Saturday 24 September 2011

The miserable life of the fantasy football manager

Winning feels good. So do predictions that turn out to be correct and risky gambles that ultimately pay off. This explains the lure of fantasy football and why so many poor souls have become addicted to a competition that rewards footballers who happen to set up a goal with their arse. We all want to display our superior footballing knowledge and what better platform to do that than fantasy football?

Like deluded Liverpool fans convinced that signing Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam guarantees fourth place, we tell ourselves each year that we will crack the top 1000 managers and see off all competitors in our private leagues. After all, they're not going to realise that Aaron Hughes is a cheaper, better alternative to Brede Hangeland. Victory must surely be in the bag, right?

Wrong. Fantasy football is a miserable game more crushingly depressing and grindingly frustrating than the national lottery. Each gameweek you tell yourself that the eleven players you've chosen are destined for an 80-point haul but the same factors invariably conspire against you. Here is a list, by no means exhaustive, of the cruel truths and grim inevitabilities of the world's most tortuous game:

* Your captain will not be your highest scorer. Pundits are fond of saying form goes out the window on occasion. When you select a player who's scored twenty goals in his last four games as your captain, form really does collect its things and dive headfirst through a glass pane. If you're lucky, your captain might pick up a respectable two points for playing ninety minutes and you can rest with some dignity intact. Far more likely, however, is your captain to withdraw through injury five minutes before the match or else get sent off and plunge into negative figures, which will be doubled for good measure.

* The international break will ravage your team. You like to think you're a clever manager. You avoid injury-prone players and instead pick a team you know will stay fit. Unfortunately, Gary Cahill's 100 consecutive starts count for nothing when he's away on international duty. Like the PlayStation 1 game you loaned to your cousin, he'll return scratched and broken and in no fit state to play, along with at least two of your other "reliables". If you're particularly unlucky, you'll be plagued by a myriad of 'Doubtful's, leaving you unsure as to whether you should risk replacing the Doubtfuls or not. For your diaries: the next international break follows gameweek 7.

* A home banker? Your players will be rested. Man United at home to Swansea? Start filling your team with United players two gameweeks in advance. You can't miss out on these points. Make Wayne Rooney your captain; he'll score at least three goals. But hang on a minute, what about that midweek Champions League match? Yep, it's time for rotation. The players who you entrust to score the big points will be rested and there's nothing you can do about it. What's more, the four points for your goalkeeper's clean sheet that you took for granted will be spoiled by a last-minute consolation goal. It won't make the slightest bit of difference to the result but it will strike a devastating blow to your points total.

* Bonus points. Ah, bonus points. One last chance for vindication; three unexpected points really can do wonders for a beleaguered team, especially if they go to your captain. After Chelsea's opening game against Stoke, Sky awarded Fernando Torres man of the match even though the game finished 0-0; it came as welcome relief to fantasy football managers who took a gamble on Fernando. At least a bonus point or two would ease the pain of (yet) a(nother) miserable opening week. But Torres got nothing; zilch, nada, nul points. You can't count on anything in this game. It'll fill you with optimism just to shoot you down.

What a miserable pursuit fantasy football is. Why do we bother? Maybe one gameweek in five we'll be satisfied with our weekend's work; the rest of the time we spend worrying over decisions, obsessively checking stats and cursing bad fortune. And no matter how long we spend refining our team, meticulously weighing up the merits or otherwise of potential transfers, the lad who never checks his team and has only made one transfer all year will beat you.

We'll crack 100 points next gameweek, though.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Euro 2012 qualifying Goup B explained

With all six teams in Group B having played eight games, the identity of the eventual top two is still uncertain. Macedonia and Andorra are unable to qualify, so here's a look at the four teams still in contention:

Russia - 17 points
Slovakia (A); Andorra (H)
As the current leaders, Russia know that four points from their remaining two games will see them through to Euro 2012 as group winners. Their final game, at home to Andorra, is a virtual banker so they travel to Slovakia knowing that a draw will almost definitely earn qualification. If they finish level on points with Ireland or Armenia, their superior head-to-head record will see them through.

Ireland - 15 points
Andorra (A); Armenia (H)
Two wins from two in Ireland's final games will guarantee a playoff place at the very least. If Ireland are to have any chance of topping the group, Slovakia must beat Russia at home. Should Ireland and Armenia win their penultimate matches (away to Andorra and home to Macedonia respectively), both teams will meet each other in Dublin with only a single point in Ireland's favour separating them.

Armenia - 14 points
Macedonia (H); Ireland (A)
Armenia's convincing win away to Slovakia has seen them emerge as late contenders for a playoff place, and they know that victory in their final two games will assure them of second place at the very least. While they enjoy the better head-to-head record against Slovakia, defeat in Moscow means Russia will come out on top if the two teams finish level on points. The three points Russia will surely collect against Andorra therefore means that a top-place finish is out of the question for Andorra.

Slovakia - 14 points
Russia (H); Macedonia (A)
One point from their crucial two games against Ireland and Armenia has put a serious dent in their qualification hopes, but, such is the tightness of Group B, they still have a chance of progression. Their home game against Russia is undoubtedly the pick of the remaining Group B matches; if Slovakia win, they'll overtake Russia in the standings thanks to their superior head-to-head record. Assuming Ireland beat Andorra, any dropped points will make it impossible for Slovakia to finish ahead of Giovanni Trapattoni's team. Even if Slovakia do beat Russia and Macedonia, it may not be enough to earn top spot in the group; two Irish wins will result in them having to settle for second. 

Monday 29 August 2011

In Arsène Please Trust

Arsenal's league record since their League Cup final defeat to Birmingham last February: DDDWDDWDDLWLLDDLL. I could list the reasons behind that miserable form but I would be wasting everyone's time. The complaints are all too familiar; Arsenal need a physically-strong centre-back, an assured goalkeeper and a hard-tackling midfield terrier (or two). With the departures of Fàbregas and Nasri, a strong case could be made for the need of another attacking midfielder. The 8-2 annihilation at Old Trafford highlighted their flaws right down to the most excruciating minute detail. There are three days left in the transfer window and the received wisdom says Arsenal need to invest. But do they?

Arsène Wenger knows something about football. He also knows a fair deal about football management, having managed at a high level for 27 uninterrupted years. Since 1996, he has been one of English football's most prominent innovators and successful managers; three Premier League titles (including that unbeaten 2003-04 season), four FA Cups and two doubles betray the influence of the greatest manager Arsenal have ever had, Herbert Chapman included. Wenger's staggeringly prolific trophy haul in his first decade at Arsenal cannot be refuted or ignored, but nor can the barren spell that has followed.

In the six years since Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties in the FA Cup final, Arsenal have failed to win a trophy not named the Emirates Cup. Such a dry period is infinitely more pronounced at a club as accustomed to success as Arsenal. Criticism is much more keenly distributed as a result, and minor disappointments are distorted into major catastrophes. From Vieira and Henry leaving, to Champions League and League Cup final defeat, Arsenal appear to have lurched from one disaster to another. But upon closer inspection, these "disasters" aren't nearly as significant as many would have you believe.

When Vieira left for Juventus, Arsenal's midfield was criticised as too weak. Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini then came to the fore and Arsenal reached the Champions League final, beating Juventus and Vieira along the way. After defeat to Barcelona in the final, Arsenal managed to keep most of the squad together while adding Tomáš Rosický, Emmanuel Adebayor and Alex Song. When Thierry Henry left for Barcelona the following summer, Arsenal were a capitulation away at Birmingham City from winning the league without spending obscene amounts of money.

Wenger's financial prudence has been derided and lauded by certain sections of the media in near equal measure, but its long-term benefit to the club must not be disputed. Of course it is ridiculous to suggest that financial prosperity is, in itself, cause for happiness for fans, but it is equally ridiculous to say that fans' happiness and a healthy financial state are mutually exclusive. Many feel that Wenger's reluctance to spend money is a major hindrance to any ambitions of success that can be measured in silverware. But Wenger, rather than throwing money at problems as a short-term solution, is simply taking the long-term view that will be most beneficial to Arsenal.

His faith in the youth team is well-documented and has produced quality players such as Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczęsny and Kieran Gibbs. Another manager may have neglected these players and instead spent upwards of £40 million on less talented alternatives. This fails from both a footballing and financial perspective and is the main reason why Wenger has chosen not to spend large amounts of money on areas that need improvement. Would Arsenal really be any better off had they spent £10 million on Scott Parker rather than develop Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin? Did they really need to sign an ageing Shay Given when they already had Szczęsny on the books? This is the logic behind Wenger's reluctance to spend. It really is not that difficult to understand.

None of this is to say that Wenger never buys players for large sums. In the last four years, Wenger has spent £10 million or more on Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and, most recently of all, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While Nasri and Vermaelen subsequently vindicated Wenger's decision to spend, Arshavin and Koscielny have never consistently convinced while at Arsenal. This serves as evidence that spending millions of pounds on players does not necessarily guarantee a higher performance level than, say, backing a youth-team graduate. He may have cost £10 million, but Koscielny has not showed enough to suggest that he is a better option that Johan Djourou, an academy graduate who joined Arsenal when he was 16.

Wenger knows the risk he is taking by not bowing to the demands of fans. Most managers would not survive the ire directed at his transfer dealings. Wenger is not most managers, however, and his utter devotion to his philosophy* may be his saving grace. Upon intitial inspection, the unexpected signing of Park Chu-Young may give the impression of a manager making it up as he goes along, but Wenger is far too intelligent and wily for that. It should not be forgotten that Arsenal are in the Champions League for the 14th successive season, hardly an indicator of a club in crisis. A crumbling Tottenham team and an average Liverpool side are the only genuine competitors for a top four finish and an FA Cup or League Cup run is not out of the question by any means, as last year's run to the final shows.

I appreciate Arsenal fans' frustration after six trophyless years, but they must exercise patience for the benefit of Arsenal in the long run. Replacing Wenger now would waste all of the groundwork he has worked so hard to put in place and would guarantee nothing but a dent in Arsenal's budget. The pathetic defeat to United was demoralising, sobering and chastening but not cause for managerial change. Rather than dwelling on the recent poor Premier League results (which I am convinced are nothing more than a blip) focus on the attractive football under Wenger, the talented academy graduates and the vital European away wins. Calling for Wenger's head threatens all of these things; but most dangerously of all, seeking Wenger's dismissal is to agree with Piers Morgan.

*also known as His Plan or The Project

Sunday 21 August 2011

Without a creative midfielder, Chelsea will win nothing

Chelsea's 2-1 victory over West Brom on Saturday illustrated a number of things. Firstly, Shane Long showed that he is capable of making the step up from the Championship to the Premier League. Two goals in as many games against the league's top two teams indicate a very promising future for Long as the Baggies' (and, perhaps, the Republic of Ireland's) main striker. His alertness to Alex's mistake and the calm finish that followed set an example that Fernando Torres, frustrated once again in Chelsea colours, would be advised to take notice of.

The most salient lesson gleaned from Saturday's encounter, however, was that Chelsea desperately need a creative midfielder. Their victory disguised a wholly unconvincing performance that would have produced nothing against stronger opposition. Once Long had given West Brom the lead, Chelsea struggled to break down Hodgson's two banks of well-drilled midfielders and defenders. There was virtually no understanding between Chelsea's midfield of Lampard, Mikel and Ramires and their front three. Numerous attacking forays broke down as a result of this lack of chemistry, and Salomon Kalou was replaced by Florent Malouda before half-time to try to resolve the problem.

Though Chelsea's two second-half goals and subsequent victory vindicated André Villas-Boas' team selection and substitutions somewhat, the distinct lack of cohesiveness was clear for all to see. It's difficult to escape the feeling that Chelsea simply got lucky. As solid as West Brom's defence were, Chelsea would not have scored against superior opponents. Anelka's goal was, of course, the turning point, at a time when Chelsea did not seem particularly threatening. They grew in confidence after that equaliser, and Bosingwa's superb cross for Malouda eventually gave them a scarcely-deserved lead. For the second consecutive week, West Brom finished with no points when their performance merited at least one.

When I tipped Chelsea for the title at the beginning of the season, I did so on the basis that a playmaker would be signed. As it stands, Yossi Benayoun is the only midfielder of any real ingenuity at the club; Lampard's peak is at least two seasons behind him, Ramires' dynamism does not translate to creativity and Essien is far too injury-prone to be relied upon. Talented player though he is, Benayoun is not consistent or effective enough against the stronger teams to be trusted with creative duties for a side aiming to win the title. The solution to the problem, therefore, must come from outside the club; if Abramovich is serious about restoring Chelsea to the dominant status they enjoyed during the Mourinho years, he must be willing to spend money on a playmaker of genuine class.

Luka Modrić has been consistently linked with a move to the club since the beginning of the transfer window and it's blatantly apparent that the player wants to join. The Abramovich of old would not have been deterred by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's insistance that Modrić is not for sale at any price; he would simply have presented Levy with the requisite amount of cash for buying a player "not for sale at any price" and Modrić would be wearing Chelsea's jersey already. Instead, Chelsea have delayed making a firm approach and Villas-Boas has been denied a player who could play a hugely crucial role in his team. With September 1 still ten days away, Chelsea have time to rectify their ponderous transfer dealings by offering Tottenham the cash needed to secure Modrić's signature.

Once that signing is completed, Chelsea will suddenly look like a much more formidable side. With someone to deliver a good supply of passes, Fernando Torres' potential may finally be realised. If his form since his arrival at Stamford Bridge is worthy of scurtiny, his undeniable wealth of talent is not. Romelu Lukaku, though a very different player, is a viable alternative to Torres who could offer Chelsea something a little more direct. Villas-Boas' decision to keep Didier Drogba at the club has been rather surprising - a move to Marseille and a fresh start for the new manager appeared to beckon - but Villas-Boas has obviously been impressed by Drogba's past exploits, even if his performance levels have waned recently. All of this is not to mention the impending signing of Juan Mata from Valencia, a player who oozes class and will offer Chelsea an attacking impetus they lacked at times last season.

This summer has already seen Santi Cazorla move to Malaga and PSG buy Javier Pastore, two players who could have eased Chelsea's creative difficulties instantly. Chelsea must ensure that they do not squander the opportunity to sign Modrić and Mata. If they do miss out, struggling to break down defences will become an uncomfortably familiar problem.

An important season for Thiago

Of the Spanish U-21 squad that attracted much attention for their European Championship victory this summer, Barcelona’s Thiago Alcântara was perhaps the player singled out for most praise.

Swing by Back Page Football to read the rest of this article.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Premier League predictions - blogger vs layman

With every football writer / blogger worth their salt offering some form of predictions for the coming Premier League season, I felt obliged to get in on the act. But rather than doing it the old fashioned way, I decided to test my crystal ball abilities against someone completely unversed in the world of football.

By his own admission, friend of Ball Between Two Gary Drohan had not even heard of some of the teams in this year's Premier League. Tasked with placing the teams in the order in which he thinks they will finish, he relied merely on his knowledge of teams whose names he was familiar with.

My challenge is to see if I can trump Gary's predictions (or, more accurately, guesses). At the end of the season, we will review our respective forecasts and see whether predicting where teams finish requires background knowledge or simply pot luck. Gary has proposed a Crunchie bar for the winner; if he ultimately wins that Crunchie bar, Ball Between Two will be forced to taste bitter humiliation.

* * *

Gary's Predictions
1.   Manchester City
2.   Manchester United
3.   Chelsea
4.   Arsenal
5.   Liverpool
6.   Everton
7.   Fulham
8.   Newcastle
9.   Bolton
10. Aston Villa
11. Blackburn
12. Tottenham 
13. Sunderland 
14. Stoke
15. West Brom
16. Norwich
17. Wigan
18. Wolves
19. Swansea
20. Queens Park Rangers 

Ball Between Two's predictions
1.  Chelsea
2.  Manchester United
3.  Manchester City
4.  Arsenal
5.  Liverpool
6.  Tottenham
7.  Sunderland
8.  Everton
9.  Aston Villa
10. Stoke
11. Bolton
12. West Brom
13. Fulham
14. Newcastle
15. Wolves
16. Norwich
17. Queens Park Rangers
18. Wigan
19. Swansea
20. Blackburn

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Roy Keane

August 10 marks the birthday of Irish sport's most divisive character of all time. This is no exercise in hyperbole to convey a point; Roy Keane truly split the opinions of a country, not just for one summer in Saipan* but throughout his entire career. Viewed as an inspirational leader who merely asked for the optimum performances from those around him by some, and as a narcissistic thug with no regard for anyone else by others, Keane was never a player who pandered to the public. His confidence in his convictions was (and still is) unparalleled among his playing peers and it is for this reason, above all else, that Keane is still regarded as one of the Premier League's defining players.

Everyone has heard the story about Brian Clough, while Keane's manager at Nottingham Forest, punching Keane in the dressing room after he had committed a mistake that led to a Crystal Palace goal. Rather than falling out with Clough, the 19 year-old Keane resolved to atone for his error by scoring three goals on the way to the FA Cup final. Though Nottingham Forest would ultimately lose that final, this determination would prove to be the defining characteristic of Keane's career in football. He would later admit to sympathising with Clough's actions as he could understand the stress of management at the highest level.

Keane's performances had impressed Sir Alex Ferguson enough to warrant a transfer to Manchester United for a British record fee. Not one to be cowed by any price tag, Keane helped United to a Premier League and FA Cup double, scoring a derby winner against Manchester City along the way. Still only 22 years old, Keane had firmly established himself as a first-team starter and an indispensable part of Ferguson's squad. Keane would go on to win yet another double in 1996, his dynamism playing a crucial part in catching a cavalier Newcastle team that had amassed a twelve-point lead. When Eric Cantona retitred, Keane was the obvious choice for the captaincy and was duly awarded the armband by Ferguson.

Perhaps Keane's most famous display was in the Champions League semi-final victory over Juventus during the treble season. Booked for a trip on Zinedine Zidane and 2-0 down (3-1 on aggregate) after ten minutes, Keane dragged United back into the game with an inspirational performance, archetypal of the Keane who won both Players' Player of the Year and Writers' Player of the Year in 2000. His header to make the score 2-1 was the catalyst for the most unlikely of comebacks. United won 3-2 and booked their place in the Champions League final, though Keane's earlier caution meant he was suspended from playing any part. United owed their place in the final largely to Keane's selflessness and his unapologetic will to win, without which that 1999 treble could never have been won.

There was another side to Keane's game of course. Never one to shy away from 50-50 tackles or confrontations, he often found himself on the wrong side of referees. Keane was responsible for his fair share of "questionable" tackles in his career (though not all of them were punished with a red card), most notoriously for a horrendous tackle on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland. Keane admitted in his autobiography that the tackle had been an act of vengeance after Haaland had accused Keane of feigning injury in an earlier match against Leeds. Following his admission, Keane was banned for five matches and fined £150,000.

This was not Keane's only feud with a fellow player. When Arsène Wenger's Arsenal side emerged as serious challengers to United's Premiership-era dominance, the pre-existing rivalry between the two teams intensified to unprecedented levels. The rivalry was embodied by the two clubs' respective captains, Keane and Patrick Vieira. Not only did the players viciously lock horns on the pitch, but they bore a mutual loathing for each other off it as well. The tunnel altercation between the two (with added Gary Neville) is the most famous product of their rivalry and is something that seems almost inconceivable in today's comparatively timid Premier League, little more than five years after the incident occured.

Characters like Keane are virtually non-existent in top-flight football today. Whatever your opinions on Keane, it is next to impossible to argue that he didn't make football a whole lot more entertaining during his playing career. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Dennis Wise could start a fight in an empty room; if this is true, Keane's replacement Michael Carrick could scarcely provoke a mutter of disapproval in a pub brimming with alcoholic hooligans. Compared to Keane, almost all of the Premier League's best footballers are utterly devoid of personality. The quality of matches suffers as a result, with no real edge to even the fiercest Premier League derbies. Where Keane once clashed with Vieira, Michael Carrick now locks horns with Jack Wilshere. Football is the worse for it.

Currently without a job after an underwhelming period at Ipswich Town, Keane's managerial career has not been decorated with the same success as his playing days. Though taking Sunderland to the Premier League was a thoroughly commendable achievement, the money he spent during his time at the club suggests that he could have left them in a better position than in the relegation zone when he stepped down in December 2008. However, I believe he has shown sufficient positive managerial traits during his time at Sunderland and Ipswich to tempt a chairman into offering him another shot at management. Football fans should hope that that chance comes soon; love him or loathe him, football is more fun when Roy Keane's involved.

* I ignored the events of Saipan in this post because I'm sure you've all read the avalanche of articles written in its aftermath. If you would like to read about it, Soccer Ireland has an impressively comprehensive account here.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Waterford v Kilkenny - the last 5 encounters

Ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Waterford and Kilkenny, Ball Between Two takes a look at the five previous times these two teams met in the Championship and wonders what lessons, if any, today's Waterford team can learn from past encounters.

1963 All-Ireland final: Kilkenny 4-17, Waterford 6-8

The defeat that signalled the end of Waterford hurling's golden era. Boasting players such as Phil Grimes, Tom Cheasty and Frankie Walsh, Waterford entered the final as favourites, four years after the 1959 final in which they had needed a replay to see off Kilkenny. But a Kilkenny team containing Eddie Keher was never going to be a pushover. It was Keher who proved to be the difference between the sides with a magnificent display in which he scored 14 points. Despite a hattrick of goals from Waterford's Séamus Power, Kilkenny's superior points total ultimately sealed their victory and gained a degree of revenge for their defeat in 1959.

1998 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 1-11, Waterford 1-10

(A short clip of this match begins at 1:15 in the above video.)

It would be 35 years before Kilkenny and Waterford met in the Championship again. Waterford had spent the intervening years in hurling wilderness while Kilkenny had won another 10 titles to add to their previous fifteen. But this Waterford team featured the likes of Tony Browne and Paul Flynn at the peak of their powers; Tony Browne in particular was enjoying his best year at intercounty level. What followed was an incredibly tight affair, if not a high-scoring one. Just two points separated the sides at half-time, before PJ Delaney extended Kilkenny's lead with a crucial goal. Waterford nearly clawed back a seven-point defecit thanks to a goal from Tony Browne, but the referee blew the final whistle just 27 seconds into stoppage time and with Kilkenny ahead by a point. It was the first of what would become a familar sense of semi-final heartbreak for Waterford fans and players alike.

2004 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 3-12, Waterford 0-18 

(Unfortunately, I was unable to find any clips from this match on YouTube. Given that all of the matches featured in this article end in Déise defeat, I think it's only fair that I include a very positive memory from the year of this semi-final instead: Waterford v Cork in the Munster hurling final.)

Hopes of a Waterford victory were high going into this game, even without the suspended John Mullane. Kilkenny, meanwhile, had been defeated by Wexford in the Leinster semi-final and were forced to take an unfamiliar back-door route to reach this stage. Regular Waterford goalkeeper Stevie Brenner was dropped after his howler in the Munster final in favour of Mount Sion's Ian O'Regan. The decision proved to be a costly one; O'Regan's nerves seemed to get the better of him as Kilkenny scored the three goals that ultimately booked their place in the final. For Waterford, it was their third semi-final defeat in three appearances.

2008 All-Ireland hurling final: Kilkenny 3-30, Waterford 1-13

(If anyone has ever doubted that there is a desperate lack of hurling videos on YouTube, they need only know that the very short video above is the lone clip of what many regard as the finest team performance of all time.)

The 2008 final is a match Waterford and Kilkenny fans remember for two very different reasons. It was the first time Waterford had reached the final since the aforementioned 1963 campaign, while Kilkenny were looking to win their third All-Ireland title in succession. We all know what happened next. Waterford, apparently frozen by the scale of the occasion, were ripped apart by a merciless Kilkenny team. Kilkenny's forwards were simply unstoppable. Waterford's forwards, in contrast, found themselves swarmed by Kilkenny players whenever they got the ball. It was a truly defining performance by Brian Cody's Kilkenny team and demonstrates above all other matches why they are regarded by many as the greatest team in the game's long history.

2009 All-Ireland semi-final: Kilkenny 2-23, Waterford 3-15

(Part two of this game, including post-match interviews and analysis, can be viewed here.)

Less than a year after that annihilation, the two teams met each other in yet another semi-final. Waterford were given virtually no chance in the build-up to the game, perhaps understandably given Kilkenny's formidable performances. The match began ominously for Waterford when Henry Shefflin pointed within the first 60 seconds, but an early goal by Shane Walsh gave Waterford an unlikely lead. But Shefflin was in imperious form. His tally of 1-14, 1-7 of which were from play, highlighted a breathtaking performance as good as any Croke Park has seen in recent years. Shane Walsh and Eoin Kelly did manage to score two further goals for Waterford but, impressive as their spirited display was, they were simply no match for the genius of Shefflin.

While these five results do make somewhat grim reading for Waterford, there is nothing to suggest they will have any significant influence on Sunday's match. There are, however, certain things to be learned from these games that may be of some benefit if we are to beat Kilkenny in the Championship for the first time since 1959.

  • It goes without saying at this level, but Waterford must not concede needless frees. Like Eddie Keher in the 1963 encounter, Henry Shefflin will be sure to punish any fouls committed with his trademark clinical accuracy.
  • All signs indicate that Davy Fitzgerald will name an unchanged side from the one that beat Galway in the quarter-final. The shaky performance of Ian O'Regan in 2004, a player selected to play for the first time, suggests that this will be a wise move.
  • Waterford must not be cowed by occasion. This happened to them earlier this year against Tipperary, and most notably against Kilkenny in that 2008 final.
  • Finally, the influence of Henry Shefflin must be curbed. If Waterford are to have any chance of victory on Sunday, they cannot afford to let Shefflin have the time and space to play like he did in the semi-final of 2009.

Like that 2009 clash, Waterford enter the match as complete underdogs. This seems to be when they play at their very best, evident most recently in that victory against Galway. While anything more than cautious optimism of victory against Kilkenny would be foolish in the extreme, there is nothing to suggest that Waterford can't mount a serious challenge to Kilkenny's stranglehold on this fixture in recent times.

Friday 29 July 2011

My six favourite football clips on Youtube

After spending an entire afternoon browsing the videos on this this wonderful edition of the Joy of Six, I felt compelled to offer my own six favourite football clips on YouTube in the comments. Here I give the reasons for my choices and list the videos that just missed out.

1) Ten minutes of pure Laudrup.

There isn't much to be said about Michael Laudrup that hasn't been said already. All you need to do is read what the greats of the game think. At his best, he represented the zenith of aesthetic football, a player who took pleasure in doing things with an almost mechanical elegance. He made wriggling free of opposing defenders seem like the most methodical pursuit in the world, while still retaining an air of beauty. No gap was too narrow for him to escape through, just as no space was too small for him to deliver a perfect pass.

This video is the ultimate tribute to Laudrup's genius, featuring the very best moments from his time at Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Ajax and with Denmark. These ten minutes of Laudrup heaven include impossibly-close control, precise through balls and some of his trademark scoop passes. Andrés Iniesta is probably the player who comes closest to emulating Laudrup's style today so it's particularly telling that he calls Laudrup the best player in history.

2) Holland eviscerate Uruguay.

Everyone knows that the failure of the Holland team of 1974 to win the World Cup is one of football's great tragedies. The great exponents of the totaalvoetbal system pioneered by their manager Rinus Michels and their playmaker Johan Cruyff would eventually lose the final against West Germany despite opening the scoring without their opponents touching the ball.

It was their first match against Uruguay, however, that catapulted their style onto the world stage. The video shows the best examples of their fabled free movement and offside trap. Swarms of Dutch players tear Uruguay apart, in attack and in defence, and the 2-0 scoreline ultimately flatters the losers. Cruyff, of course, is at the centre of it all, and scores one of the great disallowed goals at 03:37. The video is set to a delicate piano soundtrack that complements the almost understated beauty of the Dutch team perfectly.

3) Thierry Henry's 226 goals for Arsenal.

I've written about Thierry Henry at length before. Even muted admiration of Henry is frowned upon by an Irish nation who feels it was cruelly robbed of a World Cup place by that "cheating Frenchman". But such are Henry's talents that I can't help but love him. He was the greatest striker in Europe while at Arsenal, with a phenomenal goalscoring record matched only by his penchant for stunning pieces of skill.

This video includes every single one of Henry's 226 competitive goals with Arsenal. Given Henry's famous squad number, it is fitting that the video is 14 minutes in duration, though it hardly feels that long. The uploader wastes no time with irritating replays and instead chooses to show each goal once only. Combined with a gorgeously-refined piano accompaniment, this technique gives the video a simplistic feel that sets it apart from the myriad compilation videos on YouTube.

4) Brazil's best goals at the 1982 World Cup.

From Holland 1974 to Brazil 1982; perhaps the two greatest sides never to win the World Cup. Some claim that this Brazilian team were even better than their 1970 counterparts. With players like, Zico, Socrates and Éder, it's not difficult to see why. In just five games, Brazil managed to score an incredible fifteen goals. Despite their early exploits, they were knocked out before the semi-finals by eventual champions Italy in what is regarded as one of the greatest matches of all time.

Impressive as those highlights are, it is not the video that makes this list. The fourth video I've chosen is perhaps my favourite of the lot; eleven of Brazil's fifteen goals from that tournament, all of which are indisputable masterpieces. It seems unthinkable that such a vast array of astonishing goals could be scored over such a concentrated period of time, but this Brazilian team was special. There is no video that better demonstrates their genius than this.

5) Paul McGrath 1-0 Italy.

No list of favourites is complete without a purely sentimental choice. Ireland's 1-0 victory over Italy at the 1994 World Cup is possibly the great moment in Irish sporting history. After Ray Houghton's looping effort gave Ireland a shock lead in the opening minutes, an Italian side featuring Roberto Baggio came pressing for an equaliser. Wave after wave of Italian attack was repelled by the heroic Paul McGrath in one of the greatest defensive performances in World Cup history.

This tribute to Paul McGrath shows exactly why he remains one of Ireland's true sporting heroes. Beginning with his acceptance of the PFA Players' Player of the Year award in 1993, it soon shows some of the many plaudits piled upon him by celebrated names of football (Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and John Giles, to name a few). Sandwiched between the praise are the highlights of that performance against Italy: a colossus display of courage, strength and skill in inhospitabale conditions that no Irish fan will ever forget.

6) Xavi, Iniesta and Messi v Real Madrid.

Barcelona's 5-0 victory over Real Madrid was as close to footballing perfection that mortals like us can ever hope to experience. These were the two best teams in the world playing each other in a match so ludicrously hyped that nothing less than an exhilarating thriller would satisfy expectations. What followed was not so much a thriller as complete and utter domination. For ninety minutes, Barcelona were in total control against a team many Spanish football experts, such as Sid Lowe, had tipped to win. This is more of a reflection on the unprecedented scale of Barcelona's dominance than those who expected a Real Madrid victory (I include myself among them).

Ultimately, the 5"7 triumverate showed why they are the heartbeat of the club side many regard as the best of all time. The understanding between Xavi, Iniesta and Messi appears to be telepathic in this video. The three are the instigators of all Barça's forays forward, the conductor through whom the ball moves. If any video captures the spirit of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona's side, this is it.

The videos that just missed out:

Dejan Savićević tears Manchester United a new one. 

José Luis Chilavert saves Maradona's feekick. Diego applauds. 

"Urruti, I love you!" A dramtic penalty save delivers Barcelona's first La Liga title in eleven years. 

And finally... 

If you'd like to compile your own list of your six favourite football videos on YouTube, let me know on Twitter @BallBetweenTwo. I would be delighted to publish it.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Sergio Agüero factfile

Manchester City might sign Sergio Agüero soon. They might not. But they probably will. What better reason, then, to compile a list of little-known facts about the player they call Kun.

* Agüero was raised by wolves in the Amazonian forest. He qualifies for Argentinian citizenship through his biological father Diego Maradona. It is said that Maradona conceived Agüero after a particularly chaotic party at a Neapolitan zoo. When Diego abandoned Agüero's mother, she left for South America and started a family. They remain the only wolves in the Amazon.

* Agüero had a starring role in a Japanese anime when he was six years-old . He played the character Kum Kum and earned plaudits for his harrowing portrayal of a child forced to fend for himself in the dog-eat-dog world of hunting. (There is a widely-held belief that Agüero's nickname Kun originates from this anime. This is false. Agüero actually obtained the name due to his interest in the performance of China Shenghuo Pharmaceutical Holdings (KUN) on the stock market.)

* Agüero was first scouted by Independiente when he was playing for an Amazon XI against a team made up of players who live on the border of the river Nile. Agüero scored a hattrick in the game after discovering that running in zigzags confused the Nile XI's defenders. Independiente promptly signed Agüero, bringing a premature end to a promising career in anime.

* Agüero quickly made his professional debut for Independiente at the age of nine. Despite having scored a goal in that match, he did not play the next game as the 10pm kickoff was way past his bedtime. He continued to play in Independiente's afternoon matches, however, and finished the season as the Primera División's top scorer. His club form did not go unnoticed by Argentinia manager Terry Butcher and he was called up to the national squad at just ten years of age.

* It was with Argentina that Agüero first made an impression on the world stage. Having reached the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup with Argentina, he was selected to play against England in his first start for Argentina. After a goalless first half, Agüero opened the scoring with one of the most infamous goals of all time. Leaping up into the air to contest a high ball with England goalkeeper Scott Carson, Agüero fisted the ball into the English net. He redeemed himself later in the game by scoring perhaps the greatest goal in World Cup history. Argentina ultimately went on to win the 2006 World Cup and Agüero quickly became a national hero, earning sponsorship deals with both Nike and Adidas.

* Real Madrid signed Agüero immediately after the World Cup but decided that, at eleven years-old, he was too young to go straight into the first team. Instead he was placed in Real Madrid's reserve team, Atlético Madrid. Despite enjoying a very successful first season there, Real Madrid decided against promoting him to the first team because they had recently purchased Steve Sidwell for £30 million.

* After five seasons with Atlético, Agüero now looks set to leave for Manchester City. His international teammate Carlos Tévez is thought to have persuaded Agüero that City was the best option for him after his incessant praise for the city of Manchester. If the deal is completed, Agüero will become the first Argentine player not named Pablo Zabaleta or Carlos Tévez to play for the club. Still only four years-old, there are high hopes that Agüero will enjoy a bright future in the Premier League, especially if he can benefit from the maturity of Tévez and Mario Balotelli while at the club.

If you'd like to hurl abuse in my direction ( 'Agüero wasn't raised by wolves, graaaaaaah!!1!'), you can find me on Twitter @BallBetweenTwo.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Football rivalries: Honduras and El Salvador

Everyone loves a good derby. The best are between teams that harbour such animosity for each other that their mutual hatred manifests itself in an all-out scrap.

To read this article, pay Surreal Football a visit over here.

Sunday 17 July 2011

A Day in the Life of Damien Comolli

Like my last A Day in the Life entry, the following is complete nonsense and is not intended to be taken seriously.

07:12 Get up early. Talent ain't going to spot itself. Croissants and grapefruit for breakfast this morning. A cosmopolitan breakfast for a cosmopolitan guy. Head down to the local kiosk afterwards. Buy all the daily papers, except The Sun. That way you feel like you belong in this city. Damien Comolli, man of the people, honourary Scouser. That has a nice ring to it. Maybe the fans will make a chant for you. Daniel Levy doesn't have a chant. This thought comforts you as you settle down to read the papers. Straight to the sport sections. Today Liverpool are linked with Karim Benzema. Hmmm. He's French. Would probably cost a lot of money though. Besides, Henry loves David Ngog. Remember to run it by Kenny later just in case.

08:46 Arrive at Melwood. There's no one around. The team is touring south-east Asia at the moment. It's the third consecutive morning that you've forgotten. Wander around the grounds before heading to your office. You hear a voice. Peer around the corner of a wall to find Milan Jovanović rocking back and forth on the ground. He's muttering to himself. He calls out, "Mr Comolli?". You step out from behind the wall and say good morning. His eyes are bulging. He looks as if he hasn't slept in days, weeks maybe. Suddenly he pins you up against the wall. He asks you when Mr Hodgson is coming back. Tell him that Hodgson will be back soon and that he told you he's looking forward to seeing his favourite footballer. He relaxes his grip and starts to smile. "Thank you, Mr Comolli," he says before returning to muttering to himself and rocking back and forth.

09:31 Go through your emails in the comfort of your office. Glance occasionally at the photo of Gaël Clichy on your desk. The player you discovered. Your player. Would Wenger have the Invincibles without him? No way. Damien Comolli, man of the people, honourary Scouser, saviour of Arsenal. Return to your inbox. Come to an email from It's Harry Redknapp. That gormless rosbif. It's about 'Joey' Cole. He wants to buy him! No time to ring Kenny or Henry. Tell Harry that you're more than happy to do business with him. Lying like this is hard but you'd talk to anyone who's willing to take Cole off your hands. Even Levy.

11:53 You're still in the office. You haven't told Kenny or Henry about Cole. Turn on Sky Sports News. Redknapp's holding a presser. The Cockney git denies any interest in 'Joey' Cole. The liar. You're sure that this is Levy's work. Miserly sod probably told Redknapp he wouldn't pay the money. Good job you didn't tell Kenny or John. But still you're stuck with Cole. Not to mention Poulsen. And Jovanović, Degen and Ngog. Even Nabil bloody El Zhar is still on the books. No use spending Henry's millions on new players if you can't shift the old ones. Incoming call. It's the very man you need to speak to. John W Henry.

14:17 Henry keeps you on the phone for two hours. You get nowhere with him. All he wants to talk about is Ngog. He hangs up to read the latest post on The Swiss Ramble. You don't even get the chance to ask him about Benzema. At least he's better than Levy. Levy would probably take the money from the sale of Torres for himself. Yes, Henry's been quite kind to you. Ashley Young, Phil Jones, David De Gea? How about Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Doni? David Gill must be green with envy. It's been your best transfer window since you bought Javier Saviola for Monaco on Championship Manager 2000. Damien Comolli, man of the people, honourary Scouser, saviour of Arsenal, transfer master.

16:03 Manage to get Kenny on the phone. You are his peer now. You don't even call him King any more. You just wish that he'd stop calling you Damo. Tell him about Benzema. He sounds enthusiastic. He says he's been looking to add another skinhead to the squad. Meireles, Cole, Spearing, Adam, Shelvey and Škrtel are not enough for him. Tell him you're worried that Henry might not fork out the cash if he thinks Benzema will take Ngog's place. Kenny mutters something about sending Kyrgiakos to pay Henry a visit. He hangs up without thanking you for Downing or Doni. Maybe you should have called him King.

17:16 Read Modrić's transfer request and enjoy the glorious schadenfreude. You know Levy laughed at you when Torres left. This is your revenge. You can scarcely remember laughing harder. As you leave Melwood, you find Jovanović rocking in the exact same spot he was in the morning. Exchange a smile with him. Everything is groovy when Daniel Levy's miserable.

19:59  Celebrate Levy's misery and your transfer genius with a glass of Sauvignon blanc. Before you know it, you're on your fifth glass. Emboldened by your transfer success (and the wine), you give your old friend Gaël Clichy a call. You don't see how he can resist your persuasive charm. But he doesn't sound happy to hear from you. He says something about Manchester City before telling you to leave him alone. The padawan has renounced his master. You're devastated. Go up to the attic and dig out your photo album of your time at Arsenal. Tear apart every photo with his face in it. Damien Comolli, Arsenal's saviour, but nobody appreciates it. Not even the player you discovered, the man you took a gamble on. All you can hear is the laughter of Daniel Levy.

23:11 Go to bed early. A rough night's sleep awaits. When you finally drift off, Harry Redknapp's goading face leers at you in your dreams. Redknapp's face suddenly morphs into Gaël Clichy's. Clichy spits that you're nothing to him. Finally, Clichy's harsh words become the cackles of Daniel Levy. Wake up in a cold sweat.

Damien Comolli, man of the people, honourary Scouser, Arsenal's saviour, transfer master. Tortured soul.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller - review

Fifty years after its initial publication, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 remains one of the great satirical books of all time.

To read the rest of this review, visit Paragraph Lost over here.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Chile: The great entertainers, even after Bielsa

With South America’s big three of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay so far failing to live up to expectations in this year’s Copa América, it is Chile that have taken up the mantle as the tournament’s most entertaining side.

The rest of this article can be found on Back Page Football over here.

Monday 4 July 2011

A Day in the Life of Cesc Fábregas

The following nonsense is made up. I don't even know if Cesc likes Jeremy Kyle.

 09:51 Wake up. Pre-season training hasn't started yet so stay in bed watching Jeremy Kyle. Check phone. Two unread text messages. Both are from Arsène. The first one was sent at three in the morning, possibly under the influence of a few glasses of red wine. 'Cesc u r making a mistake', it reads. 'We were ment 2 b. We will b gr8 together. U and me, heroes of arsenal. Plz dont goooo :( '. Sigh in exasperation and open up the second text. This one is more succinct. 'Ignore last night's text. Please call me soon - Arsène.' Get up and make breakfast.

10:24 Watch DVD of Barcelona beating Manchester United at Wembley. Imagine that it is you that sets up Pedro to score the opening goal. Celebrate each of Barcelona's goals by sliding along the floor on your knees, just like you do every morning. Go up to the attic and fetch your Barcelona jersey. Hug it tightly and mutter 'soon, soon' surreptitiously.

12:34 Phone rings. Think it's Arsène so leave it go unanswered. Begin throwing darts at Brian Horton dartboard in your kitchen. Phone rings again. Answer it this time. It's a hack. Ask how he got your number but he ignores you. Hang up. Hack rings again. Tell hack that you love Arsenal but who knows what the future holds. Change phone number. Again. Begin to cook lunch (pizza) and return to dartboard.

14:11 Doorbell rings. It's Arsène. He asks if you got his text messages. Tell him you lost your phone. He smiles and invites himself in. Sit down on the couch and listen to Arsène talk about His Plan. Avoid eye contact. Stare at ground and tell Arsène that your mind is made up and there is nothing he can do about it. He starts to get angry and begins talking about League Cup runner-up medals. Ask him to leave. He slams the door while shouting, 'I don't need you, Denilson and Diaby are the best midfielders in the world.' You know he is lying. It still hurts.

16:01 Turn on Sky Sports News. The quote you fed the hack earlier is scrolled across the yellow ticker. Notice that quote has been altered to say that '[you] loved Arsenal but Barcelona is what the future holds.' Watch fans burn your Arsenal shirt outside the Emirates. Ring agent and ask him to clarify what you really said in the press. Read news of Thiago extending his contract with Barcelona and begin to panic. Text Gerard and tell him how much you miss him. Wait sixteen minutes and forty three seconds before you get a reply. Gerard says that he misses you too and that he and Carles are doing everything they can to bring you home. Smile.

18:35 Win the Champions League with Barcelona on Fifa 11. Score two goals as captain in the final. Finish the season as topscorer. Sell Thiago.

19:57 Doorbell rings. It's Wilshere. Don't answer. He climbs in through an open window. He starts to tell you off for making Arsène sad. He asks if you're really leaving for Barcelona. Tell him that you are. Enjoy the confused look on his face. 'But Barcelona's not even in England', he says. Usher him out when he starts singing God Save the Queen. Return to Fifa 11. Drop Messi and play yourself up front. Score a hattrick in a 3-0 victory against Real Madrid.

23:21 Go to bed. There is nothing on telly and you have no one to go out with. Sleep with picture of the time Pepe put a Barcelona shirt on you under your arm. Dream of the Champions League final. Again.

02:42 Woken up by a text. It's Arsène. 'Plz Cesc, i can change. Dont leave. Plz dont leave.'

Change phone number.

If you liked this, you can follow me on Twitter @BallBetweenTwo.

Monday 27 June 2011


It's not easy liking football. It's not something that we can easily justify either; football is, when everything is taken into consideration, an ultimately inconsequential pursuit. Yes, we can turn a blind eye to football's futility and embrace it as a valuable outlet of escape from the 'real world', as if our lives are divided into what exists and what does not. But the myriad evils of football make it harder still to justify taking an interest, even if it is treated as a means of withdrawal from everyday life and all its problems; why subject ourselves to the misery of our teams' failures, the vitriol of opposition fans, the alleged corruption of football's ruling body? It appears, therefore, that not only is football an ultimately pointless pursuit, it is a masochistic one. If this is the case, then it is unquestionably the most popular form of masochism in the world. Football, as you may have noticed, is enjoyed by quite a number of people.

Almost all of these people fell in love, if such a romantic notion can be applied to this cruel game, with football in their childhood. This love is usually instilled by the preceding generation, though many pick it up even without any parental prompting. Only in the naive, innocent years of childhood does the culture of football appeal; you don't hear of people in their twenties suddenly embracing the sport after a lifetime of indifference. Those blessed with apathy to football can never appreciate the agonising life they have been spared. While we wallow in the depraved glory of the clubs we support, they bask in glorious ignorance. Imagine a life not dictated by some perverse desire to keep 'up-to-date' with the latest football news. That means no more hours dedicated to reading yet another piece on why England don't beat good football teams, no more hours spent checking your Twitter feed to see what transfers are brewing, and no more hours parked in front of a television watching football matches (yes, actually watching a game!). Think of the things you could have accomplished with all that lost time. You could have learned another language, you could have read hundreds of books, you could have mastered an instrument. But instead, we chose football and all of its accompanying ills.

It is the lull of a June without an international tournament* that provokes this post. Firstly because there is precious little else to write about due to the dearth of games. (Regardless of my numerous gripes, I can't help but love watching football matches.) But I write this post primarily because of the transfer season.

Of all the sheer rubbish rammed down our throats by the football media that we feel compelled to swallow, paralysed for fear of not being "in the know", transfer rumours must surely sit atop the pile of malignant banality. Fuelled by football agents and football journalists with agendas to further, they are presented to us, the gullible, needy fans, as tantalising morsels of vital information that we cannot do without. The reality, of course, is starkly different; everyone knows that a great deal of these rumours are entirely fabricated, or at least painted with a coat of spuriousness. Yet these rumours thrive; they are an inescapable part of a football fan's life, no matter how we try to ignore them. Media outlets dedicate hundreds of words to stories based on little more than unverified quotes, purported sightings of players at club grounds or incredible (in its most literal sense) claims by agents.

Dawn, I'm fed up. I don't want to be part of a footballing culture of hearsay and corruption any more. Still I know I'm not ready to sever ties with football for ever. How could I turn my back on the game of Puskás, of Cruyff, of Laudrup? Football has us by the scruff of the neck and there's nothing we can do about it. I have no choice but to cast aside my complaints and submit to football, the omnipotent force for good and evil. It will always maintain a stranglehold on my life, no matter what grieveances I have. Acquiscence is the easiest way out. Liking football isn't easy, but I can't imagine life without it.

*The Copa América doesn't start until July. And yes, I'm ignoring this.

Monday 20 June 2011

Emile Heskey, an ode to - An acrostic

Musings on his greatness
Invite only scorn.
Leader of all men,
Even you.

He of skill
Eternally unmatched, though
Some try.
King of men,
Emperor of all mere mortals.
Your leader.


It's the silly season. I was bored. I'm sorry.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Brick by Brick - Waterford's full-back problem

The full-back problem has dogged Waterford hurling for years. Declan Prendergast, Kevin Moran, and now Wayne Hutchinson are just some of the players who have filled the berth to no great success in recent times. It seems that the elusive All-Ireland title will always be beyond our grasp until a solution is found. Kevin Downes' second-half demolition of Hutchinson and then Darragh Fives served only to highlight how far we have yet to go if we are to add to those fabled successes of '48 and '59.

It is no coincidence that today's two hurling giants boast a plethora of quality full-backs. When Kilkenny were shorn of the peerless Noel Hickey due to a serious knee injury in 2009, JJ Delaney was there to take his spot. Current All-Ireland champions Tipperary know that should Paul Curran ever stutter, Pádraic Maher is available to step in. This is a luxury that Waterford can only dream of, as a conveyor belt of full-backs are tested and rejected. Declan Prendergast is perhaps the only player to hold the spot for a prolonged period in the last few years, but his reputation as a full-back was almost irreparably damaged after the All-Ireland semi-final of 2007.

Is consistency the solution? Perhaps if Hutchinson, or even Liam Lawlor, were given an extended run in the side, then we would reap the benefits of their experiences. Unfortunately, knockout format as it is, the Championship is no place to be bedding in players. It is the League, therefore, that presents the best platform for experimenting and developing. But it takes no genius to see the gulf in quality between League hurling and its summertime counterpart. It would appear, though admittedly on the basis of only one game, that Hutchinson's apprenticeship in the League was futile. When Championship day came around, he was comprehensively trumped by Downes. A consistent run in the side does not guarantee good performances by any means.

This is not to say that Hutchinson should be discarded as an afterthought. Clearly he has potential, and given the appropriate application and nurturing, he will have an important part to play in Waterford hurling in the years to come. However, an alternative must be found to secure short-term gain, without sacrificing long-term progress. This much was evidently on Davy Fitzgerald's mind when Michael Walsh was tasked with marking Downes after he had outclassed both Hutchinson and Fives.

Brick is undoubtedly among the finest centre-backs of his generation. His sheer strength is almost unmatched in the game. Truly he is the archetypal centre-back, the dominating figure on which the rest of the team hinges. Yet all signs point to him being deployed as a full-back in the Munster final. Should he line up at number 3, Fitzgerald runs the risk of losing one of the team's most important assets. However, such is Brick's talent and reliability, Fitzgerald can rest easier knowing that Tipperary's (assuming they beat Clare) full-forward line will be quiter than usual.

While I would gently advocate the use of Brick at full-back in the immediate future, Fitzgerald must work on finding a permanent solution as soon as possible. Brick won an All Star at centre-back for a reason, and playing him elsewhere for any more than a couple of matches would be foolish in the extreme. So while Hutchinson lacks that little (but crucial) bit of experience and is perhaps short of confidence, playing Michael Walsh at full-back seems the most viable option. The looming threat of the McGrath-Corbett-Kelly axis would not seem nearly as insurmountable with Brick at full-back (not to mention the highly impressive Noel Connors in the corner).

There are, of course, plenty of causes for optimism. John Mullane showed last Sunday that he is still at the top of his game and the performances of  David and Brian O'Sullivan, and Pádraig Mahony in particular, were encouraging to say the least. Once the issue at number 3 is resolved, there is enough quality throughout the rest of the squad to mount yet another All-Ireland challenge. It may be just beyond our grasp just now, but Liam
may be draped in blue and white yet.

Tuesday 7 June 2011


In tribute to this week's Junior and Leaving Cert exams, here's a "satirical" template for every Irish essay, or aiste, you will ever need to write. Don't forget to thank me when you all get As.

* * *

Is maith is cuimhin liom. Lá amháin bhí mé ag siopadóireacht sa bhaile mór. Bhí sé ag stealladh báistí agus bhí mé fliuch go craiceann. Cheannaigh mé milseáin agus geansaí buí. Bhí áthas an domhain orm. Chonaic mé mo chara, Seán. Is duine an-cáirdiúil é Seán. Tar éis tamaill, bhuail mé le mo chara eile, Liam. Chuamar go dtí an siopa spóirt. Cheannaigh Liam t-léine go deas. Is maith leis a t-léine nua.

Go tobann, bhuail leoraí Seán. Bhí brón an domhain air. Bhí sé ag cur fola. Thosaigh Liam ag caoineadh mar bhí eagla air. Dúirt Seán go raibh a chos briste. Fuair mé mo fhón póca ach go tobann ghoid robálaí é. Rith mé i dtreo na robálaí ach thit mé ar an úrlár. Nuair a sheas mé suas, bhí daoine i ngach áit. Bhí Liam caillte agus fuair Seán bás. Sciorr leoraí eile agus mharaigh sé Seán. Bhí uaigneas an domhain orm.

Go tobann chonaic mé Liam. Bhí áthas orm. D'inis mé Liam faoi Seán. Thosaigh sé ag caoineadh arís. Bhí a chroí briste. Bhí an ghriain ag taitneamh anois. Chuaigh mé agus Liam go dtí an trá. D'itheamar uachtar reoite. Is maith liom uachtar reoite. Tar éis tamaill, thosaigh mé ag snámh san fharraige. Nuair a tháining Liam isteach, fuair sé bás chomh maith. Bhí brón an domhain orm. Chuaigh mé abhaile.

Ar mo bhealach abhaile, cheannaigh mé seacláid sa siopa. Bhí áthas an domhain orm. Go tobann, bhí pian i mo bholg. Bhí tinn orm. Chuaigh mé go dtí mo leaba agus thit mé ina chodladh. Ní dhéanfaidh mé dearmad ar an lá sin go deo.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Football is bigger than Fifa

The events of recent days won't exactly shock anyone with any knowledge of how football's governing body Fifa operates. For years Fifa's inadequacies have been an elephant in the room, wilfully ignored by FAs throughout the world for fear of rocking the boat. Each had their own agenda to further (notably the English FA with their bid for the 2018 World Cup) and giving Fifa cause for concern simply wouldn't do. Ultimately, matters escalated in November when Russia and particularly Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in rather controversial fashion.

Supporters cried foul. The drum investigative journalists such as Andrew Jennings had been banging was finally heeded by the mainstream press and by hitherto indifferent fans. Public consensus held that profound change within the organisation was needed and senior officials finally stopped pandering towards the bureaucrats at Fifa. This has resulted in the admirable decision of FA chairman David Bernstein to take a stand this afternoon against the faux-election being held for Fifa presidency. Isolated though the FA may be among the 208 Fifa members (with some exceptions), he has won the respect of the fans who appreciate the need for change at the very top. He risked ostracisation and censure to stand up for what is right and to oppose the dictatorial governance of Sepp Blatter's organisation.

Early indications suggest his efforts will prove to be fruitless but undeniable progress has been made in these past few days. Fifa has been rocked to its core, even if it does still stand defiant, resisting the will of the very people it claims to serve: the football fans. Take away Fifa and football will still thrive; take away the fans and football is dead. And if football is dead, Fifa dies with it. If pressure presists, and the noble crusades of groups such as @FIFA_Boycott and @changeFIFA continue, Fifa must eventually bow to fan pressure.

We can't be certain of how long change will take  but the rising tide of public opinion is growing exponentially. Soon it will be too significant to ignore. Blatter will be ousted and change will happen as long as we fans keep fighting. This is not as much a call-to-arms as a reassurance, for it is simply inconceivable that football's international body can continue to ignore the demands of the supporters who feed their organisation without meeting their downfall. Football will always be bigger than Fifa, and as soon as Blatter and his reprehensible cronies (just look at vice-president Julio Grondona's comments regarding Jewish referees) realise this, football will be free of their poisonous influence.

Do not take Blatter's election as defeat. Revolution is only in its embryonic stages and we, as fans, owe it to the game we love to see it through to the bitter end. The FAs that sided with Blatter today seek only to protect their own selfish interests and are equally deserving of our ire. It's time that they learned that football is not about greed, power or money. Any efforts to get in the way of the will of the fans will be futile. Football will win.

                 "Come senators, congressmen
                 Please heed the call.
                 Don't stand in the doorway,

                 Don't block up the hall
                 For he who gets hurt
                 will be he who has stalled.
                 There's a battle outside raging.
                 It'll soon shake your windows
                 And rattle your walls
                For the times, they are a-changin'."