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!