Monday, 10 December 2012

AC Milan - A Club in Transition.

Before a ball was kicked in Italy this season, there was one thing on almost everybody's mind - "What will happen with AC Milan?"

It would be an understatement to say that The Rossoneri underwent a bit of a clear out in the summer. However, this was not the kind of clear out that is quite commonplace in modern football. This particular clear out caught the eye of almost every football fan in Europe. It is not unusual to see a club attempt to remove any and all deadwood from it's books to allow for new signings to come in or to present an opportunity to young, up and coming players to make the step up to first team football while still having the big names around to act as mentors during their transitional phase. This is not what happened at AC Milan.

In a desperate attempt to cut costs, president Silvio Berlusconi and vice-president Adriano Galliani decided to sell the clubs most valuable assets and star players. Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were both sold to French giants PSG seemingly against the interests of the players themselves. Clarence Seedorf moved onto a new adventure in Brazil with Botafogo (this was his own decision, not the decision of Galliani.) Antonio Cassano was sold to bitter rivals Internazionale in a swap deal for Giampaolo Pazzini. As well as the above, key players such as Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi all moved on. Though some of the latter names may not have been key players last season, they were still massive characters and names among the Milan squad and fantastic mentors to have around the younger players at the club. 

It was evident from the start that this was going to be a long, hard season for the red half of Milan. Results early on indicated that it might be a lot tougher than even the most pessimistic Milan supporter would have imagined. Early defeats to Sampdoria, Atalanta and Udinese meant that the seven times European champions were in a time of crisis. It was difficult to see where the club's next win was going to come from. The fixture list threw up fixtures against Internazionale, Lazio, Napoli, Juventus and Fiorentina all in the space of two months. People were starting to say that Milan could feasibly be involved in a relegation battle. Back to back defeats to Inter and Lazio respectively proved to be a bit of an overdue wake-up call for The Rossoneri. On the back of the Lazio defeat they beat Genoa 1-0. They then traveled to Palermo where they found themselves 2-0 down. It looked like another defeat was on the cards. For the first time all season they showed real fight and managed to claw the game back to earn a 2-2 draw and could well have snatched it late on. This was the first real sign of a will to fight for the cause within the squad. This result appeared to give birth to a new feeling of belief among players and fans alike. 

A few days after the Palermo game Chievo Verona made the journey to the San Siro. Milan smashed them 5-1. Not only did they score five, they also had five different goalscorers. Milan appeared to have got their swagger back. Then they welcomed high-flying Fiorentina to the San Siro. They lost 3-1 and the players looked helpless, lost and confused once again. Had the slump restarted?. Just as things looked to be improving they hit a brick wall and crashed again. With Napoli and Juventus being the next two games Milan had no time to lick their wounds. They needed to find that fight that they showed in the second half away to Palermo, and they needed to find it fast. 

The fans arrived at the Stadio San Paolo to face Napoli full of fear. The general consensus was that Milan were about to be beaten, and it wasn't going to be pretty. Surprisingly, this was not the case. They held Napoli to a 2-2 draw and attention swiftly turned to the following week. All eyes would turn to the San Siro as champions Juventus were coming to town. Juventus had recently had their remarkable forty-nine game unbeaten run ended by Internazionale. Could AC Milan do what their neighbours had done a few weeks previously? Could they overturn the stubborn Old Lady? Against all odds, Milan not only avoided defeat, but beat the defending champions 1-0 through a Robinho penalty. 

Since the win against Juventus, Milan have won two consecutive games against Catania and Torino respectively. Two months ago it would have been hard to see any glimpse of a positive sign for Milan, now with a few wins under their belt things are starting to look a little bit better. It is now possible to look at Milan and see that it is not all doom and gloom for the club.

In Stephan El Shaarawy, Antonio Nocerino and Riccardo Montolivo Milan have found a new core and spine to the starting eleven. They appear to be finding their feet in their new roles in the squad and the recent upturn in results reflects that.

The squad as a whole appear to have gotten over the shock of losing the big characters and names in the summer and are now beginning to look united for the first time. After some of the earlier defeats the players looked lost on the pitch. They looked like eleven individuals without the slightest sense of camaraderie. The players are now showing a real passion and will to fight for the cause. During the victory over Torino, Antonio Nocerino gifted Torino the opening goal. He then went on the score the goal that put Milan 2-1 ahead and his celebration oozed passion and showed a real desire to redeem himself for his earlier mistake. This type of attitude is infectious in a football club. The team looked united after the match as they celebrated the win passionately. 

They now look like a club who have a reliable core. They have a passionate battler in the shape of Nocerino. A cool, calm and collected ball playing midfielder in the Montolivo. Attacking flair with Robinho, and a new superstar in El Shaarawy. Even in the dark times of September and October there was always one, tiny flicker of light. Stephan El Shaarawy has been phenomenal for Milan thus far this season. Could he be the next big thing for The Rossoneri? Only time can tell but at the moment, this boy looks like he has a big, big future ahead of him. And seeing as he has an unusual friendship with Berlusconi, I can't see him being sold anytime soon so Milan may well have found themselves a new hero.

I have always had a love for AC Milan. It is a love that I cannot explain. So it's fair to say that it was hard for me to watch them lose game after game early on this year. I, along with many of you I'm sure, hope that this recent upturn in form will continue and The Rossoneri can go back to competing for the scudetto sooner rather than later. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Barclays Premier League Stand Out Stars So Far

With the Premier League at the tender age of nine gameweeks old, I have decided to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with a brief piece of my thoughts on who has stood out for me at this early stage. I am not, however, going to discuss the blatantly obvious and predictable brilliance of the likes of Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie and Santi Cazorla, my reason being that anybody with an ounce of football knowledge will have expected nothing less from the likes of those players.

I am going to get the ball rolling by talking about Jermain Defoe. A man who seems to blow hot and cold as if he's living out Katy Perry's first hit single. I have never been able to understand how Defoe's ability can fluctuate so dramatically between seasons. One season he could be lethal, simply unstoppable. The next, the opposing defense would be happy to see his name on the team sheet. This season has started off well for Defoe. I think credit has to go to André Villas-Boas for this. He has clearly instilled confidence in the striker. He must have sat with Defoe and assured him that he is his number one striker, ahead of Emmanuel Adebayor. Being put ahead of Adebayor is bound to fill the Englishman with an abundance of self-confidence. Confidence for a striker is absolutely pivotal to his success. At times, confidence is more important than actual ability - just ask Fernando Torres. Defoe is visibly full of confidence and his form thus far is nothing short of fantastic. Having scored five goals in nine league games it looks as if he could play a major part in deciding whether or not Tottenham can table a serious Champions League bid this year. I think his form will directly correlate between Spurs' position come May.

Next I want to move onto a man not many people will have heard of before this season - Christian Benteke. A lot of people were surprised to see Aston Villa splash around £7 million on the young Belgian international, myself included. I did not know what to expect, and to a certain degree I still don't. He has scored four goals in eight appearances for Villa so far and is doing his best to keep Darren Bent off the scoresheet. On top of this, he has also played and scored for Belgium this season and certainly looks a talent. At the age of only twenty-one, he is definitely one to watch for this season and possibly for many seasons to come.

The next name I'm going to mention might surprise you a bit. This man has come under a lot of criticism since his arrival in England but I have found myself defending him over and over again. This man is Olivier Giroud. The new Arsenal striker was always going to be under the spotlight after the departure of one Robin Van Persie. Despite only having one league goal and assist to his name in nine appearances, I feel the Frenchman has started well. He is missing a lot of chances, yes, but at least he is getting those chances. Once he takes a couple of these chances the goals will begin to come thick and fast for Giroud, in my opinion. He is suffering from a major lack of confidence. When he goes through, I think that he is more worried about missing than he is confident about scoring. This problem will eradicate itself after he hits the net a few times. The form of a striker can change in the blink of an eye as we saw earlier with Jermain Defoe and I have full confidence that Giroud will bag double figures for Arsenal this year and will push on next season. He scored an impressive twenty-one goals in thirty-six league games for Montpellier last season, this is proof enough that he knows how to stick the ball in the back of the net.

Raheem Sterling's name feels like it has been spoken about for a long, long time. So often with young players you hear a lot of hype about them when they are in their mid-teens and with most of them, they never live up to the expectations. Things look different for the Liverpool youngster. Since Rafael Benítez snapped him up from Queens Park Rangers in 2010 I have been eagerly waiting to see whether or not the Jamaican born youngster was the real deal or not. I was skeptical, and with good reason to be. It is rare for a player to actually meet the expectations set by fans and media. It would appear that Sterling has answered my questions with a solid start to his career. He has been a bright spark in this below-par Liverpool team. He became the clubs second youngest ever goalscorer, only behind Michael Owen. His youthful exuberance has been a breath of fresh air to the Premier League. With the ball at his feet, he brings fans to the edges of their seats, he worries defenses and excites his teammates. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this young man play this season, and long may it continue!

Finally, my fifth and final player. This man has been around for quite a while. He has been criticised time and time again, and justifiably so in some cases. This year he is silencing his critics. Theo Walcott is a strange type of player. For years he has said he wants to be played through the middle of Arsenal's attack, but has never shown that he has the required attributes to do so. This year is different, this year he is backing up his requests with outstanding performances. The days of waiting for years for an Emirates goal are over for Walcott. Expect to see his name on the scoresheet more often. In all competitions this season, Walcott has played eleven times. In these eleven appearances, he has contributed with seven goals and four assists - not bad. It used to be the case that when he broke clear, you expected him to drag his shot wide or to panic and hit it straight at the 'keeper. Those days are a thing of the past. Walcott has grown, he has finally come of age and this is a worry for Premier League defenses. There is no doubt that Roy Hodgson will be keeping a keen eye on his development over the coming season and he may well have a big part to play come Brazil 2014.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Finances or Football? The FAI's big problem.

With a good proportion of the country calling for his head, it is safe to say that Giovanni Trapattoni is a man under an enormous amount of pressure. Who would've thought it when the snowy haired Italian touched down in Dublin to sign a lucrative deal that not even the FAI could afford to pay in full. How things have changed since the days when Irish people celebrated and cheered the name of their Italian messiah. They used to sing "He used to be Italian but he's Irish now", oh how things have changed. In this piece I will debate why Trapattoni should perhaps be moved on and who would be best suited to filling the position left vacant.

I want to set out from the offset that I am no reactionary football fan. I have the utmost respect for what Trapattoni has achieved in his career and acknowledge the fact that he is (or was) one of the greatest managers the game has seen.

In my opinion, however, he is a manager more suited to club football than international. He is stubborn, there's no doubt about it. A club manager can afford to be. He doesn't have the players required for his system? No problem. Sell a few, buy a few - problem solved. International managers do not have this luxury. In international management you must select a system based on the best players you have available to you. Unfortunately for the Republic of Ireland, and the likes of James McClean in particular, Trap has not been doing this for a few years now. He insists on playing with a negative, unattractive, and joyless style despite simply not having the players to suit it. He opts for a basic 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with two holding midfielders who rarely do anything other than smash the ball 50 yards upfield and then watch Robbie Keane throw his arms around in protest.

Ireland  have a range of decent quality players who are good with the ball at their feet: James McClean, James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman, Keith Fahey, Jon Walters, Shane Long and so on. As I said; these players are good with the ball at their feet, on the ground. They are utterly useless when they are looking at balls flying thirty feet above their heads. I don't have a problem with playing defensively, being a Chelsea fan I couldn't possibly count the number of times I said "play to your strengths" during the European campaign last year. But Ireland's strengths, unlike two years ago, no longer lie in their defense.

On top of his blatant inability to adapt or evolve as a manager in the Winter of his managerial career, he claims the record of managing the joint worst team at any European Championships. He also led Ireland to their worst ever home defeat, albeit to a brilliant German side. Regardless of the quality of this German outfit, six goals is too much. Six goals is simply humiliating.

So the question I want to put forward is: if it didn't require so much money to sack him, would Trap still be employed? I highly doubt it. There have been some strange comments coming out of the FAI this week which don't exactly look encouraging for the Italian. Whispers coming out of the Association suggest that Trap could be gone come the end of the week. The FAI face a massive problem of what needs to be put first; finances or football?

To get rid of Trapattoni would burn a big hole in the pockets of the FAI, and those of you who know John Delaney will know that spending money is not something he is fond of, even if not spending will be detremental to the Irish game. It is rumoured that it would cost roughly 1.7 million euro. This is before you even take into consideration the cost of searching for and hiring a new man.

This high cost immediately rules out one candidate whose name has been passed around - Harry Redknapp. As much as I dislike him I must admit I do think he would do a brilliant job. But, his wages would be astronomical. And can you just imagine how distraught he would be when he found out he couldn't sign Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch? Now come on, why would you want to upset poor 'Arry like that.

The next man I'm going to talk about is, in my opinion, the best man for the job. You may disagree but at least give me a chance to explain myself. The man in question is Owen Coyle. Why? For a variety of reasons, some of which I will elaborate on:

Coyle is currently unnatached following his departure from Bolton Wanderers. This means the FAI would not have to fork out to pay off a potential release clause. At the age of forty-six, he is still relatively young for a manager. This gives him a distinct advantage over Trapattoni as, due to his age, he is more likely to be open to new ideas, formations and styles. This is something that I'm sure would please the majority of Irish fans. Throughout his brief management career thus far, Coyle has encouraged good football. His style is well suited to the players that would be at his disposal should he become the next manager of the Republic of Ireland. This new, exciting style would certainly help him to win over the fans immediately and with the qualification group Ireland have, it would be a relatively low risk environment in which he could begin to experiment with the squad and to implement his style. The only real stern tests facing the Irish are Germany and Sweden, only having to face the former one more time.

Another box ticked by Coyle is that he is capable of identifying and utilising young, up and coming talent. He displayed this trait when he brought Daniel Sturridge to Bolton on loan, a deal which worked out better than I'm sure even he had expected. He also displayed this attribute when he loaned little-known Arsenal youngster Rio Miyaichi, again to Bolton. Miyaichi also had a big impact on the team and Coyle deserves a lot of credit for not only being able to identify talent, but also being able to use it in such a way which is beneficial to the team and beneficial to the progression of the player himself.

It should also be noted that Coyle is brilliant when it comes to handling the more experienced, ageing members of his squads. With Burnley he used Graham Alexander to devastating effect despite him being in his late thirties at the time. He also brought in and gave new life to Nigel Reo-Coker whilst at Bolton. Reo-Coker, it's fair to say was not very good during his time at Aston Villa. When he moved to Bolton, where he captained the team in the absence of Kevin Davies and although he wasn't brilliant, he did a good job considering he came in on a free. The Ireland squad is packed with ageing, underwhelming players. If Coyle could manage them in a similar fashion to Reo-Coker, it would only lead to good things for the Irish.

Owen Coyle is also good at knowing when it is time for a player to move on. He showed this with the likes of Johan Elmander and Joey O'Brien. This would go down well in the Irish camp. Several players are past their sell by date now and really need to step aside to allow for the next generation to prosper. Robbie Keane is a prime example. Keane no longer offers anything unique to the national side and is only preventing Shane Long, Simon Cox, Jon Walters, Kevin Doyle and others from being presented with a real opportunity to lead the line for their nation.

I understand that Owen Coyle is by no means a better manager than Giovanni Trapattoni, I just feel he would certainly be more suited to this job than the Italian. You mustn't forget that since being named Ireland manager, Trap has never made any effort to attend matches in England or elsewhere in which Irish players would be playing. He openly admitted to not knowing Marc Wislon was even eligible for Ireland. He has repeatedly said his players are not good enough and he has not made any attempt to promote the game domestically here in Ireland (which to be fair is probably more down to the FAI.) Why not give Coyle an opportunity?

If this was an issue more prominent 6 months ago, I would have suggested Chris Hughton as a possible successor to Trapattoni, should he be sacked. However, he has recently signed for Norwich City and cannot see him leaving after such a short period of time at the helm at Carrow Road.

Another name who has predictably been thrown around in the press is Mick McCarthy. I would absolutely take McCarthy back should other options like Coyle and even Chris Hughton be unavailable for any reason. Don't laugh off this claim too hastily. McCarthy isn't actually a bad candidate.

In his previous stint as Ireland boss he narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 before leading Ireland to the World Cup in 2002. He then led Ireland to progress from the group stages ahead of Cameroon and less impressively Saudi Arabia, not losing a single game and holding the German's to a draw (who went on to be runners up.) Not exactly an easy task. Not only did he avoid defeat in the groups, but even in the knockout rounds. It took a penalty shootout for Spain to overcome the boys in green and if it weren't for an Ian Harte missed penalty and an open goal missed by Kevin Kilbane things might have been very different.

McCarthy has always fared reasonably well with below average teams. He took over at Sunderland at a time when they were destined for relegation and had to months to try to save a sinking ship. It was a near impossible task. He almost took them straight back up, missing out only down to a penalty shoot out. He didn't waste any more time, the following year Sunderland regained their Premier League status as Champions. Achieving an impressive 94 points from their 46 games.

His time and Wolverhampton Wanderers will be remembered for perhaps the wrong reasons. It is worth remembering that it was seen by most educated football fans to be an abysmal decision by the Wolves board to sack McCarthy. Wolves ended up going down and I'm not saying he would have guaranteed them safety, but, he knows how to do it. It should also be noted that he became the first Wolves manager in thirty years to maintain the club's top flight status for two successive seasons.

I completely understand that at the time of writing, Giovanni Trapattoni is still the manager of the Republic of Ireland national team and he may well see out the remainder of his two year deal. Lets just hope that whether it be under Trap, Coyle, McCarthy or whoever else, that this Ireland squad can start to improve and improve fast.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Barclays Premier League: Over-Hyped or Justifiably Praised?

I can guarantee that every single one of you will have heard at least once that the Barclays Premier League is 'The best league in the world.' Whether or not you agree with this statement is entirely up to yourself. I, personally, do not subscribe to this belief whatsoever. I do not feel it is possible to label one league as definitively being the standalone best. This view, that the Premier League is the best is, in my opinion, one of extreme arrogance. Throughout this piece, I will make comparisons between the Premier League and the other major top divisions of European football. Depending on how it goes, I may even touch on South America.

The Premier League is an undeniably fantastic league. Before I get into this I want to clarify that I do love the league for what it is and obviously agree that it is one of the finest divisions our sport has to offer. Don't get me wrong, it certainly is up there as one of the best, but to say it's the best is a step too far. In what category is it superior to other leagues? Entertainment? Unpredictability? Value for money? Quality of football? Quality of teams or players? You can perhaps place a tick after entertainment but there is still a case to be argued against that. Unfortunately for the Premier League, all the other boxes have to be filled with a big red 'X'.

Firstly, surely the 'best league in the world' must have the best team in the world, right? The Premier League cannot boast of this. I don't think it's too outrageous for me to say that not only the best team, but the two best teams in the world are both feathers in the hypothetical cap of Spain's La Liga: Real Madrid and Barcelona. Everybody has their own opinion as to which of the two is superior, but I feel it is widely accepted that these two are head and shoulders above the rest.  The Spanish top tier can also boast that it is home to unquestionably the two greatest players currently playing the game - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You can also throw in Andrés Iniesta and Xavi for good measure. As well as a prosperous present, La Liga can also claim to house the most successful club in the history of the European Cup - Real Madrid, who have won the trophy a phenomenal nine times.

The Premier League is also an extremely predictable league. For years the so called 'Big Four' were seemingly untouchable at the summit of English football with the exception of Liverpool who dropped out briefly to be temporarily replaced by Everton for a season. There have only ever been five winners of the league: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Blackburn and Manchester City. Compare this to France's Ligue 1. This is a league which admittedly is inferior in quality to the English, and I am not suggesting that it is a better league, but it has had as many winners in the last five years as the Premier League has since it commenced. It is likely to become six winners in six years this season as PSG look to take the reigns and dominate French football. Since 2007, Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille and Montpellier have all had there hands on the domestic league trophy. Since the Premier League began, Paris Saint-Germain, Nantes, Auxerre, Monaco and Lens have also claimed to be the French champions. What I'm trying to get across here is, in the amount of time that five teams have won the Premier League, twice as many teams have won Ligue 1. Making it a much more open, unpredictable, and therefore exciting league, it could be argued.

One major problem that I have with the Premier League is that there is a lot of utter rubbish in it. If you exclude a few teams: the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle and Swansea, the remainder consists of mainly atrocious footballing sides who are in no way enjoyable to watch. If each club in the Premier League were to play the teams in their respective positions in the other major leagues, I know who my money would be on for the majority - and it would not be the English representatives. Just look at one example that springs to mind - Villareal. The Yellow Submarine finished 18th in La Liga last year. Imagine a hypothetical situation in which Villareal at any stage of last season were to play against Bolton Wanderers. Who would you expect to win that game? No further comment.

As far as the quality of football is concerned, take away Arsenal, Tottenham and Swansea (and obviously a few others) the Premier League really hasn't got much else to offer. There is a clutter of teams with little or no technical ability such as Stoke City (apologies Matthew Etherington.) The likes of Serie A and La Liga have an abundance of technically gifted players within every club. It is a completely different game to that in England. A game based primarily on the ability of the teams and players with the ball at their feet, unlike the Premier League where the clichéd 'Sam Allardyce type team' can prosper. The game in these countries where it is based on technical attributes is a much better game in my opinion, and I, personally, find it much more appealing to watch.

Serie A receives a lot of undue criticism. I am not trying to claim that it is hands down superior to our beloved league, but I have to be honest and say I definitely enjoy it more. Perhaps this is because it doesn't break my heart on a regular basis, as I do not 'support' a team in it the way I do in England. This allows me to enjoy the league from a completely neutral perspective and perhaps if I could view the Premier League in a similar light I may not be as critical as I am. I realise that the Italian style of football is not everybody's figurative cup of tea, but it absolutely engrosses me on a weekly basis. That is, most likely because I am, in the words of Marcus Speller, a "tactical pervert." I love witnessing vigorous tactical battles between two of football's heavyweights. It fascinates me. It is, at times, like watching a game of chess with a ball thrown in just to add to the fun. Again, I completely see why this may not appeal to you, but I'm sure I'm not in isolation when I say that Serie A is the league that I most enjoy watching that I do not have any real emotional attachment to.

I didn't even mention South America thus far in this piece but the Argentinian and Brazilian leagues respectively are also brilliantly unpredictable. Many of you may think that Santos and Corinthians are the two best teams in Brazil. This is not true. Santos, including Neymar and Ganso currently lie 11th in Brazil's Serie A while South American Champions Corinthians are sitting in 9th. All that needs to be said about Argentina is that River Plate have been relegated in recent years. Yes, River Plate, the club that many football fans think fight head-to-head with Boca on a yearly basis to become Argentina's top club.

All I wanted to really get across in this piece was that you cannot simply define one league as being the greatest. The recent Sky Sports driven hype is without doubt the major force behind this widespread belief that the Premier League is without doubt the 'greatest league of any sport ever seen in the history of the universe', but just look into it a little more before you hop on their overwhelmingly large bandwagon. Don't be afraid to explore various leagues and to open your eyes and mind to what football has to offer beyond your preferred team's domestic league.

I beg you all, spread your knowledge. Sample leagues you have never experienced before. I did last year with South America and have since stayed up past 3 in the morning just to watch Boca or the Copa Libertadores online. Be adventurous, if you do and still think the Premier League is the league for you, fair enough, at least you tried. But please don't be another one of those lazy stereotypical 'Sky Sports football fans' who watch the Premier League with rose tinted spectacles and refuse to venture out of their comfort zone.

Explore the world of football, you will not regret it.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

From Irish Journeyman to Asian Superstar: Éamon Zayed - Mr Hat-trick.

"Iran? You're not serious are you?!" This is how Irish-born Libyan international Éamon Zayed admits to have impulsively reacting when he first heard of the offer for him to join Iranian giants Persepolis. The striker had been without a club following the collapse of his club Sporting Fingal and was widely wanted by clubs not only in Ireland. In this piece I will look at how Éamon Zayed went from being a League Of Ireland journeyman to becoming a hero in the eyes of one of the supporters of Iran's biggest clubs.

It all started for the young Irishman at the age of 16 in the youth team of English and then Premier League side Leicester City. Unfortunately for Zayed, it never really worked out for him in England. After just less than two years with The Foxes he returned to Ireland because in his words he "had a few problems over there."

It's fair to say that Bray Wanderers were happy it didn't work for him across the water. He soon signed for the team just South of Dublin and his time there will not be forgotten quickly by the fans. Zayed went on to play over 100 league games for The Seagulls, bagging 54 goals in the process. His time at Bray was not uninterrupted, unfortunately for the supporters of The Wanderers. Whilst playing for Bray, he was loaned out on two occasions. The first time was in the middle of the 2004 season when English side Crewe Alexandra made the approach for the young striker. He never really impressed at Crewe, largely because he was never given any real opportunity to. During his time there he didn't manage to play a single league game. One season later, another loan move came along. This time it was Norwegian side, Aalesunds FK. His time here was not too different from his time at Crewe. However, he did manage to make one league appearance and unsurprisingly, didn't manage to find the net once.

It was not long before Bray lost him on a permanent basis. Mid-table mediocrity was all that was ever achievable with the seaside club so Zayed made the move North to Drogheda United. He really hit the ground running with the Boynesiders, scoring a goal on his debut for the club as they beat Dublin side St. Patrick's Athletic 2-1. His decision to join Drogheda was justified when they became Champions in 2007. Éamon Zayed finished the title winning season as the clubs top goalscorer. Other clubs were beginning to take note of the twenty-four-year-old. He only spent a total of three seasons with the Louth club. Making a total of 71 league appearances and scoring only 20 league goals in his time there.

Things began to fall apart for Drogheda only one year after getting their hands on the Premier Division trophy. At the end of the 2008 season, Drogs entered examinership. This came as a result of failing to pay a €500,000 loan to the Revenue Commssioners and a €10,000 rent payment to Bohemians Football Club for the use of their stadium - Dalymount Park, in the Champions League qualifiers. These financial problems inevitably lead to the departure of some of the clubs players, Zayed was one of these players.

He left cash-strapped Drogheda United to join new boys and financial powerhouses Sporting Fingal. This club was created by the Fingal County Council as part of a soccer development scheme.In 2009 Fingal began to build a team, including Zayed, that were worthy of finishing in the top half of the Premier Division while they played in the First Division. Fingal ended the 2009 season with promotion and as FAI Cup Champions, having come from behind to defeat Sligo Rovers 2-1 in the final with two goals in the last five minutes. After a good first season in the Premier Division, Sporting Fingal ceased to exist due to financial irregularities and Zayed was left clubless.

Libyan side Al Ahly (not to be confused with Egyptian giants) looked set to sign the forward. Unfortunately this transfer fell through following the introduction of a peculiar new rule which banned foreign-born Libyan nationals under the age of thirty. (Very strange, I know!)

The collapse of this deal allowed Derry City to swoop and snatch a bargain. Zayed only had one season with  The Candystripes, but it was definitely his best season as far as goalscoring is concerned. He finished the 2011 season with the Northern based club with 24 league goals in 36 league appearances. This total earned him the accolade of finishing as the leagues top goalscorer and being voted as The PFAI's Player of the year. The club also tasted silverwear in the form of the League Cup as well as a third placed finish in their first season back in the Premier Division.

After just one season with Derry, Zayed's career took an unexpected turn. He received an offer from Persepolis, an Iranian Pro League side to go and join them on a six month contract. After being noticed while playing for the Libyan national team, the Tehran based club showed interest in Zayed.

This is when his career exploded into life.

Following signing for Persepolis without a trial, there was a lot of weight on Zayed's shoulders to succeed from the get go. To say he exceeded expectations would be an understatement. For his second match Zayed was named as a substitute as Persepolis faces fierce rivals Esteghlal. To give you an idea of how significant this rivalry is: it is the biggest derby in Asian football. It has also been named as the 22nd biggest derby in world football so I think it's safe to say that it's a pretty big deal. Zayed had only played about 10 minutes as a late substitute previous to this match so he was still very much an unknown quantity to Iranian football fans. That was all about to change.

Picture the scene: Persepolis are down to ten men and are trailing 2-0 with less than ten minutes to go. Fans are flooding out of the stadium in anger, players and coaching staff alike are looking for inspiration from one source or another. New boy Éamon Zayed strips down to his kit and enters the game in search of a consolation goal at best. He later revealed that the last thing his manager said to him before sending him on was to "Go on and make an impact."

In the 82nd minutes, mere moments after coming on, as fans continue to leave the stadium, a long and low through ball is played beyond the Esteghlal backline. Zayed finds himself one-on-one just minutes into his Persepolis career. He remained composed and coolly finished past the Esteghlal and Iranian first choice 'keeper. Celebrations are minimal and Zayed runs straight back towards the halfway line gesturing to the crowd in an attempt to lift the atmosphere.

One minute later the ball finds itself out by the right hand touchline, about 25 yards away from the corner-flag. The ball is hopefully hit into the box where Zayed is lurking. He leaps upwards and heads home the equalizer. The fans go crazy. They are obviously delighted that they have just seen their team come from two behind to clinch a draw against their fiercest rivals. I'm sure at this point both teams would have gladly taken a point each.

Zayed had other ideas.

Esteghlal had a free-kick about 35 yards from goal, in the centre of the Persepolis half. At this stage every Persepolis fan was biting their nails, begging for the referee to blow his whistle for the last time. It came to nothing.

In the 92nd minute of the derby, Persepolis had the ball in the left corner of the Esteghlal half, surely they're just going to run the clock down and celebrate a point after this dramatic comeback? No. A hopeful ball was hit low into the box and it found the run of who other than Éamon Zayed. With his back to goal, he brilliantly turned the Esteghlal defender, leaving him dead on his feet, before coolly slotting home his third goal. The stadium erupted. Fans, coaching staff, and players alike lost their minds. Substitutes and members of staff began to run towards Zayed in jubilation, before realising they were halfway across the pitch and turning back to the dugout again. Fans leaped around the stands in disbelief. They must have thought they were dreaming. Players of Esteghlal and Persepolis too were left in awe on the pitch. One clip shows a Persepolis player walking around as if he has no idea what has just gone on. He could not have possibly wished for a more dramatic outcome to this game. When he walked onto that pitch, nobody knew who he was. When he walked off, he had just inscribed his name in the history books of Persepolis FC.

He later described it as a "Fairytale ending to the match." It certainly was. Éamon Zayed had gone from playing in front of anything between 1,000 - 4,000 at a League Of Ireland game to scoring a hat-trick in the biggest game in Asian football in front of 90,000 fans. It was the kind of things that dreams are made of. I'm sure he expected to wake up at any minute. The following morning he must have thought it was all just a dream. This performance did not go unnoticed on the global stage. named him as their World Player of the Week.

Zayed said about that night:
"At the stadium the whole place went mad. I've never seen anything like it. On the bus players were coming up to me kissing me, hugging me, telling me that I didn't realise what I had just done."

When he got back to the hotel in which he was living for the duration of his 6 month contract, he received an unusual invitation:
"When I got back to the hotel there was a wedding on and the people wanted me to join them as a special guest. An old man offered me $100. He told me how grateful he was and that he wanted to give me a gift. And this being Iran, it wasn't the drink talking."

Zayed also mentioned in an interview with The Irish Times that people have come up to him in the streets of Tehran, offering to buy him dinner, as a gesture of their gratitude for that hat-trick.

Since then, the goals have not dried up. He has gone on to score two more hat-tricks for Persepolis. One coming in a 6-1 victory in the Asian Champions League, and one coming in a 4-3 defeat to Rah Ahan. His habit of scoring hat-tricks earned him the nickname - 'Mr Hat-trick' in Iran, one that I'm sure any striker would love to have.

He has since clinched a new contract for the 2012/13 season in Iran, and has gone on to describe his move to Persepolis as "One of the best decisions I have made football-wise."

Who knows what lies ahead for Éamon Zayed, one quarantee is that he will not be forgotten quickly by supporters of Persepolis, and is likely to be the cause of regular nightmares and sleepless nights for players and supporters of Esteghlal.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

St. Patrick's Athletic vs Bray Wanderers: Match Preview.

Bray Wanderers make the short trip into Dublin this week to face 4th place St Pats. 9th place Bray are without doubt the underdogs heading into Friday's match in Richmond Park.

The away side come into the game on the back of a dramatic draw at home to Dundalk where they left it until the last kick of the game to snatch a point from the Louth men.

Bray have had to wait a long time for a win. The seaside club have not picked up all three points since before the summer break when they beat U.C.D at home on June 1st.

The Wanderers fans will be happy to hear that manager Pat Devlin has a full squad to choose from ahead of the clash. Devlin, speaking after the draw at home to Dundalk last week said that improvements are needed if they want to push on and drive clear of the bottom of the table.

He highlighted his teams poor finishing and said they need to improve that for Friday's game.

"I'm hoping we can improve that aspect of our game against Pats who have had a great season so far."

He also said:

"The games between us have always been entertaining and we are looking forward to it."

Of Bray's last eight away league games, they have won just once, losing three times and drawing four in the process.

Pats go into the game with high expectations, currently sitting one point behind champions Shamrock Rovers with two games in hand. A win tomorrow is required to keep up the pressure on the side from Tallaght. They have reasons to be confident, too, considering Bray haven't claimed a victory against them since the opening weekend of the 2011 season. Since then, the Inchicore club have recorded 5 victories over The Seagulls and one draw.

Pats have had a mixed run of form over the last few league games. Of their last five, they have won two, drawn two, and lost once.

Following a 1-0 win away to Cork in their last game, the Inchicore side will take confidence into this game in front of their own supporters who will surely expect nothing less than all three points.

The previous matches involving these two sides this season have resulted with a 1-0 win for Pats and a thrilling 3-3 draw in the Carliisle in May.

I can only see one outcome for this match, it won't come as a surprise to many: Home win. Pats will be hoping to see a comfortable victory, I can see the final score being 3-1 to Pats.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Chelsea FC: Torres, Signings & Realistic Expectations.

This season is certainly shaping up to be an exciting one for the FA Cup and European champions. With big name signings such as Oscar, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin Chelsea really look like they mean business this coming season. On top of these imports, it looks like there is more to come following chief executive, Ron Gourlay's comment that Chelsea are not finished spending. It is widely believed that there could be a further two new faces strutting their stuff on the Stamford Bridge turf come September.

"Who are these two players?" Is without doubt the question on the lips of Chelsea fans all over the world. Well, there are widespread reports that there is a deal close to completion for Wigan's Victor Moses, whose agent was reportedly spotted at The Bridge on Tuesday afternoon. Is there any truth behind this alleged spotting? Who knows. We will have to wait and see. Thanks to Dave Whelan, however, we do know for a fact that Chelsea have shown interest in the young forward, having announced to the press that the London club have made several offers. I just have one question: Where would Moses fit in? To be honest, I don't think he would. With the options Chelsea already have available to them, would it be worth their while spending money on a player who is no better than what they already have?

Having said that, they are also apparently after Brazilian star Hulk. This signing would make a lot more sense. They play in the same position but the difference being, Hulk is a much better player. He would almost definitely improve the Chelsea squad. Hulk is a more powerful presence than Moses and is twice the player of Florent Malouda, (which albeit, is not a tough task.)

It is also considered that there is a deal in place to bring Cesar Azpilicueta to West London. Again, a strange transfer in my opinion. It would be strange to sign a player purely to have him as a substitute, but I can't see Ivanovic dropping to the bench either. The Serbian has been consistently one of Chelsea's best players over the past couple of seasons.

I am extremely excited about the signings being made by Chelsea this summer, but I can't stop wondering, why didn't they take place last season? It is no secret that transfers at Chelsea are dealt with above the manager. So why, when Roman Abramovic appointed André Villas-Boas as manager this time last year, did he not bring in players like Oscar and Hazard? Juan Mata was the only big signing last term but expectations of overnight change were still harshly set for the young manager.

Villas-Boas tried to implement a completely new style of football at Chelsea, a task that requires time and patience from fans and also from the clubs decision makers. He had the full support of many of the fans, unfortunately, the boards patience wore thin and eventually ran out leaving the young Portuguese manager jobless. Players in the mold of Oscar, Hazard and Marin were exactly what were needed a year ago. I cannot comprehend why deals of this fashion weren't completed then.

Chelsea's movement in the transfer window would suggest to me that the team is being built around and focused on the £50 million man - Fernando Torres. There is no doubt that he will be their main hope for goals this season and with the players being brought in to play behind him, he will certainly get more than enough chances to rediscover his goalscoring touch. This season is huge for El Niño. He made drastic improvements in the latter half of last season, scoring a vital goal against Barcelona and bagging his first hat-trick in blue in the process. During the summer he picked up the Golden Boot award for the European Championships so I'm expecting a confident Torres this season. A confident Torres is a different animal to what we've been seeing for the last 18 months. The biggest sign for me of how the team is being built around the Spaniard is that Chelsea have parted company with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka since the beginning of the year, with no replacements being brought in at the time of writing. As I write this, Romelu Lukaku has joined West Brom on loan for the season - further evidence that it is all down to Torres this season. Expect to see that number 9 shirt running off in celebration time and time again throughout the coming season.

What should Chelsea fans realistically expect this season? Well, with the squad they are building there is no reason why they can't win the Premier League title in the next two or three years and quite possibly more European glory. But for this season, I think they should be hoping for domestic success, probably in The FA Cup. On top of this, a serious title challenge and probably the Semi-Finals of the UEFA Champions League would be seen as a good season. A top three finish, a piece of silverware, and a decent effort in the defense of their European crown must be considered as a good season. 

Personally I predict Chelsea to achieve a top three finish easily. I think it will be between themselves and Manchester United for second place, with Manchester City as my favourites for the title this term, as much as much as it pains me to say it.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bray Wanderers vs Dundalk: Match Preview.

Bray face Dundalk in an important game for both clubs at the bottom of the Airtricity League Premier Division in the Carlisle Grounds this Friday evening. Any other season, this would be considered a relegation six-pointer. Bray are currently sitting 9th with 18 points while Dundalk are three points behind in 10th.

The home side come into the game off the back of a scoreless draw away to Bohemians. They should take confidence from this and will undoubtedly be looking to claim all three points against the club from Louth. Bray's fans will be expecting a win.

Bray welcome back John Mulroy and Kieran 'Marty' Waters to the side, both players had been suspended for last weeks trip to Dalymount Park.

Bray fans will be happy to hear that there are no injury concerns for the game, leaving manager Pat Devlin with the nice problem of a selection headache as he has a full squad of players to choose from..

Devlin spoke about the game describing it as a game in which Bray "need to register a home win." However, it will not prove to be a walk in the park for Bray. Their home record this season has been poor to say the least. In their 9 home games they hove only claimed all three points on two occasions, beating UCD and Bohemians. They have suffered five defeats at home this season.

Dundalk's away form has been very similar to Bray's home form. In their 10 away games thus far, they too have only won two, losing five in the process. Both sides come into the game with very similar recent form. Of their last six games, both have drawn three and lost three making it tough to separate the two.

Dundalk head into the game unbeaten under caretaker boss Darius Kierans since he took the reigns in mid July. Dundalk have only one win against Bray in their last nine games and have only won two of their last eleven in the Carlisle, making it a tough task for them to claim all three points this at the seaside this weekend.

When asked about the match in Bray, Kierans said to the Dundalk FC website:

"The Carlisle Grounds is always a hard place to go and pick up three points."

"It's a match that offers us a chance to go level with Bray and we'll be going there to win the game, but we know the task facing us."

He also pinpointed Jason Byrne as being the main threat to his side:
"In Jason Byrne they have someone who can change a game and create something out of nothing."

Unfortunately Dundalk have not revealed their team news at the time of writing this so I am unable to bring you any injury concerns. I can confirm that they have nobody unavailable through suspension for the game.

To conclude, I personally can't pick a winner from these two very similar teams. If I was to put money on it, I'd probably go for a close game with the most likely outcome a 1-1 draw. If I was pushed to pick a winner, I'd have to go for a home win for The Seagulls..

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The League of Ireland on Tour.

The domestic league in Ireland is by no means a major force when it comes to European football. Our clubs do occasionally obtain a glamorous draw in the qualification rounds and more often than not supporters of the other League of Ireland teams get fully behind our European representatives. In this piece I will take a look at the history of Irish teams in European competitions.

Having seen last seasons European explorers, Shamrock Rovers exit Europe at a premature stage to Lithuanian side FC Ekranas and Sligo Rovers fall short of overcoming Slovakia's Spartak Trnava, it is looking extremely unlikely that a League of Ireland club will have a European adventure this season. Especially seeing as St. Patrick's Athletic are currently 3-0 behind against German outfit Hannover 96 after the first leg of their tie. It's a real shame that we won't be seeing another Irish team take on the likes of Tottenham Hotspur once more in the group stages of one of Europe's club tournaments. 

As I'm sure every one of my Irish readers will remember, Shamrock Rovers managed to qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Europa League for the first time in the history of Irish football. However, contrary to the belief of most people, this was not the first time an Irish club qualified for the group stages of a European tournament. It was still a remarkable achievement. Having been drawn against Partizan Belgrade it was never going to be an easy road to the group stages. It became more improbable when you consider that Rovers were away for the second leg. At home, they drew 1-1. Not the worst result but Partizan went home with an away goal in the bag. The away leg was tight, it remained 1-1 after 90 minutes, sending the game to extra-time. In the second half of extra-time the game looked destined for penalties. After 112 minutes of nail-biting for Irish football fans Shamrock Rovers were awarded a penalty. This was their chance. Stephen O'Donnell stepped up, goal. Shamrock Rovers made it to the group stages of the Europa League. Without any doubt it was one of the greatest nights in the history of Irish football. 

When it came to the group stages, everyone wanted a big name for Rovers. Most would have wanted one of the English teams. They got their wish. The draw placed Rovers in a group alongside Rubin Kazan, PAOK, and biggest of all, Tottenham Hotspur. The best moment enjoyed in the group stage was when they visited White Hart Lane and took the lead. I couldn't believe what I was seeing when this happened. Unfortunately, the quality of Spurs became to much for Rovers to handle and they went on to win the game 3-1.

One of the biggest ties in recent history was unquestionably in 2004 when Shelbourne were drawn against Deportivo La Coruña of Spain in a UEFA Champions League qualifier. Amazingly, Shels managed to draw the home leg 0-0. Denying Deportivo an away goal which is always key in knockout football. Unfortunately, the away leg was a step too far and the Spaniards comfortably brushed Shels aside with a 3-0 win. With this defeat, Shels dropped into the qualification for the UEFA Cup (Now the Europa League) where they drew French side Lille. Yet again, they drew at home, this time 2-2. Two away goals for Lille gave them a huge advantage. They confidently beat Shelbourne 2-0 in the game in France to end the Dubliners' European tour. This is not Shelbourne's only taste of European football. The most high profile fixtures without doubt for them came in 1963-1964 season when they played FC Barcelona. They were outclassed and lost 5-1 on aggregate. They also played Rangers in the 1998-1999 season, also losing on aggregate, this time 7-3.

As I eluded to earlier in this piece, Irish teams have previously qualified for the group stages of a European tournament. In 1995, 1996 and 1997 Ireland had teams in the Intertoto Cup - A tournament which has since merged with the UEFA Cup to form the Europa League. In 1995, it was Dublin based club, Bohemians, who had the responsibility of flying the flag on the continent. Being drawn in a group with OB Odense, HJK Helsinki, Norkopping, and Girondins Bordeaux of France. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to pick up a point and only found the net twice, both in a 3-2 defeat away to HJK Helsinki.

A year later, the batton was passed from Dublin to the West, it was Sligo Rovers' turn to represent the country. They fared marginally better than Bohs, picking up two points in their 4 games. Sligo held Heerenveen and Nantes to a 0-0 and 2-2 draw respectively, although they suffered defeats to Lillestrom and FBK Kaunas in their two away matches. 

Another year on, Cork City had a chance to once again better the previous years tally by an Irish club. They succeeded. Having obtained a draw against Standard Liege, Maccabi Petah Tikva, FC Köln and FC Aarau, it certainly looked possible that they could at least equal Sligo's points total from the previous season. The only defeat they suffered was at home to German side FC Köln. Picking up a total of 3 points after drawing their remaining three games. It appeared Irish football was beginning to make progress in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not.

Another club with a rich history of 'glamorous' European ties is Dundalk FC. Between 1968 and 1988 they faced European powerhouses such as: Rangers, Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Celtic, FC Porto, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax. It is mind boggling to think that a club which has played so many major European clubs on such a regular basis is, not even 25 years later, facing extinction. I would just briefly like to say that I hope Dundalk can resolve their financial problems and continue to operate in the League of Ireland. After losing Monaghan already this season, it would be tragic to lose a club of Dundalk's stature as well.

There is a case to be argued that the teams with the biggest matches are Athlone Town, Waterford United and Limerick. Athlone played AC Milan, Limerick played Real Madrid, and Waterford faced Manchaster United. On top of this, Waterford have also come up against Girondins Bordeaux, Celtic and Galatasaray while Athlone have also squared up to FC Copenhagen and Standard Liege in European fixtures.

Nowadays this may not seem like the most exciting fixture for an Irish club, but when Everton were drawn to face Finn Harps and U.C.D respectively, they were a different animal. Everton were one of the giants of English football at the time. It would be similar to Chelsea, or Manchester City in current times. The class of the English side showed, when they played Finn Harps anyway. The Donegal club were brushed aside effortlessly with two 5-0 wins for the Blue Merseyside club. It was not so straight forward however when they played U.C.D. The Students held out for a 0-0 draw at home. Everton struggled to win 1-0 in the tie across the water and progressed but U.C.D can be proud of that result considering the size differences between the two clubs.

Bayern Munich have also faced Irish opposition in the past, in the form of Drumcondra FC, a club no longer in existence. The Dublin based side also faced Atlético Madrid and FC Nuremburg. Another extinct club with a decent fixture list is Cork Hibernians, who clashed with Valencia, FC Schalke '04 and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

I am unable to conclude this piece without mentioning my beloved clubs brief European adventures. Bray Wanderers faced Turskish club Trabzonspor in the 1990-1991 season. The first leg against Trabzonspor was played in Tolka Park where Bray managed to snatch a 1-1 draw. Unluckily, they bowed out of the Cup Winners' Cup preliminary rounds after a 2-0 defeat in the return leg in Turkey. 

I would like to close by wishing St. Patrick's Athletic all the best in their return fixture in Germany. Unfortunately, they have the near impossible task of overturning a 3-0 deficit against Hannover. This would be a challenge for the best of European clubs, nevermind an Irish club. But, nothing is impossible and this is football, a sport in which absolutely anything can happen. So good luck to The Saints!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Sligo Rovers vs Bray Wanderers: Match Report/Review

Bray Wanderers headed back home on Saturday evening pleased with their days work. Following three straight defeats and losing arguably their best defender to Reading, they pulled a performance out of nowhere and managed to leave The Showgrounds with a point in the bag following their 1-1 draw.

Both sides will feel they could have claimed all three points. Bray's Dane Massey tweeted saying they were pleased with the point but felt they could have claimed all three. It was a very evenly matched game, I was certainly not expecting this to be a close fought contest.

Bray had an early penalty appeal when Kieran 'Marty' Waters was brought down as he attempted to power through the Sligo defence. Replays showed that it was, in fact a penalty but upon first viewing it looked like Joseph Ndo got a touch on the ball so it's understandable why the referee might not have been convinced. Jason Byrne also missed a chance that you would have put your mortgage on him scoring. Of all the players on the pitch he is the one man you would expect to score it. Unfortunately for the Wanderers he hit it straight down the middle at the legs of the 'keeper. Bray eventually took the lead through Byrne. Making them the first side to lead against Sligo at The Showgrounds since Shamrock Rovers in March 2010. Byrne pounced on an error from the Rovers' defence to slot in off the far post.

As I said already the game was relatively evenly balanced but for me, Sligo just about edged it. Danny North seemed to forget about the offside rule, and, if he timed his runs a bit better Bray would have been put to the word. Raffaelle Cretaro cut in from the left to unleash a superb effort towards the far top corner which cannoned off the upright. Gavin Peers got free very easily from two consecutive corners almost finding the net on both occasions. John Mulroy brilliantly cleared an attempt off the line when it look destined to find the top corner of the net. Mark Quigley and Pascal Millien came on and had an immediate impact. Quigley caused Bray many problems and it didn't take long for Sligo to find the net through Alan Keane. After that I felt there would only be one winner - Sligo. Thankfully The Seagulls held out to take a well earned point home with them.

To conclude I would say a draw was a fair result with neither team really doing enough to win it, Sligo will be disappointed not to have beaten Bray in a game they really should have been winning. Bray will be delighted with the draw and will look to build on it in their next game on Friday against Shelbourne.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Sligo Rovers vs Bray Wanderers: Match Preview

Bray face a stern challenge on Saturday afternoon as they head west to play league leaders Sligo Rovers.

Bray have been very poor since the mid-summer break. Losing three consecutive matches and conceding 9 goals in the process. Not only have Bray been losing of late, but they have not performed to an acceptable level since beating UCD 3-2 at home in the last game before the break. Unfortunately for Bray I can't see this Saturday being any different. You just need to look at the goals Cork scored last week and you will see that Bray's defending is identical to that of a schoolboys team.

On top of that, in the past week they have lost defensive rock - Pierce Sweeney, who signed for Reading. Sweeney has been, by far the outstanding performer in the Bray back four this season. Without him, they will really struggle. Adam Mitchell will most likely regain his defensive slot, having been unable to force his way into the squad after an injury despite being brilliant for The Seagulls last season. He really is being thrown back in at the deep end.

David Webster has been named as doubtful for the game due to a knee injury, further weakening the Wanderers' defense. Sean Houston is suspended due to reaching the yellow car limit.

Bray do, however have two new signings travelling to Sligo. Brendan King, a recent import from the United States is likely to feature at some point, with his family travelling over from the States for the match. Most recent signing Kevin O'Connor, brother of club captain Danny, will also be part of the squad. The club website says he "is likely to be involved at some stage on Saturday."

Sligo are on fire at the top of the league. With a win against the Wanderers they can extend their lead at the top to 7 points, at least for a day.

Jason McGuiness will miss the game through injury, making him the only player absent for Rovers. Alan Keane is once again available after his suspension and new boy Ryan Connolly could make his debut.

The Sligo attacking force will cause Bray a lot of problems. Quigley knows how to score against Bray, having tearing them apart on several occasions, most recently last season when Dundalk came to The Carlisle. Raffaelle Cretaro and Danny North are also capable of causing problems. Sligo have a lot of options, something that Bray certainly do not have.

I can only see this game going one way - Sligo win. I expect goals too, unfortunately, it's more than likely that most of them will come for Sligo. If I was to be pushed for a score prediction I'd have to say, (Bray fans look away now) 4-0 or 4-1.

Don't forget the match is live on RTE 2, kicking off at 3:45 on Sturday June 7th.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Republic of Ireland: What change is needed?

The topic of the future of the Irish national team has been discussed almost to death of late, especially since the abysmal performance at the 2012 European Championships. Qualifying for the tournament gave the Irish people a sense of false hope. People who know nothing about football were jumping on the bandwagon and there was a suicidal belief that the team would qualify from their group. In reality, the Republic of Ireland are most certainly not in the top 16 teams in Europe. They were extremely lucky to qualify for the tournament and if I am going to be brutally honest if they got any draw other than Estonia they probably would not have qualified. Croatia, Czech Republic, Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina are all better teams. Turkey and Montenegro are probably on par with them, Estonia were the only side in the playoffs that I feel they could have beaten. Qualifying for the Euros overshadowed a lot of problems for the Irish team. Trapattoni didn't get the Irish to Euro 2012, drawing Estonia did. 

Since the shambolic exit from the Championships the public and media have been calling for wholesale changes. One man who has been the centre of attention is the man in charge - Giovanni Trapattoni. In a way the criticism is deserved. He is undoubtedly a great manager and you could say the Irish are lucky to have him but the system he insists on playing simply doesn't suit the Irish, in my opinion. There seems to be a real belief that Trapattoni is going to dramatically change his style and approach to the Irish team for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers. Why? I do not know. If you honestly think that he is going to make any drastic changes to the players, system and mentality then I'm sorry to say it but you are delusional. What evidence is there to suggest that he will change? None. Look back at the man's career as a manager. He is stubborn and has never changed in the past so why would he now? He has come under criticism with previous jobs for the exact same things and he didn't change, he instead responded to criticism by saying "If you want entertainment, go to La Scala" (the opera house in Milan.) His stubborn manner was most visible when Seamus Coleman was called up for the first time. There was a real sense of excitement among Irish fans but Trapattoni left him sitting on the bench for no apparent reason. This time will be no different, so get used to seeing Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan lumping the ball up the field with no real purpose other than getting the ball as far away from goal as possible. 

One major problem that I personally have with Trapattoni is that he seems to be sticking to his system despite not having the players to fit it. He selects the likes of Glenn Whelan despite having better players available who would prosper in a more adventurous formation. Players like Anthony Pilington, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean and even Keith Fahey would be much more effective if he would adopt a more attacking approach. I know Keith Fahey has played in this current system but having seen him for many years in the League of Ireland and in his time in England it is clear to me that he has a lot more than he is being allowed to offer. One baffling decision made by the Italian was when Fahey had to pull out of the squad for the European Championships and instead of calling up Wes Hoolahan (who is a very similar type of player) he opted for Paul Green, an unattached, waste of space in the Irish set up. His reason for overlooking Hoolahan on a regular basis is that "he doesn't fit the system", despite his style being almost identical to that of Fahey's.

Putting the system before the players is perfectly fine for the manager of a club team because in that situation players can be bought and sold to suit the system. In an international side, however, this is not the case. Your system must suit the players. You only have a limited group of players to select from and you cannot insist on playing a formation with a style that does not suit your best players. The system is not the only problem, the players he selects are also hugely responsible for the failure. Many players are well past their peak and should have been moved on some time ago.

I don't understand why this nationwide call for change is only happening now. It is not a new problem. Look back to 2009 to that infamous night in Paris when the Irish were denied a place at the 2010 World Cup not by the Henry handball, but by their inability to finish chances and defend properly. That handball was probably the worst thing to happen to Irish football because it gave people an excuse. That handball was not why Ireland didn't qualify for the World Cup. Even if that goal wasn't given Ireland were not going through, it would have been level. Damien Duff and Robbie Keane wasted chance after chance that night. If you're looking for someone to blame for not qualifying blame them and the defence, not Thierry Henry. Why did nobody clear the ball? Instead they allowed it to go over everybody and then stood and watched with their hands in the air as Gallas headed home from a yard out. Roy Keane said it at the time and received a lot of abuse, I don't know why, he was right. Even before this game in the game against Italy in Croke Park the defense was a disgrace. Sean St Ledger scored what looked to be a late winner but then the whole team just appeared to forget to defend. Italy instantly went down the other end and Alberto Gilardino scuffed in the equalizer.

The time for transition was at the beginning of the European Championship Qualifiers. Players could have been slowly integrated into the squad and by now they could be regulars. It didn't take place. It didn't even show signs that it would ever take place. Now, it has to. It cannot be put off any longer. The time for transition is now. Robbie Keane's international career is over. He rarely performs anymore and is getting into the squad purely because of his past. I appreciate everything he has done for this country and he has been a brilliant servant to the national team but that isn't enough to keep selecting him on a regular basis. He isn't needed anymore. He hasn't scored in the last 13 games he has played for Ireland and for the main striker that just is not good enough. There are plenty of alternatives. Players like Shane Long, Jonathon Walters and Simon Cox are all more than capable of replacing him without having a detrimental influence on the team. On top of his lack of ability, he is now living on the West Coast of America. Is it realistic for him to travel such a distance for one or two matches and be able to perform to the best of his ability while adapting to a new time zone? No, I don't think so. I would like to see him and Duff retire from international football so they can go out on their own terms. This way they avoid the humiliation of being exiled and they do deserve at least that due to their years of commitment for their country.

It is long overdue that Seamus Coleman becomes a regular fixture in the team. The full backs need to be given more freedom to go forward and attack. The two central midfielders need to be given a more advanced role if Trapattoni insists on playing 4-4-2. Players like Pilkington, Hoolahan, McClean and of course James McCarthy need to become regular players. Walters and Long in my opinion are the best two front men available, although Kevin Doyle might have something to say about that. Damien Duff also needs to step aside now and allow the likes of McClean to take his first steps into the side. 

To conclude, there are a lot of changes needed in the Irish team. The potential changes excite me. They could turn Ireland into an exciting team with a lot of flair. These changes need to take place as soon as the next squad is to be announced. I, along with many others would not pay a penny to see this current team play and the boring style and questionable selection is why I stopped going to the games. The unfortunate thing is I can't see change taking place under the current regime and think a new manager is needed to implement these changes. Why wait any longer?

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Racism in Football: Why is it still alive?

It sickens me to see the issue of racism raising it's hideously ugly head yet again within the game of football. It's a strange problem in our game, as it seems to come back, appear to be solved, then a while later it returns again. Why is this? Are the people with power in football doing enough to permanently extinguish it from the game? Racism is obviously an issue which is above football. It is a problem with the most basic of human values. To discriminate against somebody because of their ethnicity makes no sense whatsoever. At the end of the day, we are all just flesh and bone. So why are there still so many brainless people in football? And why are they being allowed to paint a massive black dot over our beautiful game? 

The current European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine have brought this issue to the attention of everybody once more. Judging on various reports, most notably the Sky Sports special report, racism comes across to be a normal thing for football fans in these countries. I, however do not know enough about the issue there so I will not be going into detail with it.

The 'Lets Kick Racism Out Of Football' campaign seemed to be doing a good job. Everywhere you looked you would see advertisements for it. Be it in match programmes, on the side of the pitch, or even in football games such as Football Manager. I know there are still advertisements for it, but it seems to have dramatically faded. This should not have been the case. Racism is not an issue that you can highlight briefly and then sweep it under the carpet again. Eventually you have to deal with it properly. Another campaign that springs to mind is the 'Show Racism The Red Card' campaign. Every team had squad photos with most, if not all of the players holding up an enlarged red card with the campaigns title on it. This too seems to have disappeared. These campaigns should be running non stop. Whether racism is a current hot topic or not. The last time I saw either of these campaigns being advertised effectively was in the aftermath of the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand incident, Chelsea players wore the 'Kick it Out' t-shirts (Take note Liverpool). Even if these campaigns are still running, they are clearly not being promoted properly if I, and I'm sure many other people aren't even noticing them anymore. This part-time advertising of the problem is evident in my home league - the Airtricity League of Ireland. Whenever there is a player of a different ethnic background playing for an opposing team at my local stadium, an announcement condemning racial abuse is made. When there is not, there is no announcement. The announcement should be standard. Week in, week out. As it is, the only thing the announcement does is highlight the fact that there is a player of a different ethnicity playing in the match.

I posed the question in my opening paragraph asking are the people in power doing enough to tackle this plague on our game. Quite honestly, and perhaps controversially, I feel they are not. Racial issues are repeatedly met by underwhelming fines and strong words from UEFA. Words are not enough and as the old saying goes - "Actions speak louder than words." Clichéd , perhaps, but only because it's true. The fines they dish out would make you think that racism isn't actually as bad as we make it out to be. UEFA are treating it the way Irish people have treated problems for years with the mentality of "Ah, sure it'll be grand." This problem needs to be hit and hit hard. To imagine the force required to exterminate this problem, think back to when Adriano punched Marco Caneiro with both fists at the same time (Seriously, if you haven't seen that, look it up before you read any further.) 

If you ask me UEFA need to abandon the fines. They are ineffective anyway because they can not fine the respective associations enough that it will really make an impact on them. In previous years they have fined the Spanish association £45,000 in 2004, the Serbian association £16,000 in 2007 and the Croatian association £10,000 in 2008. The severity of these fines is really put into context when they fine Nicklas Bendtner £85,000 for revealing not an official UEFA sponsor. Why don't they implement a system where if a countries fans are caught engaging in racial abuse, they receive a points deduction. This might just be the only feasible solution. Russia were handed a suspended points deduction for their fans' violent behaviour in Poland. Why not go one step further and not make it not just a 'suspended' points ban for racism? If they are guilty, they must pay. 

An example of how poorly the issue is being treated was visible when Peter Odemwingie signed for West Brom from Lokomotiv Moscow of Russia. Lokomotiv fans held up a banner which read "Thanks West Brom" and had an image of a banana in the middle of it. This is appalling behaviour. Was any action taken? Not until the NIGERIAN Football Association wrote a letter to FIFA asking them to take disciplinary action. That really sums up how useless FIFA and UEFA are at combating it. The Nigerian FA had to step in to protect their countries player. Roberto Carlos recently had a banana thrown at him whilst playing for his club, Anzhi Makhachkala, also in Russia. He responded by walking off the field. He was visibly distraught as he left the field in tears. More players should respond in this way. If a player is suffering from racial abuse he should simply tell the referee who should then stop the game. If it does not stop, the game should be abandoned. There should be no tolerance.

Unfortunately, this disease is not only in the stands anymore. It has spread onto the field of play. In the last year there have been issues between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, and Emre and Didier Zokora. Didier Zokora responded directly to the alleged words of Emre by simply assaulting him the next time they faced each other. With no intention of playing the ball, Zokora ran and volleyed Emre's sensitive parts. Amazingly, Zokora held up his hand acknowledging what he did, yet he only got a yellow card. It really is remarkable.  (Another video worth checking out.)

The Suarez/Evra incident caused a lot of divided opinions. I can't begin to comprehend why. We all know the word Suarez used and I'm not about to repeat it here. He claimed, however that in Uruguay it is a "term of endearment". I'm going out on a limb here and saying that is complete and utter rubbish. He deserved a more severe ban than what he got in my opinion. I think the ban he received of 8 games was not enough. Compared with Joey Barton's 12 game ban for several acts of violent conduct, it isn't enough. I think it undermines the whole 'Kick it Out' campaign. I'm not saying for one second that Barton didn't deserve his ban, he definitely did. All I'm saying is that Suarez deserved one of equal severity, if not more severe.

I can't finish this piece without mentioning the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident. Nothing has been proven yet, so I'm not going to jump to conclusions. If Terry is found guilty, he too deserves a ban. If it was my decision he should receive a ban of a similar length to Joey Barton. This is unlikely though because the FA have handed out an inferior ban to Suarez as I said above. The John Terry trial is a strange one. I don't understand why he still hasn't gone to court with the issue. Why has it been allowed to drag on for this long? Another sign that maybe racial issues aren't seen as that important in the game. It should have been dealt with immediately, instead it is dragging on. It even caused controversy in the England squad. With Roy Hodgson being left in a situation where he couldn't really pick Terry and Anton's brother, Rio Ferdinand, so he had to chose one. The FA should have stepped in and removed John Terry from selection until the trial had been completed. This is another reason why the trial should have taken place a long time ago. Because the FA didn't lead by example, Hodgson had to make a decision. He opted for Terry, which proved controversial. However, Terry has performed admirably and has been one of England's best players thus far at the tournament, completely justifying his selection.

The issue of racism needs to be dealt with one way or another. My proposed solutions are just my opinion and obviously can be debated and argued. Feel free to comment and let me know how you think this problem should be solved.

Didier Zokora literally kicking racism out of football -

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Another look at Irish football fans.

I'm sure you're all aware of the phenomenal support shown by the Irish supporters throughout the group stage of the 2012 European Championships in Poland and The Ukraine. It cannot be argued that the support was admirable, I just want to raise the question: Why isn't it always like this?

It was spine-tingling to hear 'The Fields of Athenry' being sang loudly and proudly in Poznan and Gdansk, despite being 3-1, 4-0 and 2-0 down at the time. The national anthem was also roared with such pride it had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as a sat in my sitting room. The atmosphere from the stadium really did transfer through to myself and everyone at home - which is rare for a football match's atmosphere to be so clear when watching at home. The fans received a lot of press attention. The media jumped onto the support and Irish players often spoke of the brilliant atmosphere created by their fans. This glossed over a lot of on-field problems for the Irish, but I'm not going to discuss those problems (in this blog anyway, maybe another time.)

During the qualifying stage for the championships, the Irish support was poor. The attendances varied between 33'000 and 50'000. The one game that reached an attendance of 50'000 was the major game against Russia. This makes you wonder, who were the fans there for on that occasion? On more than one occasion there was only between 33'000 and 35'000 seats occupied in the 52'000 capacity stadium. This lack of supported was particularly highlighted during the Carling Nations Cup. The highest attendance seen for any of these games was 20'800 for the Republic of Ireland's clash with Wales. This is staggering when you consider that the domestic cup final attracted a crowd of 36'00 for a game between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. The League of Ireland is a very poorly supported league, yet the cup final still sold more tickets than a match in an international tournament that Ireland had a great chance of winning (which they did in the end.)

The Airtricity League of Ireland is an extremely poorly supported league. The title of 'Best fans in the world' that has been given to the Irish in recent days is extremely frustrating for this reason. If you were to visit any League of Ireland ground on a match day you will see that Irish fans are certainly not the best in the world. Far from it, in fact. My local team - Bray Wanderers would be happy to get 1'000 in the gate for a home game. Bray is a town of over 30'000 people, just outside Dublin. It is the only League of Ireland team in the county of Wicklow and is extremely accessible due to the road layout of the area. There is no excuse for attendances of this figure. It is shameful that in an area so passionate about sport and football in particular that attendances can be this low. It was not always like this for our domestic game, this is highlighted excellently in the book 'Who Stole Our Game? : The fall and fall of Irish soccer' by author Daire Whelan.

There is a huge following of the English football here in Ireland. I have nothing against this, I too support an English team but I also attend every game that my local team play. I do not support an English team at the expense of an Irish team. Sadly, many people do. If you were to visit Dublin airport in the early hours of a Saturday morning, you would find thousands of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Celtic jerseys. Thousands of supporters jetting off to see their favorite teams play. Unfortunately the support of the overseas leagues cannot be replicated in our own. I would imagine that more Irish fans visit their preferred English teams every weekend than many LOI teams get through their gates on a Friday evening. The league has attempted to tackle this problem. Everybody knows it cannot compete with the Barclays Premier League. The season runs from March to November, meaning the bulk of the season is played during the summer when the English teams are off on their holidays. Even for the time when the games overlap it isn't a problem because they are played on a Friday evening. What better way to end a week at work than to go and watch the football? The league has a bad reputation for having a poor standard of players and football in general. I do not necessarily agree with this belief. The likes of Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Stephen Ward, Keith Fahey and more recently Seamus Coleman and James McClean all left the league to go on to becoming full internationals. A year ago James McClean was playing for Derry City, most Irish fans had never heard of him. Suddenly, he moves to Sunderland and the whole country wants him in the national team. Did he become world class on the plane to England? I don't think so. Much of his development as a player came from playing on a regular basis for a team in a competitive league. As far as the quality of football goes, I couldn't disagree more with the thought that it is poor. Teams like Sligo Rover, St Patricks Athletic and even minnows UCD play some brilliant football and are thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

The lack of support for domestic teams has unfortunately been catastrophic. Too many teams have faced severe financial problems in the recent history of the league and many teams have ceased to exist. Dublin City, Sporting Fingal, Galway United, Cobh Ramblers and even Cork City have all come to an end in the last ten years. Luckily, Cork City have reformed under a new name and are now back in the league and Cobh Ramblers are in the lower leagues of Irish football trying to fight their way back up to the top two tiers.  The most fascinating case, for me anyway was Monaghan United. Recently promoted to the Premier Division, half way through the season Monaghan pulled out of the league. They simply could not afford to go on. This happened on the very day that Ireland played in the European Championships. This was extremely hard to take for all of us who follow the league. It is madness to think that while Irish fans are being praised as the best in the world, a team in their own country has to pull out of the league. I obviously understand that supporters cannot solely be held accountable for a teams financial problems, but, with more support comes more money. 

To conclude, yes the support of the national team in the three games of the European Championships has been nothing short of sensational. Irish fans however have no right to accept the label as 'The Best in the World' when their regular support of the national team is extremely questionable and they allow their domestic league to rot away as it has been left to do.