The very first FAI Cup Final at the Aviva Stadium was a battle of the Rovers; Sligo and Shamrock.
A far from eventful game went all the way to 'peno's' (otherwise known as a penalty shoot-out) with Sligo Rovers goalkeeperCiarán Kelly becoming a hero for the night saving a remarkable FOUR penatlies in total to deny league champions Shamrock Rovers a much anticipated 'Double'.
Not the greatest advertisement for the local game but the 36,101 in attendance is truly astonishing. A phenomenal turn-out from the locals - many of whom didn't support either Sligo or Shamrock Rovers!
But for me, a special mention must go out to the Northern contingent from 'the Hoops'. Alan Mannus and Tommy Stewart in-particular can count themselves very unlucky not to have been selected for Nigel Worthington's Northern Ireland squad. Certainly, both are due a call-up considering the amount of the expected withdrawals from the squad from next Wednesday's visit of African outfit Morocco.
And as it pains me to say it, I too will be absent from Windsor Park for the up-and-coming friendly international.
PS: Have to point out... there were an awful lot of neutrals in attendance today (a good thing for the local leagues IMO). However the two lads in-front of me (not exactly 'soccer buffs' as the GAA gear might suggest) headed home after 90 mins of FAI Cup Final itself. Clearly thought the game was going to a replay...
In the spirit of writing wrongs from our troubled past, it is only right that the spotlight should fall upon our resident police force in the Republic of Ireland; An Garda Síochána na hÉireann.
Saturday 13th March saw over 700 Glentoran supporters travel to Dublin for their club's Setanta Cup match with Bohemian FC. It was to be a day to remember unfortunately not for the football, but for the needless violence leading to up to, and during, the game itself.
The only known cause for the inflammatory response by the 'Guards' in calling in the riot squad?
Flags. What else?
Whilst one or two Ulster Flags/Union Flags could be spotted amongst the away crowd, and easily five Irish tricolours in the home end might I add, the offending flag that really got the old bill's knickers in a twist was a big green, red & black tricolour - coincidentally, the colours of Glentoran FC.
Please note that it wasn't until the second half that this flag was reinstated amid fears of another mini-riot, like this one...
And like the red of a St Patricks Athletic shirt to a raging bull, many within the Jody Stand of Dalymount Park which held the away support, a direct confrontation between Glentoran fans and the 'Guards' had been firmly established. Heavy-handed batons were yielded to those who dared question the reasoning behind the removal of their flags. I thought scenes like this were only acted out in flashpoint areas of Northern Ireland? Surely not over the border too?
Haven't an Garda Síochána learnt anything from 30 years of violence up North? A hostile police force creates a hostile atmosphere. This wasn't a high risk Old Firm game. It was Glentoran vs Bohemians playing what was essentially a 'nothing' game as Boh's had already progressed to the final stages of the tournament.
An Garda Síochána roughly translates as 'Guardians of the peace'. God help the poor lad (above) on the receiving end of such peace. It's a shame they didn't guard this peace instead of inflame tensions with their over-zealous actions. Actions that I am informed even had the home fans looking on disbelief at what had kicked off - excuse the pun.
A bad taste was left in the mouth at the end for many fans' excursion down South from the trouble that ensued, perhaps even more-so than their club's exit from the all-Ireland club cup. And needless to say, it certainly made a mockery of my pre-match assurances to the various Glenmen that there would be no trouble at all. The scuffle outside The Bohemian Bar between the 10 or 15 'Ultras' from both teams looked minuscule in comparison to the unexpected riot police threat.
A dark day for Northern football limits Nigel Worthington's talent pool
Make no mistake, today is a landmark day in Irish football.
It seems player eligibility on the island of Ireland has reached it's climax. The topic follows on from a post I did almost three years ago, and does not make pretty reading for the Irish Football Association.
Following a number of defections to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) of it's players, the Irish Football Association (IFA) took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in an attempt to stop the talent drain to the Republic which threatens to spiral out of control.
The IFA case has quite clearly fell on deaf ears with those at CAS, and has now opened the door to Northern Ireland's footballing elite to switch allegiances to the Republic of Ireland if they so wish.
In a statement, the IFA said it was "disappointed by the decision". Rubbish. Underneath, they will be absolutely seething and will be left reeling by the decision, and rightly so. Why would an association who govern's, trains, and educates it's emerging talent wish to see that talent then handed over to a rival association whenever they are wanted?
The FAI 'victory' can no doubt be attributed to their continued referral throughout the case to the historic 'Good Friday Agreement' whereby anyone born on the island of Ireland can indeed be recognised as a citizen of Ireland.
However, this farcical situation where two Irish Associations go against one another is quite blatantly based on religious affiliation, and not citizenship; a right which the Gibson's, Duffy's and Wilson's of this world are guaranteed from day one by the way. Therefore the FAI's insistence on quoting the GFA in order to bolster it's already minimal local based talent looks to be both narrow-minded and greedy. Of course the FAI strategy would have to be expected when you take into consideration the number of non-Irish born Republic of Ireland internationals in the past. When an association is so used to having it's pool of talent UK-wide, Northern Ireland was always going to be vulnerable to the prying eye of the FAI.
But it is also extremely insensitive. Many within Northern football would view the FAI's strategy of claiming players not entitled to them as out-of-touch with the 'new' Northern Ireland that is being created following the signing of that historic agreement.
'Shared', 'inclusive', 'partnership' were all keywords that feature within creating peace and prosperity in Northern society.
Did those at the FAI miss that section of the agreement?
Their claims that they maintain good relations with their Northern counterparts may well be true, but is something more sinister lurking in the background? Their actions can be seen as opportunism, yet for many in Northern football it is seen as a blatant sectarian grab for the Roman Catholic population who might be easily 'sweet-talked' into a switch of associations.
A defection based on religious grounds then. Really...
Does this seriously respect a 'shared' future?
It places yet another religious barrier over a 'war-weary' Northern society that is trying it's best to find a way to embrace the relatively new concept of 'shared future' together. Unfortunately, it was the high profile Northern Ireland youth international Darron Gibson that set the negative trend, and so far Armagh's Marc Wilson and Derry's Shane Duffy have followed suit. No doubt there will be more to come following Don Givens appointment to Chief Scout in the United Kingdom.
I'll leave you with a depressing scenario that could well emerge from the whole elligibility debacle...
Envisage five to ten years down the line where 'Catholic Ireland' is led by the FAI, and a 'Protestant Ireland' is governed by the IFA. The so-called 'Orange' and 'Green' firmly set apart from each other. An Ireland of equals? A building of bridges?
Don't believe the local media hype for one minute.
Football Apartheid in Ireland is progressing from a political level to a religious one, and like it or not the FAI have been handed a huge advantage over their Northern counterparts from this decision.
If you can pronounce the afore mentioned name, then well done you. Thankfully, we won't be hearing from them again any time soon as part-time League of Ireland outfit Shamrock Rovers have knocked them out of this season's Europa League.
A 1-0 victory in Israel tonight sealed the 'Hoops' passage into the next round where a lucrative tie with European heavyweights Juventus awaits. A former schoolboy team-mate of mine Tommy Stewart will be the toast of Tallaght tonight as he popped up with the crucial goal to send Rovers through.
The 'Nordie' influence has been prevalent in Shamrock Rovers for the previous two seasons in particular with ex-Glentoran man Michael O'Neill recruiting the best of Northern football. The first fellow countryman to jump ship to the League of Ireland was arguably the best goalkeeper in the Irish League, Alan Mannus of Linfield FC. O'Neill then snapped up former NI U21 international Chris Turner on a free transfer. The latest move for the Northern stars came when ex-Linfield & Derry City forward Thomas Stewart signed up for Michael O'Neill's Green & White Army.
Many's a grumble could be heard amongst the Tallaght faithful with this Northern invasion, but tonight should put that element of the support back in their box for another couple of weeks at least.
A fantastic night in Irish football was capped off with the bonus of North Belfast side Cliftonville's progression to the next round where they will come up against Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia.
However, all wasn't hunky dory for others in Irish club football as Europe's newcomers Sporting Fingal went down 3-2 on the night and 6-4 on aggregate against one of the top Portuguese side Maritimo. Portadown also put on a brave show going out by the odd goal. Meanwhile spare a thought for Dundalk FC who gained entry to this seasons Europa League thanks to Derry City's demise. The border side went down 8-0 on aggregate!
Current Irish League champions Linfield can hold their heads high following a 2-0 defeat in Norway to Champions League regulars Rosenberg. The 0-0 result in Belfast the previous week was highly unexpected, yet offered hope to us all that maybe qualifying for the proper stages of European competition isn't as far away off as many had anticipated...
Those in East Belfast and the Northside of Dublin mightn't be so optimistic after two disastrous defeats left both sides with that sinking feeling. Glentoran did their usual 'choke' on the big stage after a 5-2 aggregate defeat to Icelandic champions RK Reykjavik. However, Bohemians careless surrendering of a 1-0 first leg lead against Welsh champions TNS came at a complete shock to both myself and many local football supporters throughout the island. 4-0? Wow. All I can presume is that the two pre-season games TNS had with both Linfield and Glentoran paid dividends. Inspired choices!
But this side of the British Isles, all the credit must go to Shamrock Rovers and Cliftonville. Two small steps forward for local football, one big UEFA pay-day lies in wait for both clubs - and hopefully, their respective leagues!
25th June 2010 - This day marks 28 years since Northern Ireland upset hosts Spain at World Cup '82.
"A match straight out of a Boy's Own comic. Arguably the best performance by a British team in any World Cup. Needing to beat the Spaniards to reach the second stage, Northern Ireland took the lead two minutes in the second half, when goalkeeper Luis Arkonada could only push out a low cross and Gerry Armstrong fired it back underneath him.
As if playing the hosts wasn't hard enough, the Irish had to face a Paraguayan referee who hadn't taken charge of an international for two years. With half an hour to go, he sent off Mal Donaghy for a push. But veteran keeper Pat Jennings was cool as ever, and the ten men held out. Northern Ireland couldn't have picked a better time, a more vibrant night, to record their first win over Spain."
So, 28 years later, to quote the Scots, "When Will We See Your Likes Again?"
Certainly not this year anyway as our lack of World Cup participation might suggest. However, last night saw the astonishing exit from this years competition by current World champions Italy. Northern Ireland can take great satisfaction especially seeing as it was the much under-rated Slovakians who put the final nail in the Italian coffin. It was Slovakia who topped the Northern Ireland group for qualification. Wins in Bratislava and Belfast went a long way to assuring their progression to this years World Cup finals and last nights win over Italy certainly wouldn't have come as a surprise to supporters from the Emerald Isle.
But what next for Northern Ireland? Should expectations from the Green & White Army take on an even greater significance having seen arguably both their toughest opponents in the up-and-coming Euro 2012 qualifiers; Serbia, and now Italy eliminated in the first round? The end of the road is clearly within range for an ageing Italian side still very much living off the spirit of Marco Materazzi's 'gift of the gab' in THAT match against France in 2006. And as for Serbia, for me they have been a big let-down in South Africa. My decision to stick a few sneaky quid on them at partybets.com completely back-fired.
Which brings me back to Nigel Worthington's men. Hot off the heels of another ever-improving, yet unsuccessful qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland can go into September's qualifiers with a considerable level of confidence. The Italians should be treated like a wounded animal - be wary, but be ruthless.
As many have found out to their detriment in the past, Windsor Park is not the ideal place to try and pick up points as you try and pick up the pieces from a shocking World Cup campaign. Just ask the Spanish.
Match programme €5. Armagh GAA hat at a ROI soccer game, priceless.
Friday night saw a new name emerge in Irish football, Paul Green. A debut on Tuesday followed up with a first goal on Friday evening, as far as starts to an international career go, they don't get much better. Pulling the strings in the central midfield area alongside Glenn Whelan there was no doubt the Republic of Ireland looked like a side reborn following that fateful night at the Stade de France in November. Two comfortable wins over World Cup finalists Paraguay and Algeria respectively cement the notion that this is an Irish side on the up.
Unfortunately for the Republic the timing of this resurrgence in form has come 12 months too late. Had they converted those draws into wins during the qualifiers, the boys in green would be on that plane to South Africa leaving Italy and France in what would in effect be the 'Celebrity Deathmatch' of international football. Can you imagine the reaction at FIFA HQ?! Sepp Blatter and co. would be left scampering for 'Plan B' and forcing through that 33rd team for the Finals after all...
Fear not though, Giovanni Trappatoni looks like he is here for another campaign at least. The Italian is a man on a mission, and that is to guide the Republic of Ireland to a major Championship. He has the perfect opportunity too. The strongest side in his group for the European Championship's are Russia. Hardly spine-tingling. Infact, I'd fancy their chances to qualify as group winners. At 11/4 with partybets.com they're certainly worth a flutter.
THE FOOLS, THE FOOLS
On a more serious note, following tonight's game at the RDS in Dublin between ROI and Algeria, I have to come to the conclusion that 'Nordies' at Republic of Ireland football matches are quite possibly the most deluded people you will come across on the island. Imagine (if you will) a rather obese Northerner sporting an orange Armagh GAA shirt with Irish Tricolour painted on his forehead. Imagine him plonking himself directly behind you stuffing what could have been a hot-dog (gone in seconds whatever it was) down his throat, whilst belting out Amhrán na bhFiann in what could have been the Craigavon dialect of Ulster-Scots. After his sense of national pride had clearly been established, the much anticipated pre-match analysis was filtered through to the rest of the onlookers in the 16,000 strong crowd...
As cringeworthy as it was, the response from the gentleman sat next to the young ill-informed Northerner was nonchalant...
"Which one's Hun-Bougherra buddy?"
Oblivious to the young lad's bigotry, the local man went on to watch the game with the rest of us in the 21st century. However, it summed up for me all that is wrong with the large sections of people from Northern Ireland that regularly follow the Republic of Ireland at football. These sections are intent on forcing their politics upon fans of the Southern team - many of whom simply arn't interested.
When will the people who tar the Northern Ireland support as bigots come to the realisation that infact, the scourge of sectarianism is still alive and kicking in certain sections of the Republic of Ireland support too?
And when will these 'patriotic' fans who flock across the border in the name of 'Irish Unity' understand a 26-county Irish team is just as much a partitioned Irish side as a 6-county one?
To quote another cringeworthy Irishman, the answers may be.....
Frankie's first of five night Irish Tour at Dublin's Vicar Street venue
If I were a referee I would be Graham Poll. Why? Because after my visit to Vicar Street last night I would have given Glaswegian comic Frankie Boyle three yellow cards and one red, he was that good. Of course by 'good', I mean surprisingly bad.
I'll confess to be no comedy guru, but I know the difference between a Bill Hicks and say... a Roy Chubby Brown. Last night's performance from fun-time Frankie made 'Chubs' bigoted 'angry-man' performances look like the work of a genius.
Although in fairness to Frankie, he brought along an excellent warm-up act in the marvellous Craig Campbell from Canada (yes, it is a very Canadian name isn't it?). The Billy Connelly look-a-like had the Irish crowd in stitches with some interesting 'Dublinisms' as well as tales of how he almost got a kiss in Glasgow. But, it was the headline act the sold-out crowd were there to see. Step forward Frankie, son.
The former 'Mock The Week' funnyman had some great material. His hecklers were put down with hilarious ease. Ripping the piss out of the 'The Britz' also went down well with the home faithful. But much of this was lost amidst his perverted obsession to focus on hard-hitting gags on sex-abuse, Down's Syndrome and Baby P. Much of the routine tended to be just one endless dreary drive down the same miserable Fritzl family infested road... with admittedly, a few enjoyable speed bumps along the way. In his autobiography he claims to be a big fan of Monbiot and Chomsky. It was a crying shame he didn't focus more on political subjects.
Looking back, I still don't know what to make of Frankie's performance. He is no doubt a very talented comedian with a huge target audience out there. Infact one in which I would still include myself in. But, last night I was just disappointed to leave the Thomas Street venue questioning the length of time spent on 'sex-abuse' sensationalisms rather than giggling cheekily at some expected outrageous gags. However, not to the extent I had anticipated.
There was no need for goal-line technology last night. Frankie Boyle had rather emphatically crossed it already himself.
Founded in 1991 Holywood Boys was a junior football club based predominately in the North Down area of Ulster. As the name suggests, it was originally an all boys youth football club. It's training pitches were based at Redburn before relocating to Spafield further in the town. They were also a club with whom I was proud to have represented for six years. It was at the tender age of ten that I was 'scouted' whilst on international duty (otherwise known as school football) by the club's founder, and current County Down IFA coach, Raymond Alexander. A knock on the door of the house one memorable day in June by the man himself persuaded me to give up my Saturday morning lie-in's for the more-often-than-not muddy slogfests on the slightly over-sized King George's Playing Fields, just next to the famous Oval stadium. Following a slightly deluded swap with a friend I parted ways with my recently aquired Nintendo Gameboy and traded it for none-ther than a pair of (wait for it...) 'Patrick' football boots. I was ready for action.
Holywood Boys FC was where I would showcase my Cruyff turns, Baggio flicks (not mullets), and Gazza celebrations for a total of six years. At 16 (and a couple of dodgy stints with George Best's old club Boyland FC of Sydenham) I'm quite happy to admit as a player, I had peaked. A season-long spell on my boyhood club Glentoran FC's books had ended and with a tinge of regret. I parted ways with East Belfast's finest and it was back to North Down I went, joining hometown club Holywood FC (no connection whatsoever to Holywood Boys FC) then finally into the welcoming arms of Bangor Swifts FC.
However, it was with those youthful years at Holywood Boys with whom I enjoyed the most success. In 1998 at U10 level we quite simply were 'the Cream of Northern Ireland' at our age group. A Dundonald Junior League 'Double' success was followed up by victory in what was known then as 'The Champions of Champions' (the Champions' League - except better).
I started off as a centre forward, dropped into centre midfield, won player of the year two seasons on the trot as a centre-back (hated it), and laterly found myself occupying the left-wing (politically too on occasion). Mr Versatile. What can I say, John O'Shea learnt from the best!
On the whole our club had a massive appeal country-wide. Our chief scout (Walter Windrum) only needed to murmer the words 'Holywood Boys' and manys a young lad's ear would perk up immediately. Off the top of my head current stars of the Irish and English leagues such as Chris Brunt (West Brom) and Jamie Mulgrew (Linfield) both plyed their trade early on at Holywood Boys. Jamie himself would testify that Holywood Boys played a crucial part in his development and had undoubtably nurtured his obvious talent at such a young age.
Players within my age-bracket in-particular tended to flock from all over the UK and Ireland to join us. The most notable was the signing of four players from the now defunct Antrim Eagles who travelled at least 20 miles just to come to training in Holywood every Wednesday night. Fair play to those lads inparticular because if truth be told, I wasn't even willing to spend my Wednesday nights enduring the 3 mile bus journey to Glentoran Colts for training (lack of car in the family ruined my GFC career, there I said it!).
In an era in Northern Ireland which can only be classified as 'transition', Holywood Boys excelled. Whether you be of Catholic or Protestant; it simply did not matter. Our club was quintessentially the ultimate cross-community junior football club. I can recall a tournament in Blackpool where our club was ridiculously accused of being 'bigoted' by someone from a rival club who took offence to seeing a one of our players who had the indignity of sporting a Rangers FC shirt post-match. This grievance was countered by the sight of a Rangers shirt displayed on our teams window - alongside a Glasgow Celtic top. The aggreived party's head must have been doing Obafemi Martins somersaults at the absurtity of it all!
However on the playing side of things it was to be, and rather inevitably, the huge Bangor influx of players which would be to the detriment of Holywood Boys Football Club. In recent years the club even re-located to Bangor which all but resigned the 'Holywood' name into obscurity. Indeed, along came Eddie Irvine in 2008 with his very own sports' complex to promote in Bangor. The final nail in our club's coffin was finally within range. Eddie's target... my once great junior club Holywood Boys.
This weekend see's the final round of group games in the Setanta Cup where three of four teams will progress to the semi-finals of the all-Ireland tournament. St Pat's Athletic head north to Belfast as they face-off against Irish League runners-up Linfield, in what should be an 'All-or-Nothing' encounter. Following last week's 1-1 draw at Richmond Park it's hard to know what way the game will swing, but I'd expect home advantage to push the Blues over the finishing line - which Sligo Rovers so far are the only one's to cross.
However, the pick of the clashes will be in the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro where Irish League champions Glentoran travel south of the border to meet League of Ireland champions Bohemians at Dalymount Park. The former home of international football in the Republic will play host to a near-capacity crowd as will it's current home, at Croke Park, which should also be full of northern soul come Saturday afternoon as Ireland's rugby team take on Wales - a double-whammy for the Ulster support amongst the travelling Glentoran contingent, no doubt.
The East Belfast men will be out for revenge following their 2-1 defeat at the Oval in December. However, the 'Cock n Hens', who are under new management in the rookie Scott Young, will know they can still do what is required of them. With the 'Gypsies' progression in the competition guaranteed, there is a fair chance it will be against a weakened Bohemian FC. But with the League of Ireland season only just under way, there will be players on the fringes looking to impress their manager - ex-Linfield player - Pat Fenlon.
This will be my second time at Dalymount Park, having had the "unique" experience of sitting amongst the fans of Boh's Dublin rivals... Shamrock Rovers. It wasn't a good night for ' The Hoops' in that clash last season with Boh's winning 2-0, and by all accounts the post-match riots on the city's O'Connell Bridge produced a similar result. Legion 1882, you have met your match.
The Future of the Setanta Cup...
Ticket allocation for the Glens was set at 1,000 although with popularity of the all-Irish competition fading rapidly this season, I wouldn't be surprised if the away support is closer to 500 come kick-off. There have been various calls for a massive overhaul of the Setanta Cup. I would agree with that. First stage of the overhaul would be to remove the FAI from any kind of power. This would eliminate the potential of making a mockery of the competition (see last year's Setanta Cup Final fiasco). Playing cup final's on opposing team's grounds make it a home game for the opposing team. IFA take note.
The current Setanta Cup format involves:
- 4 teams (Irish League, NI)
- 5 teams (League of Ireland, ROI)
- 3 groups of 3.
- 3 winner's progress to Semi Final.
- 1 (best) runner-up progress to Semi-Final.
- Final venue decided by FAI/IFA (alternating years)
The basic concept is certainly there, but the teacher's report to the organising committee would be "could do better". There is the possiblity that the competition could revert to a plain and simple 'knock-out' tournament which would open matches up to teams lower down in their domestic leagues. We could be kicking-off this new format with Larne heading to Limerick and Athlone going to Ards. Then, as with the FA Cup in England, the big teams could then enter the competition at a later stage.
But of course, money would play a huge part in such plans for these clubs. As we have seen this season with the unfortunate demise Cork City and Derry City, money is scarce at the bigger Irish clubs too. Both club's eviction from the Setanta Cup hasn't helped the competition's credibility in the slightest, although in fairness Setanta can't be blamed for a club's financial troubles. Infact, their willingness to stick by the all-Ireland competition in such dire times must be commended, especially as the broadcaster itself can't be making that much money from two poorly supported leagues on the island. Shame on you EPL and SPL armchair 'fans'!
Also, in order to avoid the sheer bias on either associations part, let Setanta choose the venue for their 'prestigious final' once the two teams have been decided. The FAI's last-ditch attempt to pump money into a dying Cork City FC by handing them home advantage at the last minute in the 2009 final was wreckless, and did nothing to convince me and many other local football enthusiasts that this island is ready for an 'All-Ireland League'.
Until then, a revamped Setanta Cup will suffice.
Saturday evening's game between Boh's and Glens, which is being billed as "The Battle of the Champions - Part Deux", will be televised on Setanta Ireland from 5:15pm.
Glamour friendly: ROI face Brazil in London, England
The mighty Brazil are in London town for what's being billed as the 'glamour friendly' of this weeks international fixtures. However, the game itself which is set to take place at Arsenal FC's Emirates Stadium, won't see the 'Boys from Brazil' up against England. Instead Giovanni Trappatoni's Republic of Ireland team will be the 'acting hosts' for the night. It's not the first time an English stadium has been used by the Irish for friendly matches, and seems to be an increasing trend which will be no doubt be warmly welcomed amongst the UK's ever-expanding Irish community.
The decision to play the game in London should of course also go down well amongst the following 10 (ten) UK-born contingent in the Republic's squad...
Keiran Westwood (Manchester, England)
Kevin Kilbane (Preston, England)
Kevin Foley (Luton, England)
Sean St Ledger (Birmingham, England)
Marc Wilson (Armagh, NI)
Aiden McGeady (Glasgow, Scotland)
Darron Gibson (Derry, NI)
James McCarthy (Glasgow, Scotland)
Liam Lawrence (Nottingham, England)
Leon Best (Nottingham, England)
Aside from almost half of the Republic's squad, the United Kingdom's other connection to Ireland is of course Northern Ireland. The Green and White Army (the fans) face a truly ugly friendly match in comparison to their Southern cousins. Albania are the opposition, and the capital Tirana can expect a wave of green and white on Wednesday night as Northern Ireland (the team) are in town. It is a game which, no matter how unattractive, is a useful workout for Nigel Worthington's men. A vast improvement in the side's away form is a neccisity ahead of the upcoming Euro 2012 Qualifiers in September.
Both Irish sides face very different tests, but nevertheless, can expect two tough matches. One, against the silky samba skills of Brazil where Aiden McGeady should feel at home. The other, an unknown quantity in Albania - and an unpredictable Northern Ireland on the road.
Albania vs NI is available on BBC red button
ROI vs Brazil is available on Sky Sports
Check this blog's 'Where's the match?' bar widget for more information (along the right-hand side).
Last weekend saw the latest round of FA Cup ties in England. Attendances on average for FA games are bottoming out. Even the most ardent fan can see what direction football is taking in 2010. Football is business, but the business is no longer the football. A friend of mine at Liverpool Hope University - and die-in-the-wool Aston Villa and England supporter might I add - aired his views recently on the mechanisms driving football away from it's natural surroundings of achieving success on the pitch to aquiring it through money.
"The days of cup glory are all but dying. Public broadcasters and service stations have diverted their attention elsewhere in the last few years. Club defying moments are paled in comparison to the all conquering Premier League. Is it so far from the truth that a 'Top 4' finish is more important than a trophy in the cabinet? From the dawning of football, weren’t bragging rights intended to be about winning things?
Due respect to Alex Ferguson etc about their constant branding of the cup competitions, but I wonder whether they do have alternative motives. We can all admit that 10 years ago hectic Premier League schedules were cast aside for a shot of silverware glory. These days the League Cup and FA Cup have become an inconvenience to top sides and an excuse to “blood” their young talent. ITV will continually crave the public’s respect by airing apparently uninteresting ties, but at what point will this commercially dependent channel decided to discuss their future purchases of domestic silverware, especially when they acquired the rights to the champions league a few years back.
The ITV's acquisition of the FA Cup probably reflects indefinitely their target demographic, but at what point will the interest become insignificant. This year (2010) Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United have fallen to lower placed teams. Upsets like this do cause uncontrollable fantasies amongst football fans, however, when the bigger teams leave the competition the coverage disintegrates and attention is drawn back toward other sports on FA Cup weekend. Foreign sport star such as Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Tiger Woods have praised the presence on the FA Cup as a pivotal part of their childhood.
Is a re-branding close to the cards? All compliant football fans would wish not, however, look how the Super-Bowl was advertised and branded... can we honestly admit that the same would have been done for the Portsmouth vs. Cardiff City final in 2008? I can imagine most wholehearted football fans would wince at the sight of an advert during an injury break, but without commercial investment, how much longer will domestic silverware continue?"
Definately food for thought. Premier League and FA chiefs take note. Cheers Shep!
Jack Shephard is the frontman of Indie-Rock band the Dead Electrics based in the North-West of England. You can catch them on Facebook and MySpace.
Irish traveller: Tadhg Purcell in action for Shamrock Rovers
Shamrock Rovers will no doubt be the unlikely toast of Darlington this weekend. No, the failed Republic of Ireland boss Steve Staunton didn't move his new 'Quakers' into the League of Ireland alongside Dublin's South-siders, but rather vice-versa. The League Two club's mid-season revival continued thanks to a strike from ex-Hoop Tadhg Purcell.
At first glance it looked to be a risky aquisition by 'Stan' who has been renowned for dropping the odd clanger in the past. Purcell is hardly the 'young prodigy' that he was prior to his move to Rovers in 2006. Here is a lad (25 tomorrow) with 26 goals in 104 games post-move from the now defunct Kilkenny City.
Spending much of last season in the shadows of Scottish strike sensation Gary Twigg (Player of the Year 2009), Purcell found first-team opportunities limited under ex-Northern Ireland and Glentoran stalwart Michael O'Neill. No doubt a move was on the cards, and it looks like the lad has found his level in England's fourth tier of football.
A fantastic opportunity for the player, yet it was another sucker punch to the local game here that went relatively unnoticed in the local media... no surprises there then. However, Purcell is not the first to fly the nest and certainly won't be the last should clubs find themselves in a continued state of financial mess.
IRISH FOOTBALL vs. FOOTBALL LEAGUE / SPL
The move furthers the notion that both the League of Ireland and Irish Premiership clubs in Ireland are at the same level as the English League Two. There is the example of Tadhg Purcell who has walked into the Darlington with relative ease since his move across the Irish Sea. Then there's the likes of Keith Fahey who doesn't look out of place at Birmingham City in the EPL, but realistically needs to drop down a division or two to really find his natural level.
Both the Northern and Republic of Ireland sides have in the past boasted 'world-class' talent amongst their ranks. But in a busy January transfer window for Irish internationals, could we be witnessing the downfall of that talent? David Healy and Darryl Murphy were both relegated to Roy Keane's Ipswich Town. Namesake Robbie was also sent packing on a six-month return ticket up to Glasgow to join the club he supported as a boy, Shamrock Rovers,Liverpool,Internazionale, Harchester United, Celtic.
Keane's move would perhaps have been understandable had Celtic remained in European competition this season, but it will be be more St Johnstone than Paris St Germain for the Tallaght native. Also, excluding the 'Old Firm' Scotland's Premier League is essence the English Championship. So it is hardly ideal when the island's international 'stars' in Robbie Keane, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Aiden McGeady, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt ply their trade in what is essentially a second tier standard.
However, it does offer hope to local football. League One in England was where Peter Thompson of Linfield and Andy Smith of Glentoran held their own for a short time. Stuart Elliott was another who made a huge impact at Motherwell and Hull following his transfer from Glentoran. At the moment we have Keith Fahey (St Pats Athletic) who continues to hold his own at Birmingham City and of course the latest Irish export to emerge as a real talent Tadhg Purcell (Shamrock Rovers) who is now finding his level at League Two Darlington.
The gap between Irish club football and Irish international football is showing signs of closing. Admittedly, not by much, but when you look at it logically it should come as no surprise. The top clubs in Premier League clubs in England are looking to the continent and not Ireland for their next purchase. Yes, there will always be the bright prospects from Ireland who will flood academy level, but the majority of these young propects tend to flutter down the divisions - and most return home to play locally.
Although sometimes it's not just the young apprentices returning to Irish football, it can also be a the 'last hurrah' ex-Irish internationals as high-profile players such as Keith Gillespie (Glentoran) and Johnny Giles (Rovers) would testify. It's these kind of arrivals on the local stage that the kids look up to and raise the profile of the League of Ireland and Irish League... in the short-term.
It remains to be seen whether Irish football can create it's own high-profile footballers and remove that constant threat from the lure of lower league football in England. Until then, expect more 'swan-songs' from our overpaid ex-internationals, whilst our limited talent are snapped up by the Stockport County and Darlington FC's of the world.
Above: Peter Doherty on-stage in The Academy, Dublin
From a sporting perspective Villa Park may have been the place to be on Wednesday night for a cracker of a game, but this side of the Irish Sea played host to a very different, but nonetheless very entertaining, kind of cracker in the form of ex-Libertine, solo star Pete Peter Doherty. The Babyshambles front-man was in Dublin's fair city this week for a good old fashioned sing-song at Ireland's trendiest new venue the Academy.
But I have to confess that I have greater knowledge of what Doherty puts up his nose than what he sings into his microphone. He even managed to grab the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately when the tabloids favourite car-crash celebrity (next to former girlfriend Kate Moss) was originally due to kick-off his 'Irish Tour' of Belfast, Dublin and Galway in October last year. Rather controversially it had to be cancelled after he was hospitalised the night before suffering from 'breathing difficulties'.
On Wednesday night however, it was his adoring fans who were the one's left 'breathless' as Pete (sorry, Peter) Doherty tore the place to shreds with some rip-roaring tunes. Indeed, I say tearing to shreds in the musical sense of course. However, once it came to light that former Pogues front-man - or is that mad-man? - Shane Magowan (see here) had entered the building there was the distinct possiblility that the Academy would literally crumble in his wake.
One unashamed bottle of vodka in hand, Magowan did indeed do what we had all feared as staff members - he hooked up with Doherty back-stage after the gig. Surely all we were missing would be an impromptu appearance from Amy Winehouse. But alas, Pete would have to make-do with Shane and vice-versa. It would put you in mind of the young prodigy taking tips off his uglier older and waster wiser master. Pete, you are in the best of hands.
So, with groupies in-tact both musicians departed at midnight respectibly - just 90 minutes after the gig itself. However, I would seriously doubt Pete and Shane's night ended there. After all, these guys had a reputation to uphold! My thoughts go out to the poor bastard who had to clean the dressing room afterwards.
Chelsea ace Frank Lampard was in the high-brow Wine & Co. (pictured above) during his visit with new WAG Christine Bleakley to Northern Ireland last week. Beeb beauty Christine no doubt had her new man over to meet the 'Ma and Da' in their native Newtownards. In an attempt to win them over Frank even splashed the cash in a local shop by picking up a quick gift for Mr and Mrs Bleakley, allegedly. I bet you can't get 10 Curley-Wurley's for a pound in Harrods!
As expected speculation had been rife in the seaside town regarding a potential move for the highly rated England star in the up-and-coming January transfer window. However, the negotiations apparently broke down when Frank was informed he couldn't be guaranteed first-team football. It was a tough call from the Holywood FC management, but the right one in my opinion. Maybe Bangor Swifts would be interested?
The town itself is famous for its Maypole (a big pole people dance around once a year) just next to the venue the loved-up couple were visiting. Its origin is uncertain, but according to local folklore it dates from 1700, when a Dutch ship is said to have run aground on the shore nearby, and the crew erected the broken mast to show their appreciation of the assistance offered to them by the townsfolk.
For me, Frank Lampard was the biggest foreign import to hit the streets of Holywood since the falling of that much-loved Maypole in the mid-ninties! Although, I'm not so sure about Christine's decision to whisk 'Funtime Frankie' off to the Dirty Duck Ale House to round off the night. The last time I was there I was told to cover up my football shirt as it was "strictly a rugby bar" - I wonder what they thought of an actual footballer gracing their hallowed egg-ball supporting surroundings.
Anyway, thanks for dropping by Frank and Christine. It just goes to show, Posh & Becks weren't the only ones to take Hollywood Holywood by storm in 2009...