Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Who Shot PD’s Trousers?

Tuesday 8th June.
A date that sent shockwaves around the world. Most people remember vividly exactly what they were doing when they heard the news that Pat Dolan’s trouser leg had been splashed. For those of us present on that traumatic occasion, counselling is only making slow inroads into our personal nightmare.
In case you have been living on Mars all summer, playing with your new-found Beagle, the shocking event happened as the teams and players were trudging off the pitch at Tolka. Shelbourne fans were regaling Pat Dolan as he made his way to the tunnel. “Ah, you’re a daycent old skin, Pat!” was one oft-repeated comment. “You’re looking very dapper, Pat,” was another. The shy, retiring Cork City manager was blushingly accepting all the generous tributes, when it happened!
Out of the darkening Tolka sky, a water balloon was launched. As spectators and players looked on in horror, its murderous trajectory caused it to come to earth just inches from the great man’s shoe, sending a spray of deadly water onto his grey flannel trousers. Women shrieked, grown men fainted, Ollie got an uncontrollable fit of giggling, which he later ascribed to shock.
For many, it seemed that the next few seconds happened in slow motion. A deeply traumatised Dolan wheeled around, water flowing copiously from his turn-ups. Gunther, his faithfully assistant, started screaming uncontrollably and tried to crawl away from the scene in panic. The Cork City kitman, who had also been splashed in the same incident, fell stricken to the turf.
The security forces were quickly on the scene. Many formed a human shield in front of Dolan, in case of a second attack. Stewards ran up the New Stand, where they quickly apprehended a suspect, with telltale evidence of water on his hands. As news of the catastrophe was relayed around the globe, the Gardai announced they had arrested Lee H. O’Swald, a ten-year-old misogynist, who had reputedly spent time in Waaaaaterford.
Scheduled programmes were interrupted around the world, as tearful newscasters relayed the shocking event to disbelieving viewers. A vigil was set up at the Mater Hospital, to where Dolan’s trousers had been rushed. At 12.20 am on the morning of Wednesday 9th June, the Master of the Hospital, Dr. Takin da Micki, announced that the trousers had been declared irreparable.
Dawn broke to a much changed world. The outpourings of grief from the global community were little comfort to the people of Cork, who had taken Dolan’s trousers to their hearts. Most people stayed off work and tuned in to Sky News, eager for any further insights into the tragedy.
Meanwhile in the Bridewell, Lee H. O’Swald was being brought from his cell to the courtroom, when a local wide boy, Seamus Ruby, stepped through a doorway and threw a paper cup of water all over him. He stood no chance. His t-shirt was drowned.
But it was this latest twist in this saga that caused people to question whether O’Swald really had been the protagonist in the attack on Dolan’s trousers.
Unfortunately, film footage of the incident is rare and inconclusive. A TV3 film seized by Gardai purports a shadowy figure to have been seen lurking in the grassy knoll in the penalty area at the Drumcondra end of the ground, though Gardai fatuously claim that this “shadowy figure” was in fact, Dolan’s shadow. Eyewitnesses claim that a second water balloon was launched from the Riverside stand, which heightened the conspiracy theory.
The rumour-mill began to grow. It was the Mafia, the Cubans, the Order of Malta, the Waterford Baptist Community, disgruntled St. Pats fans. A Public Commission was immediately set up and quickly came to the conclusion that O’Swald had been acting alone. For many people, this was too pat, too convenient.
Seamus Ruby claimed his attack on O’Swald was carried out for personal vengeance, yet it was soon discovered that he had links to various organisations. He had been photographed entering the premises of Champion Sports on Henry Street. He had worked for a brief period in the nineties for the mysterious firm, HMV. He made regular trips from his home in Artane to a house purporting to be the Cat and Cage in Drumcondra.
Almost 26 million people lined the streets of Dublin as the trousers made their sad way to Glasnevin Cemetery. Millions more watching television around the world were struck by the poignancy of Dolan’s underpants saluting as the cortege filed slowly past.
Bono’s epic and totally unpretentious ballad “Wide [In the Name of Jaysus]” echoes the sentiments of many of us:

“Tuesday evening, eighth of June,
Balloon flies out in the Tolka sky.
Relax, they got your pants,
They did not get your tie.”

The truth will probably never be known. Oliver Stone is reputed to be bidding for the film rights, and rumour has it that he has already lined up Dennis Hopper, Brendan Gleeson and Elliott Gould to play the part of Pat Dolan, while Gabriel Byrne has auditioned to play the trousers.

To Hell or the Connaught Street End

The other day, I had a near-death experience. My third wife, whom I had idly noticed had been coming home with her hair matted with semen, accidentally spilled some rat-poison into a homemade soufflé without noticing. As I fell to the ground in agony, my life flashed before my eyes, particularly that episode with the sheep. I felt myself floating upwards, and looked down to see my grieving wife searching frantically for my life insurance policy. Then I was travelling down a long tunnel, like the Jack Lynch Tunnel without the stationery traffic. I emerged into a blinding light which, as my eyes focussed, I recognised as a giant floodlight, shining majestically down onto a giant football pitch.

Great, I thought. Football in heaven. I nudged the angel next to me. “Who’s playing?” I asked.

“Catholics against Hell,” replied the other. “Cup Final. Christians beat the Mormons in the semis. The Mormons refused to allow the trainer on the pitch. Hell pissed on the Baptists. Literally.”

I settled down among the 500,000 crowd to watch. Pontius Pilate seemed to be dominating the midfield for Hell, and Hermann Goering was playing a blinder on the wing. Still Jesus in the Catholics’ goal seemed to be saving everything. Then I rubbed my eyes in amazement.

“That can’t be….” I said. “Pat Dolan the referee?”

“Logical choice for a game between the Christians and Hell,” replied my neighbour. “Can’t differentiate between good and evil, you see.” Then, seeing my quizzical expression, he added, “Undead. Didn’t you know?”

No, I hadn’t known, but it explained a lot. However, my idle musings were interrupted by the roar of the crowd. Hannibal Lector had just skinned the hapless St. Stephen and put over the perfect cross. Hitler’s header was well directed, but Jesus tipped it over the bar.

“St. Stephen not having a good game?” I ventured.

“Probably still stoned,” replied the angel, and went into paroxysms of laughter.

The game continued. Baron von Richthofen was winning everything in the air at the back, which was a blessing for Dracula, in the Hell goal, who seemed to shy away from long, high balls coming in from the wing. However, he was quite surprised when the obvious joke failed to materialise.

Satan, the Hell manager, was pacing his dugout. It was clear he was thinking of pulling off Attila the Hun, judging by the way Attila was backing away from him nervously. However, he was pre-empted by Genghis Khan who suddenly decapitated Mother Theresa with a scimitar. Even Pat Dolan had no alternative but to send him off. Genghis made the long, slow walk to the dressing room, giving the fingers to the Catholic crowd on the way.

Joan of Arc was on fire for the Catholics in midfield. The dismissal seemed to give her new heart and she gave Cardinal Richelieu a proper roasting. Lazarus had also seemed to have got a new lease of life up front and he led Salome a merry dance.

And then it happened! Brother Ignatius, a Trappist monk, who had been remarkably quiet throughout the game, slipped Oliver Cromwell and passed it inside to Vincent de Paul. Vincent de Paul fed St. Barnaby the Bloody Starving, who punted a long hopeful ball upfield. As Dracula came rushing out to collect, Padre Pio challenged him for the high ball. Somehow the ball sailed over Dracula’s head and bounced into the empty net.

Half of the crowd went wild with delight. Strangely enough, it was the bottom half, while their top halves remained perfectly motionless. But down on the pitch, the Hell players were contorted with fury. They surrounded Pat Dolan, [well, a quarter of him anyway] and gesticulated furiously. Padre Pio, wearing an air of injured innocence, was pointing at his stigmata and claiming it was the “Hand of God”. Satan came storming onto the pitch and had to be restrained by the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Dolan pointed at the centre-circle maintaining he had seen nothing wrong. Fu Manchu retorted that, as he’d had his face in a lemon meringue pie at the time, of course he hadn’t seen anything. Dolan gave him the yellow. Idi Amin challenged Dolan to a wrestling match. Dolan abandoned the game. God was furious and sent down a plague of locusts onto the pitch. The crowd started to move out.

“What happens now?” I asked my newfound friend.

“Replay next week at Hell’s ground,” he replied.

“You mean…”

“Yeah, Richer. God, I hate that kip.”

All around me, angels and devils were filing out, still arguing over the match. Suddenly, I felt myself being hauled back by a member of Frontline.

“Ticket!” he bellowed in a thick Longford accent.

“Ticket? Umm...”

“No ticket? Okay, son. Out you go!”

“But I’m going out anyway. Are you brain-dead, or something?”

Unfortunately I seemed to have hit something of a raw nerve here for he gave me a dig in the head and a boot up the backside. The next thing I knew, I was sailing back down the paradisiacal equivalent of the Jack Lynch Tunnel before I landed in a crumpled heap on our dining-room carpet.

I groaned and lifted my head. Above me, my darling wife was biting her lip in sheer frustration.

“Hello, darling,” I said. “I’m back! And guess what? I have some good news and some bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” she asked, mournfully.

“The good news is that they have football in heaven. Isn’t that great?”

She looked unconvinced about the need for celebration, which was hardly surprising. “And the bad news?”

I hesitated. This was the person who had clapped with delight when Chukunyere scored the last minute winner against Shels in the Champions League. The person who had hung Paul Osam’s photo over our bed. The person who had said that Bohs deserved to win the League.

“The bad news is that Genghis Khan’s suspended for next week,” I said, rising slowly to my feet.

“Why’s that bad news?” she asked tremulously, uncomprehending.

“Simple, darling,” I smiled, reaching for the candlestick on the dining table. “You’re taking his place.”

Tide of Woe Dammed by Beavers

At the end of a week where Shels cup of woe threatened to overflow, the Super Reds logged another win against Bray at the Carlisle Grounds last night.
In the first half, Shelbourne had a steady stream of chances, and were amply rewarded when, after a flowing move down the right, Stephen Geoghegan set up the indefatigable Stewie Byrne to lash home a shot that would have made Riverlinho proud.
However, the floodgates failed to open, as Bray bravely stemmed wave after wave of the red tide. The equaliser, when it came, found Steve Williams all at sea trying to cope with a long deep cross, and in the ensuing melee the ball was stabbed home.
The ever-impressive Mark Roberts continued to drown out memories of his inauspicious start at the club, but it was late substitute Paul Beavers who finally sunk Bray with six minutes to go, his header leaving the Bray goalkeeper high and dry.
Shels have now quietly floated up to second in the league.

The Tin Man Getting Rusty??

Home Farm, St. Patrick’s Athletics, Dundalk, Glentoran, U.C.D., Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers, Longford Town, Dundalk, Finn Harps, Athlone Town, Home Farm, Shelbourne and Kildare County – what do all of these clubs have in common? All of them have, at one stage or another in the last thirty years, employed the services of one Dermot Keely as a player or a manager, or in three instances –U.C.D., Shamrock Rovers and Sligo – as player-manager. It begs the question, what has he got against Bohs?

Quite probably the most successful individual ever to have graced [graced??] the League of Ireland, Keely’s medal haul is impressive. As a player, he won five league medals, four F.A.I. Cup medals, one League Cup medal and three Cup medals north of the border. As a manager, he has won the league four times, the FAI Cup twice, the League Cup and the First Division Shield, as well as gaining promotion with both Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps. Suffice to say that silver polish must form a sizeable part of the Keely household budget.

Faced with such impeccable credentials, it seems typical Irish begrudgery to question or criticize the man. His record speaks for itself and the directors of new boys Kildare County feel that, in Keely, they have the ideal manager to lead them through their formative years. But have they? The signs are there that the iron man of the Eircom League is showing distinct signs of metal fatigue. Questions are being raised about his man-management skills, and also about his ability to commit himself to a club for more than a few seasons.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast on this one. I’m a Shels supporter and recently experienced, from the terraces, four seasons of Keely the manager. Two championships and a Cup win in four seasons would be the envy of most clubs, and for the first three seasons, Dermo was God. It was only last season that the man, who once described the league as a bit of tin, was himself somewhat tarnished.

I suppose it was the three-nil defeat to Rovers that really set it off. A lamentable refereeing display caused Dermo to make his infamous “corruption” allegations against the league. For someone who insists on strict discipline in his teams, it was a strangely indisciplined outburst from a manager who should know better. Most Eircom League fans view the standard of refereeing as incompetent: to imply corruption was going somewhat OTT.

Far be it for me to imply that Keely’s subsequent “breakdown” had anything to do with the almost inevitable charges of bringing the game into disrepute. I am not privy to the inner circle at Shels and so cannot comment on that. What was clear, though, was that the stress was getting to him. Big time. We were all used to Keely shouting obscenities at his own players during a match, but at times it was bordering on the personal. If I was a player and he started screaming at me that I was “f_______ sh___”, because a pass of mine had gone astray, I don’t think I’d have taken it. Different players have different needs. Some need a kick up the arse, some need encouragement. It seemed as though the schoolmaster in Keely only recognised the former. The stress of keeping a big club on top of the league was clearly playing on him, and it was decided, rightly, that he should take a sabbatical.

Noel King and Alan Matthews took over in Keely’s absence and Shels went on an unbeaten run that stretched into the New Year. The joke at Tolka was not who would win the player of the year, but who would be the manager of the year. Dermot started coming to the games again, content with sitting in the stand. The talk was how we would accommodate all three managers once Dermot was ready to take over again. Should we disturb a winning team and let Dermot take over? Should Dermo be offered something akin to director of football? Whatever was going to happen, it was clear that it would have to be done with a large amount of tact and diplomacy.

What actually happened was that Dermot got annoyed during a game and took over there and then. Afterwards, he told the press that Alan and Noel had done a good job, but he couldn’t sit back and watch Wes running around like a headless chicken. Not the greatest display of man-management the League had ever seen. King disappeared from Tolka and Alan Matthews left at the end of the season. Two of the men most responsible for Shels second championship in three years were publicly humiliated by Keely.

Despite Dermot’s alleged rehabilitation and new-found enthusiasm, it was clear to all that he was still suffering from stress. That the Pat’s registration issue was taking its toll was obvious. Shels form wobbled alarmingly and it was only Pats being deducted 15 points that gave Shels the title. Comparisons were made between Pats and Keely’s expensively assembled team, to the detriment of the latter. Pat Dolan frequently asserted that they were the best team in the league. Comparisons were also made between the King / Matthews team and the Keely team, again not favourably to the manager in situ.

But Shels stumbled their way to the league championship. The league won, we had to fulfill our final fixture in Dalymount. It was the final game of a highly stressful season with nothing at stake. The sun shone. A “Six” reject entertained us at half time. Bohs won 4-0. The view of most Shels fans [most eL fans, I dare to venture] was that thank God the season was over.

Not so Dermo. Dermo spent the game having a go at his own players. At one stage, I thought Peter Hutton was going to come over and hit him. They had a running battle throughout the match.

After the game, Keely resigned. He cited the inept and lacklustre display by the team as one of the reasons, saying that Shels fans were entitled to better. Most of the fans, though stung by the heaviness of the defeat, recognised it for what it was – a lacklustre display in the final game of a season best forgotten. For a man who had been shown so much understanding by the Shels board, it was incredible the complete lack of understanding he showed towards his players. Every team has off-days –if a manager resigned every time he felt his team didn’t put in 100% effort, each team would have four managers a season. And this was not even in a match of any importance!! It was decidedly odd, to say the least.

Of course, this was not the first time that Keely had done this. He’d resigned from Sligo Rovers in the early nineties after a bad defeat to Athlone Town. When reinstated, he gave free transfers to three players, including Dennis Bonner.

In fact, Dermo seems to make a habit of resigning on a “matter of principle” – ask anyone up in Ballybofey about his resignation, when a consortium failed to take over the club. Other managers get the sack – Keely resigns.

His resignation was announced on April Fools Day, but it was Shels who were the fools. From having had three top-class managers in the space of a season, we now had none.

The second reason he gave was his total disenchantment with the league. “It’s the worst administered league, probably in the world,” he said. “I feel very low and its been coming for ages. Watching this drama unfold in the papers doesn’t make you proud to be part of the league.”

Yet, despite this explanation, he announced 22 days later that he was interested in taking over from Rico at Rovers. But what about his disenchantment with the league? I’m bored, he replied. During his three week absence –during which time he’d been on holiday, and much shorter than a normal close season – he had missed the league so much that he couldn’t wait to come back!!!

Six days later, after failing to land the Rovers’ job, he was unveiled as the manager of the newly formed Kildare County. “The novelty attracted me here,” he explained. Ah, yes, Dermot. But what’s going to happen when the novelty wears off?

It is his ninth managerial appointment in the last fifteen years. On average therefore, his management tenure has been less than two years at each of his clubs. [I am not counting his eight games in charge of UCD in 1983] This does not augur well for Kildare County, who need a period of stability to gain a foothold in the First Division. Their cause is difficult enough, without having management upheavals. Keely’s management record suggests that he lacks the character to stay at a club for any period of time. His man-management style is disciplinarian and is not geared to team spirit. Tactically, he has few peers at management level, but he lacks the willingness to give his players the freedom to express themselves, both on and off the field, and underestimates the importance of team spirit. He also appears to have the attitude that if success isn’t instantaneous, then he’s not going to be there for the long slog. Or maybe it’s a pressure thing – a new manager at a club is given a period of acclimatisation. Pressure to achieve is directly related to time spent. Keely’s inability to handle pressure may explain his lack of longevity at the helm of any club.

Recently, after Kildare lost 2-0 to Finn Harps in the first leg of the First Division Mickey Mouse Shield, Keely came on Newstalk 106 to publicly lambast his players for their lack of effort. During this tirade, he made the observation that he wasn’t going to stick around if that was the level of performance he was going to get out of his players. Sound familiar? [History attests to the veracity of that remark, as he doesn’t seem to stick around anywhere for very long.] That aside, the policy of giving his players a public bollocking would not, I suggest, galvanise those players into walking through walls for him. Jim McLoughlin never criticized his players in public, nor does Pat Dolan, nor Mick McCarthy nor any top-class manager. Its generally regarded as a no-no. Dermo does it regularly. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t believe it’s a planned strategy, but something that spills out in the emotion of the occasion. But a manager of his experience should possess the ability to bite his lip. Players don’t generally like being bollocked at the best of times, but they would prefer it to happen in the dressing room or on the training ground, rather than in the media. If you don’t show loyalty to your players, you cannot expect to receive any back.

That particular outburst was so reminiscent of his diatribe after the Bohs – Shels game, that one sympathises with the followers of Kildare County. Players not putting in the effort in a game that had very little meaning. The writing seems to be on the wall already in Kildare, and they’d be well advised to keep an eye out for a replacement, particularly if the Thoroughbreds come up against an incompetent referee, or the level of performance isn’t quite what’s desired.

Having said all that, Dermo could just as easily prove me wrong and in 2012, be celebrating his fourth league championship with Kildare. I don’t think so though. More than likely, he’ll have worked his way through every club in the league and be starting off all over again. Its time the Tin Man started showing his mettle.

The Smallest Crowd

Attendances, everyone keeps telling us, are up. Of course, this is impossible to prove or disprove, because, unique in the civilised world, we do not publish attendance figures, so we have no gauge to measure crowd increases on. Attendance figures usually come from a journalist hazarding a guess, or asking the person next to him. The difficulty in estimating the size of a crowd is well demonstrated on various clubs MBs after a big game, where the discrepancy between guesses can run into thousands.

However, word of mouth and the evidence of our eyes tell us that crowds are indeed on the increase, which is very encouraging, given the complete absence of marketing. [Incidentally, did you know that there are only eight leagues in Europe where the average attendance in the top division is over 10,000? Okay, we still have a long way to go to achieve this figure, but, unlike the Poles, Rumanians, Bulgars etc, we’re heading in the right direction.]

Given the absence of worthwhile statistics regarding crowd attendances, it is impossible to know which club holds the record for the highest attendance at a league match. In the modern era, anyway, I would suggest that some of Cork City’s crowds this season must come pretty close.

However, I would like to put forward my nomination for the most poorly attended league match in recent history. This is, of course, entirely subjective, and if anybody can better it, I’d be delighted to hear from him or her.

Naturally enough, the game involved Home Farm. Home Farm were famous in the eighties for only having one supporter. You’d arrive in Tolka Park – the Farm’s home ground in those days – to be confronted by this one blue-and-white bedecked fan. The butt of many a joke, he nevertheless has to be a strong contender for Supporter of the Century in my eyes. In those days, there was only one division, with no relegation, and Home Farm usually finished bottom, with UCD just above them. So to be a Home Farm supporter entailed a fair degree of masochism.

But this particular game was not played at Tolka, but at that cold-bed of Irish soccer, Harold’s Cross. Older fans will remember how impossible it was to generate any atmosphere at the Cross. No fans ever stood behind the goals, or on the far side of the pitch. Everybody congregated on the steps of the stand, with a fence and a greyhound track between them and the pitch. For those of us who were shortsighted, it was often impossible to make out the action on the far side of the pitch.

There were also large run-off areas behind the goal, and ne’er a ballboy in sight. So whenever a shot went wide, the goalie used to have walk a hundred yards to retrieve the ball. This would have been great if we were winning 1-0 with minutes to go, but unfortunately such scorelines were few and far between, and it was often our goalie, Freddie Davies, who would have to do a sprint to retrieve the ball, rather than a leisurely jog.

Advanced senility on my part means that unfortunately I cannot be 100% certain as to the year that this particular match took place. I know it was the final match of the season between Shels and Home Farm and it was probably 1983-1984, though it could have been the season previous. Hopefully some stato out there can put my mind at rest.

The season had officially finished the weekend before and Shels and Home Farm were merely fulfilling an outstanding [I use the word humorously] fixture. Shels had finished third from bottom, and Home Farm as usual had been the strongest team in the league. The result was not going to alter any positions.

In order to maximise the crowd potential, it had been decided to play the game at 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon, always a great time for pulling in the armchair supporter. I can’t think why more teams don’t go for that time slot these days. To make things more enticing, Ireland were playing a friendly international on the telly at the same time.

I arrived at the ground a good quarter of an hour early to avoid the mad rush. As I recall, there was nobody on the turnstile, and the gate was open, so I saved £2 immediately. I joined the massed throngs on the terraces and awaited the start of the match. People were streaming in all the time, and by kick-off, the numbers had swelled to nine.

As I recall, a couple of lads arrived during the match, but some more buggered off to the Greyhound to watch the international, so the size of the crowd remained pretty constant throughout. It’s not often in the top division of a country, that the players outnumber the crowd, but this was definitely one for the record books.

The game actually did have an interesting edge to it. Kieran McCabe, the Shels midfielder, was in line for the League’s Golden Boot award. Basically, whoever scored twenty goals in a season won a trophy and a packet of Tayto, or something. Kieran came into this game having scored seventeen goals, not bad for a midfielder in a struggling team.

The Shelbourne players were naturally aware of this and spent the game trying to set Kieran up. It reached farcical proportions when Paddy Joyce rounded the Home Farm keeper and held the ball up on the line waiting for Kieran to run up and tap it in [he didn’t, and the ball was cleared!]

Midway through the second half a ball was played out of Shels half and Kieran, running on to it was through on goal with the keeper to beat. The ref [I think it was Carpenter] promptly blew up for offside. When Kieran protested that he had run from his own half, Carpenter realised his error, put his head in his hands and apologised profusely! [This has to be some kind of first in itself.]

As it transpired, Shels won 3-1, but Kieran only scored the once, which was a huge disappointment to the enthralled masses on the terraces. I think he was just pipped for the Top Scorer award by a single goal – probably Alan Campbell or Brendan Bradley.

So I put it up to you – how low can you go? Which team is the proud holder of the record for the poorest attendance at a league match in this country? [Friendlies don’t count, by the way] Were there ever more on the bench than on the terraces? Did you ever sing, “I am the Limerick, the Limerick FC” or “I’ll Support you Evermore”? No prizes, just instant immortality to the winner.

The Magic of the Cup

Aaahh, the Cup. Don’t you just love it? That time of the year when the minnows pit their wits against the big fish, the saplings take on the mighty oaks, the Dairylea portions take on the, er, big cheeses. Having said that, it’s also not uncommon to see a dolphin challenging a tuna fish or a haddock squaring up to a ray. Strange days indeed, [most peculiar, mamma]
In addition to this mayhem, its also the time of the year when small football clubs are paired with larger football clubs. And when the smaller club wins, draws or loses 5-0, this is called “The Magic of the Cup.”
It all starts when the names are called out of a hat. Strictly speaking, of course, it’s not a hat at all, more of a large black bag. You’d certainly get some strange looks wearing one of those on your head, although they are currently the height of fashion in some fundamentalist Muslim countries.
Two minor celebrities then pull their balls alternately out of the hat/bag. To their consternation, each ball has a different number on it. Confused, the celebrity calls out the number on the ball.
A suspicious-looking character with a bald head then deciphers the code. Each number corresponds to a certain football club and he performs the translation instantaneously. Although, occasionally, mistakes do occur. I remember a few years ago Finn Harps travelling around the country for weeks trying to find “Number Fourteen” when the translator forgot the code.
Why, I hear you yell rather rudely, do the balls not contain the names of the football clubs themselves, rather than such a cunning code? There are two main reasons.
Security. During the war, German intelligence agents infiltrated the English FA Cup draw. Huddersfield Town, though somewhat bemused at being drawn away to Kaiserslautern, duly turned up for the tie and were promptly incarcerated for the duration. Since then, this coding system became widespread.
The other reason is that it is “The Magic of the Cup.”
Once the draw has been made, there then follows the ritual of the interview with the manager. Contrary to popular belief, managers don’t actually enunciate their true opinions on these occasions, but are obliged to trot out certain stock phrases which translate in football-speak to something completely different.
For example, “They deserve our respect” translates as “Well actually they’re shite but if I appear too confident and the unthinkable happens, then my arse is in the bacon-slicer”
“Our lads are going to go out there and enjoy themselves” really means, “We’re going to get hammered”
“We’ll let them know they’ve been in a match” becomes “They are skilfully superior to us so we’re going to knock lumps out of them to try and achieve a bit of parity”
During this interview session, the phrase “David and Goliath” will invariably come up. It has done already in regard to the Shels v Rockmount tie, although the way our defence is leaking goals at the moment, “David and David’s slightly older brother” would seem to be more appropriate. The phrase is a biblical reference and should not be taken literally, so don’t expect the Rockmount lads to come out twirling rock-laden underpants around their heads.
There was a rather amusing incident in the Welsh FA Cup a few years ago, when St.David’s, the cup holders, were drawn against Goliath Athletic from Sheepshaggers Division 4A, although in retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t particularly amusing after all.
Come the day of the Cup and there’s a magic in the air. Every fan dreams of Cup glory, although I prefer to dream about a Swedish air-hostess and a pair of handcuffs. Very often the entire population of a small town will go to a game, which swells the coffers of the FAI and also the local burglars. Strange things happen. Coachloads of rosette-bedecked males can be seen urinating in front of puzzled cattle all the way along the N7. Chants which haven’t been heard since the sixties – “Na,na,na,na. Na,na,na,na, Hey-ey-ey, Sligo Rovers” – are resurrected to the amusement of more seasoned soccer fans. Clubs like Fairview Rangers can suddenly find, to their consternation, that they are near neighbours of Shelbourne and are drawn to play a derby match against Dublin City. Bizarre? No, that’s just the magic of the Cup.

The Corner Flag

Have you ever stopped and wondered what life would be like without that great soccer institution, the corner flag? I often have. It seems unthinkable, but my research leads me to believe that such a time existed back in the mists. To you and me, a soccer pitch without a corner flag is like a woman without an arse, or a Status Quo song without a bass line, but to the hardy pioneers of soccer in this country, corner flags were simply unheard of.

In the pre-League of Ireland days at the turn of the century, referees, having as much intelligence as they do today, were finding it increasingly difficult to tell where the goal-line ended, and the side-line began. Hasty seminars were arranged by eminent mathematicians to explain the concepts of perpendicular lines, and ninety-degree angles, but it was all too much for the poor men in black to fathom. It was decided that some physical manifestation of the corner of the pitch would have to be introduced. And so the concept of the corner flag was born.

Thomas O’Connor and Sons, Banner and Pennant Producers to His Majesty, were given the job of producing the corner flag. The first prototypes were crude and unwieldy, over twelve feet tall, with a girth of a two hundred year old oak tree. If they had been unveiled at Tolka, where fans were used to craning their heads around stanchions, they might have got away with it, but it was back to the drawing-board for the men in brown shop coats.

With a fine grasp of the concept of scale, the next corner flags to be produced were two inches tall, with a flag the size of an old sixpence. It was not a success, as the referees’ eyesight was more or less the same as it is today.

The Great War interrupted the quest for the corner flag, and by the time it was over Ireland was a very different place. Thomas O’Connor and Sons had been burnt to the ground and a new mood was in the air. The people were hungry for new corner-flags, and optimism was rife when de Valera sent Collins over to London to negotiate their size and shape. Collins, put in an impossible situation, was pressed on by Lloyd George to accept the triangular pennant. When he came home, de Valera exploded. What was wrong with the square pennant, he demanded? What in God’s name were triangles? A bitter row ensued, and the two men never spoke again [well, to each other, at any rate], but to this day the triangular pennant remains the norm.

A further breakthrough occurred during the thirties, when a shortsighted groundsman in Waterford accidentally planted one of the corner-flags “upside-down” i.e. with the pennant on top of the pole, rather than having it buried in the ground. After the initial hoots of derision, the crowd agreed that the corner-flag looked much prettier that way. Despite objections from the bishops who claimed it was “unnatural” and “against God’s law,” all clubs had adopted this way of planting their corner-flags by the end of the decade.

The War Years were lean years in the annals of corner-flagology. Many flags were stolen to wave angrily at passing Luftwaffe, and many were eaten when rationing kicked in, despite the recommendations of the Geneva Convention. In what became known as Black November [even though it happened in March], no fewer than fourteen League of Ireland games were cancelled due to lack of corner-flags. Questions were asked in the Dail, and the Government fell, although it quickly picked itself up and went limping away with nothing worse than a grazed knee.

The fifties began with Dev eulogising about comely corner-flags dancing at the crossroads – during one of his less lucid moments – and ended with Eric, the first corner-flag to be launched into space aboard Sputnik. Sadly, he was burnt to a frazzle during re-entry and the FAI demanded compensation. Several people turned out to see his funeral procession along O’Connell Street and into a bin on Parnell Square.

The sixties were a decade of colour and fashion and in football grounds across the country, corner-flags adopted the psychedelic kaleidoscopic colours that were sweeping the country. Plain blues and greens were out and polka dots were in. Some corner flags even adopted a revolving bow tie, but many traditionalists felt this was going a wee bit far.

As laughter often turns to tears, so the following years were marred by a series of crippling corner-flag strikes that brought the country to its knees. Some clubs tried to get around the strikes by using sticks with bits of rags on them, but the general public, enraged, boycotted them. Riots ensued and the Government fell again.

And so the story of the corner flag is the story of an age, an evolving, magical mirror of the life of the country. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “Where’s me vest?” Nowadays the corner flag sits proudly in the corner of the pitch and many spectators are unaware of its rich and colourful history. A new Millennium brings new challenges, and already there have been experiments on corner-flags in the areas of luminosity, textiles and reflectability. There are even rumours that a corner-flag has been successfully cloned at a private clinic in Termonfeckin. One thing’s for sure – this story ain’t over yet!

The Chicken and the Egg

Its European football time again, folks. As I speak, St. Pats are out, having very creditably beaten Rijeka of Croatia and then exiting by the narrowest of margins to FC Ghent, who had the Indian sign over them in more ways than one. Shels are still in with a shout of progressing to the next round of the Champions League after a 2-2 draw away to Hibernians of Malta, while Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk have yet to play.
I am not a clairvoyant of any great note but it does not take deep insight to predict our results in Europe. Shels will make it past Hibs but then succumb to Boavista. Shamrock Rovers will lose narrowly to their Swedish opponents over two legs, while Dundalk will find their Croatian opponents too hot to handle. In short, our clubs’ involvement in European competitions will be over before the end of August, before most countries realise that the competitions have actually started.
I realise that I will be accused of having no faith in our ability to progress. By nature I am pessimistic in football terms, believing that confidence frequently begets a fall, but I doubt there would be many arguments with the predictions above.
The Holy Grail for Irish clubs in Europe of course is qualification for the group stages of the Champions League or the third round of the UEFA Cup. Imagine Real Madrid coming to Tallaght, Juventus in Inchicore, Bayern Munich at Tolka. Imagine the sell-out crowds, the buzz of regular European football, the television companies, the revenue, the profile…’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The question is – how far away from this idea of heaven are we, and are we even heading in the right direction?
Many of us remember the lean years in Irish soccer, the years when scarcely anybody ever won a match in Europe, never mind a tie over two legs. We were never lacking in effort and achieved numerous moral victories, but we never achieved the elusive breakthrough. And the fact that we never achieved the breakthrough meant we were normally drawn against sides with a higher coefficient than us. [I don’t pretend to understand how coefficients are calculated, other than the higher the coefficient, the higher the seeding.]
The parallels with the international team are interesting. Ireland kept on being drawn into difficult groups, because we had never qualified, and we never qualified because we kept on getting drawn into difficult groups. It took a series of unexpected results for us to make the initial breakthrough –Scotland to beat Belgium, Ireland to beat Bulgaria, Scotland to beat Bulgaria – but once in, we stayed there because our seeding improved.
It may well be that it will take an equally improbable series of results to make the breakthrough in The Champions League [Shels to beat Hibs, Shels to beat Boavista, Shels to beat Man Utd?] This may seem far-fetched but at least we are heading in the right direction.
Our club sides are now expected to beat the minnows – the Luxembourgs, the Cypriots and the Maltesers, which explains why a lot of people were somewhat disappointed that Shels only drew away to Hibernians. [How many years did we go without an away win?] We are also expected to at least hold our own against the next group of countries up the international scale – the smaller East European countries, Switzerland, Iceland etc. We have a difficult task against the next group of countries – the bigger East European countries, Scandinavia and France – and the gulf is probably too large when faced with teams from the European super powers [Bohs take a bow].
Viewed from this angle, Pats results in Europe this season were remarkable. That they defeated a Croatian team over two legs was surprising, but the fact that they only narrowly missed pipping a Belgian side was truly stupendous. Two years ago, such results would have been unthinkable.
The big breakthrough will come eventually, and it will probably take a bizarre set of results, or a very favourable draw to turn it into reality. When it happens, it will be the biggest night in the League’s 80-year history. Not alone the huge amounts of money that will come into the League through attendances and television rights, not alone that we might have a decent carrot to entice our young players to remain in Ireland, rather than chancing their arms in Walsall reserves, not alone that domestic players might get called up to international squads, not alone the profile that our domestic game will receive around Europe, but it will also raise our coefficient, and make qualification a lot easier in the future for all of our clubs.
The rewards are immense. Huge. Incalculable. It will transform our domestic game completely. Imagine a domestic league with full houses, with international players on show, with , God forbid, English players looking to come over here for a chance to play in European football.
As I said, it will be a fluke when it happens, but we must do everything in our power to lessen the odds stacked against us. If Pat Dolan wants a league game postponed to help his side, it should be postponed. If he wants a fortnight to prepare, give him a fortnight to prepare. Shels travelled to Malta five days before the match to acclimatise. This is good, this is professional. If Shels beat Hibs and then draw the away game against Boavista, we must ensure there is a full house for the return, even if it means the gate receipts aren’t maximised. Petty jealousies must be put aside to ensure that the full weight of the league is behind the clubs striving for that elusive European breakthrough. We’re heading in the right direction – we just have to break the circle.

The Case for the Jacks

At the beginning of the season, a certain well-dressed and articulate football manager – who shall remain nameless – put forward the theory that teams outside the Pale are somehow discriminated against; that Dublin clubs, by the very nature of their Dublinness [Dublinity?] have certain advantages over their more colourfully-necked brethren. The main reason cited for this is that, with five clubs from the real capital, Dublin teams do not incur the huge travelling expenses that provincial clubs endure, thereby having spare cash to spend on decent strikers, better oranges at half-time, louder music etc. Like the Millennium Spire in O’Connell Street, it is a good point well made, but, like that famous fairy tale, “Goldilocks and The”, it is only half the story.

The sad fact of the matter is that Dublin teams operate at a terrible disadvantage. The likes of Waterford and Cork take the clean, wholesome air for granted – St. Pat’s training sessions, on the other hand, are frequently interrupted by Tony Bird fumbling through the smog and accidentally falling into the Camac. Take Ollie Cahill, as another example. Came up to Dublin two years ago, a fresh-faced youth with a rude complexion. Now look at him. Whiter than an Italian flag and probably in the early stages of TB. Summer soccer is killing him, because when he plays away games down the country, his eyes can’t take the sunshine.

There is also a financial downside to operating out of the capital. Insurance, for example, is far higher in the metropolis. Bobby Ryan tried to insure his good looks, but found he couldn't afford the premium. Had he stayed in Limerick, he could have afforded to insure his hair as well.

And don’t think us fans have it any easier. True we don’t pay as much in coach fare to get to away games, but there are other expenses. Fines for daring to poke a wheel into the bus lane, the cost of getting the clamping people back out, the cost of the stevedore’s chain you need to avoid getting the thing robbed by budding Michael Schumachers, the sessions at the psychiatrist after taking two hours to travel half a mile – all these things add up, and suddenly the idea of spending a couple of hours a fortnight in a nice air-conditioned coach doesn’t seem all that bad. Very often, Dublin fans need to let out their box-room to a family of Latvians in order to subsidise a post-match drinking session, the cost of Guinness being so high within the city walls. We notice it when we’re coming back from games and stopping in Monaghan or Athlone or somewhere, and we hand over a fiver for a pint and the landlord calls us back to give us change. In Dubland, he’d be holding out his hand for the rest.

Not only that, but our Dublin derby games have an extra edge. Shels, Pats, Rovers, Bohs –in games between any two of those four teams, the formbook goes out the window, down the lane and into the Spar at the bottom of the road. Home advantage counts for very little, and very often victory depends on getting fewer players sent off than your opponents. There are twelve derby games a season for each of the above clubs – for obvious reasons I’m excluding UCD – the results of which are usually a lottery. Well, a lottery without a load of numbered balls and your man from Stokes, Kennedy, Crowley anyway. Country teams don’t currently enjoy that kind of rivalry, and their success depends very much on form, tactics etc, which is how championships ought to be decided.

Clubs down the country also have the ability to turn their stadia into a “fortress”. Fortress Brandywell, for example. Not men in silly helmets firing muskets at hordes of infidels, but places where it’s hard to come away with anything, except a feeling of being ripped off. If we wanted to turn Tolka Park into a fortress, it would mean a lot of brown paper bags being handed over to our esteemed locally elected representatives.

Of course, we all know the real reason why our hillbilly cousins feel we have an unfair advantage over them. We’re better than them. Sadly, they are unable to accept their inferiority and thus invent strange reasons to account for it. In actual fact, all Dublin clubs with the exception of Pats, Rovers, Bohs and UCD should be given ten points start at the beginning of the season, to compensate for the terrible disadvantages we are obliged to endure. Only then will parity be seen to have been achieved.

The Book of Oliver – Chapter 11

[Another extract from the soon-to-be-published Book of Oliver, a 3000-year-old manuscript only recently unearthed in Drumcondra]

And it came to pass that Oliver was sitting in his palace at Tol-ka and the heavens opened. And it rained and it rained and it rained some more. And Oliver looked from the windows of his palace and saw that the sacred field of Tol-ka was awash with fish and whales and other creatures of the sea.

And Oliver was sore afraid, because it was approaching the time of the Feast of the Final, one of the holiest days of the year. And the Feast of the Final was to take place on the sacred field of Tol-ka.

And he gathered his tenants about him and saith unto them in a tone that was firm but gentle: Thou may labour and play and ply thy oxen and covet thy neighbour’s wife, yet I forbid thee to enter upon the sacred field of Tol-ka lest it should be defiled before the Feast of the Final.

And his tenants answered him, Sure.

Among the tenants of Oliver, however, there was a man named Buck-ley. And Buck-ley had led his tribe of nomadic warriors to great victories in the field of battle. And he said unto himself, Wherefore should I answer to Oliver? True he is my landlord and I must pay unto him many shekels, but must I bow to him on bended knee forever?

And Buck-ley ignored the warning of the great Oliver and he did lead his men into battle with the children of Bow-ez upon the sacred field of Tol-ka.

And when the battle was over, Oliver came out onto the sacred field of Tol-ka. And he looked upon the defilement of the sacred grass. And he saw that it was not good. And he bowed down his head and rented his garments and wailed and lamented to the Lord.

And the Lord appeared to Oliver in the shop behind the field. And he sayeth, Fear not, Oliver, for I will send an angel to help you prepare the sacred field of Tol-ka in preparation for the Feast of the Final. And his name shall be Men-ton.

And it came to pass that the angel Men-ton did come to Tol-ka. And he assisted Oliver’s servants to prepare the sacred field. And Oliver looked and saw that it was good.

And on the day of the Feast of the Final, two tribes did come to join in battle on the sacred field. And one was a barbaric, fearsome tribe from the north, and the other was the tribe of Sham-rock, led by the aged warrior Buck-ley. And many people did come to Tol-ka to look upon the great battle. And Oliver looked and saw that it was good.

But in the middle of the battle, a miraculous thing happened. A steel pylon suddenly caught fire for no reason at all. And Oliver was afraid, and he looked into the burning pylon and saw the face of the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Oliver thus: Look into your heart, Oliver.

And Oliver replied, But you know I do not have one, Lord.

And just as the Lord was about to reply, there was a breath of wind from a red canister and the fire was extinguished.

And it happened that the barbaric men from the north gained victory at the Feast, and among their number there was much yelling and drinking and shouting and showing of arses. But Oliver was troubled and pondered deep into the night the message of the Lord. And he prayed long and hard unto the Lord that he might give him guidance.

And it passed that in the middle of the night, the Lord appeared again to Oliver, saying, Well, what do you want now?

And Oliver replied, About your message this afternoon…..

And the Lord said, Look, Oliver, you really…..

Excuse me, sayeth Oliver. I did not interrupt you; will you kindly not interrupt me? As I was going to say, I would appreciate it if you did not insist in speaking in riddles all the time. What do you mean by telling me to look into my heart?

And the Lord replied, I am the Lord, the Creator of all things, the Light of the World, the Supreme Being. A fat man in his underpants is questioning me at four o’clock in the morning. Go figure.

And the next day, Oliver looked into his heart, as the Lord had bade him to do, and he summoned the aged warrior Buck-ley to his presence.

And when Buck-ley appeared in his presence, Oliver said unto him. Buck-ley, my tenant, you have given me many shekels for many moons. But you disobeyed me when I told you not to enter upon the sacred Field of Tol-ka when you fought the men from Bow-ez.

Consider the man who sows his seed on watery ground. The seed will wither and rot and die.

And Buck-ley replied, Not if it is rice seed.

And Oliver was vexed with the answer and said, Foolish tenant. I took you to my bosom with love and tenderness and you repay me with wisecracks. Go now, take up thy bed and thy oxen and thy kith and kin and be gone from my sight, forever to wander the ends of the earth, yea, even unto the place they call In-chi-cor.

And Buck-ley replied, What are kith?

And the Lord looked down and saw that it was not good. And he came down to earth and when Oliver was passing, he jumped out at him from behind a corner flag.

Ah, my faithful Oliver, said the Lord. How’s she cuttin’?

And Oliver replied nervously, Grand, Lord. Not a bother.

And the Lord looked around and said, Where is thy faithful tenant, Buck-ley, Oliver?

And Oliver wiped the sweat from his brow and answered, Er, he’s just popped down to the shops, I think.

Foolish man! cried the Lord. Do you not think I cannot see inside your own head? You have done wrong by thy brother Buck-ley. Now you will receive vengeance from me.

And Oliver was sore afraid, and ran squealing into the Holy Dressing Room. And the Lord sent down a rain, the like of which had not been since for many moons. And he commanded the waters of the river to rise up and wash over the sacred field of Tol-ka, yea into the boardroom and even into the bar itself.

And the waters continued to rise and Oliver gnashed his teeth and rent his garments and threw himself on the ground and rolled in the dust and put on sackcloth and wailed and lamented. And at length, he called out to the Lord, Oh, all right, I’m sorry.

And the Lord looked down and stilled the troubled waters.

The Book of Oliver

[This is an extract from the soon-to-be-published “Book of Oliver”, one of the lost books of the Old Testament. It was recently discovered behind a bookcase in the sitting-room of a house in Gracepark Avenue, and, despite being written in ballpoint pen, archaeologists estimate it to be nearly 4,000 years old.]

And the Lord appeared to Oliver in the midst of the battle with the Patricians. Fear not, He said, for I shall smite thine enemies. And I shall rent their tongues from their mouths and cause a plague of locusts to descend upon their heads.

And while the Patricians were thus occupied, the Lord guided the foot of Stew-art-Byrne. And he smote a mighty blow deep in the hearts of the pagans. And among the children of Shel-bourne there was much rejoicing and praising the Lord.

But the good Oliver, who had been beset by his tormentors throughout the entire battle, leapt to his feet and made certain signs to his tormentors and told them to go forth and multiply.

And the Lord saw this and saw it was not good.

And He guided the foot of Russ-ell and the great warrior O-sam and together they caused great distress among the children of Shel-bourne.
And the great Oliver, on seeing so much distress among the children of Shel-bourne, broke down and wept. And he rent his garments and gnashed his teeth and then he rent his teeth and gnashed his garments. And he called out, My Lord, My Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me? Have I not been a good and faithful servant all my life? Why do you not confound mine enemies and scatter them to the ends of the earth?

And the Lord replied, Shit happens. Get over it.

Chapter 8

After the second battle with the pagans, the children of Shel-bourne were angry with the great Oliver. There were mumblings of discontent amongst the faithful.

The great Oliver heard of the discontent of his children and he summoned them to a great meeting in the hall of Tol-ka. And all the elders were assembled and a great feeling of dissatisfaction pervaded the hall.

And the great Oliver took the Lord aside and said unto Him, My Lord, how am I to deal with this multitude for they are sore vexed?

And the Lord replied, Try faking a bit of humility.

And the great Oliver stood up amongst the children of Shel-bourne and addressed them thus. My children, he cried, wherefore art thou wailing and gnashing of teeth?

And one of them replied, Thou hast caused disgrace to visit the heads of thy children. Yea, even though the cuckoo lies down with the rabbit, so the lion will lay unnaturally with the camel.

And the great Oliver replied, Get thee behind me Satan! Hast thou forgotten how I lead the children of Shel-bourne out of the wilderness after thirty years of wanderings? Hast thou forgotten how I brought thee into the Promised Land of Cham-pions League? Hast thou forgotten how I put great gifts of silverware into thy trophy cabinet? Hast thou forgotten how I fought the evil Do-lan and carried away his fifteen points? Hast thou forgotten how I fought the men from the north when they uttered blasphemies on their flags? Hast thou forgotten….

Okay, okay, called the children of Shel-bourne. We get the picture.

And the Lord looked down and saw that it was good.

And when next the children of Shel-bourne took the field in battle, he breathed into their nostrils and put fire up their arses. And the men from the wilds of Long-ford were put to the sword.

Shirt Kissing in the U.S.A.

[Actually, this article has nothing to do with the U.S.A. I just couldn’t come up with a better title.]

I was down at the always impressive Stadium of Light the other week, and enjoyed a very entertaining contest between Pats and Shels. Both sides probably felt they could and should have won and a draw was probably a fair result.

Two incidents, [amongst many others, I hasten to add,] stuck in my mind after the match. The first was after the Pat’s second goal. Bennion came and flapped like a man going under for the third time, and Colm Foley, judging his run and jump to perfection, nodded into an unguarded net. Foley wheeled around in obvious delight and, running back to the halfway line, kissed the crest of his shirt.

After the final whistle, Stephen Geoghegan, our two goal hero, came over to Section G and applauded the fans. Grabbing his jersey by the crest, he shook it at us, before planting a big wet smacker on the three castles.

This apparent display of infatuation with football jerseys is by no means confined to Messrs. Foley and Geoghegan. Week in, week out, up and down the country, players who are fortunate enough to find the net, often seize the moment to indulge in a spot of shirt snogging. The question is – why?

I do the goods inwards for a small manufacturing company. If, as occasionally happens, I succeed in taking in a particularly difficult or awkward delivery, I feel no compunction to kiss the tacky polo shirt that I am obliged to wear. The languid and disinterested youth who occasionally serves me in Macdonalds, rarely, if ever, displays any affection towards his rather fetching brown and yellow uniform, even after successfully collecting four different burgers, chips and four different drinks and depositing them safely on my tray. It appears to be a phenomenon associated solely with soccer players.

What a footballer of course is saying when displaying such intimate feelings towards his jersey is, “Look at me. By this simple act, I am symbolically showing my undying love and devotion to the club for whom I am performing.” Of course, he might not be able to articulate such sentiments, but he is experiencing them nonetheless.

This is of course a very praiseworthy and laudatory gesture, and the supporter will usually respond to it by roaring encouragement at the player concerned. Fans, by their very definition, are supremely loyal to a club and admire displays of loyalty by their players.

But one nagging question remains. Why do players only ever make this gesture of supreme loyalty at a celebratory time of the match [e.g. after scoring a goal or immediately after the final whistle of a match narrowly won?] Suppose Colin Hawkins next week were to slice a horrible clearance into the roof of his own net. The chances are he will not run over to the faithful in the Jodi Stand and give his club crest a bit of tongue sandwich. If he did, he would certainly be looked at oddly. But why not display your loyalty to a club at bad times? Surely it is easy to be loyal when experiencing great personal success, but a lot more difficult when things are going against you.

And therein lies the nub of the problem that I have with this lip service to loyalty. Because that’s all it is – lip service. With a very few notable exceptions, a professional footballer will gravitate towards the highest possible weekly wage that he can achieve. Suppose Bray Wanderers decided that they’d have to halve Jason Byrne’s wages and Paul Doolin came in and offered him double [unlikely, yes, but its only an example] Robbie Keane’s more famous cousin might love Bray, but the smart money would envisage him plying his trade at Belfield in the not-too-distant future. If Birmingham or West Brom come in for Wes Houlihan, he’d be off like a shot. Not because he’s going to win more medals [because he’s not], but because he’d be maximising his earning potential.

It may seem that I’m criticising players for their mercenary attitudes, but really I’m not. The company I work for have been fairly good to me, but if the firm next door offered me double what I’m on now, my loyalty would go flying out of the window. Loyalty to a club reached its pinnacle in the fifties and early sixties, before the abolition of the maximum wage. It was a lot easier to be loyal when you knew you were earning the maximum amount of money at your present club. Once the ceiling on earnings was abolished, and clubs could pay players whatever they liked, transfers mushroomed. The cream of Irish footballers now looked to England as their Mecca, as the financial rewards were so much higher than League of Ireland clubs could afford.

My point is that professional footballers, no more or no less than every working man or woman in the state, will try to earn as much money as they can. If its worth my while to change my employer, I will. We should not blame players for their apparent lack of loyalty. They are paid employees of a football club. They might enjoy being a part of the club, they might feel a spirit within the club, they might give their all for a club – but how many of them would continue if asked to play for nothing?

Peter Hutton’s move from Derry to Shels is a case in point. Peter spent 10 years at Derry and then unexpectedly signed for Shels. The Derry fans were incensed. They called him a Judas. If that was the case, every player who has ever been transferred up the footballing ladder is a Judas. Every player that Derry signs is a Judas.

One of the main differences between fans and players is the money issue. Fans don’t get paid for supporting their team. Just imagine that Dublin City decided to pay their supporters, say, €100 per match, would I transfer my loyalty from Shels? Much as I love Shels, I would be forced to admit that Dublin City valued me more than Shels did. But in the real world, fans follow their teams out of loyalty. They normally lose money through their support. It is a true act of love to follow your side through thick and thin, to follow them through the lean years.

Fans should not expect players to be as loyal as they themselves are. We go along to a match once a week. It is a past-time, a hobby. A passionate, obsessive hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. For a player, it is his livelihood. The standard of living for himself, his wife and his children is at stake. It is a completely different set of criteria, and fans have no right to expect the same degree of loyalty as they themselves show.

So why do players insist on shirt kissing? Snogging a piece of nylon does not mean that player is loyal to a club, that he loves that club. It is a piece of ostentatious codology on a par with Ciaran Fitzgerald’s “Where’s your f-----g pride?” or Vinnie Jones’ fist clenching. It is playing to an audience and I’m sure that the other players on the team see it as such. Unfortunately, the fans seem to take it at face value.

I remember, nearly ten years ago, a young Cork lad playing for Nottingham Forest in the English Premier League. He scored a goal for the struggling club, and slid on his knees towards the corner flag, kissing his shirt as he did so. The crowd went mad. Three weeks later, the same player started making “Come and get me” overtures to Manchester United. The Forest fans were incensed, but the young lad had no need of them any more. [I often wonder what became of him, by the way.]

So, lads. Leave it out. Put the effort in on the pitch, work hard, go in bravely. We’ll love you. But leave out the oral sex with your shirt. Unless you’re coming to the end of your career, you’ll probably be looking for a transfer sooner or later and then your enthusiastic displays of loyalty will seem all the more hollow.

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Missing Letter (unfinished)

It was the in the early years of the new century, and the old queen clung grimly to the throne, while her eldest son impatiently rogered his mistress. Sherlock Holmes, in dressing gown and deerstalker hat, was snorting cocaine and playing the violin in his Baker Street lodgings. Oddly enough, he was blowing it like a trumpet.
Sitting in the armchair opposite him, I sighed and laid down the “Times” crossword. “Can’t get fourteen across,” I grumbled. “Body Canal. Ten letters.”
“Alimentary, my dear Watson,” Holmes replied instantly, ceasing for a moment his musical and narcotic peregrinations.
I laughed heartily, and was about to return to the “Times,” when there came the sound of boots running up the stairs outside. They stopped outside of Holmes’ door, shuffled uneasily for a while and then came a single peremptory knock.
“Forty three years old. Served with the army in India but was shipped home after a scandal with a young elephant. Has fallen on hard times, but has hope of returning to his former status. Married twice, the first time to a Filipino waitress, the second time to a packet of cornflakes.” Holmes uttered these words with an affected casualness.
My long acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes should have inured me to amazement, yet he never ceased to dumbfound me. I crossed the floor to the door and swung it open.
“It’s the pizza boy,” I called in to Holmes, bringing in two steaming boxes.
Scarcely had I closed the door on the delivery boy, when there came again the sound of boots pounding two at a time up the front stairs. Outside the door the boots stopped, then suddenly performed the tap-dancing routine from the Gene Kelly musical “Gee! She’s a Swell Gal, ain’t she Bob?” followed by several large poundings on the panelled door. I glanced quizzically at my companion, but he was studying intently the mushroom topping on his pizza.
For the second time that evening, I crossed over to the door and proceeded to open it. I was however nearly bowled over by the large, burly figure that crashed into our parlour. He had the wild-eyed look of a foreigner and his hair stuck out like a mad toilet brush. He stopped in the middle of the floor, his head darting crazedly between Holmes and myself.
Holmes stopped sprinkling cocaine on his pizza and eyed the foreigner curiously. “You are an old Etonian,” he addressed the stranger. “You prefer haddock to whiting, but you wouldn’t be seen dead with either. You have a dog called Tibbles. You once severed a nostril in an incident in a library, and your name, unless I’m very much mistaken, is Lionel Edward Mentary.”
“Good Lord, Holmes!” I ejaculated. “How could you possibly know that?”
“L.E. Mentary, my dear Watson. I went to school with him when I was a boy. A time, dear friend, that I have often maintained, is the best one for going to school.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” interjected the stranger. “But you must be confusing me with somebody else. My name is Oliver Byrne. You may have heard of me. I used to drink with David Johansson.”
Holmes snorted loudly and reached for the leather bound copy of “Who’s Who” on the bureau shelf. Flicking impatiently through the pages, he came at last to the desired page. “Here we are,” he said. “Byrne, Oliver, football…Shelbourne…cigarettes..Johansson, David.”
“Rugger?” I exclaimed hopefully.
“Association Football,” remarked Holmes deflatedly. “A minority sport practised by ruffians, I believe.” He turned to our visitor. “Well, Mr. Byrne,” he said coldly, indicating a seat, “What brings you to London?”
Oliver Byrne sat down heavily in the proffered chair and wiped his brow profusely. He was a large, burly man, one who might have been considered handsome, but for the fact that he wasn’t. He glanced towards me nervously.
“Watson is my oldest and most faithful friend, Mr. Byrne,” interjected Holmes, seeing the other’s distress. “As well as being the father of my children. You may speak in complete confidence before him.”
“Oh, Mister Holmes,” began the other, “I have travelled this very day from Ireland to visit you” – here I saw Holmes reaching for the atlas – “about a matter that has tormented me for a considerable period of time. It all began several months ago. As you know, I run a very large and profitable association football club in Dublin. That is in Ireland, Mister Holmes. This club is called Shelbourne.
In this city of Dublin, I have numerous rivals, but the greatest of these is a large, portly chap named Dolan. To say that he is the bane of my life is an understatement. He runs a rival football club, named St. Patrick’s…”
“After the saint?” I ventured.
“Indeed verily,” he answered, “but let me assure you, Mister Watson, there is nothing saintly about this football club. A bigger gang of ruffians you never saw in your life. Dolan is the mastermind. Everything goes through him. Oh, but he is very clever, Mister Holmes. He keeps his nose clean at all times.”
“How so, Mister Byrne?” questioned Holmes sharply.
“Well, with a hanky mostly,” replied Byrne. “But lately, there have been tales of dark deeds coming out of his organisation. One of his minions was caught without registration. There were stiff penalties imposed on St. Patrick’s. But Dolan has power. He controls people. He got the penalties rescinded by people more powerful than himself. I have been vilified in the press in Ireland. I have even..” and here he began to sob uncontrollably, “I have even been criticised.”
“I fail to see your problem, Mister Byrne,” purred Holmes. “What do you want me to do?”
“Mister Holmes, Dolan is an evil man. He threatens to take over my organisation. If I could only find the letter he purported to send….”
“Letter?” said Holmes suddenly, sitting bolt upright in his chair. “Did you say letter?”
“I did, Mister Holmes. Is it significant?”
“Not really,” replied Holmes. “I just had a piece of tomato in my ear and couldn’t hear you properly. Pray continue.”
“Dolan claims the letter was sent by ordinary post. The recipients said they never received it. The only explanation is….”
“That it was lost by the Post Office?” I scoffed. “Come now, that’s hardly very likely, is it?”
“Preposterous,” added Holmes.
“My feelings exactly,” cried Byrne. “Yet, here is the mystery. Dolan has produced a receipt for the letter!”
I stood up quickly. “What a bounder this fellow Dolan must be,” I stated. “How dare he malign such a venerable organisation as the Post Office?”
“He has a hard neck,” replied Byrne sorrowfully, “though the rest of his body is quite soft.” He turned to my companion, “Mister Holmes, will you help me?”
“Watson!” commanded Holmes with a smile. “It seems that we travel to Dublin this very night. Pack a valise for me, there’s a good chap. Make sure you pack my nightie. The peach one with the lacey bits.”
* * * * * * * * * * *

The hansom cab rattled over the glistening cobbles of London’s smoky streets. This however had no bearing on the story, as Holmes, Byrne and I were descending the gangway in Kingstown, a coastal village ten miles south of Dublin. The journey from London had been largely uneventful save for a horrific train accident and the accidental sinking of the passenger ferry with the loss of 500 lives. Holmes however was in playful mood and continually pinched our companion’s backside until he protested.

There were no hansom cabs to be had on the quayside in Kingstown, so we hired an ugly one instead. Byrne had wired ahead to arrange our lodgings in a reputable tavern in the city centre, and within an hour, Holmes and I were comfortably ensconced in our room, our host having retired to his own abode, with promises that he should meet us at ten o’clock the following morning.
“How did you find this Byrne chappie, Holmes?” I asked, as I clipped my toenails merrily.
“I didn’t. He found us. Remember?” Holmes replied. “Bit of a rum chap. Kept on asking if I wanted a cigarette. When I declined, I caught him pushing one into my pipe."”
“Good Lord, Holmes!” I began, but Holmes suddenly put his hand to his lips and tiptoed deftly towards the door. I picked up the largest object I could find, which happened to be a bronze statue of a squirrel defecating in Donadee Forest, and stomped noisily to the other side of the door. Holmes carefully reached for the door handle and I raised the statue above my head. Then on the count of three, Holmes swung the door inwards, and I just caught site of a small, sprightly figure tumbling into the room, when I brought the statue down on its head.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“How could you, Watson?” Holmes said for the twentieth time, as he paced the narrow confines of our prison cell.
“I’m sorry, Holmes,” I repeated crestfallen. “How was I to know that the Archbishop of Dublin was staying down the corridor, and that he was just leaning against our door while adjusting his mitre?”
“Yes, yes, dear friend. I’m sorry,” continued Holmes magnanimously. “I continually credit you with having an intelligence similar to my own, yet in reality you are as thick as the smog we have left behind in London. Please forgive me.” And he kissed me passionately on the lips.
“Steady on, old chap!” I cajoled him, though secretly feeling rather pleased.
“I wonder where that Oliver Byrne chap is,” murmured Holmes. “I sent him a wire two hours ago to come and bail us out.”
“How did you know his number, Holmes?” I enquired wonderingly.
“I didn’t. I just sent him a piece of wire,” replied the other disingenuously.
“Pardon me, sir!” said a voice to our left. We both turned around sharply. Then, for the devil, we turned around bluntly. There, before us, stood a little, wizened old man. I estimated his age to be four hundred and seven. He was barely five feet in height, but seven feet six inches in width. He had a recalcitrant baboon on his shoulder and wore a rather fetching orange trouser suit. His hair was long and plum-coloured and on his feet he wore flippers. As the only other occupant of our cell, I wondered idly how we hadn’t noticed him before.
“Pardon me, sir!” he repeated, “But I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. Are you expecting the imminent arrival of one Oliver Byrne?”
“What of it?” demanded Holmes peremptorily, striking the man firmly on the buttocks. “What business is it of yours?”
“Forgive me, sir, for appearing so forward,” replied the other, “but you won’t see Mr. Byrne within one hundred yards of a polis station, sir. He doesn’t like them, you see, sir.”
“And how do you know this, man?” cried Holmes. “Come on! Speak, you rat! Speak! Speak!”
“He can’t, Holmes,” I interjected. “You’re squeezing his lips together, old boy.”
Holmes relinquished his grip on the man’s lips, and the latter sank back onto the bench. He took several deep breaths, and then gave them back again.
“I work for Dolan…” began the man. At these words, Holmes immediately sprang into a crouched position and made the sign of the cross with his arms. The old man regarded him oddly and continued.
“I do odd jobs for him, like. He’s very good to me is Mr. Dolan. Gave me one of his pies once. Took it back immediately, of course, but…”
“What kind of “odd jobs” do you perform for that fiend?” cried Holmes, seizing the man’s left nipple between his thumb and forefinger.
“Just odd jobs, sir,” replied the other. “Hiding the roller. Forging receipts from the Post Office. The usual sort of thing.”
“The roller?” quizzed Holmes. “You mean, he likes to curl his hair?”
“On the contrary, sir,” retorted the old man, as a small trickle of urine ran dejectedly down his leg. “He plasters his hair down on to his head, as though he’s afraid it might fly away.”
Holmes resumed his pacing of the cell. “This is a very singular development, Watson,” he muttered to me behind his hand.
“How so, Holmes?” I asked, bewildered.
“Well, in so far as it’s not a plural development, I suppose,” my friend replied. “Must you question me on everything?”
Suddenly, there was a rattling of keys and the cell door swung open. A police constable eyed us malevolently.
“You were born on a small satellite of the star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion,” snapped Holmes immediately. “Your mother was a failed cocktail waitress who made it big in the movies. There is a mole just on the left-hand side of your groin, but it normally sleeps during the daytime. You once had a horse called Kylie and you store the cheese that you pick between your toes in a jamjar.”
“Yes, sir,” said the constable condescendingly. “Your bail has been paid. You’re free to go. You must surrender your passport. You are not permitted to leave the country except when emigrating. You must report to the desk sergeant every afternoon except Wednesday, when he has ballet classes.”
“Come, Watson!” cried Holmes, “We have a mystery to solve!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Holmes and I purchased some rather sickly looking mussels and cockles from M. Malone & Co [Shellfish Importers], and proceeded to a nearby tavern to review the evidence so far. I had just achieved the double-sixteen, much to Holmes’ disgust, when the burly figure of Mr. Byrne pushed his way through the rowdy throng to our table.
“Mr. Holmes, Mr. Watson,” he exclaimed, displaying a remarkable memory and shaking us firmly by the leg. “I am so glad to see you. Have you heard the latest developments?”
When Holmes and I both replied in the negative, he produced a copy of the Evening Standard and unfurled it roughly on the table. “There!” he pointed triumphantly. “Read that!”
“ ‘William Gladstone Ate My Hamster,’” I read out loud. “Good Lord, Holmes! Gladstone is carnivorous.”
Mr. Byrne’s hand roughly tore the paper out of my grasp as he perused it wildly. “There! There!” he pointed, slamming it back down in the beer slops.
“Impartial Adjudicator Rules In Dolan’s Favour,” I read again. “What can it mean, Holmes?”
My companion, who was slyly retrieving his third dart from the hatstand, was quick to answer. “I think you’ll find, Watson,” he said quietly, “that the impartial adjudicator has ruled in Dolan’s favour.”
“Good Lord, Mr. Holmes!” cried Byrne. “You’re spot on. He has. Dolan is in the clear…..”
“And the reputation of the Royal Mail is in tatters,” finished Holmes. “I smell something decidedly fishy here, gentlemen.”
“That must be the cockles you secreted in your waistcoat pocket, old boy,” I said, rather pleased with my own powers of deduction.
“I think,” said Holmes, ignoring me completely, “that the time has come for us to pay a visit to this Mr. Dolan. Where can we find him, Byrne?”
“Find him?” echoed the other incredulously. “You cannot find him. He is but a shadow in the night, flitting half-sensed from one foul abode to the next under cover of darkness. His companions are stealth and cunning, and a large bag of chips. If you seek him, he will be watching you. He has the third eye and can sense danger. Some say he has the features of a bat, some say he looks like a teapot. The truth is, nobody knows for certain. His Machiavellian mind plots and schemes………” He broke off as he realised that Holmes was watching him carefully under raised eyebrows. “Inchicore,” he finished, deflatedly.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The hansom cab rattled along the cobbled streets of Kilmainham as twilight fell with a startled cry. In the back, I idly wondered how much faster we would be travelling, if the wheels had not been stolen two miles back. Our horses flinched nervously, as though eager to flee this accursed place.
“I feel a strange foreboding,” said Holmes who was sitting on my lap with a curious expression on his face. He flung back the curtain of the cab, and gazed out at the wretched creatures staggering along the grimy street. “Look at them, Watson. Like the very residue of Hell itself. Notice the red and white scarves they sport. Obviously some kind of secret society, some foul devil-worshipping pagan cabal. Come, Watson, let us get this business over with.”
Rapped premptorily on the ceiling of the cab, the driver stopped immediately, and Holmes bounded through the door and into an old dilapidated house, leaving me to pay the fare. I idly wondered why the driver was a giant black bat, but bid him a hearty “Good day!” even though he moaned dejectedly when I had nothing smaller than a penny.
Hurrying through the ramshackle door, I ascended the narrow staircase with urgent haste, pausing only once to consume a tomato and lettuce sandwich. At the top, I came upon a large door marked ‘Door’ and pushed through it.
There were two men seated in the room on opposite sides of a wooden desk. One was my friend, Sherlock Holmes, whom I recognised immediately. The other was a large, corpulent man dressed in a black waitcoat and striped shirt. Curiously, he was naked from the waist down.
“Ah, Watson,” exclaimed Holmes, displaying once again his remarkable memory for names. “Allow me to introduce Mr. Dolan. Mr. Dolan has just invited me to sample a slice of gooseberry pie. Simply delicious. Would you care for a slice, old boy?”
“Not too big now,” interjected the larger man, nervously.
I declined, having once being the victim of an unsavoury incident at Eton involving a gooseberry and a bicycle pump. Since then, I have been unable to look a gooseberry in the eye without breaking into a cold sweat.
“So you see, Mr. Holmes,” Dolan continued, “your journey to Dublin appears to have been a wasted one. As you see I have a receipt for postage. Mr. Byrne is a very deluded old man. I am surprised that a man of your abilities could have been hoodwinked by such an imbecile.”
“This is a blank piece of paper with the word 50p written on it in ballpoint pen,” snapped Holmes impatiently. “It is like a barrister with no legs – it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law.”
Dolan allowed a faint smile to play around the corner of his lips, then told it to come in and get ready for bed. “I think you will find that the Impartial Adjudicator found in my favour, Mr. Holmes,” he said softly.
Holmes however had spotted a paper handkerchief lying on the desk. He snatched it up eagerly and opened it out. There in letters big and bold was the word ‘Lies’ repeated some four dozen times.
“I put it to you, Mr. Dolan,” exclaimed Holmes, “that this is a tissue of lies!”
Dolan blanched visibly. Then he blanched invisibly. Then visibly again.
“Enough blanching, Dolan!” called Holmes, leaping to his feet and drawing his cane.
“Nice picture, Holmes,” I murmured, when he showed it to me. “Good use of colour.”
Suddenly there was a puff of smoke and a large explosion and Dolan disappeared. We just caught a glimpse of a big bat in a black waistcoat flapping out of the open window. I made a mental note of the fact that it was the first time I had seen a flying cricket bat.
“What knavery is this, Watson?” called Holmes, dashing to the open window and gazing out into the smog of the Inchicore evening.
It was a difficult question. By the time I was ready to articulate an answer, Holmes had bounded down the staircase, caught a cab back into town, and spent several days observing the activities of the city’s postal workers.
(Unfinished due to boredom)

One Player’s Influence

The Roy Keane / Saipan incident caused deep divisions in the Irish footballing fraternity. Like Civil War politics, it split families, friends, colleagues. I decided quite early on to avoid getting into arguments over it, although that was not easy when you heard the huge amount of verbal effluent spouted by non-football people on both sides of the divide.
I’m not going to rake up the whys and wherefores of the situation again. Most of us are sick to death of the subject. But there were two statements of opinion that kept on, and keep on, recurring whenever the argument rears its ugly, little head: -
1] It was Roy who got us through to the World Cup in the first place.
2] If we’d have had Roy, we’d have reached at least the semi-finals.
These two statements assume that one player can win a match, or indeed a succession of matches on his own. Is this possible?
We have all become accustomed, in the hysterical hyperbole that is the sporting press, to encountering the phrase “match-winner” or “potential match-winner”. Invariably, these players are forwards, which is a bit of an insult to the other nine players on the team.
Of course, anyone has the potential to win a match. Oliver Kahn’s performances helped Germany to the World Cup Final. Paul Osam bosses it at Pats. Bruce and Pallister were twin towers at the back for United. But can one player, on his own, really win a match?
The example that frequently comes up is that of Maradonna in the 1986 World Cup Finals. To most people, his performances in that tournament were the closest we have seen to perfection. His goals against England and Belgium took your breath away. [Why do English people have the nerve to keep bringing up the “Hand of God” goal, after Michael Owen has blatantly dived in two successive World Cups to gain penalties against Argentina?]
Maradonna’s influence on that Argentinian team was immense, and most serious commentators doubt they would have won the World Cup without him. We shall never know for sure, but Argentina was still a pretty useful team without him. In the Final itself, Diego had a very quiet game, although it could be argued that Germany paid him so much attention that it allowed other players to express themselves more.
But, the question remains – if Maradonna were Welsh, would Wales have even got to Mexico, never mind won the damn thing? I seriously doubt it. Individual brilliance may turn a match on its head, but there are many ingredients which make a good team. George Best may well have helped Manchester United to the European Cup, but he was still there when the inevitable slump came a couple of years later. And despite his brilliance, he never dragged Northern Ireland into the World Cup Finals. And, if Best couldn’t do it, it seems absurd to claim that Keane was able to do it.
Best and Maradonna were geniuses. They could do things other players couldn’t do. Keane is more of an inspirational player. He doesn’t possess breathtaking skill, but he does the simple things better than almost anyone. He will inspire his teammates, in much the same way that Mick McCarthy used to for the Republic of Ireland. [The comparison is not merely mischievous, but probably an indication of why there was a personality clash there]
Whereas it is possible for a player to turn a game on its head by some breathtaking display, for a team to be successful over a period of time there are other attributes that are needed. Managerial nous is important. Organisational ability, tactical acumen, motivational skills all combine to allow your better players to express themselves. As France found out at the recent World Cup, you can have the best players in the world, but that doesn’t always translate into success. You need players of a decent footballing ability who will give their all for the cause. You need a good goalkeeper, a defence that works as a unit, a midfield that both spoils and distributes, and forwards who, if not scoring themselves, will allow other players the opportunity to get forward and score. And, most importantly, you need luck. We rode our luck in qualification for the Finals, just as we rode our luck during the Finals themselves. Its better to have an average but lucky team, than a brilliant but unlucky one.
Lets examine the important games in our qualification group, viz. the two games against Holland and the two games against Portugal. We won one of those games, thanks to some brutal finishing by the Dutch, and drew the other three. If truth be told, given the ability of our team, we could not have expected more. Roy Keane played in all four games.
In Japan and Korea, we again drew three games, against Cameroons, Germany and Spain.
Germany and Spain, in particular, I would put on a par with Portugal and Holland.
Now, how come we could not beat Portugal or Holland in three of the four games with Roy Keane, but people are saying we would have beaten Germany and Spain if he had been present? It doesn’t make any sense at all.
He’s a great player and his presence could only have strengthened our side, that’s admitted. But Holland and Kinsella played out of their skins, and more than compensated for his absence.
And don’t forget, Ireland and Man United have both lost matches occasionally when Roy has been playing. He is not Superman.
At the start of the Charlton era, when Liam Brady fell out of favour, there were numerous calls for him to be reinstated in the team. How could you not pick a player of his ability? These people seemed to forget very conveniently the games in which Brady was absolute rubbish for Ireland [the 1-0 defeat away to Norway springs immediately to mind]. Roy, on the other hand, rarely had a bad game for Ireland, but to listen to some people talking, we won every game when he was in the team. This is the rose-tinted brigade up to their old tricks again.
To say that Roy was solely responsible for our qualification for the Finals is extremely insulting to the management and the players who got us there. You could argue that we wouldn’t have drawn in Lisbon if it weren’t for Matt Holland’s goal. Therefore, Matt Holland got us through to the Finals. Or Jason McAteer. The truth is, it was a combined effort, everybody helped, and you cannot say that it was thanks to one player alone that we got there. Roy was not a great player in a mediocre side; he was a great player in a good side. And in Japan and Korea, he was a great player not in a good side. It is easy to claim we’d have got further with him – for that is an opinion that is impossible to contradict – but logic dictates otherwise.

Nutsy Fenlon and The Cup of Setanta

“You’re a wizard, Nutsy.”
Pat Fenlon was in his third term at Tolkwarts, and he still got a lump in his throat when he recalled those words. Headmaster Ollibus Byrnelbore –Grand Wizard of the Order of the Three Castles - had spoken them and they had changed Nutsy’s life forever.
Olbus had told Nutsy about his destiny, how he had been born to counteract the evil Lord Dolanmore, and lead Tolkwarts into a glorious Golden European age full of plum ties against classy opposition. Nutsy had scarcely believed it, but it explained the mysterious pain in his backside whenever he sensed Lord Dolanmore was near.
Nutsy remembered the many battles he had had with his arch-enemy over the past three years. Though Dolanmore – Nutsy’s friends still blanched whenever they heard the name – was infinitely more powerful, still Nutsy, through cunning and tactical nous, had managed to overcome him on many occasions. Even when the evil Lord had summonsed all his most dastardly magic to trip Nutsy up, still Nutsy had fought back valiantly, and his “Sad man perplexed by Shels” thrust had struck Dolanmore a fearful blow, from which he had been forced to withdraw.
But today, the common room at Tolkwarts was rife with hurried whispers and hushed conversations. You Know Who had been toppled from power and banished from the kingdom of Munster. His wand had been confiscated and even now the fearsome Dementors were escorting him to Prison at Limerick, though even they were loathe to give him the fateful kiss that would suck all the joviality from his body.
“Looks like you’re safe now, Nutsy,” said his pal, Eamonn, slapping him on the back. Nutsy liked Eamonn, although he had once lived in an absolute kip, that even the rats had abandoned.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Eamo,” Nutsy replied to his impetuous friend. “Remember the time Ollibus thought he had him trapped and cornered by a registered envelope, and he changed into a snake and wriggled free. I imagine he’s out there somewhere, licking his wounds and plotting his revenge. Mark my words, Eamo, Dolanmore will be back in some shape or form.”
“I heard a rumour he’s going to join forces with the great Hufflepuff himself at Rovers,” announced a fresh-faced student, turning on a sixpence and beating five lunging defenders.
“Come, come, Wes,” said Eamonn. “They could never work together. Besides, the Hufflepuff isn’t half the man he thinks he is.”
Unnoticed in the melee, Ollibus Byrnelbore, the wise and great headmaster of Tolkwarts had slipped into the room, carrying a large plastic bag. Widely loved by all the students, it was rumoured that he had been at the school for nearly seven hundred years.
It was Nutsy who noticed him, as he tried to push his way through the exultant mass of students, who had broken into chants of “You Know Who is gone.” Worried at Byrnelbore’s demeanour, he edged closer to the older man. As he did so, he felt a slight twinge in his backside.
“Good morning, Byrnelbore,” exclaimed Nutsy breezily, planting himself squarely in front of the burly figure.
“Oh, good morning, ah, Nutsy, isn’t it?” replied Byrnelbore distractedly. “Run along there now. Must prepare for our next game, you know.”
Nutsy watched him disappearing out of the door on the far side of the room, and felt a sickening in the pit of his stomach. He barely noticed Eamonn coming up beside him, was not conscious of his friend’s penetrating stare.
“What’s wrong Nutsy?” asked Eamonn. “It looks like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Nutsy scratched his scrotum thoughtfully and said, more to himself than to Eamonn,
“Pies. The bag was full of pies.”
Eamonn looked dumbstruck. “Pies?”
“Yes, pies. Maybe Dolanmore’s defeat down in the village is not all it seems. Maybe he’s going to try a different tack at destroying Tolkwarts. From within!”
“Rubbish, Nutsy,” countered Eamonn. “Old Byrnelbore would never join forces with You Know Who. He loves Tolkwarts too much, for a start.”
“Maybe not willingly,” retorted Nutsy. “But perhaps Dolanmore has some kind of hold on Byrnelbore, perhaps he’s put him under a spell. Come on, Eamonn, we must follow him!”
“I’m not so sure,” said Eamonn. “Follow Byrnelbore? It’s unheard of. Besides, I’m getting bored with this story, and can’t think of a way of ending it.”
Nutsy shrugged. “Yes, you’re right,” he said resignedly. “I think we should just finish it off in the middle of a”

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Hemmed in during half time in Section D at Tolka recently, I was verbally mugged by the old man sitting next to me. He was wrinkled and wore a dark, shabby coat and I estimated his age to be around 108, although a Pats fan would probably put it nearer the 200 mark. When he started talking, I knew I was in for a long fifteen minutes and settled back to listen.

“You know what’s wrong with footballers today, son?” he asked. “Too much money and too much free time. And no characters. I remember all the great players, years ago. Did you ever hear tell of Badger O’Shaughnessy? Badger played for Drums in the twenties and thirties, great big ox of a man, muscles on his muscles, played left back. In those days a left back was a left back, none of this poncing up and down the wing overlapping,” – here he stuck out his arm to demonstrate the concept – “no, in those days it was the left back’s job to mark the outside right, stop him getting to the line and whipping the ball over.

“Do you know why people called him Badger? Some people said it was on account of the grey streak down the middle of his hair, and other people said it was because he used to eat mice and crap in the woods. To settle the matter, I decided to ask him. “Badger,” I asked him, “Why do they call you Badger?” and do you know what he said? He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Because that’s me name.” Oh, he was a gas man, was Badger.

“Anyway, myself and Badger went to school together, he was a big lad even in school, and we left at fourteen to work down the Inchicore Rail Works and I’ll always remember it, one day, Badger was pulling two carriages into a siding, when this swanky geezer in a sheepskin jacket and a big cigar came over and introduced himself.

“I’m Jimmy Gregory, Badger, but you can call me Fat Bastard,” he said. In those days of course. Fat Bastard was a term of endearment. “There goes Jimmy, the Fat Bastard,” people used to say. Anyhow, Badger turns around and says to him, “Hello, Mr. Bastard” – always the true gentleman was Badger, even when he was sending an outside right into row 17, he’d always apologise afterwards – and Jimmy turns around and says to him, “Do you know who I am?” and of course, Badger knew full well who he was, but he didn’t let on, see, and so he turns around and says, “Yes, I know who you are. You’re Jimmy Gregory, you’re only after telling me. Other than that, I don’t know a thing about you.” And Jimmy Gregory turns around and says, “I’m the manager of Drumcondra. I’ve heard you’re a pretty decent left back. I’d like you to come and play for me,” and Badger turns around and says, “That’s very interesting, Mr. Bastard,” he says, “How much are you going to pay me?” Oh, he was the cute hoor, was Badger, you couldn’t catch him out on anything, and Jimmy Gregory looked him in the chest and said “Thruppence a week in winter and tuppence a week in the summer. Do we have a deal?” – which was a huge amount of money in them days. You could travel around the world for sixpence – and Badger turns around and says “Fourpence,” and Jimmy Gregory turns around and says “Thruppence ha’penny” and Badger says “I won’t be browbeaten over a ha’penny. Its fourpence or nothing,” and Jimmy turns around and says “Done.” And they both shook hands and then they both fell over, what with turning around so much.”

“Now Badger had a brother, see, and his name was Dormouse, on account of him being so small, see, and Dormouse used to play outside left – did you ever hear of him, no? – and Dormouse always told the story of the time he went for a trial at Bohemians, and the Bohemians manager turned around to Dormouse and said, “You’ll never make a footballer. You’re too small and too skinny.” And Dormouse used to tell that story everywhere until people started avoiding him. And the gas thing was that the Bohemians manager was right, he was too small and he was too skinny and he never made a footballer after all.

“Anyway, back to Badger. Badger was a left back, a big barnstorming man, built like a brick shithouse. I remember one time Drums were playing Sligo in the Cup, and Sligo had a winger called Jimmy Bestall, little whippet of an outside right, and he was up against Badger, and Jimmy Gregory had told Badger to stick close to Jimmy Bestall, so Badger did. He stuck to him like glue from the very first whistle, never gave him a kick of the ball, and half time blew and the teams went in for their oranges and Jimmy Gregory turns around and says, “Where’s Badger?” and the next moment there’s a big commotion in the corridor and isn’t it Badger being physically ejected from the Sligo dressing room. Always the gentleman was Badger. Thick as shite but always the gentleman.

“Badger played over 300 games for Drums and never got booked once. Normally he’d just get sent off straight away. Not that he was a dirty player. He was a pussycat, with a heart of gold. He just hated outside rights, that’s all. They kind of brought out the worst side of him.

“There was only one winger who ever got the better of him, Jimmy McIlkenny, played for Fordsons in Cork. Badger liked to let the outside right know early that he was around, so he used to go clattering in to him at the first opportunity. “They won’t skip past me, if their leg’s broken in four places,” he used to say. He was a howl was Badger. Anyway in this game, after a few minutes, the ball gets played out to Jimmy Mac on the right wing and Badger comes charging in, and Jimmy Mac does a kind of a swerve and a sidestep” – here he stuck out both arms to demonstrate – “and Badger does a crunching tackle on…..nothing! By the time he’s collected his thoughts and turned around, Jimmy Mac’s thirty yards away down the line. Anyway, this happens again, and again, and Badger’s getting more and more worked up, but try as he might he can’t lay a boot on Jimmy Mac, whose making Badger look a proper eejit. And in the end, Badger gets so wound up, he pulls a Smith and Wesson out of his shorts and shoots Jimmy Mac in the thigh. “That’ll slow you up, you little bollix,” he says to him, which it did, true enough. He was fortunate though, because the referee didn’t see it, and of course there was no video evidence” – here he spat out the words – “in those days, so he got away with it, and there were very few wingers tried to get past him after that.

“Did you know that in all the years he played for Drums, Badger never scored a goal? Not one! “My job’s stopping goals,” he used to say. “If you want me to score them as well, you may pay me double.” “I leave the hero stuff to the namby pamby forwards,” he used to say. “Dribbling here and sidestepping there. They should be in ballet school, not on a football pitch.”

“Despite all this, he very nearly scored in the last game he ever played for Drums. They were playing Waterford and didn’t Drums get a penno? And Drums were 5-0 up at the time, and the Drums captain Arsey McGlynn, he says to Badger, “Go on and take it” and Badger says no, he’s not a ballet boy, and Arsey says, “Are you scared?” and this rises Badger, and he says “I’ll take your penalty for you” and their keeper had been injured in the first half –but of course there weren’t any substitutes in those days, so he had to stay on the pitch – so the keeper’s there on his line in a wheelchair, and Badger’s running up and everyone’s thinking, he’s going to score his first goal for Drums, and just as he’s about to kick the ball, bugger me, doesn’t he get hit by a meteorite? Flattens him into the turf. That was the end of Badger’s career. End of his life too, actually. Pity, because he had another couple of years left in him. The ref didn’t know what to do. Badger was buried under a half a ton of rock in the penalty area, so he couldn’t be taken off. Every time after that, when Drums played the ball up, the whistle’d go, because Badger was in an offside position, although the Drums players were going mad, saying he wasn’t interfering with play. That’s what’s missing in today’s football. Characters like Badger. Hard but fair, and always a gentleman. Hush up, now, the teams are coming up out for the second half.”