a game we'd really been on top in and in fact we had another chance to win it in the couple of minutes after that.  This time the celebrations were still going on when Germany tipped off again and the ref blew for full time to up the decibel level another notch just as it was beginning to subside.  It must have been at keast 3 or 4 minutes of full on screaming, bouncing around, hugging your mates, hugging total strangers and laughing our heads off !  A truly special moment.  The reception the team got as they came back to our end to applaud the fans was a great moment as well and after a result like that it's one of those times you're happy enough to wait around the ground for the extra few minutes it takes to be allowed out. 

Spot the sour kraut ;)

The atmosphere walking out of the ground and back onto the concourse was something else as well and even the snail pace tram journey back to Gelsenkirchen which led to us missing our direct train back to Düsseldorf wasn't enough to dampen our spirits and gave us a bit of time to meet up with a few others who'd been in other sections of the ground and share a celebratory drink with them as we waited for a connecting train to Essen.  Even a comedy moment from Brummie Bren as he failed to mind the gap getting onto the train and promptly fell straight between the platform and the train before being dragged back up by us couldn't wipe the smile off his face despite the resultant bad gash on the leg and sorry for laughing mate but it was comedy gold seeing you drop about 3 feet and bounce off the train but was glad to see you weren't too badly hurt!  When the lads staying in Essen got off we said our goodbyes and decided to jump a taxi back rather than waiting another 40 minutes for the next train.

A lot of the support had been delayed getting back to Düsseldorf but there was still a good crew back in McLaughlins when we got back there around 1.30.  That said, a lot of energy seemed to have been sapped by the time people had made their journeys so after a few beers around that strip of local bars, a chat with a few fans and locals and an essential donar kebab, myself, Philly and Greg bailed back to the hotel around 4.30 and called it a night.

The following day brought the usual combination of a hangover tempered by a sense of elation that you get after a good result.  A 3.25 flight meant we didn't have to get on the road too early and also that we missed the nightmare that some had due to the train strike from 2 that afternoon that no one seemed to be aware of and the bomb scare in Dusseldorf airport that caused the delay and cancellation of a number of flights that evening and night.  Lucky for us really because at that stage I just wanted to get back and sink into my sofa.  On checking the Irish paper's websites that morning, I'd seen a bit of controversy had erupted from the analysis by the holy trinity of Irish punditry in Dunphy, Giles and Brady.  We'd heard from texts during the game that Dunphy had called Martin O'Neill "Trapattoni with a Derry accent"  but before making a call on it I wanted to see what they'd said for myself so once I'd settled in at home I stuck on the RTE player and went to the end (stopping to relive O'Shea's goal en route!).  While there are some valid points made around team selection and our ball retention which was poor for the first 80 minutes with numerous misplaced simple passes, it has to be said that some of the analysis borders on the farcical, in particular Dunphy's comments.  Eamon always has to have a cause celebre and unfortunately for Wes Hoolohan, he's the man who has taken this mantle in recent times.  I've always had time for Hoolahan as a player since his Shels days and was delighted to see him have a great game on Saturday albeit against Gibraltar.  However, it did him no favours to have Dunphy lauding him as a game changer on Tuesday night when the impact on his game had been limited at best.  There were 3 occasions when he lost the ball in similar fashion to players earlier in the game, one in particular when he had great options in McClean and Walters on either side of him.  And claiming that he was the architect of the goal when he had in fact seriously over hit the cross leaving Hendrick with a huge amount to do to get the final ball across was frankly laughable.  The fact that Dunphy didn't even mention Hendrick's superb assist added another element of farce to it.  And while Glen Whelan my not be everyone's cup of tea, Dunphy's consistent spiteful belittling of him is tantamount the the sort of bullying behaviour that he claims to hate.  I'd argue that Whelan was part of the reason why we hadn't conceded while he was on the pitch and that there's a fair chance he'd have been there to close down Kroos for the goal as he'd been doing that all game.  And Liam Brady's credibility was done no favours when he'd described David Meyler, who'd done a great job at right back for a midfielder being played out of position, as a Championship player despite the fact he's plied his trade with Hull in the Premier League for the last year and a half. 

John Giles was a bit more balanced but I can't agree with his idea that we'd have been better off going toe to toe with Germany over 90 minutes.  Martin O'Neill has always had a streak of conservatism in him and there's more than one way to skin a cat so he was perfectly entitled to set up defensively for an away game against the World Champions.  To me, the game swung on 3 things, Germany sat back after they scored (which is possibly reflective of their current lack of confidence), we started pushing forward a bit as we tried to get something from the game after falling behind and the manager made a number of positive changes to take advantage of the above.  For all the talk of the difference Gibson and Hendrick made with their passing ability when they came on, both were on the pitch when we conceded and it was really only the last 10 minutes when we started getting a real foothold in the game rather than from 70 minutes as Giles has said since on radio and in his Herald column today. Had Germany not scored when they did it's unlikely they would have sat back in the manner they did and its impossible to say with any certainty that we'd have got the space to play our way back into the game.  By all means have a philosophy about the game but there has to be an acceptance that there are different ways to approach a game and I feel that focusing on the positives rather than the negatives would have been a more suitable way to analyse the game but it seemed to me that they had their angle prepared before our last gasp equaliser and weren't prepared to change it.  Goals change games may be a cliche but it's true.  They also change away trips and with that swing of his right boot John O'Shea put this one right up near the top!! 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Georgia Off Our Minds

Pressure of work along with an upcoming trip to Italy for a friend's wedding meant that a trip to Tbilisi for Martin O'Neill's first competitive game in charge had to be sacrificed so I had to settle with meeting a few friends to watch the All Ireland Hurling final followed immediately afterwards by the match.  Having been glad to see the team return to winning ways at Lansdowne against Oman the previous Wednesday in what was admittedly a game played at a training pace, I was very curious to see what 11 O'Neill would put out in what was a potential banana skin in what is probably the hardest qualifying group for Euro 2016.  The excitement of the Hurling was a nice precursor to what I'd consider the main event of the day but the surprise I got when I checked my phone during half time of the final and saw the selected team definitely took my attention away from Croke Park as I tried to get my head around how the team would line up.

I've previously said that O'Neill's style would be a slight evolution from the style favoured by Trap rather than a massive sea change and the selected team certainly backed that up with players that have been labelled as Trap favourites such as Ward, Whelan and Walters all present and correct and a continuation of what has always been a failed experiment with Robbie Keane cast in the lone striker role.  My biggest surprise was to see Wes Hoolahan on the bench with Stephen Quinn given the nod in midfield for his first competitive start.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?  The other main talking point was the retention of David Forde as the number one keeper following the return of Shay Given to the fold.  I was glad to see that the nonsense written in parts of the media that Given was insisting on being guaranteed a game turned out to the just that. Forde has never let Ireland down since claiming the shirt and while I've no issue with Given coming back, you can't give guarantees like that in football and it would have sent out a very bad message.  I never felt that O'Neill was the type of manager to operate in that way and was happy to see that feeling borne out.

I've always quite liked Stephen Quinn as a player.  I'd seen his brother Alan get a number of caps during the Brian Kerr era but Stephen had always looked the better player from what I'd seen of both of them so his ascension into the squad was possibly a bit belated. That said, it was still surprising to see him lining out in midfield as the game kicked off ahead of Hoolahan who seems to have been consistently overlooked in important games by a number of managers at this stage both at club and international level.and who has now become the RTE panel's (Eamon Dunphy in particular) latest cause celebre.

So onto the game itself, and as it took those of us watching a few minutes to adjust to the pace of the game after the breathless helter skelter finale that Kilkenny and Tipperary had served up this was mirrored on the pitch as Ireland started a bit slowly bar a lively first minute but by around the 15 minute mark had begun to dominate possession albeit without much of a cutting edge.  However, as often happens, when the goal came it was from old style route one despite the fact that our best spell of possession had just preceded it!

A bit of scrappy play in the Irish defence had ended with a goal kick and Forde duly pumped it long.  When it landed on Walters' head he flicked it on towards Keane who dummied it leaving James McCarthy to run onto it. McCarthy then looked up and saw Aiden McGeady who had drifted in form the left and played a perfectly weighted ball to allow McGeady to bend his run back to the left to create an angle on the keeper from where he finished beautifully!  1-0 Ireland and it was probably deserved at that stage.

Unfortunately, old habits seem to die hard and despite having gained the initiative and looking quite comfortable since the goal our lead was wiped out within 10 minutes. There seemed to be little danger when  a long ball came forward to the Georgian midfielder Okriashvili but both Ward and O'Shea stood off him giving him time to turn.  Despite the space allowed, I doubt that as he got his shot off even he could believe the trajectory of it as it swerved and dipped at the last minute dropping under the bar and left Forde with no chance.  The dip on the shot was so severe that I initially assumed the ball must have deflected off someone on it's way.  However, replays clearly show that it was just a once in a lifetime shot and, to give credit where it's due, was a stunning goal.  I've seen some questions asked of Forde regarding the goal but it was the sort of shot that I couldn't have seen any keeper saving.  Conceding like that definitely seemed to hit the belief of the Irish players and the remaining 7 minutes to half time was our worst spell of the game and the break came at the right time for us.

The second half started similarly enough to how the first finished but as the game developed we gradually regained a foothold, possibly helped by the slow tempo in general which may have been a result of the evening heat.  For me, bringing on the likes of Hoolahan with around 30 minutes to go would have been the decision to make but it was 15 minutes later before Robbie Brady and Shane Long were introduced for Quinn and Keane.  However, this didn't seem to spark us into life and although we were dominating possession again as Georgia seemed to the settling for a point, our final ball was lacking again and bar a McGeady effort just before the substitutions where he turned and cracked a shot just over the bar we weren't really creating anything of note.

McGeady at this stage seemed to have taken a more central position which I'll elaborate on later and it was from this position that he individually turned what looked like 2 points dropped into an away win which could prove vital come the end of the campaign.  Seamus Coleman's distribution had been pretty poor by his standards but as the game reached the last minute he was at least still getting forward although there appeared to be little danger as he played the ball into McGeady who had his back to goal.  What happened next was as skillful a piece of play as I've seen from anyone in an Ireland shirt in all the years I've been watching us.  Taking one touch to control the ball, his second touch was a perfectly executed Cruyff turn to take the ball away from the defender which was immediately followed by a further flick to gain an extra yard and finally he wrapped his left foot around the ball and hit a prefect shot to bury it past the keeper! 2-1 Ireland and you could see the belief drain from the Georgians meaning we were able to close out the game easily throughout stoppage time and bank the 3 points.

It was undoubtedly McGeady's most telling contribution in his 70 caps and was great to see.  He's often been a frustrating player in Ireland's colours as it's been clear since he first came on the scene that he has loads of ability but his end product from out wide had often been lacking which crosses and indeed corners regularly hitting the first man and he's also suffered from being double marked on occasion.  I've thought for a while that he could potentially do a job in the number 10 position in the hole behind the main striker and both his goals came from that general area.  If the manager doesn't trust Hoolahan to do that job in tight games then it could be worth considering McGeady for that role in the future.  He seems to be growing into things at Everton since his move and it's safe to say had Messi or Ronaldo scored a goal like that this week it would still be on a loop on Sky Sports News, it really was that good.

Another thing to take from the game is that we really can't afford to play Keane as the lone man up front.  I've always been huge fan of Robbie but even at his peak he was never that effective playing that role.  He;s still capable of playing as part of a two with the likes of Long up front or even with a playmaker like Hoolahan (or McGeady?) playing balls through but despite the fact that he is still the only natural finisher in the squad we just don't create the chances for him to finish when we're set up like we were on Sunday.  We need to come up with another plan for games like that because it doesn't work as it is.

So overall the 2nd goal puts a completely different perspective on things with a home game to Gibraltar to come before I get back on the away trip bandwagon for the Germany game in October.  6 points on the board at that stage should be a given and although Scotland's performance against them was a bit worrying they've struggled in Georgia before and there's always the chance that they or Poland could drop points there.  The result and in some ways the performance was reminiscent of the start of the 3 Trap campaigns where we picked up maximum points away to Georgia (albeit in the neutral venue of Mainz), away to Armenia and finally with that get out of jail performance in Kazakhstan which Sunday was definitely an improvement on.  The second place finish of the first two campaigns would give us automatic qualification this time around so fingers crossed!!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Friends Reunited

It's a case of familiar faces, friends and relations for the Euro 2016 qualifiers as the draw pits us against Germany for the third time in the last five campaigns, reunites us with the country we made so many friends in as we tried to forget the football during Euro 2012 and sees us play our Celtic cousins for the first time since Gary Mackay's late winner for Scotland against Bulgaria sent us to our first major tournament in Euro '88. The group is certainly a good one for the trips it will throw up with the aforementioned away games sure to attract a great travelling crowd, as will an away game v Gibraltar due to be played in Portugal in September 2015 leaving only the away game in Georgia that kicks off the group as the lone journey of the 'planes, trains and automobiles' variety. But while it's good from that perspective with good crowds, craic and atmosphere guaranteed, from a qualifying perspective I was left a little deflated by the draw and while it could have been worse, it most certainly could have been a whole lot better.

Gary Mackay enters Irish soccer folklore

There are a number of reasons why I believe this, the first of which being the top seed.  While you always expect a difficult game against the highest ranked team in the group, there were a number of teams in that pot who I would have fancied us to have a right go at and potentially take points from.  The likes of Bosnia, Greece, Russia in particular or even England and Italy.  In fact, take Ronaldo out of the Portugal team and it's very average as well with a Swedish side that we weren't far off last campaign running them to the wire in the play offs.  The only 3 teams in advance that I didn't want from that pot were Germany, Spain and The Netherlands in that order.  So to get Germany was disappointing and the fact that we've played them so often since Steve Staunton's first competitive game as manager means that we miss out on the chance of a different away experience in the qualifiers. Realistically, you have to assume they'll steamroll the group and the fact that they should certainly have a top two place and with it qualification confirmed by the time we play them means they may have their eye off the ball but I don't really think this German team work that way. Picking up a point against them over the two games is probably the best we can hope for.

Most commentators agree that the group is most likely going to come down to a shoot about for 2nd place between ourselves, Poland and Scotland.  As far as 3rd and 4th seeds go I again think we could have done a lot better.  There really isn't much between the 3 sides.  While Poland can blow hot and cold, they have genuine class in the shape of Robert Lewandowski up front and further Champions League experience with Arsenal's Wojciech Szczęsny in goal and Lewandowski's Dortmund team mate Łukasz Piszczek at the back. Add in a number of players plying their trade in the Bundeseliga, currently the best league in Europe and there's clearly the potential to cause difficulty there.  The fact that their games against Germany would be similar for the players to our games against England means that there's always the chance that they'll raise their game for those ties and should they somehow pick up points that would give them a distinct advantage in this mini league.  We can also expect a huge away support in Dublin judging by the last 2 friendlies played at Lansdowne and it's imperative that our home support turn out in force for that game.

Polish fans standing up for the Boys in Green after our exit

Scotland's placing in the 4th pot is a bit of a misnomer due to the disastrous Craig Levein reign.  Since Gordon Strachan took over they have slowly turned things around and have recently started playing with more confidence and indeed did the double over a Croatia team that we struggled against in Euro 2012. There's not much between the squads with a mixture of mid level Premier league and good Championship players.  There's some decent Championship firepower in Jordan Rhodes and Ross McCormack, some trickery in Robert Snodgrass and they're further along the bounce and development that being under new management has given them.  There's not much between the managers either, they had similar domestic records at Celtic and while people may point to Martin O'Neill's UEFA Cup final run, they were only in that because they'd failed to get out of the Champions League group again, a feat never achieved under O'Neill whereas Strachan qualified out of the group twice in succession with a significantly reduced budget.   I think they'll be two tight games against the Scots and while they're winnable, I'd much sooner have had numerous other teams from that pot. Draws may well be the order of the day without a moment of magic like Mark Lawrenson's run in 1987.

Mark Lawrenson's finest moment in Green

By the time you get to the 5th pot, you'd expect that a relatively straightforward 6 points would be the order of the day.  Given that our most recent meeting with Georgia last summer resulted in a comfortable 4-0 win you'd be forgiven for thinking that should be the case in this campaign.  However, scratch the surface and that's not the case.  Having drawn Georgia in the World Cup 2010 qualifiers, the first competitive game of the Trapottoni era was scheduled for Tbilisi but due to recent Russian air strikes was moved to a neutral venue, Mainz in Germany.  This undoubtedly was advantageous to Ireland who duly picked up 3 points in a 2-1 win having conceded in stoppage time.  It's safe to say the Georgians weren't too impressed with the heavy FAI lobbying to get the game moved and there is still an undercurrent of bitterness there as a result. Adding to this is the fact that in the return leg it took a very soft penalty to draw us level late on before we grabbed a winner. Their record in Tbilisi is very solid for a 5th seed with a draw against France and Spain relying on an 86th minute winner from Roberto Saldado during the last campaign.  It's also safe to say that the Georgians will look forward to finally getting to play us at home and will feel they have a point to prove.  Again, although they're a team you'd expect us to beat, there were plenty of other teams within that pot that we've no history with and I'd have preferred to see us play.

Georgia 1 Ireland 2 when both teams played away

Making up the group are Gibraltar and although I'd expect them to have more of a British culture to their game than a Spanish one, they really shouldn't cause us any problems.  We're not talking about a Montenegro here who were only bottom seeds due to their lack of games in the past and have shot up the rankings since.  We're talking a San Marino or an Andorra and despite the feel good factor generated by their first game where they got a creditable 0-0 against Slovakia it would be up there with the infamous Lichtenstein draw under Big Jack were we to drop points in either game.

Now, I don't necessarily want to come across as totally doom and gloom about the draw.  Outside of Germany we should be able to beat any of the teams on a given day and I'd be hopeful of getting the second qualifying spot.  The danger is that we get into a situation similar to Brian Kerr's second campaign where ourselves, France, Israel and Switzerland traded off a huge number of draws which eventually left us 4th in the group after Thierry Henry's peach of a winner in Lansdowne.  Indeed, that group was so tight that had we held on to our 1-0 score through stoppage time away to Israel and not thrown away a 2-0 lead in the return leg we'd have topped the group despite the defeat to France.  Such slim margins are the difference between success and failure.  A series of draws like that would also leave us extremely unlikely to gain the automatic qualifying spot for the best 3rd place team.  Had we ended up in a group such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra or England, Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino or Greece, Ireland, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands or even Spain, Ireland, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg we could safely start booking our slots for the finals in France.  The irony is that we were worried that Romania would get to overtake us on the seedings after the World Cup play offs a few months ago and delighted when they didn't yet they wound up with an easier draw as third seeds than we did as second!

On the positive side, the qualifiers themselves should have a real buzz about them with ourselves, Scotland and Poland all having great travelling support and the relations between us should make for some great scenes around all the games, home and away. The Scotland game will most likely be at the only stadium in Britain where the Tricolour proudly flies and a visit to Paradise in Parkhead is always a pleasure. I'm certain a warm welcome will await us wherever the game is held in Poland given how the relationship between the 2 countries blossomed during Euro 2012.  The lack of a stadium in Gibraltar means 2015's holidays are sorted now with a week or so in Portugal including a trip to the game looking nice and a trip to Germany around Oktoberfest time is always worth doing!  Fingers crossed the final table will be as enjoyable to experience as the journey there!

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Aiden McGeady - It's a Grand Old Team to Play For

The first major transfer of this window involving an Irish player looks an ideal fit for both player and club. For all the frustrations that his end product can sometimes bring, there's no doubting that, on his day, Aiden McGeady can be a classy player. The more I think of it, the more I think it's a perfect fit. No other club that end of the league would be in for him. Man City? No. Chelsea? No. Arsenal? No. Liverpool? Don't think so. Man U? No chance. Spurs? No. It would have been Everton or Newcastle really. And Everton are the better team for me. It's great for McGeady that Roberto Martinez was already an admitted fan, having tried to bring him to Wigan previously. I thought at the time that a move to a Wigan side battling relegation would have been a bad one for the player so whether through luck or judgement, the decision to stay the extra year with Spartak Moscow has been vindicated.

From McGeady's perspective it's a great opportunity to get involved at the business end of the Premier League. He's already used to playing in front of expectant crowds at Celtic and Spartak so playing at Goodison shouldn't hold any fear for him. While most commentators would agree that there is room for improvement from McGeady, Everton fans should look at the work that Martinez did with Shaun Maloney at Wigan. When Maloney first came to the Premier League with Aston Villa, he struggled with consistency and he only lasted a year before returning to Celtic with a very lacklustre season behind him. However, on his return to the Premier League under Martinez at Wigan, once he settled in his game was definitely raised and despite their eventual relegation, he was central to their survival in the league in 2012 and their FA Cup win in 2013. McGeady is a far superior player to Maloney and should Martinez have a similar influence then the end result could be something special.

From Everton's perspective, they've essentially got a player that cost £10m less than 4 years ago for a nominal fee thought to be around £500k.  Martinez is generally getting players in that feel they've something to prove. The likes of Gareth Barry and Romalu Lakuku for example, albeit they're just loan deals for now. Darron Gibson fits that category too even though he was a Moyes signing. That's the sort of squad Martinez is building and I think and hope McGeady will thrive in that atmosphere.

Added to that McGeady is joining a large Irish contingent at Everton with Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy already very influential in the team and Gibson due back from injury next season along with Shane Duffy who's done well in the Championship at Yeovil on loan so far this season . Given that none of the rest of the Irish squad are playing for a team in the top half of the table, it's a huge bonus for the national team to have 4 and potentially 5 players at one club for the foreseeable future.  Everton has always been a club with major links to Ireland and it's easy to forget these days with the huge amount of Liverpool fans in the country that pre Bill Shankly, Everton was very much the team that the huge immigrant Irish population in the city of Liverpool followed while Liverpool FC in fact counted members of the orange order amongst their founders!

An interesting post script will be the fact that when McGeady runs out at Goodison Park, it'll be to a very familiar song given that Everton also adopted 'It's a grand old team to play for' as their club anthem.  I'm sure their fans will hope that it can inspire McGeady to reproduce some of his SPL form on the bigger Premier League stage!