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!